"The Empty Garden" draws a portrait of Milton as a cultural and religious critic who, in his latest and greatest poems, wrote narratives that illustrate the proper relationship among the individual, the community and God. Rushdy argues that the political theory implicit in these relationships arises from Milton's own drive for self-knowledge, a kind of knowledge that gives the individual freedom to act in accordance with his or her own understanding of God's will rather than the state's. In essence, Rushdy attempts to redefine Milton's creative spirit in a way that fully encompasses his poetic, political and religious careers. By contrasting the theories of Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan and Thomas Hobbes on self-knowledge with Milton's narratological and diachronic theory, Rushdy illustrates how milton sees the subject in a dynamic and changing relationship with the natural and supernatural worlds. "The Empty Garden" aims to demonstrate how the narrative of "Paradise Regained" depicts a Jesus who gains self-knowledge through meditation, uses that knowledge to defeat Satan, and forms a new culture for Israel.
Jesus' life becomes an object of interpretation for the characters within the poem (as well as for the poem's readers), and Jesus and Satan produce radically different interpretations that reflect the difference the old and new cultures. Critics have acknowledged that "Paradise Regained" and "Samson Agonistes", published in one volume in 1671, are to be read as two parts of a whole, and Rushdy has a way of defining the volume as Milton's final exploration of a political idea. He develops points for possible comparison and contrast between the works to show how Jesus and Samson become different kinds of subjects of God and state. "The empty Garden" concludes with a reading of an implicit dialogue between Milton and Hobbes that tries to show that Milton's last original poetic achievement is as involved in issues of politics - the state as site of potential subjectivity of subjection - as ever he was during the heyday of his prose contributions.