ENGL 220: Milton
- Paradise Lost, Books V-VI
The description of human sexual hierarchy in Book Four of Paradise Lost is contrasted with the depiction of angelic hierarchy in Book Five. Both the Archangel Raphael’s and Satan’s accounts and theories of creation are examined. The poem’s complex and vacillating endorsement of arbitrary decree, on the one hand, and egalitarian self-determination, on the other, is probed. The nature of matter and physical being in Heaven and Eden are explored with particular emphasis placed on the poem’s monistic elements. Overall, Milton’s willingness to question accepted religious, social, and political doctrine, even that which authorities in his own poem seem to express, is stressed.
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ENGL 220 - Lecture 15 - Paradise Lost, Books V-VI
Chapter 1. Men vs. Women: The Coexistence of Freedom and Social Hierarchy in Paradise Lost Book IV [00:00:00]
Professor John Rogers: In Book Four of Paradise Lost, Milton had sketched the origins of human freedom. You remember this. Eve’s first memory, or her reflection on her reflection in the pool, had established the importance of freedom and also the importance of independence for not only her relation with Adam but essentially all of human relations. Milton’s concern in Book Four was to establish something like the viability of a freedom that was able, in some way, to coexist with what we discussed as the hierarchical set of power relations. This coexistence of freedom, on the one hand, and social hierarchy, on the other, is something that this poem continues to assert. I would also add that it’s something that this poem continues to worry about. It’s an extraordinarily problematic but crucial element of Paradise Lost.
Now, I want to review a couple of moments in Book Four. Think back to what Eve had told Adam after she had been compelled by him, and also by the warning voice, after she had been compelled to channel all of her erotic energies away from the beautiful, sympathetic, responsive watery image toward Adam. Eve had said, “thy gentle hand / seiz’d mine, I yielded.” Theirs is a continual dance of seizing and yielding. You have his assertion of power and her gracious resignation, although it’s a gentle use of power, on the one hand, and it’s an independent and consensual resignation, on the other. Through this dance Milton, I think, was trying to establish a model of human interaction really distinct from simple coercion, or completely distinct from simple coercion. It’s distinct from the simple exercise of brute force that, I think, we often associate with life in a hierarchically organized society. Human interaction in this poem is founded on the principle of consent. In the Miltonic commonwealth of Eden – and we think of it as a commonwealth – no one can be forced to act. Eve has to choose to act. She has to consent to act. She yields, which is for Milton not actually a resignation. It’s a positive, deliberate action, and she has the right of consent because she possesses for Milton an inalienable capacity for free will and free choice.
So, this account of Eve’s first exercise of free will, the one that I’ve just given you – her yielding to Adam when he seizes her hand – that’s at least, I think, the official one that the poem urges us to accept, according to what I’m thinking of as the poem’s official philosophy, because it seems to be a guarantee, in some way, subtended by the narrator and authoritative forces in the poem. According to this philosophy, Eve yields to Adam freely and willingly because she comes to recognize his superior nature. The poem presses on us a philosophy whereby Eve’s freedom is entirely compatible with what we’re asked to take as the fact of her inferiority to Adam. Satan himself explains perfectly this philosophy, and I think ironically it’s Satan who gives us the best formulation of this coexistence of freedom and hierarchy in the poem: that freedom and hierarchy are absolutely compatible. Satan will tell Abdiel in Book Five:
But Milton’s poetry – well, think how odd it is, [laughs] first of all, that it’s Satan who’s giving us something like the only carefully articulated authoritative position on this, to say the least, controversial matter. Milton’s poetry is invariably more sophisticated than what we can think of as the official dogma or the authoritative line of the poem. Perhaps that fact is revealed or exposed to us by the fact that it’s Satan who’s giving us, in this instance, the authoritative line. It’s important to keep this distinction in mind because this poem simply cannot be reduced. Sometimes it tries to be reduced, but it cannot be reduced, to those ringing declarations of what sound like the official positions of the poem.
Think how complicated it is with Eve. Eve’s account of that beautiful pool-side reverie was so filled with pathos and longing that it’s impossible, I think, not to feel at least a little bit of disappointment when she consents finally to her union with Adam. It’s almost – I don’t know – this kind of a sense in which she’s sold out. Of course, we’re happy that she has a mate who’s another person and not merely a smooth, watery image. Nonetheless, there’s a sense of disappointment that attends that choice that she makes. Initially for Eve, I am at least convinced there seemed to be nothing like freedom at all. She remembers having gazed at that pleasing image in the reflective pool and she recalls being pulled away from that smiling and sympathetic image by that mysterious voice that had guided her to Adam. I think this is one of the most moving lines in the entire poem when Eve recalls the feeling of helplessness that she experienced when she heard that voice. This is how she explains it later to Adam: “what could I do, / but follow straight, invisibly thus led?”
In other words, “What could I do?” Not a bad question: what could she do? The subordination of woman to man in heterosexual union in Paradise Lost seemed entirely compulsory at that moment, and Eve, it seemed, on some level had to be coerced to unite herself with this less pleasing Adam. For a moment at least, Milton seemed to be on the brink of something like a powerful critique of the so-called naturalness of normative sexual behavior; because there’s at least some suggestion here that Eve’s attraction to Adam was not freely chosen at all. It was chosen for her, it was assigned to her.
All of this is a way of saying that Milton is doing something extraordinary complicated in Paradise Lost. He justaposes – he does this consistently – the rhetoric of rational consent, on the one hand, with the competing rhetoric of coercion: maybe that word’s a little strong, but a competing rhetoric of something like a gentle compulsion, if that oxymoron makes any sense. There’s a way in which this entire scene, which is intended to assert the politics of rational consent, provides at the very same moment something like a critique of the politics of rational consent. We know that Eve’s freely willed act of yielding followed in time Adam’s exertion of force. However gentle Adam is, “thy gentle hand / seiz’d mine,” he’s still seized Eve, and Milton’s, I think, remarkably honest.
So this is why I’m always pushing you to agree with me, [laughs] or compelling you to agree with me, that Milton deserves a little bit of credit here. Milton’s amazingly honest in his account of Eve’s first exercise of her free will, and I think we can think of this as her first free act. Of course, it is an unduly circumscribed act of freedom. Milton’s poetry in a lot of ways is constantly questioning the legitimacy of a doctrine of free will in a world that has been arranged and conjugated like the one that Eden has been. It’s along a principle of hierarchy.
Chapter 2. Angels vs. Humans: The Coexistence of Freedom and Social Hierarchy in Paradise Lost Book V [00:08:49]
So Book Four had explored in extraordinary detail the complexities of hierarchy and freedom with respect to the relation between the sexes. Book Five is also interested in this uneasy but important relation between hierarchy and freedom. It’s almost as if Book Four hadn’t sufficiently put to rest the logical problem that on some level is constantly eating away at the center of the poem. Book Five takes up this problem once again, but it takes it up – as we, of course, should have been led to expect – from an entirely different perspective.
So, as I just said, in Book Four the hierarchical principle of superiority and of excellence was the superiority of man to woman. In Book Five, the central hierarchical access is a little different, or a lot different. It involves the superiority of angels over human beings, and this new hierarchical opposition – it’s performing a lot of work. One of the things that it’s certainly doing is forcing us to rethink the hierarchical opposition that Milton had established in Book Four, and that’s because hierarchy is no longer gendered in Book Five. Milton’s not concerned here with sex. He’s concerned rather with degrees of materiality among all of God’s creatures. Angels are less material, less corporeally burdened creatures than Adam and Eve, and therefore, within this system they’re superior. In this larger vision of a kind of cosmic principle of hierarchy in which lighter, more ethereal things are superior to heavier, denser, grosser material things, we can see a way in which the gender distinction simply drops out of the equation, because Milton gives us no reason to think that Adam and Eve are anything but equal in the degrees of their corporeality. Sexual inequality simply seems insignificant here from this new perspective in Book Five.
So Raphael descends into Eden – the Archangel Raphael – in Book Five in order to warn Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit. In doing so, he provides an elaborate account of – and I’ve already discussed this, but I have to discuss it again because for me it’s so outrageous and so daring and such an absolutely lovable religious heterodoxy, maybe it’s even a heresy – the heterodoxy of monism. I’ll remind you briefly of what monism is. It’s the philosophy whereby there can be no such thing as a firm and absolute distinction between body and spirit. The world can’t be divided into soul and matter as it could be divided with absolute clarity for Milton’s contemporary, Descartes. The entire cosmos for Milton is made of one huge blob of matter, and this matter is nothing other, ultimately, than the body of God. This is what Raphael explains to Adam at line 469 of Book Five. This is page 313 in the Hughes edition. So this is Raphael to Adam:
“One first matter all,” all things derived from the “one first matter” which is, of course, God: this is the ex deo theory of creation (creatio ex deo), as opposed to the orthodox theory of creation, which is creatio ex nihilo – the notion that God created the universe out of nothing. Milton has God creating the universe out of God himself, from the body of God. In this ex deo creation scenario, there’s no qualitative difference between the substance comprising men and the substance comprising angels. The difference is simply one of degree. This has been brilliantly argued by the critic William Kerrigan. It’s a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind: angels are simply lighter. The corporeal substance that makes up their bodies is more attenuated, it’s more rarefied, than that in human beings. We are all more condensed, we are “grosser” creatures, to use one of Milton’s favorite words here. Our grosser bodies are more compacted, they’re of a denser consistency than the light and airy bodies of heavenly angels.
Except for this differentiation by the degree of substantiality, human beings and angels are qualitatively identical. We’re made of the same stuff, it’s just a matter of how closely packed the stuff is. Milton even treats us to a scene of Adam and Eve – because it’s thinkable in such a monistic universe, although it’s wild – of Adam and Eve actually eating with the Archangel Raphael. I think this must have blown Milton’s contemporaries away, because from any orthodox perspective this attribution of what Milton would call a “gross” activity like eating to one of God’s heavenly minions, one of the angels, would have to be seen as – if it’s not blasphemous, it’s certainly indecorous. But this is, of course, a poem that’s centered around an illicit act of eating; and so Milton will turn the entire activity of eating into the premise of an entire philosophy of the relation of human creatures to their God.
In that “all” of God, all of God’s creatures need to eat. Angels and men can be seen to be equals. This is essentially Raphael’s logic. Look at line 411 of Book Five. Raphael tells Adam, this is page 312, that angels are a lot like human beings: “they hear, see, smell, touch, taste, / tasting concoct, digest, assimilate.” We’re soon to learn that angels also have sex because, as we know, spirits “can either sex assume,” or both. But we’re about to find out here something, I think, that’s a little more shocking even than the fact of angelic eroticism: angels have digestive tracts in Milton’s heaven, and like human beings they have within their bodies some kind of mechanism for the elimination of ingested substances – the elimination of substances that cannot be assimilated into the body. Milton’s angels actually excrete. This is a remarkable feat of literary daring, to be sure, but it’s also a magnificent feat of the human imagination on Milton’s part. This is what the narrator seems to be referring to when he discusses Raphael’s hunger. This is line 437: “what redounds, transpires / through Spirits with ease…” It’s so easy to miss: “what redounds, transpires / through Spirits with ease…” What stays, what can’t be assimilated into the body, gets expelled easily.
Milton is so eager here – now, we have to ask ourselves, why is Milton doing this? He’s so eager, I’m convinced, to demonstrate the essential metaphysical equivalence of human beings and angels that he is quite prepared to ask us to imagine the unimaginable. Angels are exceedingly regular, Milton is telling us. “What redounds,” that food which remains in excess in the angel’s body, “transpires / through Spirits with ease.” Of course, as we know, Milton was acutely interested in his own gastrointestinal tract, having blamed his blindness on a digestive problem.
But there’s a lot more here than merely a personal interest. Eating is so central to this poem that it’s actually something like a digestive process of assimilation and excretion that would have enabled the unfallen Adam and Eve to become angels eventually themselves. Turn to line 493. This is page 313. It was to be Adam and Eve’s good fortune to watch their own gross corporeal bodies slowly, gradually shed their dense matter as they assumed the airy lightness of angels. How will they attain this extraordinary achievement, this wafting up to heaven? They’ll do it by eating. Look at line 493. Raphael’s explaining that as things are now, in a pinch angels are capable of a nutritional kind of condescension. They can eat the same food that human beings eat when they don’t have a choice. Right now, Adam and Eve probably couldn’t survive on angelic nectar if that is all they had to live on, probably, but Raphael adds:
Milton is going out of his way to provide Adam and Eve with a motive for remaining obedient. By a simple process of eating – virtuous eating, virtuous digestion, and the consequent activity of the virtuous subliming, that’s Milton’s term, of gross matter into spirit – Adam and Eve will eventually, gradually begin to ascend to the winged state of angelhood. They will metabolize themselves into angels. It’s one of the most extreme visions and one of the most beautiful visions, [laughs] however cockamamie, of human progress ever depicted, I think.
Raphael’s account of the superiority of spiritual matter over gross matter is without question another one of the poem’s hierarchical visions, but the amazing process of what we could think of as what would have been the angelization of men and women does something really quite alarming, I think, to the principle of hierarchy as it’s been presented so far. The metaphysical hierarchy of the degree of material density, which is the concern of Book Five, isn’t fixed. It’s not static in Milton’s universe. This is a mobile society that Raphael is imagining. The hierarchy here is flexible. It’s much more flexible than the gendered hierarchy was among human beings in Book Four. If Adam and Eve manage not to fall, they will arrive, we have to assume, equally at a state of angelic perfection in a state in which gender differences simply don’t obtain because angels, as we know, “can either sex assume,” or both.
There were a few other radical thinkers in the seventeenth century who embraced a monistic vision of the universe like Milton’s. Almost invariably, this monism had a kind of leftist, progressive, and in some cases actually a communist energy to it. I’ve written the name of one of Milton’s contemporaries, Gerrard Winstanley, who was maybe not England’s first communist but England’s first important communist, writing fifteen or so years before Paradise Lost. The bodies of all men and women are for Winstanley – as later for Milton – are equally infused with heavenly spirit and heavenly soul. For Winstanley – Milton wouldn’t permit himself to go quite this far – this physiological equality seemed to guarantee their political equality. In adopting this doctrine of monism that had been developed or worked out by much more radical thinkers like Gerrard Winstanley, Milton is really on some level consciously adopting a philosophy of body and spirit that works to undo, and maybe it works to undermine, that patriarchal insistence on Adam’s superiority over Eve. On some level, some of the philosophy in Book Five, I think, is working at some subterranean stage to undermine or dismantle the Edenic, the paradisal, hierarchy.
So Adam and Eve before the Fall are given the opportunity to reach their heavenly destinations on their own. Now just think how radical that is when you compare it to any mainstream notion of the way Christianity works. Adam and Eve, had they never fallen, had they never sinned, would never have needed to rely on a God or a Messiah to intervene – an external redeemer to move in and save them, or even to reward them, for their virtue. Their virtuous behavior would have been itself a reward. We can think of them as having been in a position almost to save themselves, and Milton is arriving at this – it’s a wild and really daring alternative to the orthodox Christian vision of redemption and salvation.
I think it’s this orthodox notion of Christianity that Milton always felt so uncomfortable with. Were it not for the Fall, there would have been no need for the heavenly Father to sacrifice the Son in order to save fallen humanity. Human beings would [laughs] just waft up to the pearly gates like helium balloons, lighter even than air, and with no need for an external redeemer. In some ways Milton is flirting with something – and I think the young adult book writer, Philip Pullman, absolutely has put his finger on something important in Milton, and he’s a great leader and fan of Milton’s – is flirting with something that we would recognize as science fiction. It’s a secular image of salvation certainly, but it’s a proto-scientific image of salvation. Unfallen salvation is something like a scientific process. It’s the logical and inevitable result of just a particular type of virtuous, natural behavior.
Milton arrives at a theology that does something that a theology is never supposed to do: it’s a radical theology of bodily transformation that essentially does away with God or does away with God as we know him. Who needs God? Adam and Eve will continue to eat. They’ll eat virtuously. They’ll be good people. They’ll become angels, and eventually they will be subsumed into that universal ball of spiritual matter at that later point when God becomes “All in All.” That’s that distant point in time where there will simply be no ontological difference between man and woman, between angel and man, or between us and God.
Raphael’s philosophy of monism offers a truly radical vision of an exaltation – this prelapsarian notion of an exaltation of Adam and Eve up to heaven. They could have exalted themselves, and presumably we all could have exalted ourselves simply by being good, by doing it ourselves, but this daring vision of a radical self-determination couldn’t possibly be more violently opposed to the version of exaltation that Raphael explains to Adam and Eve elsewhere in Book Five. This scene I know you remember, because it’s so upsetting and so unforgettable: on Adam’s prompting, Raphael goes on to describe the exaltation, the anointing, of the Son of God. It’s an event that comes as close to anything as explaining the very first mystery of the poem, or the central mystery of the poem – that being the cause, the origin, of Satan’s fall. You can refer here to your handy little chronology, written by Alastair Fowler, of events in Paradise Lost. The origin of Satan’s fall is without question one of the most crucial problems that we have when we confront this poem. On some level, God’s ways can’t be justified until the origin of man’s Fall can be explained or understood, and man’s Fall can’t be understood or explained or justified until Satan’s fall is explained.
To account for Satan’s fall, Milton relies – he makes all this up and it’s magnificent. He’s relying here on the text of the second Psalm, a chapter of the Bible that he had himself translated into English in 1653. Now the second Psalm imagines the Messiah speaking. This is that verse: “[T]he Lord to me hath said, Thou art my Son; I have begotten thee this day.” No one has ever known what to do with that passage from the second Psalm. The idea that the Messiah could actually remember the day that God had begotten him had for centuries and millennia provided biblical commentators with a paradox that really bordered on the absurd. What could God have meant when he said, “I have begotten thee this day”?
Milton worries and worries this problem of this begetting. He does this throughout Paradise Lost and he does it in a number of ways. He transforms this mysterious declaration that he has lifted from the second Psalm into – he’s turned it into what is essentially the originary event of the entire poem. As you can see from the chronology of the poem that Fowler gives us, the exaltation of Milton’s Son of God (and Fowler unfortunately calls him Christ) doesn’t really function as a Christ. Milton would never in a million years, certainly, in Paradise Lost call this fellow Christ. He doesn’t call him Jesus either because the Son of God isn’t Jesus yet. He’s preexistent but he’s not a Christ, I think, in part because Milton doesn’t want us to confuse or to construe this Son of God with anything that we’ve learned from any of our Sunday school classes or any exposure to traditional, orthodox, mainstream Christian Protestant or Catholic thinking.
This is the event – you’ll remember how important first events are in Paradise Lost – this is the event that seems to have happened first. What occurred in heaven before this moment, the poem gives us no definitive clue of, although Satan knows there is something important that happened before this moment, and he makes an important conjecture about it prior to this. (We don’t have time to look at this today, but you may want to study for yourself Satan’s own theory of a first Creation, and that’s the creation of the angels.) So God the Father assembles all of the angels. This is page 316 in the Hughes, Book Five, line 600. God delivers at line 600 a pronouncement that is by any standards absolutely shocking. Satan, like the other angels, was a son of God but, unlike the other Son of God – or the other sons of God – Satan had been one of the first archangels in heaven. The narrator suggests (this is coming from the narrator) that Satan may have been the first archangel in heaven, first both in God’s favor and also in his general preeminence over the other angels because God liked him most, liked him best, and also because he was simply better than all of the other angels; and Milton continues his meditation on the multiple meanings here of “first.”
Now I’m going to read this passage to you, and you tell me if you think Satan might have just a teensy bit of a reason to be miffed at God’s exaltation of another one of his sons, or what we have to assume is another one of his sons. This is God at line 600:
What’s the tone of voice? I’m [laughs] going to interrupt myself for a moment. How are we [laughs] to imagine God pronouncing that word “happy” after what he’s just told us?
This, of course, is a vision of an exaltation almost diametrically opposed to the exaltation of the unfallen Adam and Eve, their wafting up. The Son of God, the Messiah, doesn’t seem to have exalted himself. Along what has already been established is the recognizable pattern of a kind of natural, physiological ascent, and you can imagine Milton could have pulled that off because he could pull off anything. It’s possible to imagine a scenario whereby the Son had on some level eaten his way into God’s favor and achieved the status of Messiah through an Adam and Eve-like virtuous metabolism, floating up to the very top of God’s throne before any of the other angels. That’s how damn good he was, but that’s not the story that we get. According to the narrative we have, God the Father seems quite simply to have decided arbitrarily to appoint one of the angels over all of the others. Why has he done this? God does mention something about the Son’s merit. Well, he will mention something about the Son’s merit later in another scene of exaltation, but it’s one that’s already been narrated and that’s the scene that we’ve already read in Book Three.
As for this moment right now, the motives for this declaration seem perfectly inexplicable and absolutely inscrutable, and it also seems clear that this inscrutability is the point of the Father’s declaration. As William Empson writes convincingly and brilliantly, although mischievously, in a wonderful book called Milton’s God, the Father’s declaration sounds like a challenge, like it’s intended to be taken as a challenge. By saying, “On this day I have begot the Messiah,” God seems almost to be suggesting that – I don’t know, that he’s just created this guy out of whole cloth for this very occasion, just made him and raised this nobody to the rank of favorite. It’s possible that God has just bequeathed all of his power to someone who hasn’t even been around, someone who hasn’t spent eternity paying his dues. What could God have been thinking? The Father knows this is an extraordinary thing to be declaring, and so he tries to soften the blow, I guess, this blow of this show of favoritism by inviting the other angels to abide “under his great Vice-gerent Reign… / united as one individual Soul / for ever happy.” By “individual” the Father means “indivisible here.” I’m convinced that the word “individual,” which only appears twice in Paradise Lost, is one of the poem’s most important words; but it has its original meaning, its etymological meaning, which simply means “can’t be divided.”
On some level, the Father seems to be making a stab at Milton’s own monistic vision of egalitarianism. The angels will all be united as one individual soul, but the Father will only invoke this harmonious, indivisible union – when? After he’s placed the Son of God at the head of the other angels. We’re left to wonder just how we’re supposed to reconcile this image of an indivisible egalitarianism with the competing image of an unyielding, rigorously enforced angelic hierarchy. You can recognize in this scene the opposition of irreconcilables that we’ve already encountered, the ones that had characterized the power relations in Milton’s Eden. Milton charges this scene in heaven with its power, I think, by juxtaposing just those two forces that he was continually attempting to unite in Book Four. He yokes together the principles of freedom and equality, on the one hand, and the opposing principle of hierarchical order, on the other hand.
Think how the politics in heaven here parallel the political dynamic that we’ve already been exposed to, that we’ve already seen operative on earth. In Book Four at that beautiful originary moment at the pool side, Eve had – I think quite like Satan – Eve had imagined herself great in favor and preeminence. She’s shaken from this assumption of power and of absolute self-sufficiency when she’s suddenly told that there’s another creature, Adam, who has been appointed her head. Just as God does with Satan, Adam tries to soften the blow [laughs] of this arbitrary declaration of hierarchical supremacy by claiming to be united indivisibly to Eve, so Adam declares to Eve – he seizes her hand, she yields, and he declares to her that he will have her by his side “henceforth an individual solace dear…”
Milton’s clearly doing something here in these two scenes with these noisy protestations of indivisibility. He invokes the beautiful notion of the interconnectedness of all of God’s creatures that’s implicit in this monistic vision of the first matter, but he only employs this beautiful image of a monistic unity when he’s placing an absolute divide between a superior creature and an inferior one, between a greater and a lesser being. On some level, and it’s very troubling, monistic indivisibility is always invoked at the most divisive moments in the poem. We can think of these as the crisis moments in Paradise Lost. At these critical moments of the arbitrary subjection of one party over the other, whether it’s Adam over Eve or the Son of God over Satan and the other angels, you can see the emergence of another meaning, the modern meaning of that word “individual”: “individual” as a noun rather than “individual” as an adjective. Dictionaries and historians of the English language claim that the modern meaning of the word “individual,” a noun referring to a person who is self-sufficient, autonomous, independent, a being – that this noun doesn’t appear in England until later in the seventeenth century; but I think that it’s precisely at these crisis moments in Paradise Lost that Milton uses the original, the traditional sense of “individual,” an adjective meaning “indivisible,” only to begin pushing that word and forcing it into something like its modern sense of “individual,” the modern, essentially liberal idea of a human being as an absolutely isolate, self-determining, fundamentally unaffiliated person.
Here at the scene of the Son’s exaltation Milton – I don’t know. For a lot of readers, this is really a repellant scene. It’s a scene of a tyrannical and arbitrary ordering of a society. Milton does this only to display a little window, I think, onto a totally different kind of society. You can see in this word “individual” a glimpse into the world of what we can think of as modernity. Paradise Lost is just on the cusp of a liberal worldview, and the poem provides us a glimpse of the liberal world of equal individuals, a world of rational self-determination and self-exaltation rather than the arbitrary subjection of one class of creatures over another class.
Chapter 3. Satan’s Discussion with Abdiel [00:40:34]
So it’s one thing for Satan to witness this seemingly arbitrary exaltation of the Son. This arouses in him, as you can imagine, feelings of injustice that, of course, famously leave him to coax a third of all of the other angels in a rebellion against God. That was bad enough, but it’s an entirely different matter, I think, when Satan learns – I don’t know if “learns” is the right verb – when Satan hears in his discussion with Abdiel that God created everything including the angels themselves by means of the agency of the Son, through the Son. For Satan this is a mind-blowing revelation, and it’s hard to miss as so surprising because we take this as just orthodoxy that any right-thinking Christian might accept. Look at page 322. This is line 835 of Book Five. When Abdiel tells Satan, “Why are you so upset, Satan? Of course, he would exalt the Son. It was the Son through whom we were all created” – this notion just pushes Satan further than anything pushes him. This new revelation pushes him into making one of the greatest formulations of the modern – an outrageous one, but it’s central to the modern principle of individualism.
Let me give you a little background. Abdiel has traveled with Satan and the other disloyal angels, the rebel angels, to the northern quarter of heaven; but Abdiel, like Milton himself during the English Revolution – and Abdiel was in some way Milton’s self-portrait – Abdiel was willing to distance himself from the mob sensibility of the rebels. He stands up to Satan with the pious rage, the zeal, that Milton always fancied himself capable of. So Abdiel asks Satan, and this is at the top of page 322, how he can dare to question God’s justice in exalting the Son over the other angels. Abdiel tells Satan it was the
Abdiel tells Satan that if it weren’t for the Son of God, Satan would never have been created. It’s Satan- [laughs] who certainly seems to be shocked here, and it’s his response to Abdiel’s claim that is, I think, one of the most stunning, one of the most outrageous moments in Paradise Lost. Line 852. Satan is aghast that we were:
Now, nearly everyone agrees that – all Milton critics agree that this claim for angelic self-creation is in one way or the other crucial to our understanding of the fall of the rebel angels and Satan’s justification of the rebellion. This claim of self-creation obviously prepares Satan for that pronouncement that he will make later in hell but which comes at the beginning of the poem, that claim for the absolute priority of the mind: the mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
Now Abdiel surely is right to insist that not only were the – we have to give it to Abdiel that he’s on to something, that the angels were created and not only that, they were created in all likelihood through the agency of the Son; but even though Abdiel’s right, Satan’s theory of angelic origin isn’t easily dismissible. It’s not as easily dismissible as it is by C.S. Lewis in the little quotation at the bottom of the handout. I always try to make a little plug for the validity of at least a little of a part of Satan’s claim. I want to do this because on some level, I think Satan’s outrageous argument here is one of the greatest things that anybody gets to say in Paradise Lost, because if we’re going to understand the origin of Satan’s fall, we have to understand something about the origin of Satan himself.
You have the chronology on the handout. It’s right to place the exaltation of the Son as the first event officially described in Paradise Lost, but there’s of course an event that happened before that which Milton’s narrative very carefully never describes, and that’s the creation of the angels. So we get Satan’s theory of the creation of the angels and Abdiel, as we would expect, takes great offense, but it’s important – and Abdiel’s right and Satan’s wrong – but it’s important to determine exactly what is wrong about Satan’s theology here and how it would counter Milton’s. Satan’s obviously wrong to ascribe the creation of the angels to something like a random occurrence of fate when Satan says, “when fatal course / had circl’d his full Orb.” Milton’s explained a number of times in the poem that there’s no such thing as a power called “fate,” so that’s easily dismissible.
But it’s not absolutely clear to me that Satan is wrong to claim that the angels are “self-rais’d / by their own quick’ning power.” I think on some level this has to be seen as true, at least according to what we know of the dynamic processes in Milton’s account of the monistic Creation. God has impregnated matter with spirit, and after this initial act of impregnation he seems able to allow this spiritualized matter pretty much to organize itself on its own into all these beautiful and varied forms of creation. If we’re not completely shocked to hear Satan’s claim for having raised himself by his own quickening power, at least upon a rereading of Paradise Lost that might be because it looks an awful lot like the theory of creation that we get in Book Seven. It also sounds like a moment in Book Three that we’ve already encountered: when the angel Uriel – the angel that Milton credits for having the best eyesight in heaven, rather remarkably – when Uriel gives us his eyewitness account of the Creation, it sounds a little bit like Satan’s.
Satan’s argument that the angels are self-raised has something, I think, like a foundation even in Book Five itself. It begins to resemble that condition of absolute self-determination that Raphael had promised to Adam and Eve if they remained obedient. If Adam and Eve will only remain sinless, they’ll be able to raise themselves to that ethereal state of angelic status. This is a world in which individuals – rational, self-determining individuals – determine their own status rather than accept one that has been arbitrarily imposed upon them. This is an egalitarian world that Milton is introducing us to, and I think that in moments such as these, we see Milton laboring to arrive at a theory of matter and a theory of creation that can support something like a poetics; a poetics but also a philosophy, a political philosophy of egalitarianism. To claim that matter can move itself to organize itself into stars and into angels, which is what Uriel will claim happens, is essentially to lay the philosophical foundation for a political philosophy that’s not authoritarian by any stretch. It’s not even hierarchical: it’s egalitarian. This is a physics, a theological physics that can bolster the claims of a politics. It’s a philosophy that can imagine human beings as being equally capable of organizing themselves and creating their own sense of order without the meddlesome intervention of an arbitrary God.
Now, many of my colleagues in the Milton community dismiss the possibility that there could be anything even remotely like something valid in Satan’s wonderful rejoinder to Abdiel. They nearly always overlook the Creation account that we get from Uriel in Book Three, which I think supports on some level part of Satan’s claim. They’re also eager to dismiss Eve’s feelings of injustice at her inferior status. They dismiss it as just another one of Milton’s unquestioning acts of misogyny – but I don’t think it’s unquestioning at all. All three of these examples for me demonstrate Milton’s willingness to question nearly every form of religious and social and political orthodoxy. Milton is continually putting the official doctrines of even his own poem on trial. He’s continually pitting the narrator’s own celebration of hierarchy – Milton’s own celebration of hierarchy – against a more subversive and a more questioning philosophy of egalitarianism.
Milton’s narrator – and Milton is with him to some extent – comes down most firmly on the side of a divinely established hierarchy, but this exquisitely textured, richly textured poem can be distinguished, and in fact I think it has to be distinguished, from the views of the narrator. On some incredibly important level that’s not on the level of what the narrator tells us, the poem is itself insistently egalitarian, and I mean that in a special sense: it’s egalitarian in the sense that it’s a poem rather than a dogmatic treatise or a work of political philosophy. As a poem, Paradise Lost places all of its divergent theories and all of its competing ideologies and visions of the way the world works – places them all side by side on something like a level playing field, the playing field of the poetic line. The poem connects these competing ideas with nothing more leading than that most liberal of all conjunctions, or. This poem makes the reader the equal of the poet because either this is the case or that is the case, and Milton is always telling us to decide ourselves. The poem lays down – and I’ll conclude here – a range of ideological possibilities, and it does that from its opening line to its closing line; and then it permits the reader, or maybe I should say it forces the reader, to choose among these possibilities.
Okay. We’re on a roll, this is our big week: Books Seven and Eight for next time.
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