Do they only stand by ignorance?

We start Paradise Lost today in the first year honors seminar, and I always feel obliged to acknowledge to students that it is a difficult work. Its language is dense, its length daunting and its theme challenging. Moreover, critics have wrangled over its merit and meaning for over 300 years. The question arises, then, why should we read it if no one agrees on its meaning and much of it seems willfully obscure? The answer, of course, is that reading Paradise Lost is, for all its problems, enormously rewarding. It contains majestic beauty, fascinating characters, memorable scenes and great metaphoric power.

I confess, however, that there are several parts of the poem that are less than stirring. But if you wade through these to get to the poem's riches, your patience will be rewarded. I always let the students in on another little secret, too. In the years I have taught the first-year honors seminar, it has been Paradise Lost that has time and again produced the most interesting discussions.

Okay, so why is this?

Part of it is just the sheer fascination of watching Milton try to get himself out of the puzzle he created. He famously set out to "justify the ways of God to man/And assert eternal providence." In short, he wanted to show his readers that this world is ultimately a just one that is fully in accord with God's divine plan. If there appear to be any glitches in the set up, you can't pin the blame on God. Besides, everything that happens is a part of the big plan, so pray, repent and bring obedience due. Unfortunately, solving the problem of evil will be no day at the beach for Milton.

Indeed, some of God's defenders refer to the Fall as a felix culpa, or fortunate sin. Without it there would be no possibility to choose between good and evil, no dignity of human moral agency, no free will. This is the line that Milton will take, and it's the view Adam expresses while speaking with the Archangel Michael in Book VII:
O' goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! (469-473)
Milton's critics, on the other hand, argue that God might have found a less complicated way to give us free will. Couldn't He have created us with an innate intellectual understanding of evil? That's what He seems to have done for the angels (two-thirds of whom didn't fall). After all, I can know what a murder is without having to commit one, right? So why did God need to set up the Rube Goldberg contraption of the tree, the snake and the fruit in order to give us free will? Why would an all-powerful God need such rigamarole? It almost appears like he was creating an alibi. In fact, a lot of Milton's critics don't buy God's argument in Book III that He had foreknowledge of the Fall but bears no responsibility. As many students quickly grasp, this is a logically untenable position, and one that takes a lot of special pleading and fancy footwork to get around.

All of these puzzles and questions can lead readers to the conclusion that Milton's God is a particularly vain and mean-spirited deity. Whenever we discuss these conundrums in class, the more devout students will often sigh and strategically retreat into the defense that "it's all a mystery. We just can't know God's purposes." But if we can't know, then how do we know they are good purposes? And without that knowledge, how can we freely choose between good and evil, which then becomes a choice made in ignorance (not always the best grounds for establishing moral agency).

Good old Paradise Lost. The more you study it, the more questions it raises. I tend to think the poem is great because of its puzzles and logical contradictions. Even with all these brain twisters, it still presents us with a compelling view of human nature. Milton argues we are born into sin in a world that was once harmonious and without it. All of us, he says, have reason and desire, and the freedom to choose. The ultimate and correct aim is for us to freely choose to surrender our freedom in an act of loving submission to God—even if our reason disagrees.

Love is in the end a form of submission. When we commit to love other people, we agree to consider their needs as well as our own, to accept that our choices must be framed, structured—limited—by something beyond our free will. Every mother knows this. If she loves her child, she does not have the freedom to ignore its cries. Love is a bond, a pleasant one, but a bond nonetheless. Love means gladly giving away our freedom. Conversely, by seeking to preserve it, we lose it, which is a perhaps the most important theme in Paradise Lost.


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