The Complex Concept of Freedom in Paradise Lost
The originality of Milton’s Paradise Lost lies in its ability to transform the predominantly secular spirit of Homer, Virgil, Boiardo, and other masters of literary epic into a theological subject outside of the tradition. Although Paradise Lost features familiar elements of epics preceding Milton’s age — war, splendid nature, visions of the future, formidable journeys — his subject, the Fall of Mankind or recounting of Genesis, transforms the traditional significance of these elements, giving his epic a new aesthetic appeal as well as (what Milton believed to be) a divine purpose. In recreating God’s divine scheme of Mankind’s destiny, Milton knows his readers are aware of Adam and Eve’s fall from the start, and thus he is able to pull the focus away from ends and redirect it toward teasing out some of the fundamental conflicts of Christian doctrine. With regard to these conflicts, Milton primarily addresses an idea that Christian theologians continue to debate: what freedom means in accordance with God’s divine framework. To depict the purpose of the epic — to make his readers better Christians — Milton sets up a struggle between two views of freedom. Between these visions of freedom articulated in Book 9 — Eve’s definition of freedom as choice and Adam’s as obedience — Milton portrays Adam’s definition as the truer model because it reflects both Milton’s vision of human freedom as well the structural freedom of Paradise Lost itself.
Milton establishes the model for freedom that will be mirrored against Adam and Eve’s concepts of freedom in Paradise Lost through two works: “Second Defense of the English People” and “The Verse.” In “Second Defense of the English People,” Milton states that “people [who] cannot govern themselves and moderate their passions [become] slaves [to] their lusts,” determining that bondage is to conform to something low: in this case, the passions. The second important point that Milton establishes is that “to be entrusted with the possession of liberty,” one must “learn obedience.” Milton’s argument for man’s freedom is of a special kind: by evoking God, Milton associates his conception of divine justice with human liberty and thus ascribes a greater meaning to the relationship between freedom and obedience as seen in Paradise Lost. Milton agrees with common morality in expressing that the worth of an action depends on its motive — and that if there is no freedom, actions cannot have meaning because they will be automatic. He supports this idea by using words of suggestion and ambiguity, such as “wish,” “unless,” “want,” etc., in order to emphasize that man is free because he has the ability to become a “slave to his lusts.” What Milton wants his readers to understand, however, is that although there are various kinds of personal and political freedoms, true freedom is found only when a man acts reasonably and does what God demands, for man is truly free only when he is within the order that God has created for him. In other words, by following what reason knows to be right, man becomes free from the forces of his own nature, from the “lusts,” “dissensions,” “jealousies,” and “superstitions” that enslave him. God and government leave man free to choose so that he may find that true freedom is obedience, and thus know and appreciate freedom for what it really is.
By establishing his concept of freedom in “The Second Defense of the English People,” Milton is then able to lay the foundation for his concept on the structural freedom of Paradise Lost in his note titled “The Verse.” Here, Milton decrees that “the measure” of truly delightful verse does not lie in its rhyme, but rather in its “apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and sense” — otherwise known as meter. By referring to epic poetry as something that must be “recovered” — saved “from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming” — Milton immediately parallels epic verse’s fall through bondage to rhyme with mankind’s fall through bondage to passion in Paradise Lost. This model of verse freedom mirrors Milton’s model of human freedom in “Second Defense of the English People” — bondage is conforming to the lowness of rhyme, which Milton determines to be below meter, and thus, verse’s true freedom lies in its obedience or submission to blank verse.
By outlining his concept of true freedom in “Second Defense of the English People” and “The Verse,” Milton creates a base to understand how the dual visions of freedom in Book IX fit into the larger contexts of the poem. When morning arrives and Adam and Eve prepare for their labors, Eve opens the discussion of freedom by stating: “Let us divide our labors, / thou where choice / Leads thee” (IX, 214-5). As Eve argues to choose to divide the labor so that they can get more work done, Adam responds by stating that God “hath assigned” work so that it is not “irksome toil” but rather “delight” (IX, 242). In doing this, Milton illustrates how Eve is making a conscious choice to work against the order God has created in labor: God creates work so that it is enjoyable, not so that it is a laborsome task focused on results. It is also important to note that in this scene, Adam and Eve are unaware that Satan lies in the garden hidden within the body of the serpent, but conscious nonetheless of Raphael’s warning of Satan’s temptation. By placing Eve’s argument for freedom within this context, Milton highlights that it is Eve’s conception of choice that opens the possibility for Satan to tempt her as she works alone, making it a premature version of freedom since it risks disobeying God.
Adam’s response to Eve’s suggestion of freedom as choice is highly significant because it sets up the model between the mind, the will, and the body that Milton uses to prove why Eve’s model is incomplete as well as why Man falls. Adam begins his response to Eve by stating: “God left free the will, for what obeys / Reason is free, and reason he made right” (IX, 351-2). Here, Milton establishes that reason is in the mind and forms the will, which is the quality that enables action. Adam explains that reason is free through obedience to God because reason is known through God, and that in obedience, the relationship between the mind, the will, and the body can act as it properly should. However, Adam explains the possibility for lower desires to trick reason: “Firm we subsist, yet possible to swerve / Since reason not impossibly may meet / Some specious object by the foe suborned / And fall into deception unaware” (IX, 359-62). By alliterating the fricative consonant “s” in “subsist” and “swerve,” Milton draws attention to the dual nature of reason: God creates reason strong enough to survive with temptation, yet with the possibility to give into it. By illustrating this, Adam concludes that although Eve’s desire to choose is harmless enough, because it opens up the possibility of temptation and disobedience to God, the best type of freedom is in obedience. Interestingly, Milton accentuates that Eve’s conception of freedom does end up coercing her to temptation; when she walks away from Adam to labor on her own, Milton depicts that she is ruined: “O much deceived, much failing, hapless Eve, / Of thy presumed return! Event perverse!” (IX, 404-5). The repetition of “much” in the first line, as well as the alliteration of the plosive consonants “p” in “presumed” and “perverse,” emphasizes the weight and seriousness of Eve’s definition of freedom; her choice to work alone gives Satan the opportunity to tempt her and leads to the “Event perverse,” or the Fall of Man.
However, Milton shows that Eve’s fall is not the Fall of Man: Adam could and should reject Eve’s request to share the fruit, but by abandoning his model of freedom and conforming to Eve’s, he gives into the weakness of his desires. When Eve comes to Adam after she has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam knows quite well what Eve has done: “How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost, / Defaced, deflow’red, and now to death devote?” (IX, 900-1). Through the repetition of the plosive consonant “d,” Milton creates a unshakeable certainty that Adam knows Eve has been “defaced” and “deflowered” by disobeying God’s one command, and thus, proves that Adam is not deceived as Eve is. Therefore, Milton illustrates that because Adam conforms to Eve’s model of freedom, he creates the possibility of sin through choice. Adam sets forth a choice for himself after the knowledge of Eve’s deception: his love for God or his love for Eve. Adam decides to follow the second, and Milton marks the tragedy of this decision with Adam’s hesitation and submission to his desire before he eats the fruit: “He scrupled not to eat, / Against his better knowledge, not deceived / But fondly overcome with female charm” (IX, 997-9). Mankind falls not because Adam is deceived, but because he makes a conscious choice to serve something lower than his reason: his passion for Eve. In the same way Milton indicates that to be unfree is to conform to something lower in “Second Defense of the English People,” Adam becomes unfree by conforming to the lowly whims of his passions and desires for Eve. Here Milton also connects to the larger structure of Paradise Lost set forth in “The Verse” — Adam’s bondage is birthed from his conformity to the lowness of passion just as epic poetry’s bondage is birthed of its conformity to the lowness of rhyme.
After this is established, Milton illustrates how Adam’s acceptance of freedom as choice causes him to lose true freedom through Michael’s lesson in Book XII: “Yet know withal, / Since thy original lapse true liberty / Is lost which always with right reason dwells” (XII, 82-4). “True liberty is lost” because Adam breaks the proper function of the mind, the will, and the body, which he sets up in Book IX. Adam creates a choice between Eve and God, reasons himself into believing his love for Eve is stronger than his love for God, enacts the will to act on this reason, and finally, consummates his disobedience through the bodily ingestion of the fruit. If true freedom is connected to “right reason,” Adam betrays this reason because it can only be upheld through submission to God’s order of the mind, the will, and the body. What Adam does is play to the desires of his body and works backwards, using his reason to justify his bodily desires — this, Milton confirms, is what causes Adam to disobey God and to become unfree. Finally, Milton connects this fate to the fate of the poetry itself: his assertion in “The Verse” that epic poetry must be “recovered,” must be saved from the “bondage of rhyming,” reflects man’s need to be recovered from the bondage of his passions after the Fall.
Although God punishes man for his disobedience by introducing discord and suffering into the world, Milton attempts to resolve the Fall by showing that through this tragedy, man gains the means for recovery. Even though inherent evil has entered the world, challenging human virtue and true liberty, man can now attest to his strengths by doing his duty to God in the face of life’s perils. In this, Milton asserts that although true freedom becomes that much harder to attain, seeing as man has lost his direct relationship to God, life is now his to command and restore. Paradise Lost ends with an entry in a new place, into a new world where man must learn to redeem the faults of his nature by retaining reason and devotion to God.
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