Freedom, Agency, and Kingdom in Paradise Lost

As I prepare for my qualifying exam this summer I will be blogging through some of the books I am reading as a means to clarifying my thinking.  These posts are not intended to be terribly original or fully developed, but merely gesture towards some interesting lines of analysis.

Paradise Lost is one of those books I read when I was an undergraduate and hadn’t thought much about for years, despite my abiding interest in William Blake.  It’s one of those books I always intended to return to, but something else was always more pressing.  Returning to the text, though, after years of neglect (or avoidance), I was pleasantly surprised at how rich the text was and, now with years of graduate study behind me, how much I truly enjoyed it.  I was particularly struck by how the layers of interpretation that have accreted to the text over the years worked simultaneously to assist and confound my experience with the text.  Because of Paradise Lost’s iconic status in the canon it is difficult to approach it without preconceived notions.  Especially as a Romanticist Blake’s dictum in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” was constantly resonating in my ears.  Nevertheless the experience with the actual text was refreshing and illuminating – illustrating the extent to which Milton’s poetic vision overflows any single interpretation – even Blake’s.  I was especially struck on this reading by Milton’s seeming hope in human agency and representation of the kingdom of God on earth as opposed to the kingdom of Satan.

In particular I was interested in how Milton negotiated the question of free will and predestination – specifically as regards Adam and Eve’s power to choose.  For, even though God has already made allowance for the Fall, he nevertheless sends Raphael to the garden to remind Adam and Eve of their power to choose.  In Book V, for example, he enjoins obedience to God’s commands and reminds them of their free will:

He Left it in thy power, ordaind thy will

By nature free, not over-rul’d by Fate

Inextricable, or strict necessity;

Our voluntarie service he requires,

Not our necessitated, such with him

Findes no acceptance, nor can find, for how

Can hearts, not free, be tri’d whether they serve

Willing or no, who will but what they must

Be Destinie, and can no other choose?

Not only does this grant Adam and Eve a sort of agency – even within God’s divine plan – it also resonates on several levels through the text.  In the first place it mirrors Jesus’ choice to act as the atonement for humankind’s sin – an event that takes place even before the Fall.  Throughout the poem, Jesus acts not only as a redemptive figure, but the ultimate granter of human agency.  It is through him that humans are to ultimately gain their fullest expression.

Secondly, this emphasis on agency could also be interpreted socio-politically.  Writing after the Restoration, Milton clearly seeks to juxtapose a vision of freedom and liberation as against an empire of deceit and tradition represented by Satan.  Though Blake is undoubtedly right in recognizing that Satan is by far the most compelling character in Paradise Lost, I don’t think this necessarily makes Milton of his party in the sense that this passage has been traditionally interpreted.  Satan’s ultimate errors in seeking to make himself equal to God is not so much in subverting authority, but in wishing to move up an established order and lord his power over others.  In this sense by investing Jesus, Adam, and Eve with a sense of free will and agency, Milton is translating the political events of his earthly kingdom into the language of a heavenly kingdom.

Finally, it is in Milton’s representation of this heavenly kingdom that we see the full development and end of his mythos.  For while Satan succeeds in that he manages to convince Adam and Even to misuse their power of free choice – in the end Michael holds out the promise of a coming restoration of an earthly kingdom that will God’s plan to fruition:

Of him [Jesus] so lately promis’d to thy aid,

The Womans seed, obscurely then foretold,

Now amplier known thy Saviour and thy Lord,

Last in the Clouds from Heavn’n to be reveald

In glory to the Father, to dissolve

Satan with his perverted World, then raise

From the conflagrant mass, purg’d and refin’d.

New Heav’ns, new Earth, Ages of endless date

Founded in righteousness and peace and love,

To bring forth fruits Joy and eternal Bliss.

It is in this vision of Christ’s free choice coming to fruition on earth that freedom, agency, and love are ultimately invested with power.  In the end the fact that God knew Adam and Eve would fall is irrelevant, because he also knew that the earth would ultimately be renewed through his son.  In this Milton is arguing that it is ultimately upon structures of freedom that kingdoms (both earthly and heavenly) stand and fall – not power, hierarchy, or tradition.

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