I keep having the sense that something is going on that runs right counter to the overt text of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. There seems to be a separate, opposed meaning. Should it be called a hidden agenda, a subtext?
Milton’s Paradise Lost is a poem of such panoramic grandeur and such human acuteness as may wean one—and has even weaned me—from a lifelong exclusive Homerophilia. Partly its attraction is that it is insinuatingly suspect. I keep having the sense that something is going on that runs right counter to the overt text. There seems to be a separate, opposed meaning. Should it be called a hidden agenda, a subtext? On the supposition of trust—to which I warmly subscribe—what the words in a book say is what the author means; it is simply the reasonable faith that the writer knows how to express himself. So if an attentive reader discerns an under-meaning, there is in fact a subtext, a second probably more seriously meant meaning. Such occulted meanings are associated with esotericism, “insiderism,” the notion that the author speaks with a forked tongue—one text for the naively simpleminded, another for the initiable. The purpose is to protect the author from misapprehension by ungifted, and from persecution by orthodox, readers.
But I don’t think great authors are often in that mode. The deep matters they raise are too well guarded from over-easy access by their inherent difficulty to want the shield of obscurantism, while from imputations of heterodoxy there is really no protection; its odor cannot be masked.
Consequently I have a feeling, just a sense, that something much stranger than the double intention of a subtext runs through Paradise Lost: that Milton’s judgments denigrate what his representations magnify, that his characters contradict his condemnations and justifications. I have no idea how much a close study of his published opinions or a deep penetration into his private thoughts could establish the truth; I feel terminally baffled by the points I’m about to make. I keep having the sense that some truth in this cosmic Christian drama keeps asserting itself to Milton as poet which, as a theologian, he suppresses. But that notion implies that the story of this temporal episode within eternity is not altogether a made fiction but has the power of unintended consequences that belongs to living truth; I just don’t know. So I’ll set out my sense, in brief.
Satan’s Eve: The Schismatic Pair
Satan lies in wait, hardly hoping that he “might find Eve separate.” “Eve separate he spies” (9.422, 424). She has separated herself from her consort Adam—“split,” as our young now say. It is a good word, the English for the Greek verb whence comes “schism,” breaking away. Satan, in turn, addresses her as “sole wonder” and presents himself as “single” (9.532, 536). He often speaks of himself as “alone” (e.g. 2.975, 3.441), but “single” had then as now another meaning as well: unmarried. And surely he woos her; he is the primal seducer. But it doesn’t take much. Eve, that crooked bone, is a born schismatic as Satan is a created one. Or it is at least a great question just how he and his host of fallen angels come to be heaven’s splitters, the aboriginal protestants.
Here is how they are a pair, alike in features that bear the name of badness in Milton’s book, but are attractive in description, and what is more have the stamp of approval in our day.
First then, Eve too wants to be alone. We respect that: “I need time to myself, I need space.” She is indeed the instigator of her separation from a weakly reluctant Adam. “Eve first” speaks up: “Let us divide our labors”—she is the inventor if not of the division of labor then of separate work spaces!—“Sole Eve, associate sole” he answers, meaning more than he knows, the clueless man, but then he gets it: “but if much converse perhaps / Thee satiate, to short absence I should yield”—though she has pleaded efficiency rather than surfeit (9.205 ff.). He, the “patriarch of mankind,” lectures her on free will: “O woman….” But “Eve / persisted, yet submiss.” It is what we have learned to call the passive/aggressive mode, the underdog’s determined self-defense.
She is, like Satan, a dissimulator who keeps some things private. For she has had a week to ponder Satan’s night visitation in which, “Squat like a toad” he whispered suggestions in her ear (I imagine the left, for this is surely a parody of the impregnating Holy Spirit who comes to the Virgin by the right ear in many late Medieval paintings) and manages to “raise / At least distempered, discontented thoughts” (4.806). Thus she surely has more in mind than mere efficiency in weeding Paradise as she separates from her husband. As she will later say: “Was I to have never parted from thy side? / As good to have grown still there a lifeless rib” (9.1153).
There is a whole list of similarities of situation and likenesses of character between the fallen angel and the woman, for which I could cite book and line: Both are kept at a remove from their God, he by the Son, she by her mate. His rebelliousness is proudly asserted, her resistance submissively masked, but both have that in them that is ready to abrogate obedience: “Our great Forbidder” she calls God, and Satan calls him “the Threat’ner” (9.815, 687). Satan is a brilliant sophist on the ancient model, but his clever proof to her that a God who inspires fear is no God, so that her “fear itself of death removes the fear” (9.702), is matched by her clever musings: “good unknown, sure is not had, or had / And yet unknown, is as not had at all. / In plain then, what forbids he but to know, / Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise? / Such prohibitions bind not” (9.756).
She is willful, restless, venturesome, poignant in her lapse, proud as the mother of mankind. Satan is willfulness incarnate, a great engineer, the original Adventurer (10.440), both as explorer and in the older sense of undertaking grand ventures, such as the development of Hell, the colonizing of earth, and the sponsoring of the great highway that makes Hell and this world “one continent of easy thoroughfare” (10.392). He is, in fact, a Promethean figure, a god at odds with his Chief, who is a patron of invention and, in his perverse way, a benefactor of mankind (Sec. 1). He is the instigating cause of the earth’s obliquity, that skewing of the terrestrial pole which brings us seasonal variety and moral diversity; he is the ultimate reason for human mortality and the succession of generations (how on earth would Eden have held all the promised increase of immortals?), in short, of history. There is true pathos in the racking pain of his inability to love: About to spoil Paradise, he curses familiarly but eerily: “O hell!” he says, seeing the bright spirits, the humans, “whom my thoughts pursue with wonder and could love” (4.358). There is real candor in his confession of unwillingness to repent: He concludes a meditation on his certain relapse were he to submit with a chillingly final choice, “Evil be thou my good” (4.110). And there is residual receptivity to the influence of innocent grace: Seeing Eve, alone, “that space the Evil One abstracted stood / From his own evil, and for the time remained / Stupidly good” (9.463). Satan has been said to be modeled on Iago, literature’s most notorious bad man. They are both, to be sure, racked with resentment for being passed over by their superiors, but there is an enormous difference in their stature: Iago suffers meanly and mutely, Satan grandly and candidly—at least by and to himself.
Eve cannot match his stature, but there are two capstone transgressions in which they are nearly equal. One is the drive to explore, experiment, experience—as he sails through the uncreated void to explore the created world, she dreams of flying with him to behold the earth in its immensity, the first human to ride the skies. The second is the desire for godhead: He thinks himself God’s equal, and she, eating, has Godhead in her thoughts (9.790).
Eve Separate: The Mother of Modernity
In short, they are the original moderns, he in God’s universe, she in our world. For there is a generic modernity: asserted individual will; unbounded experimental science (whose root meaning is, wonderfully, the same as that of schism: dividing, cutting off); chameleon-like adaptability (Lucifer-Satan is a master of transformations, willed and imposed: cherub, toad, serpent; Eve too undergoes some pretty dramatic changes); future-oriented temporality (here Satan and the Son cooperate, one to make sin endemic, the other to make salvation attainable); and godlike creativity (such is attributed to man by Pico della Mirandola in that manifesto of protomodernity, the “Oration on the Dignity of Man” of the 1480’s: Adam, man, has no fixed being; rather “our chameleon” assumes by his own free will whatever form he selects, and so he can be as God).
But this perennial possibility is realized predominantly in historical modernity, our epoch, within which we are temporal compatriots. We are indeed the progeny of Eve, for with her all its deeper characteristics originate, above all narcissistic individualism, the thirst for liberation, the lust for experience, a hunger for equality, and a drive to resolve all mysteries, “to leave no problem unsolved,” as a founder of modernity puts it (Vieta, Analytical Art, 1591).
There is a startling story Eve tells Adam, a story of her first awakening into consciousness (4.449). “With unexperienced thought” she goes to a smooth lake, bends over it—and falls in love with what she sees, pining for her own image “with vain desire”; she is the first self and image worshiper. When she first sees Adam she doesn’t much like him; he is “less fair, / less winning soft, less amiably mild.” She runs away; Adam tells her that she is part of him, body and soul, and she yields. Her first love is herself—even before Satan leaps into Paradise. Is self-love ever innocent?
Now she gets what she is longing for, experience and experiences, discovery by trying things out and stimulation by affects deliberately aroused. She has eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which the Tempter calls “Mother of science” (9.680). She has, instantly, grown “mature in knowledge.” She knows what to call her fascination: “Experience, next to thee I owe, / Best guide;” “thou… givest access…” to secret wisdom (9.807). And in short order she invents novelties now well known to us; this wisdom of hers has much of applied science, particularly political and psychological know-how. She tells an outright, very politic lie, the original lie on earth: She figures first that she might keep the secret of the fruit so as to “render me more equal, and perhaps, / A thing not undesirable, sometime / Superior; for inferior who is free?” (9.823). After this very contemporary manifesto of family politics, she reconsiders to herself: What if I do die, as promised, and he takes on another Eve? Better to die together. But to him she cleverly claims that her “growing up to godhead” was all done for his sake, and that he must join her “lest thou not tasting, different degree / Disjoin us, and I then too late renounce / Duty for thee, when fate will not permit” (9. 883). A barefaced, self-serving lie!
Of course she has already invented drug-taking and having ecstatic experiences, and instant knowledge; experiential learning too will be her invention (10.967). Shortly she will propose birth-control—“willful barrenness”—and suicide to him (10.987, 1001, 1042). Ask where all the snares and escapes of our time come from, and the answer is: Eve. To him she calls herself the “weaker sex” (9.383), for that is what he thinks, but her submissiveness hides a huge ambition: Satan gets to her by addressing her as Queen of the Universe, Empress of the World, “a goddess among gods, adored and served” (9.547). It cannot be a really meek, dependent woman who glories in such appellations; it is, after all, what domineering men want as well. Recall that the primary, the horror-inspiring transgression of Mr. Kurtz in dark Africa is that he accepts worship and human sacrifice as a god, and he is a very demon of force. If anything she’s a born outlaw: To the Serpent she interprets paradisaical life as one prohibition, and for the rest “we live / Law to ourselves, our reason is our law” (9.653).
But from one perspective she’s no outlaw nor a rebel either. Our political progenitor, Locke, points out that rebellare means “to go back to a state of war,” and that the true rebel is the contract-breaking tyrant, not his imposed-on subjects; they are revolutionaries (Second Treatise, para. 226). Now Satan can claim that his monarch has in fact revoked, if not a social contract, then a heavenly understanding, and Eve does claim that the single prohibition is irrational in principle and defectively promulgated: She knows neither why the tree is forbidden, nor what the punishment means, nor when it will be imposed.
To return to my initial perplexity: There is no question that the above is a skewed version of these events, that Milton expresses more respect for Adam than for Eve, that he is not unsympathetic when he allows Adam to call her “that bad woman” (10.837), that Satan is the Evil One. There are formulaic explanations for my unhistoric perspective: Milton’s poem sets out Christian doctrine, not necessarily orthodox but fervent; I am a post-Christian modern who believes that the soundest part of modernity is rooted in pagan philosophy. So what seems pernicious to him seems admirable to me. Or, alternately, Milton was in fact a revolutionary, a republican, a defender of regicide, so naturally he has some sympathy for the adverse party in heaven and on earth. Both explanations have plausibility, and neither resolves the perplexity: How do Satan and Eve come to be such exact types of modernity? Is our world Satanic or was Hell Luciferic, “light-bringing”?, meaning: is our present condition the consequence of a devilish seduction—as Goethe’s Faust sells his soul to the devil for the boon of restless experience and grand enterprise—or is it really the other way round: that Hell was from its founding the place of enlightenment and progress—and we moderns found that out?
Domestic Adam: The Clod Erect
And then, who is really dominant in the Original Pair? The splendor of Adam’s looks is conveyed in sonorous lines. Satan sees the pair, distinguished from the other creatures by being “erect and tall, / God-like erect, with native honor clad / In naked majesty… though both / Not equal, as their sex and not equal seemed; / For contemplation he and valor formed, / For softness she and sweet attractive grace, / He for God only, she for God in him: / His fair large front and eyes sublime declared / Absolute rule” (4.288).
Here is what is odd. That Adam is a well-made creature of fine bearing and natural dignity, a good man and loving husband, is unquestionable. But not contemplation, nor valor, nor absolute rule are in fact his forte. He is, to put it plainly, an upright klutz, one of those amiable, fine males a female might well cling to, well knowing she could run circles around him—and so Eve does.
As for contemplation. In that wonderful interlude, Books 5-7, the archangel Raphael is sent to Paradise to warn and instruct Adam—Adam, not Eve, who sits listening “retired in sight” (8.41), having served the angel a paradisaical meal, which the angel, hilariously, falls to and begins “with keen dispatch / Of real hunger, and concoctive heat / To transubstantiate” (5.437). She listens on the sidelines to the story of Satan’s war and defeat. To be sure, it all comes too late; he has already leaped into Paradise and entered her imagination in a dream—part of Heaven’s mismanagement I’ll talk of below. But when Adam’s “countenance seemed / Entering on studious thoughts abstruse” (8.39), that is, when the theological account of Heaven’s battles and earth’s creation are done and the astronomical part begins, she goes off to her gardening “not as not with such discourse / Delighted, or not capable her ear / Of what was high,” but preferring to hear it from her husband; the angel, though gracious, is too stiff for her.
Here I must interject two observations: first, the question Adam asks that sets off Raphael’s account of hypothetical rational astronomy is a cumbrous version of one asked him by Eve the night before, together with assurances of submission: “God is thy law, thou mine,” she begins and then gives the loveliest speech of companionable conjugality imaginable: “With thee conversing I forget all time / All seasons and their change, all please alike” (4.637)—to end it all abruptly by posing the most embarrassing question of celestial mechanics: “But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom / This glorious sight, when sleep has shut all eyes?” She wants to know nature’s purpose, and by implication, who’s at the cosmic center. He gives a confidently ignorant answer, but knows enough to ask the angel: “Something yet of doubt remains….” When he computes the world’s magnitude (he actually can’t), how is it that the firmament with its numberless stars seems to roll through spaces incomprehensible (he’s a natural Ptolemaean, as are we all) “merely to officiate light / Round this opacous earth” (8.13)—same question, more Latinate vocabulary.
Second, Raphael gives, oddly, the Catholic answer. The preface by Bishop Osiander to Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) tries to neutralize the heliocentric revolution by ranking it as merely an alternative hypothesis, a mathematical simplification devised in Plato’s phrase “to save the appearances,” that is, to mathematicize the phenomena. Raphael tells Adam, never mind fact, “rather admire.” God has left his heavenly fabric to human conjecture and disputing, “perhaps to move / His laughter at their quaint opinions wide / Hereafter when they come to model heav’n / And calculate the stars…to save appearances” (8.75). So much for mankind’s first and grandest and most theologically fraught science: “What if the sun / Be center of the world…?” Of course the angel knows, as we know from Copernicus, that when astronomical obliquity enters the world after the fall, when equator and ecliptic come apart at an angle, so that the sun appears to spiral up and down the earth making seasons, the more economical way to effect this phenomenon is to push the earth’s pole askew. Yet even then Milton insists only that “Some say he bid the angels turn askance / The poles of earth twice ten degrees and more…some say the sun was bid turn reins” (10.668) on the now-skewed elliptic—c. 23° 51′, in fact—which obliquity produced corruption and pestilence and variety of season and weather for us.
And Adam, the biddable, is “fully” satisfied when enjoined to be “lowly wise,” to descend to “speak of things at hand, useful.” For him “experience,” which widens Eve’s horizon, teaches “not to know at large of things remote” (8.173); he is content to be temperate in knowledge. So much for contemplation, which means, after all, taking a wide point of view, theorizing. Eve is—until cowed by her lapse—more insatiable for wisdom than that, and a keener inquirer.
Now as for valor. We hear of his proneness to passion, which he is warned against by Raphael (8.635), and of his pusillanimity—he has to be told to have “self-esteem” (8.572), that contemporary buzzword—and he is, though inconsistently, upbraided by Eve for his weakness in letting her separate from him (10.1155) and allowing Satan to prevail. Michael, sent to comfort Adam, goes so far as to answer thus his accusation that the beginning of man’s woe is by women: “From man’s effeminate slackness it begins” (11.634). This sedentary “domestic Adam” (9.315) has a stodgy but infirm virtue that is no match for mobile, venturesome Eve’s spirit of independence. In the end it is he who cannot bear to be without her; she is, after all, one of his bones. So much for valor and for authority: “Was she thy God?,” the “sovran Presence” asks him (10.145); the very thought had occurred to Eve (9.790). But at the least she is used to having the final word, one way or another: The “patriarch of mankind” has spoken “but Eve persisted, yet submiss, though last…” (9.376)—a grimly hilarious line written by a two-timed husband.
And he’s slow (though sweet) and inattentively clueless. Eve has told him the tale of her self-love and how he at first repelled her. When he regales Raphael, at the end of his visitation, with the story of his own creation and of Eve’s, it turns out he hasn’t listened at all: He thinks she ran from him out of coyness; she “would be wooed, and not unsought be won” (8.503). And when the great disaster has come, and Eve, doomed, offers him the fruit, why does he not, simple man, think beyond the two options of dying with her or getting a new Eve? Why doesn’t he refrain from eating and intercede for her?
Clearly “domestic” and “dominant” are at odds here—maybe it is the reality of the Adamic character, that ensouled clod of earth, that is prevailing.
Poetic Milton: The Devil’s Party
Much stranger things are to come, so this might be a moment to consider theological poetry. Blake says that Milton wrote in fetters of Heaven and at liberty of Hell because “he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). I don’t know what he meant, but I think I know what it means: The devil is—or wants to be—autonomous, a rule unto himself (as Eve thinks they are in Paradise); he is literally a heretic—for “heresy” is a Greek word that means “choosing,” or as we redundantly say, “choosing for oneself.” In the realization of self-will and self-rule, he becomes innovative. Novelty is not new with him: Heaven starts it, knowing the possible consequences, which are therefore not wholly unintended. So also is this poet a maker of newness: David’s Muse, Milton’s first muse, is to sing “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (1.16; not the first one, though. Jon Tuck tells me that the line comes from Ariosto). His Raphael tells Adam “The secrets of another world, perhaps / Not lawful to reveal” (5.569). Milton writes a new epic, not “sedulous by nature to indite / Wars” and other old heroic and chivalric shenanigans (9.27), yet his great interlude is a magnificent war poem, though perhaps too embarrassing to Heaven to be revealed—Milton reveals it. We might well ask: Where does the poem leave Scripture? The poem is far more revealing; is it revealed? It is far more visible, a huge, magnificent moving picture, a blind poet’s telling—and showing—“Of things invisible to mortal sight” (3.54), “lik’ning spiritual to corporeal forms” (5.573). Is the imaging of spirits permissible? It is “in nightly visitations unimplored” dictated to him by his second Muse, his “celestial patroness” Urania (9.21), though a heavenly, not, as far as I know, an orthodox source. To be sure, Milton denies that he means the pagan Muse of Astronomy: “The meaning, not the name I call, for thou / Nor of the muses nine” (7.5). But surely this is equivocation. The inspiration for his books on the cosmos comes from the Greek source of enthusiasm (literally from entheos, the god within), one “of the muses nine,” though he disclaims her. And so this epic does not replace but absorbs pagan epic and pagan science, and puts Milton in a skewed position of accepting the splendor and deriding the culture of pagan hell (see Sec. 6., below).
To give a name to the poet’s peculiar propensity: It is a form of Manicheanism, the teaching that evil is real and incarnable. In a long tradition, the Neoplatonists and their Christian partisans held that badness is nonbeing, defect of being. For example, Adam is, understandably, a confused Neoplatonist: When he loses his wonted composure, he nastily calls Eve in turn “serpent,” and “this novelty on earth, this fair defect” (10.867), not sure whether a feminine being, that “rib / Crooked by nature” is lacking in something or oversupplied with “pride / And wand’ring vanity.” Milton’s Satan has no such doubts: To him his evil being is real and is accepted, no, vaunted as such, just as the darkness of hell is a paradoxical illumination. Surely the poet who produces a brilliant personification of evil is a perhaps unwitting, perhaps half self-admitted follower of Mani, not exactly of his doctrine but of the Manichean propensity for the personification of the kingdom of darkness.
There is another huge work that makes a novel tale of a sacred story. As Milton had expanded the second and third chapters of Genesis, comprising that book’s two alternative accounts of the creation of man, into a huge epic, so Thomas Mann developed his novel, Joseph and His Brothers, from twenty-six chapters in Genesis, telling the story of Jacob and his sons into nearly two thousand pages; he was executing a plan conceived by Goethe. But Mann has his “irony” to extenuate this dubious and so doubly engaging enterprise. He hovers above faith, and his ultimate belief is in the allusive imaging and reference-fraught story-telling itself.
Perhaps the poet’s—and this poet’s—indefeasible partisanship for the devil, that sets him “more at liberty” when writing of Hell, is in just this recreative activity: Satan thinks he might not be a creation but an original, a self-created being (5.860). Poets too want to be original, themselves creators, if not of themselves, of their worlds. It makes them great iconodules (image-servers), for they love their creatures. Iconodulia, a term from the old iconoclastic (image-breaking) battles culminating in the eighth and ninth centuries, was by the opponents understood as idolatry (idol-worship), praying to, not through, the icon. The charge goes way back, to that ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy spoken of in Plato’s Republic, where images are devices to distance us from Being by ensnaring us in the desire for sights (601 ff.). Iconodulia is a sin of which Satan, the proudly unattached leader of that “atheist crew” (6.370) is not guilty. But who can say that blind Milton did not love his invisible universe, made by him and made visible to himself, better than the real world made by God and made invisible to him, and, perhaps, better than the ultimately invisible God? He does not, in any case, succeed in making God lovable—or his Son interesting: “Hail Son of God,.. thy name / Shall be the copious matter of my song / Henceforth…” (2.412), he says after two terrific books about Satan. But the “copious matter” of the remaining ten is not the Son either, but more Satan—and Eve. I’ll be concentrating on the problematic vision and thought-raising qualities of Milton’s poetry, so I want to make here a declaration of love to the texture of words through which these are delivered: the steady English beat of the more than ten thousand iambic lines with their ever varied stresses in the hyper-English produced by the mixed Latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction—which with a little practice begins to read like mankind’s original language.
Insipid Heaven, Sapient Hell
The first two books of Paradise Lost are of paradise lost, of hell gained. Heaven itself comes on the scene only later, mostly at war. And this is well, because it is not attractive. I recall Bernard Williams saying in an encyclopedia article on death that Heaven’s eternity must be boring—all that everlasting monotonic intoning. (In fact, in Milton’s Paradise they play harps and occasionally sing in parts. Bach knew better; witness the glorious victory march-by in heaven on the words of Revelation 12:10, “Now is the salvation and the power and realm and the might” celebrating the Son’s defeat of Satan [Cantata fragment 50]). So the notion of celestial tedium is wrongheaded, for incorporeal substances don’t experience the weariness of the bodily senses. What is offputting in the poetry of heaven is God’s ultimate invisibility, for it is simply mystifying how formless light can by mere effulgence in fact produce any shaped copy, be it an ethereal image—the Son (6.680)—or an embodied one—man. I suppose there’s plenty of theology about it. In any case, God is heard out of invisible obscurity: “Glorious brightness… / Throned inaccessible” (3.375); to Satan it looks like “Thick clouds and dark” (2.263), to Heaven it’s a “golden cloud” (6.28); sometimes God speaks vengefully, from a “secret cloud” (10.32).
He often speaks peremptorily and on one occasion even with pointedly offensive vulgarity, when he promises to seal up hell: “See with what heat these dogs of hell advance”—as if they were bitches. He has suffered them to enter and possess earth, to puzzle his enemies, “That laugh, as if transported with some fit / Of passion,” thinking that it has not happened on purpose. No, they were called up on purpose, “My hellhounds, to lick up the draff and filth” of man’s polluting sin, so that gorged they might nigh burst “With sucked and glutted offal” (10.625)—infernal vacuum cleaners. In a human, that’s surely gross talk.
But Heaven itself, with its unvarying obedience, is vapid—not surely to inhabit but, unavoidably, to read about. It is the poetic problem of goodness, which is, ipso facto, even-tenored, uneventful, not the stuff of intense drama or vivid imagery. It does not have the snags and hollows that throw shadows and catch our interest: Perfect globes are intellectually perfectly beautiful, but who wants to look at their image for long? It is why newspapers never report that two hundred and eighty million people went to do respectable work and came home to enjoy their families, but always that someone or other killed, raped or stole. So Heaven is not interesting until there is civil war, and even then the so easily victorious Son fades against the brilliant, beaten Adversary, whose legions the heavenly general sweeps so easily over the brink into chaos, like Indians driving herds of buffalo over cliffs into canyons. Moreover, who can exonerate Heaven from the charge that in its war was born the notion that might makes right—and the hoary justification that right is in this case might.
As if to make up for its Chief ’s invisibility and its remaining inhabitants’ spotlessness, Milton makes heaven and its furniture baroquely opulent. The Son’s war chariot with its four Cherubic faces and eyes all over, made of beryl, crystal, sapphire, amber and all the colors of the rainbow, is extravagantly strange (6.753); there is no such vehicle even in Revelation, one of the Biblical sources for the war in Heaven (12:7). This is not the style of Hell.
It is, to begin with, a place of somber and restrained beauty. Opulence calls for Corinthian capitals, which are, as Palladio says, the most beautiful and elegant of the orders of columns. Pandemonium, however, rising “like an exhalation, with sound / Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet / Built like a temple” (1.711)—a pagan temple, of course—employs the severe and chaste Doric order with a golden architrave, for gold is mined in hell. Mulciber, Greek Hephaestus, the most gifted of the pagan gods, is the architect. The inside is illuminated by starry lamps.
It is a People’s Palace, and there a consultative parliament is held, a large inclusive synod (6.156) such as is never called in monarchic heaven. Hell is a sort of democracy. Its presiding chief was once Latin Lucifer, the “Light-bearer,” so called for his former brightness (7.131), but in my anachronistic ear there sounds also the word Enlightenment). Now he is Hebrew Satan, the “Adversary” and Greek Devil, diabolus, the “Accuser.” He is a revolutionary, a “Patron of Liberty,” not only in seeming, as Abdiel, the counterrevolutionary angel, claims (4.958), but in fact, as one who has been made “free to fall” (3.99), has claimed that right for himself, and finds his companions worthy of liberty and honor (6.420). Thus he is termed by his lieutenants “Deliverer from new lords, leader to free / Enjoyment of our right as gods” (6.451). He has a bill of accusations against his tyrant, not unlike the one found in our Declaration of Independence; he accuses God of enforcing vassalage, “Forced hallelujahs” (2.243), and, ironically but truly, of requiring image-worship (5.784) in interposing the Son, his image, between himself and his angels. Interposition is indeed the sub-theme of Milton’s justification—strange term—of the ways of God to man: the Son as intermediary between God and the angels and as intercessor in man’s behalf, Adam as God’s representative to Eve and interpreter to her of Heaven’s messages, and even Satan as Hell’s emissary to earth. This God is a deus absconditus whose ways are incessantly indirect.
Satan is, moreover, a real leader, intrepid, of unconquerable will (2.106). He heartens and rallies his troops, and they respond to him with trusting enthusiasm (1.663), rejoicing in their “matchless chief ” (1.486). He is strangely like the Son in willing to volunteer for fatally dangerous service to his people—to go through Chaos where no devil wants to go, to break out of by now homey hell to explore new lands for his people’s occupation (2.402); thus he is raised to “transcendent glory” (2.427).
Proud, rebellious, and monarchical in his spirit though he is, he knows how to assure his loyal band of their equality: “O friends” (6.609) he addresses them at their great crisis, but even before his magnificent speeches to them were all about equality—their equality in freedom if not in power. For as Abdiel, the Tory, points out, Lucifer is himself a prince. But he presents himself as primus inter pares, first among equals: No one more often utters the word “equal” linked with “free”: “or if not equal all, yet free, / Equally free; for orders and decrees / Jar not with liberty, but well consist. / Who can in reason then or right assume / Monarchy over such as live by right / His equals, if in power and splendor less, / In freedom equal?” (5.791). And as he speaks, so, it appears, he rules in the spirit of our Declaration: that all angels are created equal, that they are endowed, Satan would say by their heavenly nativity, with certain inalienable rights, among which one is liberty—that is, their freedom derives from an equality of rights.
From Satan’s politics to his endowments: He sits exalted, “by merit raised / To that bad eminence” (2.5). He is a sublime psychologist and the only wit, a mordant one, in this high drama—except of course for Milton himself, whose wit, insinuated into the action through his whiplash enjambments and his fork-tongued puns, is borrowed by Satan who can have no insight or wit but his maker’s. In Satan’s “Indeed,” when Eve naïvely tells of their perfect freedom in heaven except for the forbidden tree (9.656) you can hear the supercilious Englishman. When he tells Hell how he seduced Man he adds, with a witty contempt: “with an apple;” it’s a sheer, wickedly derogatory invention; I don’t think it was just a juicy apple, though Satan’s put-down prevailed. Here is a pertinent ditty (see Sec. 11.) from the early 15th century:
And all was for an appil, An appil that he tok.
Ne hadde the appil taken ben, The appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady A bene heven quene.
Blessed be the time That appil taken was.
Therefore we moun singen
But Satan is more than smartly cynical; he is a great inventor and engineer. The manufacture of that tremendous contrivance, the cannon, which he builds in heaven, that devilish engine which nearly routs the heavenly host in the most tremendous cannonade I’ve ever read of, is vividly described by Raphael in Book 6. Like Persian Xerxes, who cut a mountain off from its mainland (Herodotus 7.22), he refigures nature: His offspring Sin and Death cut through Chaos “by wondrous art / Pontifical” (that is, bridge-building, 10.312) to join Hell to Paradise.
But back to Hell itself, a place of relative harmony: “O shame to men! Devil with devil damned / Firm concord holds, men only disagree” (1.496). It is a place of music, of “partial,” that is, of complex polyphonic sound, as contrasted with the simple celestial unisons, I imagine. It is also “partial” as being of the devil’s party, of their heroic deeds, and it takes with “ravishment / The thronging audience” (1.552).
There is, above all, the sweetest soul-charming discourse: high reasoning “Of providence, foreknowledge, will and fate,/ Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute.” Round and round it goes as do conversations in a serious college: “And found no end” (1.560). They talk, as do we on earth, philosophy: of passion and apathy, of good and evil, of happiness and final misery. They have the experience for it; it is not talk abstracted from life but real inquiry.
“Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy,” this passage concludes. That is Milton’s way with Hell and the devils. It and they are depicted gloriously and dismissed ignominiously. It happens over and over. The representation raises what the judgment crushes.
Hell is altogether puzzling. Following an old Patristic tradition, Milton has all the fallen angels assume, as devils, the form of the pagan gods, some Levantine and horrible, some Greek and graceful, all vivid (1.375) and more distinctively individual than ever were the loyal archangels. All are beautiful, and though their looks deteriorate, as angels they can never be all bad in soul or all spoiled in form (1.483).
Satan, as I have imagined him, is the aboriginal modern, not only in his politics, but perhaps most of all when he is at home in hell where he asserts a modern hallmark: subjectivity, solipsistic ideation, inner-world creation: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, or hell of heav’n. / What matter where, if I be still the same…?” (1.254). But he is not only a post-Christian, he is also a pagan pre-Christian; he encompasses the human salvational episode, coming before and after as it were. As G. K. Chesterton says: “It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian” (Orthodoxy, Ch. 9).
As fallen Lucifer, in Hell Satan belongs to the Greek crew, though more as hero than god—albeit as god too. For like the Christian God he gives birth, though not to a Son but to a daughter, and like Zeus he gives birth through his head, not to wise Athena but to canny Sin. Yet primarily he is like the Iliad’s Achilles, first in battle, and offended by a sense of injured merit (1.98). The relation is, however, perverted for the occasion, as displayed in Satan’s adaptation of Achilles’ words in Hades: “I would wish rather to be a slave in service to another…than to be ruler over all the dead” (Odyssey 11.488). For Satan, at home in Hell, says instead: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (1.263); it is how he proudly counters good Abdiel’s “Reign thou in Hell thy kingdom, let me serve / In heav’n God ever blest” (6.183).
Milton, to be sure, disowns Achilles: His is an “argument/ Not less but more Heroic than the wrath / Of stern Achilles” (9.13). And he most assuredly disowns the philosophizing of Hell. In Paradise Regained Satan advertises ancient wisdom as the final temptation of Jesus, sounding much like the catalogue of a Christian college trying to persuade applicants that a liberal education should include Greek philosophy: “All knowledge is not couch’d in Moses’ law, the Pentateuch or what the prophets wrote, / The Gentiles also know, and write, and teach / To admiration, led by Nature’s light” (P.R. 4.225). So “To sage philosophy next lend thine ear, / From Heaven descended to the low-rooft house / Of Socrates” (4.272). Jesus rejects it all, though, like Milton, he is an admirer of Plato and his Socrates. He says that Socrates “For truth’s sake suffering death unjust, lives now / Equal in fame to proudest Conquerours” (3.96), but explains that this “first and wisest of them all profess’d / To know this only, that he nothing knew” (4.293). Even so he rejects Satan’s temptation. He neither knows nor doesn’t know these things; his “light is from above;” any great reader must needs be “Deep verst in books and shallow in himself ” (4.286). In this spirit Milton comments on the pair asleep in Paradise: “O yet happiest if ye seek / No happier state and know to know no more” (P.L. 4.774).
So heroic poetry, philosophical inquiry and book-learning appear to be rejected as Satanic. But that’s the trouble; they flourish in or about Hell, which is a display case of antique lore and heroic character and liberal artistry and free inquiry and sophistic skill. Belial is Hell’s most beautiful god “For dignity compos’d and high exploit”—here comes the customary whiplash—“But all was false and hollow,” for “he could make the worse appear / The better reason” (2.110); this is verbatim the sophistry attributed to the Clouds in Aristophanes’ play, those clouds that are parodies of Plato’s Ideas and the sponsors of Socrates’ Thinkery. In Hell is to be found all that was exciting in its splendor or rousing in its dubiousness in paganism. In Hell as in life there is no escaping its attraction, and all the poet’s damning postscripts cannot dim the glories of his “infernal pit.” Milton’s Satan speaks gallantly; Milton explicates: “Vaunting aloud—but wracked with deep despair” (1.126, my dash); it’s still the gallantry that resonates.
“Insipid” means tasteless, savorless, as sapor means taste, savor: Milton’s Adam, influenced by the taste of the forbidden fruit of knowledge, discovers its etymological connection with sapience, wisdom (9.1018). Hell is sapient as hell; is that an inherent truth asserting itself?
If Hell, when not racked with supererogatory spasms such as the yearly Hissing when all the devils turn into writhing snakes (10.508), is a well-run republic, Milton’s Heaven can be said to be a mismanaged monarchy or firm. The archangels’ inefficiency cries, so to speak to high heaven. Set to watch out for escapees from Hell, Uriel, in his simplicity, is, “for once beguiled” by Satan’s cherubic disguise—though the heavenly gods are supposed to know good from evil (3.636)—and directs him straight to Eden, where he evades the angelic pickets posted at the gates by simply leaping over the wall of Paradise. God lets it go: “be not dismayed,” he says to the unsuccessful sentinels; this intrusion “your sincerest care could not prevent” (10.37)—so what was the point of posting them? Raphael is sent too late to prevent the capture of Eve’s imagination, and, by his own account, the heavenly army under Michael, outnumbering the forces under Lucifer’s command two to one, are beaten; the Son alone saves Heaven (Book 6).
But that’s the least of it. To take a coolly secular view, the ruler of this polity is either deliberately disruptive or disregards some prime rules of management: Don’t add intermediate layers of authority; don’t make yourself inaccessible; don’t rebuff your insiders; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Everyone knows what discontent the intromission of a provost between the president and a faculty induces in it, or the upset that bringing in a vice-president from the outside and disappointing fair expectations causes in companies. This is exactly what happens in Heaven. Once all worshiped and obeyed God alone, a God who, though inaccessible to sight, was equally so to all. Then one day there is a newcomer, a Son, born not created. Though it is not clear that he appears after the angelic creation, it is clear that he is one fine day proclaimed and anointed—and set over all the princely angels, God’s loyal servants, as vice regent, a head to be acknowledged Lord (5.609). It is a novelty, an innovation whose necessity is not apparent; God seems to be, in Caesar’s words, simply cupidus rerum novarum, “avid for new things” (Gallic Wars 1.18). He does not need a Son. Indeed when Adam, shortly after his creation, asks God for a mate, God slyly joshes him “as with a smile”: “What think’st thou then of me. . ./ Seem I to thee sufficiently possessed / Of happiness or not, who am alone / From all eternity, for none I know / Second to me or like, equal much less” (8.403). Either God has forgotten or is concealing that he too now has family, or he is signifying that he needs none. We do know that the Son was born—whenever it was in timeless time—before Adam was made, though, to be sure, the possibility of innovation in an atemporal realm is humanly incomprehensible. “When?” makes no sense in eternity. What’s of more human consequence is that Milton’s God is playing a dangerous game with Adam: accustoming him to the sense that persisting in one’s desire and opposing God’s advice is permissible, even possibly successful. For Adam gets his consort.
Naturally some angels, created proud, are outraged at being set at a remove from the throne, at having their rights disrespected and expectations disappointed. Over and over Satan repeats that this is the cause—be it the mere occasion or the actual reason—of the rebellion, which is thus a revolution.
The engaged reader (for irreverently deadpan literalism can be a way of respecting the story) has to ask: Is Heaven’s action an incitement, an entrapment? God has given the angels free will. Has he made them dissimilar in nature, some more proud, more prone to apostasy, with more propensity to self-assertion and offense-taking? Is he calling these flawed ones out?
Here the question arises whether the angels, to whom God gave the knowledge of good and evil (11.85), know evil by their own experience or just by contrast to good. The latter is conceivable; Socrates in the Republic demands that a judge should learn of badness by observation, not from within his own soul (409). Moreover, Satan says to Gabriel that he cannot know what it means to seek relief who “evil hast not tried” (4.896). But then, before the angelic uprising, what evil was there to observe? Do some, a third, have it in them? Is Heaven rife with potentiality for evil, waiting to be realized? Is God indeed planning a razzia, a raid on putative infidels?
God does have foreknowledge of the event. But his argument, that omniscience does not prove determinism, is persuasive. An atemporal Godhead oversees our entire temporal episode as a whole from its beginning to its end. Earth’s history is not, after all, infinite in this story: Hell will be sealed and Heaven opened to man. Sub specie aeternitatis, under the perspective of eternity, foreknowledge is not foretelling, since to observe is not to interfere (at least not outside quantum theory). Since we see the past as fixed and conclude that because it is done it cannot be undone—which isn’t even so very true—therefore we think, a fortiori, so much the more, that if it cannot be altered it must have been necessary—which is a plain paralogism. No more need God’s sight, which includes the end, fix beforehand what happens; he is no cryptodeterminist. To foresee completely from a perspective outside time is not to predict certainly from causes within.
But it is an entirely different question whether Milton’s God wishes for the catastrophe that he has made, at least and at most, possible. And everything points that way. He leaves Satan to his “dark designs” so that he might “Heap on himself damnation” (1.214); indeed the whole historical episode, from the angelic fall of one who wants to rival God in power to the human fall of one who wants to be like a god in experience to its end in the re-opening of Paradise on earth and the first opening of Heaven to mankind, is an entertainment to the Godhead who watches it as a drama, just as it is an acute delight to the humans who read it as an epic. Yet while Aristotle allows that epics contain the plots for tragedies (Poetics 1459), Milton actually switches to the tone of tragedy within his epic: “I must now change / Those notes to tragic” (9.5); thus a serene epic delight is, for us humans at least, converted into that notorious tragic pleasure whose well-known dubiousness lies in our enjoyment of the representation of excruciated bodies and souls. Is it so for God?
To rise from the aesthetic to the ethical: The poem abounds in conversions of good to bad and bad to good, in missed intentions and antithetical transformations. Our labor must be, says the Arch-Fiend, “Out of our evil seek to bring forth good… And out of good still to find means to evil” (1. 163). On the brink of Paradise, it is no longer transformation he intends but identification: “Evil be thou my good” (4.110); here the distinction between good and evil is not, as in Hell, perverted but simply obliterated. The angels, on the other hand, sing in unison: “his evil / Thou usest, and from thence creat’st more good” (7.615), and God repeats it, meaning just the opposite from Satan. How is the human reader not to be absorbed into all this relativistic confusion? And all this starts with the late fathering of a crown prince.
For there is no question that this is the cause of the revolt: being set aside, twice, once by the newly born Son, once by the newly made image, man. Over and over Satan expresses his sense of wrong, of merit unrecognized; in Hell he may sit “by merit raised / To that bad eminence” (2.5; note, as usual: first some term like “merit,” then “bad”). In heaven God excuses the Son’s elevation: “By merit more than birthright son of God,” (3.309). Lucifer, however—at 5.666, which is the number of the Beast, the Antichrist, in Revelation (13:18)—thinks “himself impaired.” “Deep malice thence conceiving and disdain,” he whispers conspiracy to his “companion dear,” because he feels released from loyalty by the new laws God has imposed: “New laws from him who reigns, new minds may raise.” Then next morning at his palace, he, “Affecting an equality with God,” takes his royal seat to make that magnificent speech about the equal right to freedom. Injured merit, ex post facto laws, subjection are the griefs—God has, “O indignity! / Subjected to his service angel wings” (9.154)—later compounded by the replacement of his own contingent by newly created man. All this is as foreseeable by us as it was foreseen by God: on earth the CEO would be blamed, and the monarch would have a revolution on his hands.
Paradise is similarly questionable. How are we to go on with Milton’s picture of terrestrial perfection? Do those who will one day fall never stumble, those who will soon need to be clothed—not just for shame but warmth (10.211)—ever get nasty colds before the world is skewed? What happens if paradisaical lushness gets out of control as Eve worries it will, when the leisurely gardeners can’t keep up and growth goes rank? (10.205) Is Eve pregnant, and if not, why not, since passion is from the first practiced in Paradise (8.511)? Do they know death, with which they have been threatened, more distinctly than as something not-good, in some other way than as a blind, mystifying doom? More broadly, do they know some bad before they know evil, some harm before sin? Is Paradise already infected, as the serpent whose head is “well stored with subtle wiles” (9.184) seems to signify, who, “not nocent yet,” is physically “the fit vessel, fittest imp of fraud” (9.89), made in effect to incarnate Satan?
Kierkegaard, in his very pertinent meditation on Paradise, says that innocence is ignorance, it is the spirit yet asleep, dreaming. But the dream is infected with a presentiment of freedom, a “possibility of possibility,” which makes the spirit anxious and, once awake, unresistant to sin (The Concept of Anxiety 1. 6).
Eve conceives sin in her dreaming imagination, through Satan’s insinuation. Adam dreams soberly, merely of what is then actually happening and meant to be real: God—in what “shape divine,” one wonders—guides him, gliding, through Paradise; shows him “the tree whose operation brings / Knowledge of good and ill” which God has set as the pledge of his obedience by the Tree of Life, and warns: “The day thou eat’st thereof, my sole command / Transgressed, inevitably thou shalt die” (8.323); he demands a companion; falls into another sleep, really a half-conscious, waking anesthesia, while his “sinister,” that is, his left rib is removed by God and shaped into Eve (8.460).
Eve dreams wildly, raptly, anxiously of what is to come, and her “organ of fancy” is receptive to evil. We already know that she, who falls in love with her own image, is image-prone, and now she is the first and prime instance for a long philosophical and theological tradition that sees in the human imagination the effective snare of evil: desire made visible and vivid.
One third of the inhabitants of Heaven were open to the suggestion of evil; in Paradise, it appears, one half of the rational beings is so—the imaginative half.
Adam delivers to Eve a well-meaning little lecture on our cognitive constitution. He inventories first judging reason, then “mimic fancy,” and last the five senses. On the basis of these faculties, he trots out a soothing naturalistic explanation of the “wild work” the imaginative fancy produces in dreams from fragments of sensation, when judgment has retired into her private cell.
How wrong he is, the complacent man! He goes on to discourse comfortingly of evil: “Evil into the mind of god or man / May come and go, so unapproved, and leave / No spot or blame behind” (5.117). How would he know, not knowing evil—yet? But, I think, Eve does indeed now know, ahead of him. Thus Paradise is infected before the lapse. But it is not by the devil’s temptation, it is by God’s.
For what does the whole arboreal set-up betoken? Near the Tree of Knowledge is the Tree of Life. We learn that more such grow in Heaven, that after the fatal fall, man has to be moved from the proximity of the one in Paradise, for it can cure mortality (11.94). Why is one of these there at all? Surely the answer is ominous: Fallen humans who ate of it would be fallen immortals like the fallen angels, beyond salvation, incapable of participating in the redemptive history about to begin. Was the primal pair’s ejection from Paradise an act of mercy—and if so had this irremediable catastrophe crossed Heaven’s mind? What a complexity of divine design! But that’s a side issue; it’s the Tree of Knowledge that is at the problematic center of the Garden. Here is the question: Is the fruit of itself deleterious, some sort of spiritual poison, or is it a mere incitement to disobedience? Is the real evil ingestion or transgression? Is its intoxicating effect, which makes Eve so “jocund and boon,” a “virtue” proceeding from the fruit itself and the tree’s “operation” or from the sinner’s mind? Moreover, when they have both eaten and love turns into lust, passion into concupiscence, nakedness into exposure, candor into shame, harmony into hate, work into labor, what has changed? What is “the mortal sin / Original”? (9.1003) Of passion and of carnality there was plenty before: “Here passion first I felt, / Commotion strange” says Adam at the first sight of Eve (8.530). Or: “half her swelling breast / Naked met his under flowing gold / Of her loose tresses” says Milton (4.495).
Is that very turn from love to lust the original sin, or is it its consequence? Or is the true primal sin indeed mere disobedience? This last thought is what Adam and Eve cannot entertain: that mere transgression will be punished. (Indeed so far have we come in the way of Eve that “transgressive” is, for some postmoderns, a term of approval and a sign of sophistication.) They both think that the acquisition of knowledge and godlikeness is the virtue of the forbidden fruit. Adam, to be sure, first fixes on Eve’s disobedience itself: “how hast thou yielded to transgress / The strict forbiddance” (9.902). But soon, he deprecates the danger that God, “Creator wise, / Though threatening, will in earnest so destroy / Us his prime creatures” (9.938), encouraged to think so by his previous experience with God’s leniency. So he accepts the profit: a “Higher degree of life.” Eve, a more subtle reasoner, goes even further: “What fear I then, rather what know to fear / Under this ignorance of good and evil, / Of God or death, of law or penalty?” (9.773) In other words, because she is ignorant of the terms she need not fear anything before partaking, since she doesn’t even know what’s to be feared; “Here grows the cure for all,” she concludes, the cure, that is, for cluelessness.
The trouble seems to be, once more, the unintelligibility of the tree’s operation (8.323, 9.796): Is it God’s command that threatens or the tree’s powers that are dangerous? Is it the fruit that imparts knowledge of good and evil or the fact of human transgression? Is that knowledge an experience or an understanding? Once again, the question is whether their novel unbowered daytime sex with its postcoital recriminations, whether love turned into lust, is the sin or its consequence? And over, and over, is God not only expecting but wishing the outcome?
This last question is perhaps answerable from Milton’s perspective. He speaks in the Areopagitica of “the doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil—that is to say, of knowing good by evil” (my italics). So knowing evil takes precedence, and, accordingly, he, Milton, “cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed [unexhausted], that never sallies out and seeks her adversary… Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather… That virtue therefore which… knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue.” To me this signifies that the eating not only caused the world’s obliquity but prepared the pair (and its progeny) to live in it, that is, to keep learning by experience and experimentation, as it had begun. But if that is so, then there is too fine a contrivance in it all not to be an intended or at least a wished for consequence.
And altogether God’s gift of free will, this is the occasion to observe, is a curiously strained thing. One of our students, Christopher Stuart, discussed in his junior essay, which I have before me, an apparently scandalously inconsistent line, spoken by Raphael to Adam. After telling him once more that his will was by nature ordained free, “not overruled by fate inextricable or strict necessity,” the angel says, speaking of all created beings: “Our voluntary service he requires” (5.529). How, the student asks, as we must do, do “voluntary” and “require”—even “require” in the weaker sense of “ask”—go together, when it is God who asks? Doesn’t full freedom extend beyond the liberty to choose between the allowed and the forbidden to the determination of choices itself? Isn’t the deepest, innermost freedom the freedom to set one’s own limits? Isn’t that what autonomy means? No wonder then that Satan harps on his own kind of freedom even more than on equality. He has fully felt that Heaven’s gift of free will has negating strings attached.
These perplexities, however, the sequence and significance of the will to disobedience and its punishment, the eating of the fruit and its effect, the skewing of the world, and the resulting diversity, all seem—at least seem to me—to converge in one type: the turning of love into lust.
When Adam shyly asks Raphael whether the angels have intimate congress he gets a forthright answer delivered with a “Celestial rosy red” smile. The angels “obstacle find none / Of membrane” (8.625); their intercourse is “Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace, / Total they mix, union of pure with pure / Desiring” (8.625). In Hell too there is passion: Envious Satan sees the man and the woman “Imparadised in one another’s arms,” and bemoans that in Hell there is only “fierce desire, / Among our other torments not the least, / Still unfulfilled with pain of longing” (4.506). In prelapsarian Paradise there is passionate desire and sexual congress, “preceded by love’s embraces,” “happy nuptial league.”
Adam and Eve’s love-making after the lapse when “in lust they burn” inflamed with “carnal desire” is now carnal knowledge: Adam harps on Eve’s sapience: “Eve, now I see thou art exact of taste, / And elegant, of sapience no small part, / Since to each meaning savor we apply” (9.1012). Now “that the false fruit / Far other operation first” displays (note the fricatives), we may ask: What is that operation that turns innocence to lasciviousness and makes them, “as the force of that fallacious fruit” evaporates, wake up from “grosser sleep / Bred of unkindly fumes with conscious dreams / Encumbered.” What has happened that when they rose, they “As from unrest, and each the other viewing, / Soon found their eyes how opened, and their minds how darkened” (9.1046)?
What the fruit has done is to make them sophisticated in sexual taste, self-conscious in their bodies, self-seeking in view of the other’s otherness: This is schism all over, the renunciation of trusting obedience in favor of self-determination, self-will, and selfhood in desire and the advent of solipsistic separatism in body: They see each other as other, their bodies as obstacles to entire interpenetration, and they concentrate on parts that are therefore now become private, shameful and in want of hiding (9.1090). They have, to use Milton’s word for the music of Hell, become “partial”: particular in taste and partisan for themselves.
Now first Adam turns, in a bad moment, from an easy assumption of superiority to misogyny. He wishes that God had stopped his creating after the “Spirits masculine” of Heaven and before making “this novelty on earth” (10.890), a female; of course he doesn’t know that angels are trans- sexual at pleasure (1.423); oddly enough Hell proper really does seem exclusively masculine.
So there are these degrees, from love to lust: the total merging of angelic congress, the selfless closeness of the paradisaical union, then the choosy separation of fallen sex—and a last grade, the unassuageable desire of loveless, lonely Hell, that seems to have no female but Sin.
Thus the eating and the fruit’s operation are one: separation. The transgression and its punishment are one: schism. Their obliquity and the skewing of their world are one: sophistication—that is complex and varied knowledge in a world of polarities. At least, so it seems to me. What I wonder about is if it doesn’t all start with Adam’s little prelapsarian lapses: Does it begin when he asks God for a companion? When he fails to take Eve’s Satan-inspired dream seriously? When he gives Eve—as God gave him—the freedom to disobey, although he has been warned? Were there Adamic falls before Eve’s great Fall? Yes, but he doesn’t have it in him to sin greatly.
But then arises a much more momentous question: Is the original sin that starts our way of being, Eve’s Eating of the Fruit, a bad thing? This consideration is the crux of this piece. But first one more Miltonian intricacy.
There is no female birth-giving in this poem (excepting, if you like, Sin’s, whose monster-children keep creeping back into her womb, 2.795). The birth of human children takes place out of Paradise. In Adam’s last hours in Paradise Michael shows him the prospect of human history in ever more foreshortened overview, up to the Second Coming (Books 11– 12), while Eve, not only the “mother of mankind” by ordinary generation but also the bearer of the “Seed” by which the “greater deliverance” is to come (12.600), is sent to sleep and given a separate view, once again, in a dream—a remarkable locution, by the way, this recurrent reference to her remote progeny, Jesus, as “the Woman’s Seed” (e.g. 12.542, 601), for he is indeed begotten without male insemination.
So whatever her condition when Paradise is lost, whether the first offspring is engendered on that racking last night in sin or before that yet in innocence, or afterwards in their new world, there are no women’s births before the fall: As he is henceforth to labor in the sweat of his brow in the fields, so she is to labor in unparadisaical pain in childbirth (10.193).
But there are plenty of male sirings, firsts of their kind and strange, in Heaven, Hell, and Paradise. God begets a son (5.603) having made the angels—geneses of which the human imagination cannot conceive. One angel—Satan—doubts his creation; he thinks he might be spontaneously generated, self-created, though he doesn’t know how (6.853). As Zeus gives birth to Athena, so Satan gives birth to Sin from his head. She is his brain child, born from the seat of reason, in him a source of perversion. Soon he has congress with her, his daughter and wife, who bears Death, who in turn rapes his mother (2.747). Adam is formed from dust in God’s image—who is however not an imageable original, being in his nature invisible. Eve is, not unlike Sin, born from her wombless progenitor’s body, not from his head but from his sinister side (8.465, 10.885), as a body part; hence she is at once apart and, somehow, also a lesser image of his entirety and of God at a remove. She is—strictly speaking—at once Adam’s offspring and his consort; like Oedipus’s fratricidal sons, one, though not both, of her children will kill the other, earth’s first murder (11.445).
Are these origins, these firsts of begetting, creating, imaging, producing, even intended to be closely inquired into? Are they just the hapless by-products of making theological mysteries into poetic pictures in which the supernatural cannot help but appear as unnatural? Or are they meant to be dangling perplexities, intended subtexts of questionableness, reflections on the consequences of entertaining nightly a Muse that tells of geneses beyond Nature?
Eve’s Happy Fault and Salutary Fall
Back to the great perplexity—the way the poem puts itself in question: The angelic crew falls into a hell that will at the end of time be sealed for eternity. The mortal pair wanders into a world that is “all before them,” a world spaciously various in places, and eventfully progressive in time. Is man’s fall and the sin that at once was and induced that fall a bad thing altogether?
The answer No is considered by Adam himself, when the Archangel Michael shows him the future and the Final Judgment. Then Christ will reward “his faithful and receive them into bliss, / Whether in Heaven or Earth, for then the Earth / Shall all be Paradise, far happier place / Than this of Eden, and far happier days” (12.462).
To this astounding prophecy, astounding because it announces that mankind’s posthistorical condition will exceed its prelapsarian state in happiness, Adam responds, with one last of those “good out of evil” turns: “O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense, / That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good… Full of doubt I stand, / Whether I should repent me now of sin / By me done or occasioned, or rejoice / Much more that much more good thereof shall spring” (12.469).
This paradox of paradoxes, that one man’s great Lapse, that his deliberate disobedience should send mankind on the way to the greatest bliss, so that repentance itself seems redundant, has a theological name: the felix culpa, the “fruitful fault.” The long history of the thought and the phrase is traced in an article by Arthur O. Lovejoy, “Milton and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall” (ELH 4.3, September 1937); it is referenced in Scott Elledge’s marvelous edition of Paradise Lost. The precise phrase felix culpa seems to come from the “Exultet” of the Roman Liturgy, which also speaks of the “certainly necessary fault of Adam,” giving a clear answer to the question of divine intention. The thought, however, goes back to the Church Fathers. Ambrose, Augustine’s bishop, spoke of the fructiosor culpa quam innocentia, “the more fruit-bearing fault than innocence,” and Augustine himself says straight out that God “wisely and exquisitely contrived” sinning so that the human creature, in doing what it itself wishes, also fulfills God’s will—a generalization of the original sin.
Milton is said probably to have known this patristic tradition. It seems to me that this notion, to which I referred above, that the experience of vice is the necessary antecedent to fully operative virtue, is along the same lines.
Now here is something remarkable: In all of Lovejoy’s quotations, including the little apple ditty copied above (Sec. 4.), it is Adam’s fault, Adam’s apple. Milton himself begins Paradise Regained: “I who erewhile the happy Garden sung, / By one man’s disobedience lost, now sing / Recover’d Paradise to all mankind.”
But it’s not one man’s disobedience. Though he is the apple taker, she is the apple giver, hers is the literal original sin—if priority now, under the felix culpa doctrine, bestows a certain credit. Hers is the first fault, for better or worse. Satan seduces her first, she Adam; his is a very secondary apostasy. Satan sins aboriginally as Hell’s native; Eve sins by seduction, as Paradise’s malcontent; Adam sins derivatively, as Eve’s husband (10.2): “She gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (10.143). In fact for God this sinning at second hand is an extenuating circumstance for humans.
Indeed, Eve tries to accept full responsibility and all the punishment (10.934). Adam reproves her, God seems to agree: “Was she thy God… that to her / Thou didst resign thy manhood…?” (10.145), but she is undeterred (12.619). And so is Milton, it seems, implicitly and explicitly: implicitly, in making her book, the book of her absconding from domestic Adam, the high point of the drama of the epic, with its modulation to tragedy, according to its own invocation (9.6); explicitly, when Michael, explaining why man is now in looks more Satan’s image than God’s likeness, terms the disfigurement “inductive mainly to the sin of Eve” (11.519). So which is text, which subtext here? Eve is the original sinner, and her sin is fruitful; she is, in fact, the Mother of the Seed. She is, moreover, much more disposed to disobedience than he, so why isn’t the Fall her drama? Isn’t it indeed so in this poem where the events are vividly enough seen to blanch out an old tradition in Adam’s favor—so to speak?
A disclaimer, lest these observations be imputed to me for feminism. I’m not much for Eve. Her badness is bad: Her adventurousness is feckless, her careless disobedience immature, her rebelliousness shallow, her susceptibility to flattery foolish, her avidity for stimulation reckless, her appetite for Godhead clueless, her lies to her husband ugly, and her argumentation too smart by half. It is not Eve I admire but Milton, for his second sight in knowing how qualities connect, and then, now, and always make up into a human type (of either sex) which I think of as characteristically modern—vivid and endangered and very familiar to a teacher.
Besides, it isn’t even quite clear what she did for us. Under the felix culpa doctrine Satan is an unwitting agent provocateur for Heaven, but the Almighty in fact contradicts this in a speech from the Throne: Let man, he says, “boast / His knowledge of good lost, and evil got, / Happier, had it sufficed him to have known / Good by itself, and evil not at all” (11.86). This contrary doctrine jibes with a promise we have heard earlier: Raphael, having transubstantiated a meal of paradisaical fruit, explains to Adam how this nourishment “by gradual scale sublimed” can raise man’s embodied soul through degrees to full reason—“and reason is her being.” For the soul is the same in kind as the angels’ though less in degree, since man’s reason is mostly discursive, the angels’ intuitive. So then, “time may come when men / With angels may participate,” and find that “from these corporal nutriments perhaps / Your bodies may at last turn all to spirit… and winged ascent / Ethereal, as we, or may at choice / Here or in heav’nly paradises dwell; / If ye be found obedient” (5.483).
An amazing promise, though hedged: The route to Heaven is through diet and obedience! Thus the Fall achieved just a long detour to the same end: a choice of goods, either of a dwelling in Heaven or an etherealized life in Paradise. And Adam actually knew this before the Fall, as did Eve who had been listening in! We do not hear much more about it. Perhaps, we may surmise, the prospect of man etherealizing directly from Paradise to Heaven is embarrassing to the Father, for it leaves the Son without his salvific mission.
So has Eve, in causing history, launched mankind on its necessary road or on a futile byway? And did Milton intend to throw such doubt on the need for the Son’s self-sacrifice, his entering history as a man?
Wisdom Without Their Leave
“The world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: / They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow / Through Eden took their solitary way.” With this solemn iambic saunter, sad but comforted, bereaved but hopeful, the divine epic ends and human history begins. Yet in the very last of these ten-thousand five-hundred and fifty-six lines there lurks still one more provocation to stimulate the intellectual sensibility like a dissonance in music: “solitary.” Does it mean “alone”?—but they have a Guide. Does it mean “single”?—but they are a Pair. Does it mean “at one”?—but her “meek submission” (12.597) is dearly bought and perhaps not so very reliable or heritable (moreover it’s not a meaning in the OED). Or could the word perhaps intimate that this same sole humanity is about to end, that in the poem Cain was perhaps conceived on that first and last night—or afternoon—the first of the “contagious fire” of “foul concupiscence” (9. 1035, 1078) and the last on their “native soil” (11.269), in their Paradise—Cain the first man born out of Eden, at once the first murderer and the first city-builder (Genesis 4:17).
If Milton’s last lines intimate something obliquely but precisely, something beyond the general hopefulness of the opening of a wide land and a new era, namely the incipient first natural birth on earth—a thing of course unprovable—then not two only but a future three are leaving Paradise, and history with its highway and so crucial byways has already begun. For Cain’s generation is a false yet necessary start. It is the main cause of the Flood in which it is itself destroyed. Yet it is the indirect cause of God’s covenant by which the earth is forever safely populated, for from Noah’s sons “was the whole Earth overspread” (Genesis 9:19), and among their progeny was one Javan, the ancestor of the Ionian Athenians, our Ancients. But that is a fantasy in the spirit of the two new books (11-12) of prospective history that Milton added to the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674). The point is that here might be one last exemplification of that derivation of good from bad that informs the poem and makes one think.
And so we did, all of us, think about this question in the seminars that incited these reflections, but perhaps the daughters of Eve in particular. One form of the recurrent question was: What would we have done, what do we do and shall we do, and, above all, let our young do, in the face of Satanic temptation? By “Satanic temptation” I mean the Serpent’s promise of a riskless transgression, of acute experience, of our equalization with the gods to attain “Wisdom without their leave” (9.725). Do we owe it to ourselves to yield to temptation? The angels in Heaven evidently know good from evil without being affected by evil; they heard the report of man’s lapse “with pity” that “violated not their bliss” (9.25). The Angels in Hell know evil and violated bliss in its grand pathos and deep misery. Milton preaches in the Areopagitica that we humans must know vice practically and previously to virtue to be capable of vital goodness.
If we permit, even encourage, the transgression of the intellect—Satan’s temptation of Christ, resisted by him, to liberal learning and philosophy—and also of the senses—the “artificial paradises” of Baudelaire, drug-taking and similar stimulation, to put it plainly—are we realizing a plan inherent in our postlapsarian mortality? Unlike our Original Parents, we are born as babies and grow laboriously into our adult state, so we have no cause to be as cluelessly innocent as they of the substance of sin and the meaning of the punishment. Moreover, on earth it is required not only that prohibitions be clearly promulgated but that they define an intelligible crime, and that the punishments be understandably formulated before we are answerable—the reverse of the order under which Eve commits the “mortal sin / Original” (9.1003). She knows what death, the punishment, is only after she has sinned: It is, as she puts it with brutal brevity, “I extinct” (9.829); before that it was “whatever thing death be,” as Satan expresses for her the sum of her knowledge (9.695). And, I think, she never quite learns wherein the badness of the forbidden fruit lies beyond the fact that it is forbidden.
But perhaps that really is the meaning of the felix culpa, the fruitful fault: It is at once a first exercise of autonomy, expressed as mere disobedience, and the first lesson in its fruits, felt as potent wisdom. The poet of Paradise Lost seems to intimate that we might do well to opt for transforming experience over psychic intactness, to be adventurously bad with Eve rather than stodgily good with the angels. But it is not, I think, what he would agree to having said.
Two of the very problems considered in this essay, the intellectuality of pre-lapsarian man and the real cause of the Fall, are raised by Maimonides in the Guide of the Perplexed (1.2; translated by Shlomo Pines, 1963).
He finds this way out of the problem of Adam’s knowledge: before the eating he knows True and False. The evidence is in the fact of the commandment itself, for its prohibition requires apprehension by the intellect. But for inclining toward the desires of the imagination (which is the villain organ for Maimonides) and the pleasures of the senses, Adam “was punished by being deprived of that intellectual apprehension” of True and False, and was instead “endowed with the faculty of apprehending generally accepted things [that is, common notions].” Thus, “he became absorbed in judging things to be bad or fine [that is, Evil or Good].”
This is certainly an ingenious explanation of the original nature and subsequent change in Adam’s intellect, though it is neither hinted at in Genesis nor imagined by Milton (who does not endow unfallen Adam with much philosophical intellect) that what he lost was intellectual certainty and what he gained was conventional morality.
As for the cause of the Fall—imputed by Maimonides to Adam alone—it was that Adam was greedy and followed his imaginative and carnal appetites. His punishment, “corresponding to his disobedience… measure for measure” is that he was deprived of good things to eat gotten without labor and compelled to feed on the grass of the field in the sweat of his brow (15a).
So here Maimonides is as equivocal on the point at issue as is Milton: was the root of the transgression disobedience or desire? (Many thanks to Barry Mazur for the reference.)
This essay was originally published here in April 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was republished with gracious permission of the author from the St. John’s Review (Volume 49, No. 1, 2006).
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*Author’s Note: In memory of John P. McNulty (1952-2005), an acute and sensitive reader of great books and a lovely partner in our seminar conversations, particularly about Paradise Lost.
For stirring up thought in general and for particular insights I warmly thank the members of a seminar on Paradise Lost held at St. John’s College on October 30-31, 2005: Patricia Cook and George Lucas, Margaret and Steve Crockett, Cecie and Paul Dry, Murray Dry, Emily and Sam Kutler, Gretchen and Barry Mazur, Joyce Olin and Chris Nelson.
At lunch with Max Kronberg, then one of our juniors (who one and all read Paradise Lost), I asked him why God made some angels, a third, to be precise, prone to pride and jealousy. He shot right back: “Because he wanted all this to happen”—the very answer to justify Milton’s ways to God.
My thanks to my colleagues in Annapolis: Tom May, who told me a number of interesting things that I’ve made mine below, and Jonathan Tuck, who looked at the piece with a keen eye.
After completing this piece I co-led a week’s worth of alumni seminars on Paradise Lost with my colleague David Carl in Santa Fe. In its course pretty much everything I had noticed was brought on the scene and a lot more (much of it by my co-leader), which is here incorporated.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Fallen angels in Hell” (1841) by John Martin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.