(to return to PL Table of Contents, click here)
57. Justifying (i.e., Vindicating) God, First Essay
In Paradise Lost Book III
While Satan is moving towards Heaven, at the end of Book II, Milton has a lot of work to do. He can't let Satan "land" and begin to pursue his nefarious scheme until he has adequately introduced us to God and God's relationship to Satan and, more important, to the humans whom God will make. The principal thing that Milton needs to tell us about God is not that God is good or omniscient or benevolent, but that God should not be blamed for how life has turned out in the world. After all, though Milton would have liked to be present with God at the creation of the universe, he wasn't. He lived in seventeenth century England, and lots of people were saying lots of things about God in that day, both in defending and accusing God. The principal thing that people whom Milton respected (i.e., the Puritans) were saying to defend God was that God had, from before the foundation of the world, decreed that some humans and angels would be saved, and some lost. This decree was made irrespective of what humans would decide with respect to faith in God once they were born and actually lived. But even though Milton wasn't actually present in those pre-creation days, he constructs his narrative as if he knew what was in the very mind of God from the beginning. And, what was in the very mind of God was not what his Puritan brethren were saying. That is, he will disagree with his fellow Puritans on God's decrees and on divine predestination, though he will not abandon belief in a God who has created and who watches over the world.
This essay does the following: (1) it lays out the structure of Book III following the hymn to holy Light in 1-55 and before Milton returns to the subject of Satan's movements in line 416; (2) it then focuses on God's remarkable speech in lines 80-134, in which God defends Himself against any posssible blame for the Fall of mankind.
Outlining the Middle Section of Book III
We can look at the section from lines 56-416 as follows:
(1) 56-79 Introducing God and the Universe. Many points can be noted, among them are the beatific vision of those who enjoy God's presence (l81-82); the description of the Universe as a sort of solid ball, with Satan coming up to the understory of the top part of the ball--Heaven--and "Coasting the wall of Heav'n" (71); the assertion of God's knowledge, "Wherein past, present, and future he beholds" (79). This last point is crucial because it brings up a subject we will join in a subsequent essay, and that is, if God knows everything, what is there for the Son to do/know in Heaven?
(2) 80-134 The Speech of God. I exposit it below and in the next essay.
(3) 135-143 An Interlude, allowing Introduction of the Son.
(4) 144-166 The First Speech of the Son. He is a sort of heavenly "yes man." In saying that, I allude to a significant problem for Milton. How can you portray the uniqueness of the Son in his pre-incarnation expression? Does he bring knowledge that the Father doesn't have? Impossible. Does he just echo the Father? Almost. It isn't exactly the the nymph Echo speaking back the words to Narcissus that he utters, but it is almost that. . .
(5) 167-216 God's Second Speech. Here there is a longer explanation of the kind of redemption needed after Satan perverts humanity. But I will argue here that God overextends Himself, has to backtrack theologically and, as a result, will say some lines that critics, beginning in the eighteenth century, found fairly repulsive. Stay tuned...
(6) 217-226 Another Brief Interlude. Silence reigns in Heaven. Why? God wants to redeem humanity, but there isn't any obvious means or candidate to bring this about.
(7) 227-265 Christ Volunteers. It really is quite noble of him to do so, since he will experience significant pain when the "anger" of God falls upon him (237).
(8) 266-343 God's Response to Christ's Offer. Well, you guessed it. . .Christ's offer is accepted. God will not only be well-pleased with the offer but will reward Christ in significant ways, such as allowing him to "reign for ever" (318). Another important theological issue begs consideration here--does Christ just have his previous condition restored to him by God after redemption is accomplished or is God granting Christ a significant promotion or upgrade in his powers and privileges by virtue of the pain Christ suffered on earth?
(9) 344-415 The Angels Respond. Every drama like this needs an entourage of fawning figures to praise the results of this great transaction. So we have the angels sing their hymn to God for devising this great scheme of redemption.
God's First Speech, III.80-134
Onely begotten Son, seest thou what rage [ 80 ]
Transports our adversarie, whom no bounds
Prescrib'd, no barrs of Hell, nor all the chains
Heapt on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt can hold; so bent he seems
On desparate reveng, that shall redound [ 85 ]
Upon his own rebellious head. And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not farr off Heav'n, in the Precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World,
And Man there plac't, with purpose to assay [ 90 ]
If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert
For man will heark'n to his glozing lyes,
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall, [ 95 ]
Hee and his faithless Progenie: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
God sees Satan trying to get into the upper world, and decides to point out Satan's exploits to the Son. This leads God, for whom all knowledge, of past, present and future, lies open before Him, to describe the future course of Satan's life. Satan is driven by "desperate revenge" (85); he will go "Directly towards" (88) the created world to find "Man there placed" (90). But Satan doesn't want to welcome humans to the fine theater God has constructed for them; he want to "destroy, or worse,/ By some false guile pervert" (91-92). And, God tells us that Satan will be successful in this perversion. The result will be that humans will "easily transgress" the command of God not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. But this consumption will not only wreak damage on those who eat: "So will fall/ Hee and his faithless Progeny," (95-96). It is a sad tale but, as you see, a lot of wallop was packed into the first fruit. It contained a kind of noxious poison that not only couldn't be expelled by our first parents but also lodged in the souls of every subsequent generation.
Well, this is quite a decline from glorious lines of the Hymn to Light of 1-55 and the description of God's majesty and humanity's bliss in 56-79. Now, within 20 lines, we are plunged into a gruesome story that makes it seem as if life is escaping the control of the omniscient one. Indeed, by line 96 we are ready to ask the question that Milton fearlessly asks, "Whose fault?" (96).
One of the things you grow to appreciate about Milton is that he is not afraid to face the most difficult conundrums in faith and politics head on. He doesn't shrink from controversy, principally because he loves to defend himself (and God). Though his younger brother went to law school and he was slated for the priesthood, John shows a defensive skill that trial lawyers could well emulate. I was a trial lawyer for a time after law school, and I appreciate and recognize the signs that a defense is being mounted. And, presto, in the next line, the defense of God begins--from God's own mouth, no less.
Lines 96-98 say it about as succintly as possible:
"Whose (fault) but his own? ingrate; he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall."
God, in his sovereign omniscience, is not simply declaring His position on the matter of human sin in these words. God is, by defending himself, attacking humanity--His beloved creation. A theory of defense includes two elements: showing how your client can't be blamed for something and, if possible, impugning the integrity, motives or actions of the accuser. In this case, Milton defends his client (God) by showing how a system of absolute predestination makes no sense and, in fact, implicates God for blame. Milton will argue that only a system respecting the free choice of the human is consonant with reason. Milton goes on the offensive against humans whose view of God naturally leads to blaming God for causing human sin. Such people are not only ingrates, but they don't understand that God is completely blameless--God gave people the capacity to stand, though free to fall. God gave humans the gift of free choice. What is so bad about that? And, as the argument continues, Milton makes that gift into a sort of necessary gift.
I will develop that idea and continue expositing this section of Book III in the next essay.