In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C. S. Lewis distinguishes alternate ways of interpreting texts. The first is what he calls “the method of The Unchanging Heart.”
According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armor off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honor, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.
Lewis admits, “I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it.” Fortunately, there is “a better way”:
Instead of stripping the knight of his armor you can try to put his armor on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honor, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C. S. Lewis in Lucretius. There is in G. K. Chesterton’s Avowals and Denials, a wholly admirable essay called On Man: Heir of All the Ages. An heir is one who inherits and “any man who is cut off from the past . . . is a man most unjustly disinherited.” To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work “in the same spirit that its author writ” and to avoid chimerical criticism. It is better to study the changes in which the being of the Human Heart largely consists than to amuse ourselves with fictions about its immutability. For the truth is that when you have stripped-off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being. To take an example from a simple matter, human eating, when you have abstracted all that is peculiar to the social and culinary practice of different times and places, resolves itself into the merely physical. Human love, abstracted from all the varying taboos, sentiments, and ethical discriminations which have accompanied it, resolves itself into something capable only of medical treatment, not of poetical.
How does this pertain to Paradise Lost?
We must therefore turn a deaf ear to Professor Saurat when he invites us “to study what there is of lasting originality in Milton’s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest.” This is like asking us to study Hamlet after the “rubbish” of the revenge code has been removed, or centipedes when free of their irrelevant legs, or Gothic architecture without the pointed arches. Milton’s thought, when purged of its theology, does not exist. Our plan must be very different – to plunge right into the “rubbish,” to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.