Theological Context

The theological context of Milton's works is perhaps the most important aspect, above any political commentary or literary example that may be construed from them. Any reader of Milton's works should always remember the extent of the poet's vast knowledge of the Bible and his overriding concern for theological matters. Milton would not have seen his world in terms of political, religious, social, economic issues. For contemporaries there was no such division between political and religious for example; everything revolved around God. Rooted at the centre of Milton's three major poetical works are the tenets of the Christian faith, and more specifically Protestant doctrinal issues that among contemporary theologians and churchmen remained contentious points of debate and disagreement, such as the issues of vocation or calling, predestination and free will. These were everyday concerns for men like Milton. Samson Agonsites, then is largely the story of spiritual struggle, the innermost task of regeneration to God's grace, the inner anguish of God's chosen to come to terms with his vocation, and the battle with temptation.

In Samson Agonistes the related themes of regeneration and election, and of general and special vocation, are developed and deftly interwoven into the plot by Milton. The poet has followed Aristotle's advice regarding the plot and with these theological issues made it more sophisticated and interrelated than the simple plot that the Poetics criticised. At the beginning of the drama we meet Samson as a 'fallen' man - he is both an heir of Adam's original sin that Milton dealt with in his first epic, and an agent of God who through his own doing has fallen from divine grace. During the course of the tragedy Samson grows closer to God through the succession of positive responses to the series of temptations offered him by Manoa, Dalila, Harapha, and the Philistian Officer. During these confrontations Samson gradually manifests faith in God and repentance for his divergence from divine grace; and, as the process of his spiritual regeneration advances, divine grace is restored in him. The precondition of Samson's 'spiritual metamorphosis' is the development of Samson's wisdom, by which the hero learns the errors and sinfulness of his pride, presumptuousness, and doubt in God's ways. He comes to replace these sins with the virtues of faith, humility before God, and patience. Only then is Samson once again restored to his special vocation, rightfully responding only to the 'rousing motions' by which he is activated to execute divine will.

Vocation or Calling

Samson's vocational experience is both deeper and more complex than that of any of the other characters in the tragedy. Samson is immediately distinguished from the other characters by virtue of his 'special vocation' (vocation specialis). This makes the hero's agon all the more intense. Milton observed in De Doctrina that 'God, whenever he chooses, invites certain selected individuals... more clearly and more insistently than is normal." (YP,VI:455) Hence by virtue of his special calling, Samson is more than an ordinary man (as he says he is 'no private'); he is a judge (as the Book of Judges originally recorded Samson as 'judging' his people), an Israelite shôphet elect above the rest of mankind such as 'when the Lord raised them up judges, then the Lord was with the judge' (Judges 2:18).

Throughout the tragedy Milton stresses Samson's unique status as an agent of God's will. In his opening soliloquy Samson recalls the prophecy that foretold him: declaring his 'breeding' had been 'ordered and prescribed / As of a person separate to God, / Designed for great exploits' (ll.30-2). The theme of Samson's 'special vocation' or election is reinforced in the dialogues of Manoa and the Chorus, and frequently restated by Samson himself:

'I was no private but a person raised
With strength sufficient and command from heaven
To free my country.' (ll.1211- 13)

However, Samson's vocatio specialis involves a deeper responsibility - the 'solemnly elected' (l.678) are called to serve the Lord as agents of His will and not for their own sake. Samson, when first we meet him in the prison-house at Gaza, has doubted God's. He has been guilty of pride and presumptuousness, abrogated his vocation and alienated himself from the source of his strength. Therefore before Samson can be reinstated as God's 'faithful champion' and fulfil his prophecy or vocation as Israel's deliverer, he must be educated. Furthermore, the hero, like the Christ of Milton's Paradise Regained, must learn to control and override self-will so that he may truly serve as an the chosen instrument of God in harmony with divine dispensation, performing God's will only when it is deemed necessary.

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