Milton believed Christianity more than worthy of a poetic canon in the tradition of the classical poets, and Paradise Lost represents his effort at establishing one. What his Christian epic has offered for many readers over the centuries, however, is an invitation to weigh the actions and motivations of immortals in mortal terms. In the story, God becomes a human king, albeit one with superhuman powers, while Satan becomes an upstart subject. As Milton attempts to “justify the ways of God to Man,” he is taking it upon himself simultaneously, and inadvertently, to justify the absolute dominion of a human dictator. One of the consequences of this shift in perspective is the transformation of a philosophical tradition devoted to parsing the logic of biblical teachings into something akin to a political campaign between two rival leaders, each laying out his respective platform alongside a case against his rival. What was hitherto recondite and academic becomes in Milton’s work immediate and visceral.
Keats famously penned the wonderfully self-proving postulate, “Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses,” which leaves open the question of how an axiom might be so proved. Milton’s God responds to Satan’s approach to Earth, and his foreknowledge of Satan’s success in tempting the original pair, with a preemptive defense of his preordained punishment of Man:
Whose but his own? Ingrate! He had of Me
All he could have. I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood though free to fall.
Such I created all th’ ethereal pow’rs
And spirits, both them who stood and who failed:
Freely they stood who stood and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith or love
Where only what they needs must do appeared,
Not what they would? What praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid
When will and reason… had served necessity,
Not me? (3.96-111)
God is defending himself against the charge that his foreknowledge of the fall implies that Man’s decision to disobey was borne of something other than his free will. What choice could there have been if the outcome of Satan’s temptation was predetermined? If it wasn’t predetermined, how could God know what the outcome would be in advance? God’s answer—of course I granted humans free will because otherwise their obedience would mean nothing—only introduces further doubt. Now we must wonder why God cherishes Man’s obedience so fervently. Is God hungry for political power? If we conclude he is—and that conclusion seems eminently warranted—then we find ourselves on the side of Satan. It’s not so much God’s foreknowledge of Man’s fall that undermines human freedom; it’s God’s insistence on our obedience, under threat of God’s terrible punishment.
Milton faces a still greater challenge in his attempt to justify God’s ways “upon our pulses” when it comes to the fallout of Man’s original act of disobedience. The Son argues on behalf of Man, pointing out that the original sin was brought about through temptation. If God responds by turning against Man, then Satan wins. The Son thus argues that God must do something to thwart Satan: “Or shall the Adversary thus obtain/ His end and frustrate Thine?” (3.156-7). Before laying out his plan for Man’s redemption, God explains why punishment is necessary:
Disloyal breaks his fealty and sins
Against the high supremacy of Heav’n,
Affecting godhead, and so, losing all,
To expiate his treason hath naught left
But to destruction sacred and devote
He with his whole posterity must die. (3. 203-9)
The potential contradiction between foreknowledge and free choice may be abstruse enough for Milton’s character to convincingly discount: “If I foreknew/ Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault/ Which had no less proved certain unforeknown” (3.116-9). There is another contradiction, however, that Milton neglects to take on. If Man is “Sufficient to have stood though free to fall,” then God must justify his decision to punish the “whole posterity” as opposed to the individuals who choose to disobey. The Son agrees to redeem all of humanity for the offense committed by the original pair. His knowledge that every last human will disobey may not be logically incompatible with their freedom to choose; if every last human does disobey, however, the case for that freedom is severely undermined. The axiom of collective guilt precludes the axiom of freedom of choice both logically and upon our pulses.
In characterizing disobedience as a sin worthy of severe punishment—banishment from paradise, shame, toil, death—an offense he can generously expiate for Man by sacrificing the (his) Son, God seems to be justifying his dominion by pronouncing disobedience to him evil, allowing him to claim that Man’s evil made it necessary for him to suffer a profound loss, the death of his offspring. In place of a justification for his rule, then, God resorts to a simple guilt trip.
Man shall not quite be lost but saved who will,
Yet not of will in him but grace in me
Freely vouchsafed. Once more I will renew
His lapsed pow’rs though forfeit and enthralled
By sin to foul exorbitant desires.
Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand
On even ground against his mortal foe,
By me upheld that he may know how frail
His fall’n condition is and to me owe
All his deliv’rance, and to none but me. (3.173-83)
Having decided to take on the burden of repairing the damage wrought by Man’s disobedience to him, God explains his plan:
Die he or justice must, unless for him
Some other as able and as willing pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death. (3.210-3)
He then asks for a volunteer. In an echo of an earlier episode in the poem which has Satan asking for a volunteer to leave hell on a mission of exploration, there is a moment of hesitation before the Son offers himself up to die on Man’s behalf.
…On Me let thine anger fall.
Account Me Man. I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom and this glory next to Thee
Freely put off and for him lastly die
Well pleased. On Me let Death wreck all his rage! (3.37-42)
This great sacrifice, which is supposed to be the basis of the Son’s privileged status over the angels, is immediately undermined because he knows he won’t stay dead for long: “Yet that debt paid/ Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave” (246-7). The Son will only die momentarily. This sacrifice doesn’t stack up well against the real risks and sacrifices made by Satan.
All the poetry about obedience and freedom and debt never takes on the central questionSatan’s rebellion forces readers to ponder: Does God deserve our obedience? Or are the labels of good and evil applied arbitrarily? The original pair was forbidden from eating from the Tree of Knowledge—could they possibly have been right to contravene the interdiction? Since it is God being discussed, however, the assumption that his dominion requires no justification, that it is instead simply in the nature of things, might prevail among some readers, as it does for the angels who refuse to join Satan’s rebellion. The angels, after all, owe their very existence to God, as Abdiel insists to Satan. Who, then, are any of them to question his authority? This argument sets the stage for Satan’s remarkable rebuttal:
…Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power…
Our puissance is our own. Our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds by proof to try
Who is our equal. (5.855-66)
Just as a pharaoh could claim credit for all the monuments and infrastructure he had commissioned the construction of, any king or dictator might try to convince his subjects that his deeds far exceed what he is truly capable of. If there’s no record and no witness—or if the records have been doctored and the witnesses silenced—the subjects have to take the king’s word for it.
That God’s dominion depends on some natural order, which he himself presumably put in place, makes his tendency to protect knowledge deeply suspicious. Even the angels ultimately have to take God’s claims to have created the universe and them along with it solely on faith. Because that same unquestioning faith is precisely what Satan and the readers of Paradise Lost are seeking a justification for, they could be forgiven for finding the answer tautological and unsatisfying. It is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat fruit from. When Adam, after hearing Raphael’s recounting of the war in heaven, asks the angel how the earth was created, he does receive an answer, but only after a suspicious preamble:
…such commission from above
I have received to answer thy desire
Of knowledge with bounds. Beyond abstain
To ask nor let thine own inventions hope
Things not revealed which the invisible King
Only omniscient hath suppressed in night,
To none communicable in Earth or Heaven:
Enough is left besides to search and know. (7.118-125)
Raphael goes on to compare knowledge to food, suggesting that excessively indulging curiosity is unhealthy. This proscription of knowledge reminded Shelley of the Prometheus myth. It might remind modern readers of The Wizard of Oz—“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”—or to the space monkeys in Fight Club, who repeatedly remind us that “The first rule of Project Mayhem is, you do not ask questions.” It may also resonate with news about dictators in Asia or the Middle East trying to desperately to keep social media outlets from spreading word of their atrocities.
Like the protesters of the Arab Spring, Satan is putting himself at great risk by challenging God’s authority. If God’s dominion over Man and the angels is evidence not of his benevolence but of his supreme selfishness, then Satan’srebellion becomes an attempt at altruistic punishment. The extrapolation from economic experiments like the ultimatum and dictator games to efforts to topple dictators may seem like a stretch, especially if humans are predisposed to forming and accepting positions in hierarchies, as a casual survey of virtually any modern organization suggests is the case.
Organized institutions, however, are a recent development in terms of human evolution. The English missionary Lucas Bridges wrote about his experiences with the Ona foragers in Tierra del Fuego in his 1948 book Uttermost Part of the Earth, and he expresses his amusement at his fellow outsiders’ befuddlement when they learn about the Ona’s political dynamics:
A certain scientist visited our part of the world and, in answer to his inquiries on this matter, I told him that the Ona had no chieftains, as we understand the word. Seeing that he did not believe me, I summoned Kankoat, who by that time spoke some Spanish. When the visitor repeated his question, Kankoat, too polite to answer in the negative, said: “Yes, senor, we, the Ona, have many chiefs. The men are all captains and all the women are sailors” (quoted in Boehm 62).
At least among Ona men, it seems there was no clear hierarchy. The anthropologist Richard Lee discovered a similar dynamic operating among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari. In order to ensure that no one in the group can attain an elevated status which would allow him to dominate the others, several leveling mechanisms are in place. Lee quotes one of his informants:
When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. (quoted in Boehm 45)
These examples of egalitarianism among nomadic foragers are part of anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s survey of every known group of hunter-gatherers. His central finding is that “A distinctively egalitarian political style is highly predictable wherever people live in small, locally autonomous social and economic groups” (35-36). This finding bears on any discussion of human evolution and human nature because small groups like these constituted the whole of humanity for all but what amounts to the final instants of geological time.