Wednesday, November 12, 2008

John Milton: "Knowledge, free will, etc."

Gustave Doré, The Heavenly Hosts, c. 1866
Illustration to Paradise Lost
(Image from Wikipedia)

One of the Milton scholars over at the Milton List posed approximately two or three questions about free will in Paradise Lost, so let's return to Paradise in today's blog entry, for I posted a response to the questions.
Michael Grattan asked a couple of questions. Here's my response to the latter question first [-- after introducing the question, of course]:
I have another question regarding freewill. When God relates to Jesus,

Such I created all th' Ethereal Powers [ 100 ]
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Is Jesus included in "Ethereal Powers," and if not, does he have freewill (or does God)? Obviously he exercises "freewill" when offering to suffer death for man's salvation, but as a manifestation of God, wouldn't he be somehow separate from other Ethereal Powers?
Jeffery Hodges responds:

First, I doubt that we should be using "Jesus" to name the Son at this point, for Jesus doesn't appear until Paradise Regained, so far as I know. This is the pre-incarnate Son.

Second, I suppose that the Son is one of the ethereal powers because Milton's theology is Arian. The Son is that one of the ethereal powers who has been elevated to Sonship. Could he have freely fallen prior to his elevation? That would seemingly follow logically -- unless he came into existence in the ceremonial moment of elevation. Could he freely fall after the elevation to Sonship? As the divine Son of God, he could no longer fall at all, freely or otherwise -- or so I would infer.

As for the first question, which is actually two questions, Matthew wrote:
I have wondered just what was the point of God offering any kind of punishment for disobedience, and especially one he knows is foreign to Adam.

. . . of all the Trees
In Paradise that bear delicious fruit
So various, not to taste that onely Tree
Of knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life,
So neer grows Death to Life, what ere Death is, [ 425 ]

Regardless of the level of God's complicity in letting Satan tempt Adam and Eve (or more accurately, just Eve), it seems that God mentions the punishment of death as a necessary element for Adam to choose obedience. I always thought that the threat of losing Paradise would have been more persuasive.

To me it raises a sticky issue of motives for obedience: does one obey out of love and loyalty or out of fear of punishment? A student asked if God preferred one kind of obedience to the other. I'm not sure.
I had better let others reply to this in more depth -- since I'm out of mine -- but my understanding of Milton's thought is that disobedience to God is a free choice to deliberately cut oneself off from God, who is the source of life, such that death follows . . . whatever thing death may be. In Milton's view, free obedience is better than "mechanical necessity" because the latter is not really obedience at all, so -- Milton argues -- God creates free beings who can make the fruitful, fateful choice to obey or disobey. The point is to obey out of love, but disobedience sets in motion the 'natural' consequence of cutting oneself off from God as the source of life.

The question that arises -- for me anyway -- is this: why could God not have created free beings whose choice of disobedience did not cut them off from the source of life, but rather resulted in a lesser punishment, e.g., expulsion from the Garden. On this point, I don't know enough about Milton. Perhaps he thought that a fateful choice was necessary for a truly free individual, namely, that to be radically free, an individual must be able to utterly reject God, damn the consequences.

What do others think?
Such were Matthew Grattan's queries and my responses. Perhaps others with a knowledge of Milton's thought and of Paradise Lost can offer their opinions.

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