The Ways of God:
For man will hearken to his glozing lies,/And easily transgress the sole command,/Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall/He and his faithless progeny: whose fault?/Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me/All he could have; I made him just and right,/Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
– Book 1, Lines 93-98
It is often said that Milton created a full character in the devil: that his motivations are clear, that his rhetoric is great, and that he is a true tragic hero, lead by hubris; a character capable of provoking catharsis and sympathy; and with lines like, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n,” (1, 254-5) who can disagree? His deeply human flaw dictates his fate, like every other great tragic hero. The same is true of Adam, and most critics agree that he is a fully imagined and developed character, that Milton did a good job creating him and making us feel the pain of his fall; and when Adam has tasted of the forbidden fruit, losing paradise and eternal peace with Eve, and book nine ends with, “Thus they in mutual accusation spent/The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning,/And of their vain contest appeared no end,” (9, 1187-9) who can disagree? But it is also often said that Milton did a lesser job in creating God, and thus fell short of his greatest goal, justifying the ways of God to men (1, 26). Though God lacks the lustrous lines of Satan and Adam, the unfolding of the entire book, all of Adam’s actions, Satan’s action, and every other characters’ actions in the book, justify the ways of God to men. In this essay, I will highlight the ways in which John Milton justifies the ways of god to men through the language, actions, events, and characters of Paradise Lost.
The quote that starts this paper is part of God’s first speech in Paradise Lost. Though it is not particularly flashy or catchy, it sets up a treadmill of realization that can be run on through the rest of the book. In Book 3, where this speech is given, the fall has not happened yet, Satan has not even made it into The Garden of Eden, yet God is foretelling that man will fall, and he goes on to say that he will not kill them as they assume he will, that they will live a difficult existence, but be saved by whomever will step foreword, who turns out to be his son. That first speech tells us the story of the rest of the book. By telling us what is going to happen, but still unfolding the story slowly and methodically, Milton has put the reader in the same position as God – we know what is going to transpire, but we read on attentively.
As “the world’s great author,” it seems that God would have scripted everything out, knowing what is going to happen throughout all of time, but the actions, language, and story of paradise lost make it clear that this is not the case. In the continuation of his first speech, God says, “If I foreknew,/Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,/Which had no less proved certain unforknown.” (3, 117-9) Though God has the knowledge of everything that is going to happen, Adam and Eve are “authors to themselves,” and they do not yet know their fate. Despite knowing the decisions they will make, God gives them all the knowledge they need to make just decisions, and allows them to fall, “I formed them free, and free they must remain…they themselves ordained their fall.” (3, 124, 132) This duality of God’s foreknowledge and free will becomes clearer as the poem moves on.
The fact that God allows Satan to enter The Garden of Eden shows us how God is allowing Adam and Eve to write their own fate. He, being God, could easily not allow Satan to enter the garden or tempt man, but Satan’s perspectives are part of the knowledge of the universe, and for their will to be free they must have access to all knowledge. In the first two books, we as readers have seen the powerful ability of the devil to make us feel sympathetic for him, and God knows Satan will be able to have the same effect on Adam and Eve, so he sends the angel Raphael to give Adam and Eve to impart the knowledge opposing that of Satan’s. Ariel makes clear that he is giving them this knowledge so that they may remain in The Garden of Eden, “Attend: that thou art happy, owe to God;/That thou continu’st such, owe to thyself.” (5, 520-1) Thus Raphael is inclined to answer any question Adam has pertaining to pre-creation, “Thy hearing, such commission from above/I have received, to answer thy desire/Of knowledge within bounds.” (7, 119-21). But they may not learn certain things which god keeps from every being, as it would be like eating beyond ones appetite, ones capability, “And soon turns/Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.” (7, 128-9) This is the case when Adam inquires about the meaning of the vast cosmos, and his meaning in the midst of it, to which Raphael replies, “Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid,/Leave them to God above, him serve and fear.” (8, 167-8) Raphael suggests that Adam instead, “Inquire/Gladly into the ways of God with man:” (8, 225-6) as Milton is doing in the poem. This shows that God keeps some things from men entirely, allowing them only to toil in matters that will further inform them of their relationship with him, which Adam and Eve needed to learn before their fall in order to make an informed decision.
We see even further of the ways of God to men when Adam recounts the first human interaction with God to Raphael, and we see God’s questioning of Adam. After God created all the earth, sea, animals, and Adam, he waited to create Eve, first asking Adam if he was entirely satisfied with all there was on earth, to which Adam replied:
“’O by what name, for thou above all these,/Above mankind, or aught than mankind higher,/Supassest far my naming, how may I/Adore thee, Author of this universe,/And all this good to man, for whose well-being/So amply, and with hands so liberal/Thou hast provided all things: but with me/I see not who partakes. In solitude/What happiness, who can enjoy alone,/O all enjoying, what contentment find?’” (8, 358-68)
Of course, God knew Adam was not satisfied, and with his foreknowledge knew Adam would reply as he did, but God gave him all the information (the entire world) and let him make the decision. Even when Adam has requested something else, God probes him, asking why he cannot be fulfilled with the abundances of the earth and God’s love. He makes Adam learn to justify himself, and say about his need for a companion, “Thou in thyself art perfect, and in thee/Is no deficience found; not so in man,/But in degree, the cause of his desire/By conversation with his like to help,/Or solace his defects.” (8, 415-9) God knew that Adam needed companionship to feel whole, saying, “I, ere thou spak’st,/Knew it no good for man to be alone,” (8, 444-5) but he lets Adam figure it out as an exercise in judgment and free will. God’s words are also a lesson to Adam – that he should not separate from Eve – which, when he does not obey, result in the fall. Even in God’s questioning he is imparting knowledge, or so it seems.
When Adam makes the mistake of letting Eve tend to her gardens by herself, he does not do it without deliberation. In fact, he does not want Eve to do it, but when Eve talks about how they will not be happy living huddled together in fear for the rest of their lives – “Frail is our happiness, if this be so,/And Eden were no Eden thus exposed,” (9, 340-1) – Adam follows God’s larger message of free will – having imparted all the knowledge he learned from Raphael to her, he lets her make the decision, “But God left free the will, for what obeys/Reason, is free, and reason he made right.” Adam had to submit and let Eve fall as God had to submit and let man fall. Through this parallel, we see that the woe in Adam’s fall – directly powerful in the lines I quoted earlier from the end of Book 9 – parallel the woe of God. Indeed, in the fall of man, God lost a battle to Satan that he could not win – a fall like that of any tragic hero – “But past who can recall, or done undo?/Not God omnipotent, nor fate.” (9, 926-7) Those are God’s rules, and even though we as readers desperately want Him to step in just after we learn them, as Eve is tempting Adam, He cannot, “Good lost and evil got.” (9, 1072) Yet there is redemption, and the rest of God’s initial prophecy upon Satan’s entering Paradise is fulfilled before the book ends.
The law of God exact he shall fulfill/Both by obedience and by love, though love/Alone fulfill the law; thy punishment/He shall endure by coming in the flesh/To a reproachful life and cursed death,/Proclaiming life to all who shall believe/In his redemption, and that his obedience/Imputed becomes theirs by faith, his merits/To save them, not their own…This act/shall bruise the head of Satan, crush his strength/Defeating Sin and Death. (12, 402-10, 429-31)
These words, spoken to Adam by the angel Michael, who was sent by God, end Michael’s foretelling of the lives of Adam’s children, and they recall the end of God’s first speech of Paradise Lost, where God says, after foretelling the fall, “So bent he seems/On desperate revenge, that shall redound/Upon his own rebellious head.” After which God goes on to say of the fallen angels and fallen men, “The first sort by their own suggestion fell,/Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived/By the other first: man therefore shall find grace,/The other none.” Thus, at the end of the book, God’s first speech has come full circle in the actions (both spoken and acted) of Paradise Lost, and the last ways of God to men are explained: that of the fallen world.
After the fall, Adam must leave Paradise; and having been there, life seems worthless outside of it. He and Eve even consider suicide, “From what we fear for both, let us make short,/Let us seek Death,” (10, 1000-1) Eve says. But Adam replies that they should instead enjoy the bits of Paradise that exist scattered in the outside world. Upon seeing the barbarous fate of his offspring through Michael, he reconsiders this; but then upon hearing the news of Christ’s grace for them, he says, “Full of doubt I stand,/Whither I should repent me now of sin/By me done and occasioned, or rejoice/Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring.” (12, 473-6) God’s plan will come full-circle with Christ’s resurrection – a greater good will be done through the fall than could have been done without it. Adam can see that there is more beauty in this act than in anything he could have achieved in Paradise, and that this is worth the toiling and sufferings of a mortal and sinful existence: he has seen the ways of God to men, and through him, we see it.
“That ye may live, which will be many days,/Both in one faith unanimous though sad,/With cause for evils past, yet much more cheered/With meditation on the happy end.” (12, 604-5) God could see that this would be man’s fate from creation, but he gave them the freewill and knowledge to make the decision himself, just as he gave Adam the freewill and knowledge to chose companionship over being alone with God – he knew what was best in the long run, but he wanted Adam to learn and chose for himself. And this is our state on earth as Adam’s children – to be veiled from the ways of God, but to learn them through living – as Milton had done, and passed on to us, through the writing of Paradise Lost.