Verse * John Milton * The Fall of Man * 1667/1674
Human beings have a strong tendency to feel deep down in their hearts that their individual experience of the world is of the utmost importance. After all, our own perspective is all we really have to rely on to see us through what is ultimately a short life (compared to the life-span of the species as a whole, that is). It’s a short-sighted instinct that helps us preserve our own safety and well-being, to be sure, but it’s this same tendency that allows us to make the same mistakes again and again and again. Another consequence is that we have a way of looking at the world around us and thinking ‘surely nothing has ever been this chaotic before.’ I feel that this sensation is more pronounced to the citizens of whichever society is ascendant in the world at the time. Things are always more precarious at the top, because there is always pressure to undermine power and influence. Civilizations always fall. Yet for people who are currently living in the time of that decline and fall, it’s for the first time, and is therefore extremely traumatic. Or, in our short-term mindset, ‘nobody has ever experienced the fall of such a great society before.’ Never mind that history is littered with the remains of once great empires, as soon as things start going sideways in a given civilization, it may as well be the first time. Just ask Rome. Or Persia. Or France, Spain, and England. Or most recently the Soviet Union. Things fall apart, and then are rebuilt in a different way. Over and over again. The question remains: why? John Milton, writing over three hundred years ago from a turbulent England, thought he had a pretty good answer.
Milton was a complicated guy. He lived in a complicated time. He wrote complicated poetry. I think we have a new word of the day. I’ll try to keep the biographical and historical information to a minimum, because while I think context is important (doubly so for older works) I am in no way a Milton scholar, nor am I particularly well-versed in this era of English history. Anyway, here’s what I’ve gleaned from a few sources (including an overly-fawning introduction written for the 1943 edition I read by some dude who is, for lack of a more fun way to put it, all up on Milton’s D). Milton was born into relative comfort, and began his education at an early age. He was also combative and assured of his genius at an early age, getting him kicked out of Cambridge in his teens. Don’t worry, he went back, finished, and then spent the next six or seven years holed up in the suburbs of London (which looked a little different in the 17th century than they do now) learning dead languages and reading pretty much every conceivable text in the world. That’s not hyperbole, he is considered one of the most learned scholars of his time, if not all time. It’s ridiculous. Anyway, after that he found a cause in the first English Civil War, and spent most of this period writing pamphlets and campaigning for the parliamentary side of the conflict, and everything was cool for a while after Cromwell took care of his business (including enslaving a bunch of poor Irish bastards, but that’s a tale for another Flogging Molly song). Milton backed the parliament because, in short, liberty was of paramount importance to him, and of course this goes in hand with the whole Puritan thing but let’s not get too sidetracked. Before too long Cromwell died and his short-lived ‘republic’ fell apart. The Restoration happened and now Milton, who had been something of a celebrity, was now an enemy of the crown. Oh, and he’s blind now. So he goes into hiding (though he was eventually pardoned) and dictated some of the greatest poetry in the English language.
Paradise Lost, then, is Milton’s answer to the question of why things fall apart. Though the idea for the epic poem (and let us be perfectly clear: I do not mean that Paradise Lost is like, omg totes epic. It is actually an epic) had been kicked around in Milton’s early years, the rise and fall of Cromwell’s England tempered the idea into its final form. Paradise Lost traces the certainty that social stability will fail back to the origin of the species (as understood in the mid-17th century). The poem recounts two falls: the first of Satan from Heaven, and the second being of Adam and Eve from the grace of God. Because the poem is an epic, it begins in media res with Satan having just lost his war. The narrative flashes backward and forward from this moment, but suffice to say there is an absurd amount of pontificating and lamenting happening. This is a long poem. It is a difficult read, and in my hubris I read it without annotation, which I do not recommend. That said, Milton makes absolutely clear that the initial failings of Adam and Eve (mostly Eve, because it’s the 17th century) are responsible for the ongoing failings of humanity. That said, this theme is troubled by the depictions of the various characters, Satan in particular.
Make no mistake, Satan is the star of the show. There is a lot of petty scholar bickering over whether or not he is the actual protagonist, but for our purposes that debate is irrelevant. What is important is that from a 21st century perspective Satan is by far the most engaging character. He makes the most compelling arguments, and suffers the most internal conflict. His fall is arguably more tragic than that of the first humans. After all, before he declared war on the Creator, he was the regarded as the most fair and strong of all the arch angels. Then his dang hubris got the best of him and he decided that he was on the same level as omniscient, omnipresent God. Essentially, he gave up his position as the best of all angels and all of the beauty and prestige that come along with that in a futile effort to be independent of God. For that, he and those who he was able to convince to join him were cast down into The Pit, which is where Paradise Lost begins. Once there, he doesn’t give up in his crusade. He actively rallies his fallen demons to join him in his continued rebellion, after which they have a lively demon-debate over the best course of action. Satan, being the cool guy that he is, volunteers to head up to newly created Earth in what seems to be an exceedingly petty plan to fuck up God’s favorite new thing: humans. He then makes his way up the newly created Hell until he makes to Eden, where he picks a kind of bitchy fight with Michael and some cherubs. Oh, that whole journey out of Hell part? Metal as fuck.
All of this comprises the aspects of Paradise Lost that the modern reader will no doubt find the most engaging. I know it was for me, and not only because things are actually happening (instead of the endless sermonizing and/or lamenting which makes up 90% of the back half of the poem) but because the things that Satan seems to represent are, well, rational. While I understand that Satan is supposed to sound reasonable, thus enhancing his temptation techniques, the problem is the alternative offered by God is not appealing in the slightest. It strikes me as odd that someone who has dedicated their entire life to being arguably the most well-read person on Earth would write hundreds of lines of verse extolling the virtue of ignorance and faith. I don’t mean that to be a snarky comment, either. If ignorance is the lack of knowledge, that’s the only thing God doesn’t want to Adam and Eve to have. The only thing forbidden to them is learning. Satan thinks that is stupid, as seen when he’s talking to himself after watching Adam and Eve frolic in their ill-deserved paradise:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to hell am thrust
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines;
Yet let me not forget what I have gained
From their own mouths; all is not theirs it seems:
One fatal tree there stands of knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidden?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?”
Satan came to the Garden with the express purpose of ruining Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. He wants to spoil them to spite his tormentor. Yet even he didn’t really know how he was going to go about doing it until he overheard A&E blabbing on about the forbidden fruit between platitudes to each other (seriously, these two are mostly obnoxious and terrible throughout the poem). Satan can’t even believe it. As the poem continues, neither can the reader. The only counterpoint that Michael, Jesus, or God himself provides is: because I said so. That’s a bad argument! Yet that’s all we get from what is supposedly the good team. Satan uses a key word in the above passage: ‘suspicious.’ What is God up to? For that matter, what is Milton up to? I would offer that God has always been petty, and in possession of a fragile ego that is need of constant stroking. Milton certainly doesn’t shy away from that portrayal, which is why it seems like what the author is actually trying say might be different from the message the Church might like you to take away from this tale.
If the key theme of the poem is about knowledge versus ignorance, and I think there’s a strong argument to be made that it is, then what are we to make of Eve’s choice and Satan’s reasoning? Let’s take a quick look at the key moment of the poem:
“What fear I then, rather what know to fear
Under this ignorance of good and evil,
Of God or death, of law of penalty?
Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: what hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave sings of woe,
That all was lost….”
Oh calamity! Oh grave misfortune! And yet, do you know what the immediate aftermath of Eve’s choice? Adam joins her, of his own free will, and they immediately fuck. Because that wasn’t a thing they did before the fall, they didn’t even know that was a thing they could do. Of course with the concept of pleasure comes the concept of shame, and now that humanity has knowledge they must accept the consequences, which again begs the question of which is preferable. Knowledge and suffering, or ignorance and happiness. Every depiction of Eden is, quite frankly, super boring. All they do is tell each other how great everything is, and how wonderful God is for making them in the first place. Meanwhile Satan, who is troubled and tormented, is out there getting shit done. He yearns for understanding, and when he doesn’t get it, he lashes out. Of course Satan is flawed, and so now are humans. Milton seems to leave the question about whether or not that’s a good thing open.
All this comes back around to the short-sighted nature of humans leading to the inevitable collapse of the things they build. One aspect of Paradise Lost seems to argue that this original flaw, this tendency towards destruction, is the direct consequence of our ancestor forsaking the blissful ignorance of God’s light. This would mean that the unending cycle of building and destroying, rising and falling are endemic to that first failure of morality and obedience. Another aspect of the poem, however, indicates that this unending drive of humanity to build in the first place is a noble one. Yes, everything we build falls apart. However, we always try again, and we generally try to do it better. While it’s true that happiness will forever be out of reach, we will keep striving towards learning and understanding. In this instance, I suppose that makes me a Satanist.