Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost in the process of expounding and justifying “the ways of God to men”, allows its readers a penetrating insight into the debates and anxieties of 17th century England. It is deeply informed by the poet’s own political sympathies with the Puritan revolutionaries and his experience of the rule of James I and Charles I , both extremely weak and inept rulers given to absolutism and hedonism respectively. The rise of capitalism and imperialism in Britain too at the same time brought in an increasing consciousness of individuality and agency fueling the debates on man’s free will and potential; However the most raging and radical contemporary debate of Milton’s concern, would have been the Puritan rejection of the authority of the king and the church and the redefinition of man’s relationship with God in terms of the personal and the individual. Puritanism in its bid to free Christianity of the bondages of ecclesiastical interpretation and the monopoly of the Church over exegesis asserted the right of every man to exert his free will in interpreting the bible. The same however even in destabilizing the idea of authority and social hierarchy made necessary a re-thinking of the very idea of free will itself. The issue of free will and authority in Paradise Lost read in such a context becomes fraught with larger ideological and historical debates, and of great political implication.     

A period of such religious transition as that to which Milton belonged could not have been but ridden with anxieties of disorder and loss of faith, also evident is the fact that the emphasis on free will permeating the text of Paradise Lost is much a product of Milton’s ingenuity. It can be argued nonetheless that though intense, Milton’s definition of free will remains inevitably and inherently wanting, in that it becomes more of an instrument to reiterate God’s authority as supreme and absolute rather than man’s own agency.     

As explicit in God’s speech –

                                 What pleasure I from such obedience paid

                                 When Will and Reason( Reason also is choice)

                                 Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled

                                 Made passive both, had serv’d necessity

                                 Not mee                                  (Bk III, Paradise Lost)

the exercise of free will becomes a mode of servility to God, in fact it becomes a pre condition for devotion and obedience. As critic Diane Kelsey McColley puts it, “Free will allows subjects to respond creatively to their calling for obedience and love and interpret it in their personal way.” Such a restricted understanding as this, derived from Milton’s representation of the potential of free will in Paradise Lost, suggests some problem in his definition of the term itself.  

As can be seen in Adam’s parting words to Eve in the separation scene, “God towards thee has done his part do thine”, the exercise of agency should according to Adam and the sympathetic voice of the Miltonic bard ideally always be informed by a sense of total obligation towards God, and a fear of death or punishment. Even the exercise of reason becomes suspect –

                                Lest by some fair appearing good surprised

                                She dictate false, and misinform the will

                                To do what God expressly hath forbid.   (Bk IX, Paradise Lost)

Every thing therefore in the Miltonic scheme of things, even reason gets subordinated to the command of God. Here again one must mention as above that “reason is choice”. 

Free will therefore remains a convenient and non-existent ideal in terms of Milton’s human rights agenda, where the only creatures to be exercising it are seen as Satanic or the causal agents of “all our woe”. Many critics hail the pre-lapsarian Eden as home to absolute freedom of will however the very example of the punitive relegation of Satan to Hell contradicts the belief. It is worth questioning if absolute freedom and definitive punishment would not counter each other if placed in conjunction. Another relevant question to ask would be if free will can exist in a system of as strict intellectual and spiritual hierarchy as between God, the angels and Adam, with Eve at the bottom of the ladder. 

Adam has, by general consensus in the scheme of things, been taken as the intellectual superior of Eve. Such a hierarchising undermines her credibility at making decisions as equally informed as Adam’s. At the same time this frames Eve as more susceptible to giving in to temptation. Therefore all of her independent decisions and assertion of individuality becomes suspect. In fact the framing of the scene of separation of Adam and Eve just preceding the temptation scene is so explicitly in anticipation of Man’s fall that many critics displace the moment of the commission of crime to the instance of separation rather than the actual eating of the apple. Eve’s decision that they work apart is an assertion of free will informed by a personal consciousness of the need for efficiency and to earn their supper. However, as argued above, it gets branded as an act of transgression in the larger scheme of things as it conflicts with the wishes of Adam, her “intellectual” superior and her voice is never sympathized with but seen as the voice of challenge or opposition to the feudal\ patriarchal world order, where God is to man what man is to woman, while the woman remains subjugated twice over.  

Satan in his fall affords the reader with an interesting comparison with Eve. It is inescapable that both are in their social locations relatively inferior, Satan to the Son, and Eve to Adam. As embodied in the speech of the snake, the real temptation for both, Eve and Satan is then to rise above their given locations, to become equals with Adam and God respectively, “For unequal who is free?” What thus gets constructed as the sinful temptation is, as in Satan’s words, “vent’ring above my lot”. The construction of free will purely in terms of obedience to God, then gets exposed as a kind of control mechanism to ensure that all creatures-

                                                              Stand fast; to stand or fall

                                              Free in thine own arbitrament it lies

                                              Perfect within, no outward aid require;

                                              And all temptation to transgress repel 

      (Bk VIII, Paradise Lost) 

The actual scene of temptation and the instance of Eve’s exercise of free will too suggests the presence of certain restrictions on her exercising her free will. “But his forbidding commends thee more” reveals how restrictions themselves take the form of temptation, not even in terms of absolute defiance of authority but as an assertion of the absolute freedom of will and aspiration to knowledge that she feels denied. Eve in stating,

                               For good unknown, sure is not had

                               And yet unknown is as not had at all 

exposes the problems in Milton’s definition of free will in terms of its counter, i.e. disobedience, by using the same method of inversion of discourse to define “good” in terms of knowing it from bad. In her understanding of good being proved faulty is also automatically proved erroneous Milton’s understanding and adumbration of the idea of free will.  

Contextualizing what we have thus argued our understanding of free will as depicted in Paradise Lost to be, we can see how such a construction of agency works vis-à-vis Milton’s political position. While the emphasis on individual agency is in keeping with the wider social currents and ethos of his time, the subordination of will to the command of God institutes a system of self imposed morality in the absence of institutionalized systems of enforcement, i.e. the church; the threat of damnation for the sin of impertinence sets an example against the assertion of equal rights that may challenge patriarchy or the dominant. However conducive it might be to Milton’s politics, such an understanding of free will remains essentially incomplete and restricted as argued above.


6 Responses to “‘Free Will’ in Milton’s Paradise Lost”

  1. Hello. You might be pleased or horrified to learn that large chunks of this have been stolen by one of my students for his essay!
    Thoughtful stuff, by the way.

  2. AditReuben Says:

    The concept of freewill by far have been confusing. Bt this proved to be of a great help.

  3. CE x Says:

    thank you, your first two paragraphs have really helped my understanding of what exactly the religious and social situation did in terms of effecting miltons work.

  4. Says:

    i really needed this!!!1

  5. Hannibal Says:

    True, the idea that the agency of free will does seem to operate within the framework of determinism seems to have Milton’s seal on it, for the figure of Satan by its presence seems to shout out to the reader the ills of commercialist ideology without a system of control, and Satan comes to represent, among other things, the colonial power, bent upon subjugating the very heterogeneity that Milton sought to support in his general philosophy.

    But the issue is that all political motivations in this era must undergo double structures of critical layering: the first is the way Milton’s own ideology would be represented in his characterisations, and the second, which has more power over the first, is how the dissent-intolerant post-Restoration nexus of power would force Milton to subvert these characterisations so that at first sight, say, Satan should be seen as representing Cromwell.

    Now, Cromwell himself WAS a figure of rebellion before he became synonymous with repression. Could we say that Milton, then, extrapolated what Cromwell’s future ideologies would have reflected if his rebellion-to-repression change was given breathing space? That is, did Milton subscribe to the largely Hobeesian view of the nature of power and self-interest in man, and that thus Cromwell’s own ideologies would only have replicated what the Cavalier King’s policies anticipated?

    As you can see, I’ve deviated. My apologies. But leave that question be if you must, what I really want to get at is, can we really say that this subjugation of Free Will to determinism indicates a fallacy in Milton’s theorisation? I’m more inclined to disagree with this view, because Milton was against centralised authority in the Civil War period.

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