Milton and the mind

It’s the birthday of John Milton (December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674). I hardly read him but can’t forget these lines from Paradise Lost, Book

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

It seems an eloquent assertion of the power of the mind, but note this. These words are spoken by Satan not in triumph but in defeat — when he and his followers are cast out of Heaven into the pit of Hell for their abortive rebellion against God. With these words, he is trying to console himself and his followers for what they had lost:

Farewell, happy Fields,
where Joy forever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell:
Receive thy new Possessor, one who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Satan sounds defiant here, but he is really trying to come to terms with his losses. Even he calls Hell an “infernal world” as he bids farewell to the “happy Fields” of Heaven.

So the mind cannot really make “a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”. Satan may say so, but compare his descriptions of Heaven and Hell.

Yet there is no denying the power of the mind if we look at the world around us. You are reading this on the World Wide Web which did not even exist before the 1990s. The world is constantly changing around us as innovators keep coming up with new ideas and new products.

As I write this on a computer and think of playing a song on it at the same time, I remember the typewriters I used to type on and the vinyl records of songs by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Who knew then we could be all connected on the internet one day and that hundreds of books could be stored in a little tablet device slimmer than a paperback?

Every innovation shows the creativity and transformative power of the mind because what is innovation but what was inconceivable before?

I remember the song, The Impossible Dream. It sounded so heroic then. Nothing seems impossible now – except weather control and an end to mortality, violence and bloodshed and divisions in society. Conflicts and divisions are inevitable because we don’t all think alike – the mind can indeed make a heaven of hell, or hell of heaven, never mind who said so.

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