Last semester I wrote a paper on Milton's use of the word "virtue" in Paradises Lost and Regained. I submitted the paper to Villanova's grad student journal, CONCEPT, and it was accepted—to the online version of Volume 40, at least. If you're interested, you (yes, you!) can download and read it.
A short taste:
Milton thought of poetry in more pragmatic terms than we might be used to, as he relates in a famous passage in Areopagitica on “the benefits which may be had of books promiscuously read.”
As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdome can there be to choose, what
continence to forbear without the knowledge of evill? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. (Patrides 213)
Even unfallen angels have trouble recognizing evil when it hides (PL III.682-685), and for humankind since the Fall, the task of discerning what’s good and what’s bad is all but impossible. Life throws curveballs at us, and it’s not always immediately apparent how we ought to react. In his treatise Of Education, Milton explicitly connects this quality of the fallen world with its repair through education.
The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection. (Patrides 182)
The purpose of education, then, is to fix the effects of the Fall by teaching people to know God and love him. That’s how the “true wayfaring Christian” gains the ability to choose what’s good and reject what’s evil. Of course, education by itself isn’t enough. Souls that would possess true virtue must be united to “the heavenly grace of faith.” Education is the process of learning, by grace, to love what’s good and despise what’s evil, thereby being united to God.
This sheds light on Milton’s reasons for writing Paradise Lost. Combined with Paradise Regained, it is a poem designed to train its readers in virtue by teaching them how to read, through an accurate display of both good and evil—the best of the best and the worst of the worst. In other words, virtue is central to his project, both in the story that he’s telling and in the effect he wanted to have on his readers.
For Milton it appears that proper reading is closely associated with the fruits of divine virtue, carefully tended and maintained through the daily exercises of contemplation and practical obedience… (Hampton 157)
Adam and Eve cannot be perfect models of virtue since they did not stand up to temptation. In fact, they fell through the very process of growing in knowledge. As Basil Willey puts it, “Genesis, to which Milton must needs adhere, represented the Fall as due to, or consisting of, the acquisition by Man of that very knowledge, the Knowledge of good and evil, by the possession of which alone Milton the humanist believed man could be truly virtuous” (qtd. in Blackburn 121). If Man fell through knowledge, or in spite of knowledge, then knowledge alone is clearly not the solution to the Fall. One can learn from the fate of Adam and Eve, in the same way that one can learn from a fable, but they give the reader no hint of how to overcome temptation. Training in virtue requires something more.
Fortunately, there is one character whose acquired virtue provides an example for Milton’s readers to follow: Jesus in Paradise Regained, “whose extraordinary participation in the Divine Text anchors him through the storm of Satan’s temptations” (Hampton 157). Christ’s successful resistance to Satan’s temptation is the key to Milton’s entire project, since it is, first and foremost, a display of virtue habituated over time through constant rumination on the word of God – the same thing he wanted for the readers of his poem.
You can read the rest here.