A Truly Just God- Milton's Paradise Lost
John Milton’s Paradise Lost has long been heralded by literary critics as one of the most influential works written in the early modern era. The poem brings out the story of the Fall of Man by injecting a sample of what Satan’s role truly entailed, and also by expanding on life in the Garden, both before and after the fall. Milton writes this not only as a story, but as a theodicy, trying to justify God’s ways to man. Two articles in The Cambridge Companion to Milton examine the methods which he uses to do so; John Carey’s article “Milton’s Satan” examines Satan’s role, while Dennis Danielson’s article “The Fall of Man and Milton’s Theodicy” discusses the actual nature of the Fall of Man.
Milton’s portrayal of Satan has been examined by many scholars and literary critics alike as one of the most vivid and deep characters in literature. Many of these find the complexity of his very nature astounding, from his attitude towards his fall from heaven to his awe at his first encounter with man. John Carey, in his article “Milton’s Satan,” shows how he agrees with this. “The power to entangle and excite readers is an observable feature of Satan’s figure” (Carey 133). Carey also expresses other views on Milton’s portrayal of Satan, although some seem to be in error. He views Satan, at least as he is portrayed in Paradise Lost, as the direct embodiment of evil. He asserts that the true Satan that Milton is trying to portray is purely evil, with no redeeming quality and an irrevocably skewed sense of reality. “Milton’s effort to encapsulate evil in Satan was not successful” (132). If Satan were in fact pure evil, would the blame then rest on God for creating evil itself? Milton addresses this question in two ways—first by pointing out that Satan was not a fallen being in the beginning but in fact a powerful, beautiful archangel, and secondly by asserting that, even though God did allow evil to enter the world, he did so to give man, and indeed angels as well, free will through a choice.
Another point that Carey makes is that Satan is an unrealistic portrayal; he asserts that he does not act with the rationality of a being of his stature. “The most obvious sense in which Satan is trapped within an alien fiction is that the fiction requires him, though an archangelically rational creature, to take up arms against a God who is axiomatically omnipotent” (135). He makes the claim that Milton’s portrayal of Satan could not be accurate. If this is so, then Satan’s role in justifying God loses its credibility, and therefore so does God. Satan knows that God is totally omnipotent, and therefore it is impossible to win against Him. Because of this, Carey suggests that his acts of rebellion are not in character with the being that Satan is portrayed as. However, when one examines the text closely, he can see that, prior to his fall, Satan had no true knowledge of God’s power, and therefore guessed wrongly that he could defeat Him. “… And till then who knew / The force of those dire arms?” (Milton I.93-94). Further, Milton later asserts that there is no redemption for Satan or his angels. “The first sort [Satan and his angels] by their own suggestion fell, / Self-tempted, self-depraved: Man falls deceived / By the other first. Man therefore shall find grace, / the other none” (III.129-132). Satan has nothing to lose. Therefore his actions have no negative consequences for him, since his punishment cannot be worsened, seeing as he will be eternally separated from God. Because of this, his actions are perfectly logical, seeing as there is nothing to lose, and nothing to gain except the feeding of his own depravity, which he plans to do by opposing God in any way that he can. This is the reason why Satan targets man, God’s newest and most beloved creation—to spite God and oppose Him in any way that he can.
Another scholar of Paradise Lost, Dennis Danielson, in his article “The Fall of Man and Milton’s Theodicy,” recognizes the poem as just that—an apologetic representation of God’s inherent goodness. One problem which Milton addresses, the existence of evil itself, Danielson believes is the most critical argument that is brought up. “The so-called theological problem of evil—the problem that a theodicy in some degree sets out to solve—can itself be seen as a problem concerning how to balance three fundamental propositions to which virtually all Christians, and perhaps others, assent” (Danielson 113). This goes back to the basic question which asks, “Why do bad things happen?” Bad things happen because the world is fallen and they are consequences for evil. How then can God be justified by having allowed evil into the world in the first place, and thus allowing all of our suffering? This is why Milton chooses to focus his theodicy on the narrative of the Fall of Man, essentially the first human transgression of divine command.
Milton goes back to the beginning to search for the answers to the existence of evil, back to its very introduction into our world. The scene is set up: Man living in paradise, in perfect harmony with the world and nature, and a choice is laid before him—to obey God or to disobey. It was truly that simple. “A vital component of Milton’s theodicy is the ‘Free Will Defense’, the model or argument according to which God, for reasons consistent with his wisdom and goodness, created angels and human beings with freedom either to obey or disobey his commands” (117). The availability to choose God is what made man’s relationship with God real, what made it worthwhile in the first place. “I formed them free, and free they must remain” (Milton III.124). The only way for God to create man truly free was to give him a choice, which by definition forced man to choose between God and his own selfish nature. Evil is a direct product of God’s allowing us free will.
Was then the Fall of Man inevitable? If this choice was always there and would have remained for eternity, then how could man hope to perpetually choose God, especially if there was no knowledge of evil? In Paradise Lost, Milton shows God warning Adam and Eve several times of the danger that Satan posed to them. Adam tells Eve at one point, “…For thou know’st / what hath been warned us, what malicious foe / Envying our happiness, and of his own / Despairing, seeks to work us woe and shame / by sly assault” (IX.152-156). They knew exactly what danger there was with Satan, and of the consequences of their choice.
God is omniscient; He knows everything that has happened and will ever happen. Some argue that, because He knew what would happen, that there is no possibility that it would not happen, and so it was in fact, inevitable, but they forget to factor in the fact that God is not limited by time as we are. Think of it this way: When we look at a timeline, we look at it and follow it along the line, so that events can only come in order that they appear on that line—our time limitation. God sees time as if the timeline were rotated 90 degrees, so that when He passes it left to right, all of the events are seen at the same time. In other words, He sees everything as it happens as though they were happening at the same time. Just because He knows something is going to happen does not mean that He has taken away our free will. He simply sees what we choose today as we choose it at the same time that He saw Adam and Eve take that first bite. We still make the choice—God just knows what that choice will be.
Paradise Lost digs deep into the episode of the Fall of Man to justify our current state with God, and Milton does a wonderful job of tackling some of the most difficult questions that hinder that vindication. He uses even characters like Satan to show credibility to his claims about God and His nature, so that we can be sure that the God we serve is supremely just. The most amazing part about the whole narrative, however, is not that he shows that God is justified, but where Milton emphasizes that He will also extend grace, by alluding to the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross 2000 years ago. The Fall of Man is followed up by a raising-up of sorts; man is redeemed through the love of his Creator. This is the true beauty of God which Milton was extremely purposeful about showing the light at the end of this tunnel. “…what in me is dark / Illuminate, what is low raise and support; / That to the height of this great argument / I may assert eternal providence, / And justify the ways of God to men” (I.31-35).
Carey, John. “Milton’s Satan.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 131-145.
Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall of Man in Milton’s Theodicy.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 113-129.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. Ed. Paul Davis, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2004. 576-660.
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