Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Copyright © 1987 by Michael Macrone.

To Choose and Choose Not

Why Man Falls in Paradise Lost

Out of all the things John Milton wrestles with in Paradise Lost—theodicy being a difficult calling—perhaps the most elusive is the motivation for man’s fall. Yes, Eve is deceived by Satan, but Adam was not; and the fall could not have been inevitable, or Milton’s whole theater collapses. So we’re left to seek for the circumstantial and individual pressures that impel both Adam and Eve to lapse.

By “motivation,” one generally means positive motivation: that is, factors that are a direct basis for some action: if I perform it, then something will happen. But I’d like to begin with the reverse—negative motivation, that is, with what won’t happen. This approach, I believe, will spare some confusion as to how I mean “motivate.” So:

Before exhorting Eve to betake of the fruit for its putative virtues, and after presenting himself as a sample case, Satan-as-serpent predicates a “negative space” upon which all his subsequent rhetoric will rest:

will God incense his ire For such a petty Trespass, and not praise Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain Of Death denounc’t, whatever thing Death be, Deterr’d not from achieving what might lead To happier life, knowledge of Good and Evil; Of good, how just? of evil, if what is evil Be real, why not known, since easier shunned? God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just; Not just, not God; not fear’d then, nor obeyed: Your fear itself of Death removes the fear. (IX, 692–702)[2]

Note all the negative terms of the summary syllogism. Satan is demonstrating his firm grasp of the very recently invented human psychology (a psychology for which he will thereafter mostly be responsible), seizing on the simultaneous dread of and desire for death—a feat accomplished in man’s ignorance of exactly what “Death” signifies. It is the unknown aspect of death, its lack of referent, on which Satan successfully capitalizes; and we detect in his “negative appeal” here a pathetic touch of self-consciousness. I shall address “dread” of death later; for now, I wish only to point to Satan’s basic negative capitalization: “God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just” (700). That this notion is a powerful subconscious trope, and is thus so effectively rung in Eve, is reinforced when Adam rationalizes (to Eve) his own desire to fall (to Eve):

Nor can I think that God, Creator wise, Though threat’ning, will in earnest so destroy Us his prime Creatures, dignifi’d so high, Set over all his Works, which in our Fall, For us created, needs with us must fail, Dependent made; so God shall uncreate, Be frustrate, do, undo, and labor lose, Not well conceiv’d of God, who though his Power Creation could repeat, yet would be loath Us to abolish, lest the Adversary Triumph … (IX, 938–48).

William Empson would leap in here to point out that Adam falls and is punished precisely because he trusts in God’s mercy.[3] As amusing as this argument may be, I think the point is rather that Adam and Eve pick up on a false notion of the cosmic implications of their domestic tragedy. Adam understands his and Eve’s interdependence with the rest of Creation, and pretends to count on the assumption that, even if God might have reason to inflict death, whatever it is, on him and Eve, if death is therefore to fall to Creation as well, God might think twice about capitulating “his Works” to the gloating Adversary. Adam struggles to apologize for his imminent act by asserting its relative unimportance in a grander scheme, which would surely not be sacrificed just to punish him.

Certainly, Adam does nothing more than produce a rationalization that, at heart, he knows to be fallacious. And in any case, thinking that perhaps they may have misinterpreted the threat of death is not exactly a motivation for Adam and Eve to act in defiance of that threat, which is why I have called such a crisis of interpretation a “negative” motivation, one that merely clears the way, as expedient, for the positive. I am aware of the artificial aspects of my distinction here, since, for Milton’s epic to work, what stand as positive motivations must also have a negative aspect.

I should like to point to the ways that the “crisis” of Paradise Lost is fundamentally a crisis of positive motivation and positive choice, or rather, of their signification. The question, “What will happen?” exerts a pressure on Adam and Eve, a pressure which defines the burden of choice. A series of contradictions is embedded in the one Prohibition which the Father has levied on Man. Prohibition signifies an injunction to not do, equating obedience with omission. The antitheses commission/omission, active/permissive, choice/passivity line up to make man’s options look like the false antithesis between active choice and passive omission, false precisely because to choose rightly is to choose not. Proper “action” is inaction, refusal, resistance, stasis.

In The Christian Doctrine, Milton discusses the implications of the Prohibition and its arbitrariness:

No works whatever are required of Adam; a particular act only is forbidden. It was necessary that something should be forbidden or commanded as a test of fidelity, and that an act in its own nature indifferent, in order that man’s obedience might be thereby manifested. For since it was the disposition of man to do what was right, as a being naturally good and holy, it was not necessary that he should be bound by the obligation of a covenant to perform that to which he was of himself inclined; nor would he have given any proof of obedience by the performance of works to which he was led by a natural impulse, independently of the divine command. …
     Seeing … that man was made in the image of God, and had the whole law of nature so implanted and innate in him, that he needed no precept to enforce its observance, it follows, that if he received any additional commands, whether respecting the tree of knowledge, or the institution of marriage, these commands formed no part of the law of nature, which is sufficient of itself to teach whatever is agreeable to right reason, that is to say, whatever is intrinsically good. … [Such a command] would not have been obligatory on any one, had there been no law to enjoin or prohibit it.[4]

What emerges from this way of framing the Prohibition is that all other choice accorded man is trivial, merely the choice to do what one would have done anyway. Milton is saying that what makes the Prohibition effective is its excess of the sufficient good of man’s natural inclinations, and that therefore obedience is manifest only in adherence to an “unnatural” command, by definition beyond his “innate” goodness and holiness, if indifferent to it. As I shall argue, the anxiety latent in Paradise seems to be an anxiety of an excess (of trivial choices) crossed with an anxiety of belatedness (of being creaturely and trivial oneself). As God has interdicted only one action, the interdiction charges this one choice to either act or remain passive and emphasizes the triviality of all of man’s other choices. The reduction of obedience to one determinate choice throws a shadow over the innocent choices readily available to Adam and Eve, and seems to elevate the order, or significance, of the Tree above that of what they have been told are their proper daily activities.

What I am building up to is an examination of the psychic pressure formed about the question “What will happen?”—a pressure which becomes fully associated with dread, and thus associated with God’s appearance at the moment of Prohibition: “Sternly he pronounc’d/ The rigid interdiction, which resounds/ Yet dreadful in mine ear, though in my choice/ Not to incur” (VIII, 333–6). “Rigid” is a striking choice of word on Adam’s part, denoting “inflexible” yet connoting “harsh, bitter.”[5] Fuller meaning of this passage, addressed to Raphael, may be educed by comparing Adam’s relation of the Prohibition scene to Eve:

[We at God’s] hand Have nothing merited, nor can perform Aught whereof hee hath need, hee who requires From us no other service than to keep This one, this easy charge, of all the Trees In Paradise that bear delicious fruit So various, not to taste that only Tree Of Knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life, So near grows Death to Life, whate’er Death is, Some dreadful thing no doubt; for well thou know’st God hath pronounc’t it death to taste that Tree … … Then let us not think hard One easy prohibition, who enjoy Free leave so large to all things else, and choice Unlimited of manifold delights … (IV, 417–27; 432–5)

This passage from Book IV might be taken as a microcosm of the anxieties that press man on to the Fall. The pressure which I now wish to examine echoes from the word “dreadful,” applied here to Death and in Book VIII to God’s Prohibition itself, to the sound of its pronouncement. The Prohibition and Death are collapsed and sustained in “dread,” so that the former already seems a form of the latter. Adam and Eve simply have no referent for “Death” other than to the pronouncement itself, and Adam’s injunction to “not think hard/ One easy prohibition” admits, by its statement, that the thought of its being “hard” has indeed crossed his, and perhaps Eve’s, mind. Immediately following, Adam cites their manifold choices in “all things else,” but clearly he recognizes that the singular choice to abstain partakes of an entirely different order. The “unlimited” aspect of their choice will ultimately fail precisely because it is not unlimited, having been strangely bound, limited, by the overriding constraint of the Prohibition, which is associated with dread.

This sense of dread overtakes at least Eve’s subconscious, culminating finally in her claim that it’s better to know what one must face than to consist in trivial activity imperfectly secured against unknown threat. In her prelapsarian argument with Adam, reminded by him of the “malicious Foe/ Envying our happiness” (IX, 253–4), Eve retorts: “If this be our condition, thus to dwell/ In narrow circuit strait’n’d by a Foe,/ Subtle or violent, we not endu’d/ Single with like defense, wherever met,/ How are we happy, still in fear of harm?” (322–6). Eve concludes that she is “prepar’d” to face the “Foe,” so all the better that she go off alone now, because seeking “trial” ensures a more sure defense against temptation (378–82). Her parting words, “The willinger I go, nor much expect/ A Foe so proud will first the weaker seek” (382–3), admit the fallacy of her reasoning in the admission that she really doesn’t think she need be careful, and is prepared only to be unprepared.

Revealed beneath Eve’s bad-faith argumentation is her anxiety about not knowing what exactly she and Adam so dread. Her hubristic assumption, that a trial is no trial if one seeks it prepared, betrays a desire to bring on some trial as quickly as possible, because “Eden were no Eden” “strait’n’d” by the unknown, by dread. A similar state of near-despair underwrites Adam’s impulse to have the Fall done with, because at least then he will know what doom is: “I with thee have fixt my Lot,/ Certain to undergo like doom; if Death/ Consort with thee, Death to mee as Life” (952–4). The underlying surrender to fatalism becomes more apparent if we compare Adam’s statement here to Satan’s in Paradise Regain’d: “Let [my destruction] come when it comes; all hope is lost/ Of my reception into grace; what worse?/ For where no hope is left, is left no fear” (III, 204–6). Adam surrenders to his doom, certainly because he cannot bear the thought of life without Eve, but, more to the point, he cannot bear a life of fear.[6]

So far, I have put forth what I see as one major “negative” reason for Man’s choice to disobey (an error in reasoning about the chain of being) and one “positive” reason (an option out of dread and into palpable, experienced doom). But there is more behind the Fall than fallacious syllogism and anxiety over the unknown, at least as so marked off from more fundamental issues, viz.: the nature of choice and the choice of nature, whereby natural “having” (plenitude, Fancy) creates an anxiety about “having not” (by choice, by Reason).

First, let me clarify my definitions of Fancy and Reason and my understanding of Milton’s stance toward choice. Paradise Lost clearly refers to a late-Renaissance notion of Temperance, addressed at length in Comus. By this notion, imaginative activity and a plenitude of options are celebrated as necessary to the function and rule of “right reason,” which is the capacity to limit the plenitude to what is naturally useful and good. As Milton argues in Areopagitica,

[W]hen God gave [Adam] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force. God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence.…
… This justifies the high providence of God, who, though he command us temperance, justice, continence, yet pours out before us, even to a profuseness, all desirable things, and gives us minds that can wander beyond all limit and satiety.[7]

For those who prefer to think of Milton’s God as little more than a vain sadist, these passages are prime grist for the mill. What we get here as a positive statement is that God’s profuse gifts are at least a little dangerous, mostly because the mind (the imagination, Fancy) is insatiable; but without such dangers, man would be but “artificial,” a puppet in the motions—neither “Natural” nor free. Adam presents his own views on Fancy and Reason in Book V of Paradise Lost , and they accord with Milton’s:

in the Soul Are many lesser Faculties that serve Reason as chief; among these Fancy next Her office holds; of all external things, Which the five watchful Senses represent, She forms Imaginations, Aery shapes, Which Reason joining or disjoining, frames All what we affirm or what deny, and call Our knowledge or opinion; then retires Into her private Cell when Nature rests. Oft in her absence mimic Fancy wakes To imitate her; but misjoining shapes, Wild work produces oft, and most in dreams, Ill matching words and deeds long past or late. (V, 100–13)

In this scheme, Fancy is linked to Nature variously: as its amplification (as Imaginations); as officer of the Senses, which extend the mind into Nature; and as imitator and, therefore, as seeming extension. But Fancy, as nature, tends to be wild; it is thus a source of anxiety about purpose and discrimination. In Book VIII, Adam tells Raphael that “apt the Mind or Fancy is to rove/ Uncheckt, and of her roving is no end”—and “she” must be alerted to her tendency to “wand’ring” by warning or by experience (VIII, 187–90). Fancy, in this sense, is a necessary evil; necessary because it provides the basis of knowledge, evil because it can be duplicitous, can sway Reason (immediately or in retrospect) from its “rightness.” Like Nature, it must be guided, pruned, watched over; but if one absolutely limits or restrains Fancy, then Reason is voided, because there is nothing to choose from; there is not even trivial choice. If one gives Fancy too much leeway, one is not choosing, and Reason becomes subjected to what, in Milton’s hierarchy, is the lesser, potentially dangerous faculty. Temperance involves a “permissive” liberation of Fancy yet a resistance to its essential, wayward excesses.

In Paradise Lost , the problem of Temperance—of choice, limitation, coping with excess—is hyper-dramatized. As I have indicated earlier, the activity of reason (real, not trivial, choice) becomes figured in the Prohibition, the injunction to “choose not.” God justifies the Prohibition thus: “Authors to themselves in all/ Both what they judge and what they choose; for so/ I form’d them free, and free they must remain,/ Till they enthrall themselves; I else must change/ Thir nature” (III, 122–6). The paradox that underwrites man’s anxiety is that to be “free” is to be self-limited, to choose obedience. God’s statement anticipates Adam’s and Eve’s peculiar crisis of freedom and “individuality”—where being an independent self is opting for “enthrallment,” and remaining “individual” in the sense of integrated into greater “being” is remaining free. According to God, “I made [man] just and right,/ Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (III, 98–9). Man’s crisis is precisely that he is “sufficient” but not “necessary,” and the pressure to maintain sufficiency without the experience of its trial (empirical knowledge) becomes too much to bear. Consequently, choosing an action that will entail necessity (Death by decree) becomes overwhelmingly tempting.

I mean “necessary” in its full sense, implying that Adam and Eve are faced with recognizing their own superfluity or triviality in the cosmic scheme, that is, their redundancy to God. Adam is unhappily forced into a direct confrontation of this fact: God asks, “What think’st thou then of mee, and this my State,/ Seem I to thee sufficiently possest/ Of happiness, or not? who am alone/ From all Eternity, for none I know/ Second to mee or like, equal much less” (VIII, 403–7). Adam passes God’s “test,” but in the process opens a margin for anxiety: “No need that thou/ Shouldst propagate, already infinite;/ And through all numbers absolute, though One;/ But Man by number is to manifest/ His single imperfection” (419–23). Adam places before himself the problem of the reason for Creation, since it was unnecessary, and of his imperfection in having “number.”

Thus the desire for an Eve becomes problematic, not only because she would be yet another creature unnecessary to God, but also because his desire signals his own inability to satisfy himself, to choose his pleasure; it signals a gap of self which requires that his “Image” be “multipli’d/ In unity defective” (424–5). Eve is also brought to confront a version of the anxiety about the excess of bodies to selves, about division and multiplicity of the body’s image. God gives Eve to Adam as his “other self” (450), so that his [Adam’s] satisfaction is granted only in his division. Eve, on the other hand, is first told not that another creature is a supplementary self, but that her reflected image is identical to her self. God interrupts her self-admiration with the troubling “What thou seest,/ What there thou seest fair Creature is thyself” (IV, 467–8). Adam wakes already aware of his creatureliness and division from the creator (VIII, 278–9); Eve wakes with a less “differentiated” consciousness (whereby Nature appears as an extension of self) and with a wandering disposition of self into the object world. Adam petitions the heavens for the Creator’s identity; Eve hears a “murmuring sound” from Nature in response to her “wond’ring where/ And what I was, whence thither brought, and how” (IV, 451–6). Adam is created with intentionality ; Eve is not. God proclaims to Eve not her differentiation from her projected image, but her identity to it, and thus indicates an essential gap of self, whereby proliferating images constitute identity (she is, in fact, both Nature’s and Adam’s image—IV, 468; 472), whereby bodies again exceed the self. Excess not only characterizes (specifies) Eve’s identity with and relation to Nature, but constitutes that identity and relation.[8]

For Adam, Eve is thus “too much” not only because she reinforces his disunity and creatureliness, but also because she is the consummation of a Nature wild in its plenitude. The narrator, seeing Eve through Satan’s eyes, produces this rapture on the subject of her hair (which here becomes a synecdoche): “Shee 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 impli’d/ Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway” (IV, 304–8). The poignancy of these lines is recalled when, making her first bid for a morning on her own, Eve suggests that Adam go “where choice/ Leads thee, or where most needs, whether to wind/ The Woodbine round this Arbor, or direct/ The clasping Ivy where to climb” (IX, 214–7). This is the choice that Adam will not make; Eve, the clasping Ivy, needs his direction, but he chooses not. Adam’s own thoughts when, anaesthetized, he first imagines Eve in his dream (his “Cell/ Of Fancy” left “op’n,” VIII, 460–1; recall Reason’s “Cell” at V, 109) are these: “Manlike, but different sex, so lovely fair,/ That what seem’d fair in all the World, seem’d now/ Mean, or in her summ’d up, in her contain’d/ And in her looks” (VIII, 471–4). Eve consummates nature.

Adam recognizes a problem in his excessive passion for Eve, whom God calls his “other self” (450), thinking that perhaps he has been split apart a bit too much on “behalf” of her creation:

here only weak Against the charm of Beauty’s powerful glance. Or Nature fail’d in mee, and left some part Not proof enough such Object to sustain, Or from my side subducting, took perhaps More than enough; at least on her bestow’d Too much of Ornament, in outward show Elaborate, of inward less exact. (VIII, 532–9)

Adam senses that Eve’s excessive ornamentation and lesser inclination to contemplation pose a threat to his “right reason,” and, forging the crucial association, tries to palm the blame off on Nature. Raphael is less than pleased by Adam’s way with the matter: “Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part” (even to the unsexed angel, Nature is “she”); “what transports thee so,/ An outside? fair no doubt, and worthy well/ Thy cherishing, thy honoring, and thy love,/ Not thy subjection” (561; 567–70). Like Nature (and Fancy), Eve, not Adam, must undergo subjection (choice). Adam’s—and Eve’s—growing anxiety about nature’s excesses can be traced from the first scene of the domestic round all the way to their parting before the Fall. At dawn, they rise to “reform” the Arbors and Alleys, “with branches overgrown/ That mock our scant manuring, and require/ More hands than ours to lop thir wanton growth” (IV, 625–29); in their prayer, they tell God that Paradise is “For us too large, where thy abundance wants/ Partakers, and uncropt falls to the ground” (IV, 730–1); Satan inflames Eve’s anxiety in her dream of “offense and trouble” (V, 34): “And O fair Plant, said he, with fruit surcharg’d,/ Deigns none to ease thy load and taste thy sweet;/ Nor God, nor Man; is Knowledge so despis’d?” (V, 58–60); etc. Nature comes to seem like the very principle of trivial excess (or worse, of significant yet ungraspable excess, only another source of hermenuetic dread). In buying God’s assurance that they will soon propagate extra help in (the choice of) limiting that excess, Adam and Eve invite more anxiety about the paradox of needing more creatures, trivial multiplications of their image, to cope with Nature’s trivial profusion and surcharge.

Surely it is this anxiety of excess that Eve addresses in questioning Adam about the motions of the stars (IV, 657–8); Adam, unconvinced by his own answer, turns the question to Raphael:

When I behold this goodly Frame, this World Of Heav’n and Earth consisting, and compute Thir magnitudes, this Earth a spot, a grain, An Atom, with the Firmament compar’d And all her number’d Stars, that seem to roll Spaces incomprehensible (for such Thir distance argues and thir swift return Diurnal) merely to officiate light Round this opacous Earth, this punctual spot, One day and night; in all thir vast survey Useless besides; reasoning I oft admire, How Nature wise and frugal could commit Such disproportions, with superfluous hand … (VIII, 15–27)

This is precisely the moment when Eve chooses to absent herself from the discourse—at least visibly—which cannot help but remind us that part of the problem, as far as Adam is concerned, is she. Adam seems fixated on Earth’s insignificance, and, knowing much better than to refer to Nature as “frugal,” what he’s really getting at is that he’s nervous about his own insignificance. The angel’s reply is less than comforting; after implying that the stars’ excessive size and odd motions are perhaps just a joke at the expense of Adam’s descendants, Raphael gets serious and tells our father that the stars are really a reminder that Man “dwells not on his own;/ An Edifice too large for him to fill,/ Lodg’d in a small partition, and the rest/ Ordain’d for uses to his Lord best known” (VIII, 77–84; 103–6). When the angel has finished, Adam is describ’d as “clear’d of doubt” (179), yet something remains, and that is the deep problem of his own “partition.”

These lingering anxieties of dividedness, triviality and impotence show through in Adam’s later dealings with his wife. His status as a creature is complicated by her excess, and by the threat to his self-control that she represents. Adam has passed God’s test of self-knowledge, sort of—at least phase one; but Eve is the second test, and he dreads his weakness before her, her pressure upon his delegated authority and priority. “Authority and Reason on her wait,/ As one intended first, not after made/ Occasionally”; she has an “awe” about her, he confesses to Raphael (VIII, 554–6; 558–9). Of course, the beasts were created prior to man, and the angel warns that Adam should not be overawed by Eve’s sensuality, which, after all, is also “voutsaf’t/ To Cattle and each Beast” (581–2). Nonetheless, Adam continues his dedication to Eve and to her charms, led somehow by the notion that her seeming priority argues his indebtedness to her.[9] If being posterior means being a creature and being unable to dictate one’s pleasure, then man’s crisis of choice becomes his crisis of creatureliness.

Adam lets Eve part from him because he cannot resolve the tension between subjection and freedom. Even though Eve has subconsciously begged him to bind her (IX, 214–15), Adam declines: “Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more” (372). The divine logic that to obey is to be free does not exactly work for him, and Milton works up the pathos of the epic by making the Fall a sort of bid for freedom, on human terms, freedom as autonomy and self-determination. But the poet is careful to let us know that the logic that equates the choice to disobey with the choice to be free is, in fact, fallen logic. (This is yet another instance of Milton’s directing us to a more or less passionate identification before pulling out the rug.) Eve, picking up on Satan’s view of the matter, asks, “inferior, who is free?” (IX, 825). Eve thinks that she’s now got the “odds of Knowledge” in her “power” (820), but reconsiders that, on the off chance that she will actually die, it might be better to take Adam with her, because she can’t stand the thought that death might include (or be) knowing Adam’s got another Eve.[10]

Fallen, Eve comes back to the problem of alienability—the problem not that one cannot stand self-necessitated (even if self-sufficient), but that one might actually have to stand alone, alienated. Eve succumbs to temptation under the pressure of dread (she wants to know “what know to fear,” 773), to gain an empirical understanding of the terms of Prohibition; she succumbs too because she feels “inferior” in knowledge and position (priority); but she succumbs most basically because the choice to disobey looks rather like the courageous way out of creatureliness and into true choice, active choice. She hopes that, as the serpent says, God and Adam will not be incensed, but “praise/ Rather [her] dauntless virtue, whom the pain/ Of Death denounc’t, whatever thing Death be,/ Deterr’d not from achieving what might lead/ To happier life” (693–7).

Satan has once again cut to the core; echoing Adam’s words from IV, 425 (“whate’er Death is”), he presents Eve with the choice to renounce her superfluity, her excess, her “individuality” from Adam, and to choose meaning, mattering, courage, independent action. For Eve, this looks like her trial of selfhood, much more real than the “choice” of submitting to Adam’s “manly grace” after being literally placed in his hands (IV, 469–91).

As for Adam, he is ostensibly taken in by his devotion to Eve, he undeceived and deeply aware that he is choosing his doom, because “if Death/ Consort with [Eve], Death to mee as Life” (953–4). But he goes on:

So forcible within my heart I feel The Bond of Nature draw me to my own, My own in thee, for what thou art is mine; Our state cannot be sever’d, we are one, One Flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself. (IX, 955–9)

This is, of course, a truly touching moment, and Milton hopes to reinforce our sense that the Original Parents were indeed dignified. (One needs to shore up as much of that sense as possible before Book X.) The Son will condemn Adam’s choice as idolatry (X, 145), but we’re pretty much against him on that point. Our sympathies (which Milton would like to divide) have much to do with fallen notions of love and courage; yet the resistance to such an easy condemnation has roots in another pathetic aspect of Adam’s decision to disobey, his appeal to the general “Bond of Nature.” What Adam admits is not only his investment of self in Eve as Nature’s consummation, but also his submission to his creatureliness, his submission, in effect, to the priority of Creation. If Eve’s fall seems motivated by the need to choose one’s own creation, to opt for self-determination, Adam’s comes down to his renunciation of that choice, or even of that option. He submits to Nature in defying God.


[1] This paper should be regarded as an amplification of arguments considered in tutorial meetings during 1987 with Professor Steven Knapp at the University of California, Berkeley.

[2] Readings of Paradise Lost follow the text included in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1957).

[3] Empson relentlessly argues along these lines in his highly entertaining and elegantly written Milton’s God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). Empson is actually much more careful in this book than he seems; thus my statement is more of a caricature than is perhaps responsible, yet I don’t think it’s inaccurate. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” What Empson in fact does say, after quoting from the passage I have just cited, is that Adam’s reasoning “strikes the reader as so probable, especially after God’s remark that he will create mankind to keep Satan from exulting (VII. 150), that Adam cannot appear as betraying ‘the highest value in his world.’ There is no question of harming God by eating the apple, only a question of how best to handle his vanity and bad temper” (Milton’s God, p. 185). Empson knows Adam knows he’s wrong, and Empson’s remarks are admirably judicious in assigning seeming “probability” to the reader only. That is, Milton may intend that the reader find this remark “probable,” at least for a few lines, but Empson constantly pulls back from the claim that Milton thinks such reasoning just.

[4] The Christian Doctrine, I.x (Hughes, p. 993).

[5] The O.E.D. gives priority to the definition “stiff, unyielding; … firm” [A.1], citing Milton’s usage at VI, 82–3: “Bristl’d with upright beams innumerable/ Of rigid Spears”; but the meaning “harsh, severe” was current [A.3].

[6] Compare also Moloch’s despair (death-wish) in Paradise Lost, Book II: More destroy’d than thus We should be quite abolisht and expire. What fear we then? what doubt we to incense His utmost ire? which to the highth enrag’d, Will either quite consume us, and reduce To nothing this essential, happier far Than miserable to have eternal being … (II, 92–8).

[7] Hughes, p. 733.

[8] In effect, Eve has been given a sense of character—of rôle. She can imagine herself as “other,” can imagine being seen as “other,” and thus can imagine a viewpoint into which the desire for her self is displaced or substituted. This seems to explain her “vanity”—the motivation, perhaps, of her petition to Adam before the fall (i.e., her attempt to prompt Adam into praise), and of her identification with the serpent’s flattery (her ability to stand in the serpent’s place).

[9] Eve helps Adam into his dilemma by reinforcing the creaturely-derivative-dependent chain of associations before offering her narrative of awakening: For wee to him indeed all praises owe, And daily thanks, I chiefly who enjoy So far the happier Lot, enjoying thee Preëminent by so much odds, while thou Like consort to thyself canst nowhere find. (IV, 444–8) Adam must notice that Eve is echoing God’s claim to singularity, which he reports to Raphael at VIII, 405–7. Her humility reintroduces the anxiety of his insufficiency to the creator.

[10] This is the nightmare version of rôle: the excess of selves to bodies. Where Eve, yet innocent, had been able to redeem the excess of bodies in projecting her self into one and admiring another (see n. 8), she is now faced with a total expulsion from Adam’s side and from her body proper, and with the intolerable thought that her name is merely a “shifter.” (“Eve” could in innocence assume identities in experience, will exclude them.) Too many places of being used to be kind of a problem, but now it looks a lot better than being nowhere; she understands death finally as an inversion of the bodily plenitude. If this implies that God is something of an Indian giver, well, that’s fallen logic for you.

Originally written in 1987

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