Omnipotence, Innocence, and Humanity:
On the characterisation of God, Adam and Eve, and Satan in Paradise Lost
For a Christian to represent God in a work of literature is an extremely tricky thing, particularly in the seventeenth century. To justify the ways of God to men is an almost blasphemous undertaking: there is something approaching the heretical simply in the attempt to achieve a fuller understanding of God’s purpose, since it rejects the idea that God’s design is beyond the wit of man and unknowable. Thus any dramatisation of the Fall must inevitably compromise: God must be seen in human terms, which goes against the very definition of omnipotence. Milton only avoids heresy by suggesting that the poem was effectively written by the Holy Spirit rather than him, and by acknowledging the imperfection inevitable in any such undertaking. Nevertheless, even if he recognises these problems, they are not negated: Milton’s representations of God, the Devil, and Adam and Eve and their possible interpretations are one of the thorniest issues in Paradise Lost.
Let us look, first, at God. In the first place, any conception of God as an individual must bring human sensibilities to bear on what is meant to be a sublime, eternal and incomprehensible force. The very idea that God speaks or thinks or has ideas is diffficult to reconcile with the idea of omnipotence. If God is omnipotent, he contains all; as such, dialogue or consideration or imagination are irrelevant concepts. One cannot think if one already contains the sum total of knowledge and experience and emotion, since thought implies some kind of originality. Consciousness can not really be said to exist in these terms. The only kind of interaction He could have with His creation would be to impart knowledge which He has always had, and this is (more or less) arguably consistent biblically; but the God of Paradise Lost, who claims both omnipotence and personfication, is a theological impossibility, albeit a poetic necessity.
Whilst it is possible in a wider theological context to dismiss this argument out of hand - with the straightforward response that, since a conception of God is definitively so far beyond our capacity, we cannot really say with any degree of certainty what is and is not possible for Him - it is much harder to do so in terms of Paradise Lost alone. And for the drama to work, God has to be a dynamic character, capable of emotion and decisions and new ideas. He is even capable of deceiving the heavenly host: God’s very first words seem like a lie. He says, at the beginning of book III:
Only begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary, whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of hell, nor all the chains
heaped on him there, nor yet the main abyss
Wide interrupt can hold: so bent he seems
On desperate revenge, that shall redound
Upon his rebellious head...
If God is capable of the omniscience suggested by his prior knowledge that Satan’s revenge shall ‘redound upon his rebellious head’ - and reiterated throughout the epic - then he is surely capable of constructing a prison capable of holding his enemy. Consider Book I, line 641: God ‘but still his strength concealed’’. This, too, is a kind of lie. The only alternative to such a conception is that, for dramatic purposes, Milton made God fallible - but this is surely a bridge too far in dramatic licence for any seventeenth century Christian, and is besides repeatedly undermined by the text. Indeed,these specific words of God are contradicted in Book I by the narrator:
...but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation
This raises some disturbing questions. What is the relationship between narrator and God? If a narrator is, in the technical literary sense, omniscient, is he equal, or even superior, to God? After all, he contradicts God directly here, and, for example, seems to ‘see’ the moment of Eve eating the fruit, or Satan gaining entrance to Eden, before the Almighty does. Whilst this may be overcome on technical grounds - since the work is written in the past tense, we can take the narrator’s knowledge as entirely gleaned from God, and agree that Milton would have been confident of his readers understanding this shorthand, particularly given his regular references to his Muse - there is still something odd about their relative positions within the narrative, which, though decisively contradicted when writ large, can nevertheless seem, in individual moments, like a subversion of the natural order widely understood in the sevententh century.
If it seems odd for God to be able to think in human terms because of his omnipotence, there is at least one problem solved in Adam and Eve: like us, they may have revelation, and encounter new and thought -provoking ideas. This barrier is removed. But another stands in it’s place: if God knows too much to be able to cogitate, he at least shares humanity’s comprehension of good and evil. But Adam and Eve really should not: they should be innocent. Again, any version of them represented by Milton must inevitably be corrupted: any emotion is in some sense a representation of virtue or vice, and the two of them continually make observations or remark on feelings inconsistent with a pre-lapsarian world. Single words may serve as excellent examples of the kinds of thigns they ought not feel or think, but do: Adam and Eve know ‘doubt’, ‘blame’, ‘greed’, ‘hope’, ‘honour’ and ‘dishonour’, ‘scorn’ and ‘anger’, ‘malice’, ‘guile’, ‘shame’, ‘fear’, and ‘suspicion’. All thes come in the span of just 100 lines. Even those which are only abstract concepts - ideas the potentiality of which they can see in either the behaviour of Satan or in the possible consequences of being tempted - push the conception of innocence; those which refer directly to their current state directly contradict it. Stanley Fish considers book IV, 304-8
She as a veil down to the slender waist
her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d
As the Vine curls her tendrils, which implied
The use of the words ‘dishevelled’ and ‘wanton’ seem particularly incongruous with the pre-lapsarian world. But this example can at least be explains in terms of the narrator’s voice, as a way of pointing up the disparity between the garden and the fallen world inhabited by Man: those examples directly from Adam and Eve’s speech are harder to justify theologically.
Really, this is more a case of Milton making explicit a conflict already implicit in Genesis than creating it in his own dramatisation as with his representation of God. The Fall, logically, ought to be impossible unless the Fall has already happened: if they are truly innocent, they could only take the decision to eat the fruit in such ignorance that they could not be thrown out of the Garden. For their behaviour to deteriorate after the Fall is not enough: it has to be entirely transformed.
Fish comes up with a kind of answer:
The relationship between the reader and the vocabulary of Paradise is one aspect of his relationship with its inhabitants. Just as the fallen consciousness infects language, so does it make the unfallen consciousness the mirror of itself... Fallen man’s perceptual equipment, physical and moral, is his prison; any communication from a world beyinf the one he has made for himself reaches him only after it has passed through the distortions of his darkened glass.
In a sense this is unanswerable. If it is beyond our comprehension, there is very little argument that can be successfully employed against it, in much the same way as in the previous discussion of God as omnipotent and conscious being. But what it does mean is that Adam and Eve are pushed a little further away from us, despite their being presented in humanly comprehensible terms; almost paradoxically, because the reader notices the difficulty of their human characteristics in a pre-Lapsarian world, he is reminded further of the distance between their world and his.
They may be more comprehensible, though, to a twenty-first century reader than a seventeenth. In Book IX their defiance of God seems almost heroic by modern standards; just as we may find ourselves rooting for Dr Faustus, and hoping he is not punished for his adventurous choice, we are instinctively sympathetic to Eve when she says
What fear I then, rather what know to fear
Under this ignorance of good or evil,
Of God or death, of law or penalty?
Similarly, ther e is a kind of nobility - acknowledged by Milton in
So saying, she embraced him, and for joy
Tenderly wept, much won that he his love
Had so enobled, as of choice to incur
Divine displeasure for her sake, or death
- in Adam’s sacrifice for the sake of love. the words of Adam and Eve concerning the fall may make us think of Auden
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
or even Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
or any of a vast number of twentieth century artists who have insisted on humanity’s self-determination as a noble thing. This is sharply at odds with a standard seventeenth century Christian view, of course; but Milton must intend their words, in the moment of the Fall, to be invested with some kind of dignity, at least. He could surely not have written a couplet as emotive as
Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself
without any intention to portray them in at least a partly positive light.
His presentation of Satan is perhaps still more unsettling. It is commonly accepted that Satan ‘gets all the best tunes’: more controversial is the assertion of the likes of Shelley and Empson that, as Shelley puts it,
Milton’s devil as a moral being is far suprior to his God, as onewho perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent, in spite of adversity and torture.
Blake explains it thus:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils and Hell, is becasue he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
...that is, that he was more poetically attracted to the story of Satan, with it’s extraordinary drama, than that of God. (There is nothing to be gained by pursuing the idea of Milton as a Satanist.)
This is all very exciting sounding stuff, but rather misses the point, which is this: whereas both God and Adam and Eve have serious impediments barring them from being sympathetic and convincing characters, Satan has a much clearer run at it. He is neither omnipotent nor innocent, and is therefore much closer to human than the other characters. This is not to say that Milton is more symapthetic towards him: rather, that he is inherently much easier to sympathise with. Also, at a very basic level, he has the most exciting story of all of the characters, and undergoes the most fundamental changes.
It may be instructive to compare him to The Changeling’s Deflores, or Lear’s Edmond, or any other malcontent character in 17th century literature. We do not exactly root for these characters, just as we do not root for Satan; but to fail to recognise their humanity and the traits shared with them is just as foolish as to suggest that they are an accurate representation of all of mankind. In just the same way, as Fallen humans, Milton suggests, we are closer to Satan in spirit than Adam and Eve. Even if we disagree with C.S. Lewis’ assertion that Satan is less a character than a device, he puts this view forward very well:
Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw... The Satan in Milton enables him to draw the character well just as the Satan in us enables us to receive it.