A Compromised Free Will in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’

Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

In 1667, John Milton published his volume of epic poetry titled Paradise Lost: A Poem in Ten Books wherein he, emulating the shepherd-prophet-poet role of Moses, proposes his arguments regarding the Genesis, the Original Sin and the subsequent Fall of Man. In doing so, Milton posits the Fall as a deliberate transgression of limit whose onus lies on both Adam and Eve equally. His agenda in the poem is also theodicy, justibfying the ways of God, and making God’s reason amenable to that of Man’s. Shifting away from the Calvinistic notion of God’s grace being pre-reserved for the select few, he advocates that obeying God’s reason will align one with God’s logic and thereby enable one to achieve salvation:

“Man shall not quite be lost, but sav’d who will,
Yet not of will in him, but grace in me”         (PL Book III, 173-74)

In Book IX of Paradise Lost Milton elaborately describes how “Satan having compassed the earth, with meditated guile returns as a mist by night into Paradise, enters into the serpent sleeping.” The serpent then, walking upright in all its glory in the prelapsarian world approaches Eve, and in an overly obsequious tone tells her that she, a “sovran mistress” should ideally be placed as “a goddess among gods, adored and served by angels numberless.” (PL Book IX, 547-48) Stating that the Fruit of Knowledge will give her new sense of inward power and reason, he successfully tempts Eve into gorging upon the Forbidden Fruit, thus bringing about her fall from Paradise. Here, Milton emphasises the need for human beings to employ their reason and logic, while keeping in mind God’s commandments. He suggests that anyone speaking well or convincingly may not necessarily be speaking the truth. A reference can be made here to the political atmosphere of seventeenth-century Britain, where multiple political pamphlets were read out in favour of both the Royalists and Puritans. Milton, a political activist himself, realised how easily the public was swayed by the sheer power of rhetoric and thus also perhaps felt the need to admonish his audience to choose wisely.

Milton ardently believes in the idea of Free Will and suggests that if mankind caused the Fall, mankind can also redeem himself. This is perhaps why he lends a voice to all his different characters in Paradise Lost – so that readers understand the means and motives behind their actions. He does not believe that the Fall could be preordained by God. Although some critics continue to argue – “If the Fall was not predestined by God, why was there no divine intervention when Satan attempted to tempt Eve?” – we can assert that it is because God had faith in Man’s reason. Pico della Mirandola, in 1486, had already stated that it was Man’s knowledge, free will, and power to choose his way of life that made him the most magnificent creature. We can agree therefore, that this choice of Man to partake in the Fall was a deliberate transgression of limit, arising from his Free Will. Milton simply advocates the need for this Free Will to be exercised in the right direction.

In illustrating the power of Free Will, Milton lends a voice to Eve and supports her with a rationale. Book IX depicts Eve as having a higher sense of responsibility towards Eden. The Genesis proclaims, “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” (Gen. 2:15) Adam and Eve are both clearly expected to labour and maintain the Garden. However, as critic Maureen Quilligan points out in her essay Milton’s Spenser, it is Eve who looks at it in terms of efficiency and as a mandatory requisite for earning their daily bread. Eve, sincerely grateful for God’s gifts, does not like the fact their “supper comes unearned” (PL Book IX, 225) and hence encourages Adam to divide up the labour of maintaining the Garden between themselves. To this, Adam retorts:

“nothing lovelier can be found
In woman, than to study household good,
And good works in her husband to promote.”           (PL Book IX, 232-34)

Although he argues that they both should work together, he categorises woman’s work as domestic care while man’s work is deified by a theological conception. To us, as post-modernist readers, Adam’s outlook then comes across as complacent, and definitely not as sensible as Eve’s. Milton both empowers and then relegates Eve to her domestic roles here, ultimately playing up to the seventeenth-century ideals of womanhood. As critics David Aers and Bob Hodge claim in their essay Rational Burning: Milton on Sex and Marriage, the ideology employed by Milton presents an “exploitary relationship as a mutually beneficial one while also reinforcing masculine consciousness of its conviction that the right to rule was the male’s.” Is Milton’s Free Will then reserved only for the masculine gender – is a question that troubles us as readers.

There is a confusing fluctuation of Eve’s role in Paradise Lost. She oscillates between being the more rational of the two, and being the inferior of the two. When she is faced with the serpent who lures her, she does not give in easily to his charms and recalls God’s expectations of her. Only when Satan’s words seem to Eve “impregened with reason” (PL Book IX, 737) does she partake of the Fruit. Adam, on the other hand, eats the fruit when he is “fondly overcome with female charm.” (PL Book IX, 999) Hence, Eve acts in conviction, not out of impulse. She questions, debates and then decides to verify the evidence available. The Fall, as depicted by Milton, reverses gender roles, while the woman responds to the temptation rationally, the man responds emotionally. Milton’s intention is to make Adam take equal responsibility of the Fall. However, ultimately, the Original Sin is attributed to Eve as Adam heroically embraces damnation out of his love for Eve. The exercise of Free Will by Adam is crucial here. Why does exile from Paradise seem “remediless” to Adam if he is a creature of superior knowledge with the freedom to exercise reason at his disposal? We can rightfully assert that Adam chose to Fall after giving in to his passions. How then, is he any greater than Eve?

Yet, throughout the text we find multiple references to Eve as Adam’s subordinate. Adam refers to her as “Daughter of God and man” (PL Book IX, 291) underlining her natural subordination to him and the need to remain under his protective presence. Her lack of self-sufficiency is highlighted by Milton who calls her a “fairest unsupported flow’r” (PL Book IX, 432), and their power relations exist as – “He for God only she for God in him.” (PL Book IV, 299) In light of this, it is difficult to understand Adam’s failure in holding her back and asserting his superior intelligence when she set out alone. Being the more rational and superior of the two, he should have been able to prevent eternal damnation.

Milton’s position on women’s Free Will cannot be clearly stated then. Milton invokes a female muse for inspiration to write the epic, and sings the story of creation wherein the earth is female, the light itself is female, the waters themselves a womb, and out of earth’s womb come all the other creatures. Finally, out of a female entity comes a male creature (Adam) and then a female (Eve). As Maureen Quilligan notes, “thus the female light is born before the male sun, whose light is refracted by the female moon, and the female earth gives birth to the two gendered animals.” But with the creation of Adam, this pattern is reversed:

“Male he created thee, but thy consort
Female for race”          (PL Book VII, 529-30)          

Milton’s stance may somewhat be understandable in terms of the social history of seventeenth-century England. Although he’d like to lend a voice to his heroines and ensure their autonomy, he cannot completely subvert the Bible without being persecuted for his radical ideas. Even in times of political upheaval and the Reformation, when kings and bishops no longer have absolute authority, one form of hierarchy remains unchanged – that of man over woman. So, at the beginning of Paradise Lost, Milton builds up the reader’s anticipation, which is first rewarded by his divine muse and by the voice he lends to Eve, but later our expectations are thwarted when Eve falls subordinate to Adam.

Ultimately, Milton’s aim lies in educating not only Adam and Eve, but also the reader about the importance of aligning oneself with God’s reason. Even though “God uses not to captivate under a perpetual childhood of prescription, but trusts him with the gift of reason to be his own chooser,” (Areopagitica) this gift of reason must be put to judicious use. Scholar Max Weber, in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism describes the existential crisis of the Age of Reformation as. “…that was the feeling of the unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual in what was for man in the age of the Reformation the most important thing in life, his eternal salvation. He was forced to follow his path alone to follow a destiny that had been decreed for him from eternity. No one could help him.” Milton perhaps suggests that one can escape this sense of spiritual loneliness through obedience to God. The true essence of his volume of poetry is seen in Abdiel’s remark towards Satan:

“This is servitude,
To serve th’ unwise, or him who hath rebelld
Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,
Thy self not free, but to thy self enthrall’d;”              (PL Book VI, 178-81)

For Milton, obedience to God is not servitude, but exercise of reason.

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