Paradise Lost, Part I, The Finer Things

May 1, 2015

At the end of Book III in Paradise Lost, Satan tricks Uriel into letting him pass through the gates which protect the world from the demons. A disguised Satan brags about the brilliance of God's ways and Uriel agrees with him. Uriel says, “Faire Angel, thy desire which tends to know/ The works of God, thereby to glorifie/ The great Work-Maister, leads to no excess/ That reaches blame, but rather merits praise/ The more it seems excess” (lines 694-98). Uriel's response indicates that in Heaven and all of God's masterful kingdom, desire stems from love. Uriel believes that Satan's desire stems from love, and determines, therefore, that it is a healthy desire. Desire to be like God is healthy in heaven. Uriel is unfamiliar with the darker side of an emotion like desire, he knows only love. Therefore, Uriel is deceived by an element of truth in Satan's desire and allows the demon to pass. In truth, Satan does desire to know the totality of God's kingdom, but he desires it in a way that consumes him and overpowers all balance. Satan's desire is excessive, which makes Uriel's response even more ironic.

The exchange here, between Satan and Uriel, highlights one of the richest parts of Milton's writing: the attention to fine lines, to gray areas. He has exemplified the dilemma of Free Will through complex characters (as discussed in “Meno” and last week's blog). Uriel is deceived by Satan's desire for good which, it would appear, must always lead to good. Milton, however, evidences the rupture between good and evil as separated by a fine line. This line exists in nearly every part of Paradise Lost, especially the gates that separate darkness from light. As another example, the demons began in the same manner as the Son and the other angels in heaven, but something within them causes them to disobey. In the poem, God says, “Such I created all th' Ethereal Powers/ And Spirits, both them who stood & them who faild;/ Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell” (lines 100-102). Why did some of the angels choose to disobey God? Were all angels created the same or did they have an element of difference, even from the beginning? Is it simply a line that divides light from darkness, love from rage? Are we one decision away from an eternal fall? Does all of God's creation have the capacity to fall?

It would appear that the Son is incapable of a fall. But, how is it possible that he does not contain the same rainbow of vulnerability as the other characters? The Son of God sits at God's side and the dialogue between the Son and God in Book III offers many insights into their relationship. However, it does not answer exactly how the Son came to be the Son. Why is there only one begotten Son? It is possible that he was created simply as an angel but allowed to rise? If this is true, then it is also plausible that God chooses the Son to rise because He foresees the Son's future sacrifice and redemption of man. If this is true, then it places limits upon the Son's freedom of choice. In other words, in order to exist, the Son must fulfill his specified role as the redeemer of man. In Book III, God asks for a volunteer from among the Heavenly Powers to sacrifice themselves and save man. No one speaks until finally from the silence the Son volunteers. God then says: “By Merit more then Birthright Son of God, Found worthiest to be so by being Good,/ Farr more then Great or High; because in thee/ Love hath abounded more then Glory abounds” (lines 309-312). God continues, “All Power/ I give thee, reign for ever, and assume/ Thy Merits” (317-319). This implies that the Son's status has been elevated by his offer to save man, but to where could he possibly rise? He is already the Son of God, and he cannot replace God. God explains that all the angels will bow to the Son and rejoice in him. But is it this that has made him the Son, even prior to his offer at redemption?

Perhaps, then, if the Son was predestined to offer redemption, then Satan was predestined to fall, and man was predestined to be tempted. Perhaps they all live out their ('God-given') roles which enables God to live his role. God says, “if I foreknew,/ Foreknowledge had no influence upon their fault,/ Which had no less prov'd certain unforeknown” (118-120). Which implies that he knew what was coming, but could (or would?) do nothing to alter it. When thinking about their assigned roles, it is interesting to investigate the purpose of each character. If they have Free Will, then they have all chosen a path that is perhaps necessary for a completion of the world. Completion here means a totality and fullness, not an end or termination. In other words, would God exist if Satan did not foster the fall of man, causing God to enact a punishment as proof of his love for mankind?

If we follow this logic, then, perhaps Satan's purpose was to tempt God through the use of Man. This means that if God had eliminated or banished man (as he did to the demons), then love would cease to exist, and therefore, the world would cease to exist. Perhaps even God. Therefore, when Satan offers the apple to Eve, he is actually tempting God to react with rage. And if God reacts with rage then love is replaced by rage and Satan wins. In this scenario, God himself would fall. Therefore, Milton lays out the very convoluted path to understanding God's love, and really, understanding love in general...through mankind's deprivation and eventual redemption. Remember: God did not offer redemption to the demons. The biblical characters in Milton's 'play' are real, complicated and almost human.

Next week, we will continue our look at the often circular path of predestination as portrayed by Milton in Book III of Paradise Lost. Stay tuned....

To post a comment, click on the title of the post and scroll to the bottom.