In Honor of David Foster Wallace

In Honor of David Foster Wallace’s recently-published thesis, Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, I’ve decided to post (with citations) an essay I wrote in grad school for a British Literature course where I deal with the ideas of fate and free will in relation to Paradise Lost. It’s nearly 4,000 words, so I doubt many people will actually read it, but if you want to get your nerd on, this is the place!

Free Will Lost in Paradise

When thinking critically about a literary work as studied and revered as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, it is impossible not to compare and contrast the notions of fate and free will. Milton wants us to believe that there can simultaneously be free will in harmonic coexistence with God’s masterful plan. Through research, however, I find this impossible. If it is true that God created everything; the heavens and earth; man and the angels; then it follows that he created good and evil. A master plan would indicate that God created Satan with the knowledge (or foresight) that he would rebel and fall, in fact, instilling in him this particular character flaw devoid in most other angels.

This paper attempts to illustrate that, if there is indeed a divine plan, then free will does not exist in Paradise Lost, or if it does, it may then be judged by God as an evil decision. Paul Ricoeur’s analysis of the “Adamic Myth” and Original Sin clarifies etiological traditions Milton assimilates from Christian symbol, myth, and dogma (Tanner 46). Through Ricoeur, Tanner identifies the contrasting modalities of evil (inherited and imitative, physical and moral, ontological and existential, necessary and free, communal and individual) fused in Paradise Lost. According to Tanner, Ricoeur’s work reveals Milton’s text to be a subtly inclusive etiological myth, one whose complex genesis of evil recovers Scripture’s fullness of meaning in a new mythopoesis (46). Most interesting to me is the idea Satanic evil springs exclusively from the self in an instant of radical “Pelagian” freedom: free will (47). In Satan’s case, I believe his desire for free choice overrides his desire to repent and seek forgiveness. Forgiveness is followed by subservience and it may then follow the saying: “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” It appears that in Satan’s eyes, there is no freedom to be found in either Paradise.

In Paradise Lost, Milton’s God says He does not control the events concerning the Fall, yet he knows precisely what those events are. In making the claim that He does not control the events of the universe, Milton’s God expresses a traditional Calvinist belief: the Fall occurred as a result of Man’s free will and choices and not because God predestines it (Menghi 1). Calvinists believe that a predestined life is one without purpose. J. M. Evans says that, “reconciliation of foreknowledge with free will worked out in Book III is, admittedly, unsatisfactory…” (221). This is because in Book III, God gives the reader the impression that, no matter what He actually claims, the events of the Fall are predestined.

C.S. Lewis moves to ‘dismiss that question which has so much agitated some great critics, “What is the Fall?”’ by answering, ‘The Fall is simply and solely Disobedience – doing what you have been told not to do’ (Fish 208). In Milton’s Grand Style, Ricks (99) argues that Adam and Eve were created with a propensity to fall. Fish (210) counters by saying that yes, God, not Adam and Eve, is guilty of the Fall, and curiously enough, it is God himself who raises them by gratuitously refuting them:

I form’d them free and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change
Their nature, and revoke the high Decree
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain’d
Thir freedom: they themselves ordain’d thir fall. (III 112-28)

Thus, I would go one step further yet and agree with the argument that the Fall of Man must be predestined in order for God to show what many theologians consider the greatest demonstration of His divine love: the Union of God, the Son and Man in heaven (Menghi 3). The Union shows God’s infinite love and forgiveness while glorifying the sacrifice of the Son so that Man may be saved from Sin and spend eternity in Heaven. In the middle of God’s elaborate exposition to the Son regarding his gift of salvation in Book III, he takes time to interject a two line refutation: “Nor shalt thou by descending to assume / Man’s nature, lessen or degrade thine own” (303-304). Neil Graves sees this as a prophesized third (and ultimately understated) Fall: that of the Son (160). Ironically, fifty years before Milton penned Paradise Lost, John Donne muses in a sermon that “I must not ask why God took this way to incarnate His Son” (Donne 2:16).

Thomas Aquinas explicates that God manages phenomena in His universe by “implement[ing] what he wants by way of wills [… so] all human choices derive from an unchanging choice” (172). In other words, God controls (predestines) whatever he wants. If Milton’s God does not predestine the Fall, then possibility exists that the Union, and thus the Glorification of the Son, will not take place. This idea possibly contradicts God’s omnipotence and omniscience (Menghi 15). In Book III, God says to the Son that creations cannot

Justly accuse
Their maker, or their making or their fate,
As if predestination overruled
Their will [… and] if I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault
Which had no less proved certain unforeknown. (112-19)

Menghi notes that Milton’s God is somewhat evasive because he says “if I foreknew”, which implies that He has the foreknowledge, but refuses to admit he does– the idea that God refuses to reveal information to the Son is illogical (Menghi 15). Graves agrees by saying:

Theologically it makes no sense for two omniscient beings to argue, to disagree, to persuade and especially so as they are Father and Son in at least a substantial sense and that despite
the existence of time in Milton’s heaven, they are not circumscribed by the limitations of time. (166)

Menghi also argues that:

[Milton’s God] admits (in Book III) that He is not all-powerful. God’s admission is another failing on Milton’s part because God, the omnipotent creates the universe; therefore the universe is ultimately under His control. Any rationalization… of God’s power having limitations in His universe makes no sense. For Milton to say [this], lowers God’s standing and indicates that He has human frailties, the same that corrupted Satan. (16)

Many readers see Satan as a sympathetic character in part because of the human frailties and imperfections that he possesses; they are much easier for reader’s to understand than God’s ultimate and divine perfection. This illustrates God’s superiority in relation to Satan. However, Michael Bryson, in his book The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God As King, argues (by an implied assumption) that the two are equals and Paradise Lost is thus iconoclastic. While Bryson’s research is incredibly thorough, it is not particularly useful for this paper. However, it does raise an interesting counterpoint. For Milton, it was not merely freedom that was crucial, but using one’s freedom to act righteously as Abdiel communicates to Satan in Paradise Lost. Only the Father can use his freedom eternally for good. Satan necessitates guidance from one superior than himself (the Father).

Satan’s fall from Heaven sets in motion a chain of events which will ultimately result in what I feel is God’s supreme goal: the Glorification of the Son. This series of events spans from the battle in heaven to the Resurrection and finally ends in the divine union of God, the Son and Man in Heaven. Unfortunately, predestination thus forces Milton’s Satan into the role of martyr. Being locked into evil is, in the end, a way to deny free will. It is perhaps the same thing as mind control or brainwashing. When one is so completely inundated in one ideology or perspective (i.e. evil), it colors all of one’s thought and “free will”, as it were, becomes impossible. In fact, research shows that true free will many times be punished in Paradise Lost. For instance, Satan experiences jealousy at the Son becoming the right hand of God; Satan then chooses to initiate a rebellion. Later, Eve greedily eats the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in hopes of improving her worldly status and convinces Adam to do likewise, thus initiating the Fall of Man.

Whether intentional or not, through Paradise Lost, Milton sets up a Christian religious system based on fear. Adam fears God, as well as the fruit born from the tree of knowledge and Death. Interestingly, Adam blindly fears Death, as it is an entity and concept so far unfamiliar to him. Death and Sin are not released upon the Earth until after the Felix Culpa – the ‘fortunate fall’ – of Man. All of the events set forth the aforementioned plan for the Glorification of the Son, who will ironically experience glory in Death to settle the debt of mankind’s Sin.

Satan does not wish to follow God’s divine master plan. The consequence of choosing free will over the predestination of that very plan causes Satan great anguish and suffering. In his soliloquy at the beginning of Book IV, Satan acknowledges his own iniquity and culpability for his fall, vacillating between self-reproach and recalcitrance. He admits that his revolt was completely unjustifiable and that he had the same ‘free will and power to stand’ as all God’s creatures and has nothing to recriminate but ‘heaven’s free love dealt equally to all’ (Carey 163). Carey then explains since heaven’s love means his own damnation, he denunciates it (‘Be then his love accursed’), but then, perspicaciously, turns his blasphemy against himself (‘Nay, cursed be thou’) (163).

Other instances occur in the line where Satan looks at Eve for the first time and is stunned by her beauty– for a fleeting moment he remains “stupidly good”. He can also still appreciate the beauty of Heaven when he peers over Heaven’s gate in book three. As Satan exculpates God, he explains that even if he could repent and get back into heaven ‘by act of grace’, it would do him no good, since once back there, he would grow proud again (‘how soon / Would highth recall high thoughts’), and this would lead to a ‘worse relapse’ and ‘heavier fall’ (163). This, to me, suggests that evil is not Satan’s inherent state, as most assume, but that his evil is a continual choice of his. It also suggests he recognizes the elements of his predestined fate – he cannot choose another path.

Milton asserts in On Christian Doctrine that “’the seat of faith is not in the understanding, but in the will’” (Fish 254). I tend to agree with William Walker when he says:
[Adam and Eve] are free to believe that God is a beneficent and omnipotent deity who is always to be obeyed… they are free to act in accordance with these beliefs… Neither these freedoms nor their exercise are to be grounded in reason: they are to be grounded solely in the will. (144)

Fish says that, “…while [Adam and Eve] continue to respond to their opportunities as we see them responding [to Eve’s dream], affirming the hierarchy they were created in and laboring to do God’s will, the Fall is impossible” (226). However, I believe that the Fall is not only possible, it is imperative. Milton is careful to set up the repentance and decision to stick it out in Book X as an act of free will, after Adam and Eve have discussed and rejected all the other alternatives, and they are certainly rewarded for that with a mild punishment rather than immediate death. However, it begs the question of whether or not God would have actually killed them had they not repented?

The Father’s ultimate and divine goal is the Glorification of the Son through his sacrifice to redeem mankind. For God, everything, including Sin can be used a tool (Augustine 453). Logically, God uses Sin as a tool in causing man to fall, not out of spite, but in the interest of His plan. Thus, “God has already, in virtue of his foreknowledge, laid plans for making good use of evil” (449). The good use of evil is the Fall, followed by the Union and the Glorification of the Son.

If Adam and Eve were to be killed immediately after the Fall, the Son would never be able to die for the Sin of Man and God’s plan would invariably fail before it could progress any further. An omnipotent God would not be capable of creating a faulty plan. Unless we believe Him when He says He does not know the events to come, which again, is illogical behavior of an omnipotent being. Thus, Adam and Eve are indeed given a choice, but in reality, there is only one choice to be made and that is to repent and again become a part of the Father’s predetermined master plan. They are free to show their faith by choosing the Father’s will.

I do agree with Fish that God created a hierarchy in His universe: the Father, the Son, the Angels, Man, the animals, etc. It follows then, that God also created a plan for His universe. Without order, there can exist only disorder. As God sits atop His created hierarchy and is exalted without peer, logically the Son should be next on high. Dennis Danielson begs the question, “If God is all powerful and wholly good, how can there be evil in the world?” (146). I believe that evil is a created part of the plan to Glorify the Son.
God created Man with the ability to reason. According to Fish:

Reason serves Adam and Eve well in their round of daily tasks. Had they exercised reason on the morning of the fateful day, the imprudence of separation would have been immediately obvious, and an unpleasant situation could have been avoided. (242)

In order for Man to see the glory in the sacrifice of the Son, there needs to be an adversary to overcome. God basically says to man that He is good and created Man in His image– to be unlike Him is evil. Goodness is the path to salvation; evil is the path to damnation. When it is spelled out in black and white, it is easy for His creation, Man, to rationalize the difference. When the Son shows the greatest and ultimate act of goodness by experiencing Death for Man’s Sin, he is then glorified in their eyes as well as the eyes of all heavenly beings, which I believe was God’s plan from Genesis.

With the reasoning given to him by God, Adam in Book IX attempts to justify eating the fruit to himself:

Not well conceived of God, who though his power
Creation could repeat, yet would be loath
Us to abolish, lest the adversary
Triumph and say; Fickle their state whom God
Most favors, who can please him long; me first
He ruined, now mankind; whom will he next?
Matter of scorn, not to be given the foe. (945-51)

Adam questions the situation in this matter because his reasoning, like the names of the animals early on in Paradise Lost, was given to him directly by God, thus, he blames Satan for his and Eve’s corruption. Adam has no way of knowing the complexity of God’s plan as he has not yet been shown images of things to come by Michael in Book XI.

Walker says that, “God thus does not require of fallen mankind that he give up what he himself identifies as the foundation of his freedom to believe and act – reason – and then act freely (157). God allows fallen man to retain the system of reason He has instilled in them as, what I feel, is a kind of security blanket, such as a parent does with a young child. As Michael Schoenfeldt observes, he rather requires of mankind a “rational autonomy” out of which he may “respond to myriad laws, partial truths and gradual virtues, all glimpsed at best through the darkened glass of reason” (378). But that God’s requirements of fallen mankind are consistent with his understanding of freedom does not necessarily mean that postlapsarian man is capable of fulfilling them (Walker 157). In Book XI Michael shows Adam that man is capable of fulfilling God’s requirements of “Faith and faithful works” (64) by displaying humans who in fact do so like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses (621-2). Regardless of the choices of generations to come, these events will happen. In Book XII, Michael also describes the second coming of Christ, which, like the depictions of the humans who fulfill God’s requirements, demonstrates to Adam that he can serve in no other way that that which will see God’s divine plan realized:

[The Son] shall come
When this world’s dissolution shall be ripe,
With glory and power to judge both quick and dead,
To judge the unfaithful dead, but to reward
His faithful, and receive them into bliss,
Whether in heaven or earth, for them the earth
Shall all be paradise, far happier place
Than Eden, and far happier days. (458-65)

According to the thesis of this paper, Michael means that man is capable of fulfilling God’s faithful predetermined works.

In somewhat differing circumstances, Eve, Adam, and conceivably the reader, fall when they do not acknowledge the “primacy of revelation” against the claims of existing situations as they are urged by the affections and exemplified by the reason (Fish 245). More simplistically, they fail to make a leap of faith. However, if it is really God’s reasoning filtered through Adam and Eve, the correct, albeit most unfortunate, choice was already made. Every part of the hierarchy is a cog in the machine of God’s divine master plan. Fish states that, “God has instituted it thus so that man will exercise his reason, and, through reason, discover its inadequacy” (247). Furthermore, Richardson says:

Thus near 200 Lines are Excellently Employ’d and are So far
Useful to Us, that Neither should We presume beyond the
Means God has been pleas’d to Furnish us with. (351)

However, to me this seems like God is saying that free will is good, but his way (predestination) is best.

Menghi sees the question, “Can God’s creations [then] choose to fall?” as irrational (17). Since Man is a creation of God, and since God is good, man has a propensity for goodness. Consequently, since choosing to fall is a fundamentally evil act, man cannot ‘choose’ to fall. This gives weight to my argument that the Fall was God’s own machination. That the Fall is the first step in Menghi’s “Union” hypothesis and my “Glorification” theory, comes from the following concept:
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. […] For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate. […] Moreover whom he did predestinate, then he also called: and whom he called, then he also justified: and whom he justified, then he also glorified. (1 Cor. 15:22, Rom. 8:29-30)

God’s glorification of man is the Union (Menghi 17). I argue that God predestined the “Union” to then Glorify the Son.

Menghi gives a good example in Paradise Lost that points toward the Union and thus the Gorification when the Son says to God (40):
See Father, what first fruits on earth are sprung
From thy implanted grace in man […] (22-23)

[…] I thy priest before thee bring,
Fruits of more pleasing savour from thy seed
Sown with contrition in his heart, than those
Which his own hand manuring all the trees
Of Paradise could have produced, ere fallen
From innocence […]. (25-29)

God’s implanted seeds of predestination are being sown (Menghi 40). God predestines the Fall because of the Union and therefore the Glorification. Menghi says that the Fall is the first part of a three-part process by which man falls, lives in exile from Paradise, and re-receives Paradise in his afterlife (42). However, I believe that Man re-receiving Paradise in the afterlife is not the final step and that ultimately there are more than three steps in the process.

Menghi’s human-centered theory supposes that Man is the most beloved of all God’s creations. But I feel that honor belongs to the Son. For Menghi, the Fall is fundamentally a positive act, not only because everything God does is inherently good, but also because the Fall is the first step towards salvation (42). Contrary to what scholars such as Menghi suggest, I believe the Union is not the climax of the process, but a closing step in the evolution of God’s masterful and divine plan.

This paper has taken a look at predestination versus free will but come up with a slightly different conclusion than those posited before. We know that Milton’s God says He does not control the events concerning the Fall, yet He knows precisely what those events are. In making that claim, Milton’s God expresses a traditional Calvinist belief: the Fall occurred as a result of Man’s free will and choices and not because God predestines it. However, in Book III, Milton’s God gives the impression that, regardless of His claims, the events of the Fall are predestined. A predestined Fall is inconsistent with Milton’s beliefs which scholars such as Menghi see as an artistic failing (2).

However, Milton’s unorthodox religious views have been studied and criticized for some time. According to Graves, “Milton’s name is almost synonymous with Arianism, and his thinking on mortalism, polygamy, material monism, and creatio ex Deo (creation out of the substance of God) cosmogony are well documented (159). It should then come as no surprise that Paradise Lost invariably would give more attention and care to the Son than to mankind. All is not unfortunate for Man, however. Salvation in the form of the Union is a wonderful ending to culminate the occurrences of the felix culpa.

Augustine, Thomas. City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. 1972. New York:
Penguin, 1984.

Aquinas, Thomas. Selected Philosophical Writings. Ed. And Trans. Timothy
McDermott. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Bible, The (King James Version). Eds. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Bryson, Michael. The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God As King.
Cranbury: University of Delaware Press, 2004.

Carey, John. “Milton’s Satan” in The Cambridge Companion to Milton 2nd ed.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy” in The Cambridge Companion
to Milton 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Donne, John. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. George Potter and Evelyn M.
Simpson, 10 vols. University of California Press: 1953-62, 2:16.

Evans, John.M. Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition. London: Oxford
University Press, 1968.

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin, 2nd edn., London: MacMillan, 1997.

Graves, Neil D. “Infelix Culpa: Milton’s Son of God and the incarnation as a fall
in Paradise Lost.” Philological Quarterly 81.2 Spring 2002: 159-183.

Menghi, Edward J. “Predestination overruled their will: A Marxist analysis of the
predestination versus free will problem in “Paradise Lost“.” Mississippi State University, 1998.

Milton, John. The Complete Works of John Milton, ed. Don M. Wolfe et al., 8
vols. Yale University Press: 1953-1982.

Richardson, Jonathan. Explanatory Notes on Paradise Lost, New York: AMS
Press, 1973.

Schoenfeldt, Michael. Obedience and Autonomy in Paradise Lost. in A
Companion to Milton ed. Thomas N. Corns. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Tanner, John S. “Say First What Cause: Ricoeur and the Etiology of Evil in
Paradise Lost.” PMLA 103.1 Jan. 1988: 45-56.

Walker, William. “Milton’s dualistic theory of religious toleration in A Treatise of
Civil Power, Of Christian Doctrine, and Paradise Lost.” Modern
Philology 99.2 Nov. 2001: 201-230.

Walker, William. “On reason, faith, and freedom in Paradise Lost.” Studies in
English Literature, 1500-1900 47.1 Winter 2007: 143-159.

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2 thoughts on “In Honor of David Foster Wallace

  1. Interesting arguments. I think there are counter arguments that hold weight as well, but this is impressively argued nonetheless.

  2. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Do a search: The First Scandal.

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