A note on Milton’s theodicy in Paradise Lost.
Milton’s view of God was heretical in its own time (what John Rogers summarizes as “his own curious amalgam of Arminianism, Socinianism, and. . . Arianism”) but the question for Paradise Lost is whether he is a good God, or, perhaps more to the point, a fair God. As Stuart Curran phrases it, “why does God’s replacing the bland cosmic comedy of passive obedience with insistent, painful choice necessitate such tragic repercussions?” (Oxford Handbook of Milton, 532). If freedom is knowledgeable choice, and Milton’s God in Paradise Lost insists that Adam and Eve are completely free to make their own choices (3.98-135), is this a God who offers his rational creatures enough knowledge to allow good choices? Milton criticism has been divided on this issue, particularly since the middle of the last century. C. S. Lewis, a Christian apologist, acknowledges discomfort with Milton’s portrayal of deity, but nonetheless argues against the view that Milton’s God is “cold, merciless, tyrannical” (Preface to Paradise Lost, 130). William Empson, who believed the Christian God to be “the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man,” tries to distinguish between that figure and Milton’s God but still finds the latter an intolerable tyrant and bully (Mlton’s God, 146). In a book titled Milton’s Good God, Dennis Danielson makes the positive case, while Michael Lieb argues that Milton’s God is the apophatic “God of ‘not knowing,’ of transcendent grandeur, a figure who finally cannot be grasped” (Theological Milton, 77).
This debate over Milton’s God has extended into divided perspectives on Milton’s relationship to his own apparent theology, particularly as critics confront the complexities and inconsistencies they find in his work. In the introduction to their essay collection The New Milton Criticism, Peter Herman and Elizabeth Sauer propose that Milton’s linguistic density has led to an “orthodox” Milton criticism (which their project seeks to challenge) in which inconsistencies and contradictions are either elided or used to construct some greater order. They reject what they see as a tradition that reaches for interpretive “certainty,” extending from Milton’s sympathetic contemporaries (Marvell, Dryden) to modern times (Stanley Fish, Mary Ann Radzinowicz), as Milton’s editors and critics seek to subsume the difficulties or ignore them. One element of Herman and Sauer’s effort to correct that tendency is to reject as significant Milton’s view of God, arguing (along with Richard Strier, who has the first essay in the volume), that “the attempt at theodicy produces most of the poem’s aesthetic and religious failures.” While the essays in Herman and Sauer do not suggest that the “old” critics are orthodox in the religious sense, their use of the word is nonetheless telling. In the “certainty” group the editors tend to place scholars who either have a sympathy for Milton’s Christian context, or, even if they find it retrograde or even repugnant, at least understand fully that it is the sea in which Milton swims. In general, those scholars and critics who model the “uncertainty” which the editors value (Empson, Joseph Wittreich) tend to find that Christian context an impediment for Milton himself. Wittreich, for example, sees the fissures and inconsistencies in Milton’s work as largely a tension between the ideas of his seventeenth-century world and the pre-romantic, prophetic strain he believes most characterizes the author (see, e.g., Why Milton Matters).
John Rogers’ essay in The New Milton Criticism offers another perspective on Milton’s God, seeking to resolve some of the differences between the arbitrary bully of Empson, the good God of Danielson, and the inscrutable, largely Old Testament God that Lieb describes. What emerges is not a new kind of certainty, but a more nuanced view of how uncertainty serves the more certain purposes of the poem—that is, serves its theme of knowing and choosing. Rogers makes the case for God’s arbitrary use of power (for example, to create the angels or exalt the Son) in order to show that its very arbitrariness, its absence of reason or necessity, underscores free will. God’s choices are therefore the model and origin for true freedom of the will throughout creation. The test of Adam and Eve’s obedience is not a test of their reason, because, as Rogers proposes (citing evidence from De Doctrina), “Milton argues . . . that an arbitrary divine decree, to which adherence can be motivated by neither nature nor reason nor any internalized propensity toward goodness, is the only law one can obey, or disobey, with perfect, unfettered freedom.” In this view, God’s pre-eminent characteristic, and also pre-eminent gift, is free will. So, I would argue in turn, the uncertainties and contradictions in Milton’s text do not need to point to a theological resolution, nor do they necessarily indicate a discomfort with theology itself: free will defines Milton’s God and therefore is Milton’s theology, and choosing among uncertainties is the necessary human condition if it is to reflect that Free Will.
Nonetheless, the free will of an omnipotent and omniscient God is of a different order from his creatures. A God who is obedient to his own will is a tautology. A creature who must be obedient to God’s will, in order to be otherwise free, remains a conundrum. As I argue in my forthcoming book (Milton and the Poetics of Freedom), it is this dilemma of creaturely choosing that invites Milton’s reader to enact, not merely to observe, the exercise of free will that Milton’s God demands.