Milton and Disease

When I took a class called Milton last fall, I backed out of doing my term paper on what I really wanted–which would have been the language of Infection and Contagion in Paradise Lost (that work was the main focus of the class–we used other poetry and prose as supplementary material to aid in our reading of Paradise Lost).  

I think I will save my observations on infection in Paradise Lost for another time, and write about something I found in a “new to me” Miltonian work. 

I read Comus yesterday, which is a long poem set up in the style of a play. Comus is a sorcerer who lures a virginal maiden away from her brothers and threatens to tempt her into sin. The elder brother has these lines to his younger brother as they look for their lost sister:

                                                    “But, when lust,
 By unchaste looks, loose gestures, and foul talk,
But most by lewd and lavish act of sin,
Lets in defilement to the inward parts,
The soul grows clotted by contagion,
Imbodies, and imbrutes, till she quite loose
The divine property of her first being.”

lines 463-469

To me, Milton is the master of guilt, and in revealing our emotional, mental, and SPIRITUAL disease rather than a physical one.

Milton was no stranger to physical disease, however. He spent much of his life living in seclusion in the English countryside because he was terrified of the plague in London. In 1665, just two years BEFORE the publication of Paradise Lost, England saw one of the worst outbreaks of Bubonic Plague in recorded history. (Followed promptly by the Great Fire in 1666—I personally believe there is no coincidence in ANYTHING Milton writes, but especially in his use of language involving disease and fire—a popular belief at the time being that fire was the only true way to destroy disease or end an outbreak). 

But I want to just say a few quick words about spiritual disease. Milton was HUGELY religious. The disease he saw infecting the human spirit was sin. The more one sins, the more infected their soul is. And Milton often illustrated the way in which sin can spread, and the more you are surrounded by it, the more susceptible you are to it. It’s like breathing on your neighbor. (“Breath infect breath”  — Shakespeare, Timon of Athens)

Or for Milton it is like Satan tempting Eve who in turn tempts Adam –and their post-lapserian lives are full of disease. The first thing they do is satisfy their new found lust for each other.

But I love the image in the line from Comus “the soul grows clotted by contagion”–what a physical image–I can almost see the phlegm caused by sin blocking up the lungs.

For Milton the resolution for all of this spiritual disease was a relationship with God. But how do we reconcile this in an increasingly secular world? As an atheist I have a real issue with having to create a relationship with God in order to cure my diseased spirit. But I believe the answer has less to do with God and more to do with humans. How we treat each other, and our earth, and ourselves. 


Time for thoughts from my readers—how do you cure a diseased spirit. If you can’t see a physical infection, then how do we go about finding a cure?



  1. Wow. I’m pretty blown away and will have to spend some time thinking about your question. I guess first you need to convince me that sin is disease. And even more, what is sin. If we are all born sinners and we did nothing to gain this disease how can we possibly cure it.

  2. It’s so interesting to be reminded of ‘sin’ and the entire frame of reference that entails. It prompted a little bit of a mental stretch for me, having more or less abandoned my Catholic background.

    To the quetsion: how to cure a diseased spirit? I think about etymology and spirit as breath and then disease, as in dis-ease, as in not at ease, and I think of animism and ‘spirits’ being the living forces at work in the world, perhaps not at all supernatural (super as in ‘above’ nature), but thoroughly embedded in the natural realm. I think about David Abrams ‘In the Spell of the Sensuous,’ and his suggestion that the idea of spirits as anywhere outside of earth, outside of our perceptions might itself be an artifact of the mind-body split, and the projection of the sacred somewhere else ‘out there,’ and then I think about Reverend Matthew Fox, renegade priest, who says that if God is ‘out there’ somwhere in the ether, and not lived and embodied in all taht we experience, God may as well be nowhere at all, and thus theism, with its God of clockwork universe fame outside looking in, is just a small step from atheism. And so to take that one step further, another, perhaps more appropriate response to the failures of theism may not be atheism but something like pantheism or animism, in which we recognize the sacred, the spirit, the breath, the life, the connection in all we experience, rather than a sacred that is cordoned off in some realm never to be experienced, except perhaps in the life to come.

    And so to answer your question in a roundabout sort of way- how to cure a diseased spirit? For me, that’s the permaculture project: to reacquaint ourselves with the community of life, and learn to see relationship as the basis of our lives, rather than discrete objects, or more basely, their acquisition. Certainly his metaphor holds true in this worldview, the perspective I usually hold: we have lived so far from God, from the sacred, that we are not well, and must again connect to that sacred, in this case the living world around us, and to heal we must form relationship with that community of life, and in so doing, we begin to heal the wounded world (since of course, even in a material sense, we are not discrete from our ecologies).

    Ok- that enough? 😀

  3. No, never enough! Please keep it coming!

    “Mind-body split” made me think about this–in some instances I can see mind and body as somewhat separate. But then I think about how physical disease is sometimes prompted by the mental unrest (or dis-ease, as you reminded me). When our MIND suffers stress for a prolonged period of time, the BODY’S natural reaction is to break down. You go through a stressful life change and the body reacts and changes…sometimes by simply becoming sick.

    I know my current life change is being played out in my body by weight gain. But maybe that is beside the point. 🙂

    You are all giving me such wonderful feedback! I really can’t thank you enough.

    I am still trying to pull in more readers so we can get a really excellent dialogue going on!

  4. Dr Mercola, an osteopathic physician and generally a good source of alternative health info, writes a bit about the emotional component of disease, and often references German New Medicine, a renegade but allegedly well-documented and verifiable field of research and practice that demonstrates the link consistently and our ability to become well again once we deal with the underlying emotional issues. He also cites Bruce Lipton whose work in ‘epigenetics’ shows that our genes alone do not dictate our state of well-being, and factors ‘above’ or ‘outside’ our genes impact whether a particular genetic trait is expressed or not. Turns out we can actually activate or de-activate our genes based on for example, mom’s diet while in utero, or whether we practice relaxation techniques.

    I think it makes total sense that our mental and emotional states impact our physical states, and research is finally catching on to that. Reminds me of an expression I’ll paraphrase: at the plateau the scientist reaches after years and decades of study, he finds the guru, who’d been sitting there for centuries. 🙂

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