Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Milton's Paradise Lost: Book 3

Discussion questions from March 20:

1. How is Heaven different from Hell?

2. What’s the difference between predestination, foreknowledge and the Greek concept of Fate? (93-128 / esp. 183-184)

3. Why is it necessary to sacrifice an innocent victim in order for Justice to be satisfied? (209-213)


Blogger SMJ said...

In Milton's Paradise Lost, the rebellion against God first occurs as an idea in the mind of Satan. The idea is both radical and heretical. Satan conceives the notion that his identity (i.e., his "being" or "existence") is not dependent upon God, but is separate and independent of God's power. Now, as most of us realize, one's belief in an idea does not always mean that the idea is true. Satan gets hold of an idea which leads to his ruin. That, in itself, implies a tragic failure of imagination. Tragic because Satan's fall need not have occurred, and its effects are a stain upon all of creation. Yet tragedy cannot be found in the character of Satan, for though he is vanquished he has no remorse. Pride (i.e., "willfulness") is a defect in his nature, but the problem for Milton is to explain why this defect occurred. The rebellion of Satan is attributed to the sin of pride, which in Christian theology translates to putting one's self before God. But in ontological terms, pride is simply an act of self-consciousness. Satan is created with the freedom to think for himself. Thus, his belief in himself must come from the recognition of his own free nature which is given to him by God.

Just as Descartes starts with the idea of self as the one knowable truth in nature, Satan begins with himself. Pride is nothing more than the act of self discovery, which follows necessarily from the fact of free will. Milton knows that God created Satan and invested him with the power of free will. The problem for Milton is to show how Satan's use of free will is an abuse of his power. The solution lies in an understanding that any use of free will which places a creature in opposition to his Creator is blasphemy. Heaven, as created by God, must be harmonious and perfect. There can be no conflict between God and his creation. Yet, by giving free will to his creatures, God has built into the matrix of heaven the possibility of discord. So, at the very center of creation, God includes the seeds of its own possible destruction. For rebellion to even be possible, God has to permit a freedom of consciousness which allows Satan to oppose God. In essence, the "freedom" which makes Satan's rebellion possible is the act of creation itself, the gift of intelligent life.

It seems fair to ask if free will leads to such trouble in heaven why allow it in the first place? Here we can only speculate. A true "universe" in which everything shares the same nature is like the monism of Parmenides, with no room for change or evolution. Thus, to eliminate all possibility of discord, God would have to remove all freedom from creation. In order to sustain a moral universe, free will and discord must travel together. Where one goes, the other must follow.

We should also consider the possibility that life (meaning all of creation, not just life on earth) is not a methodology for human wish fulfillment; that God's purposes extend beyond our comprehension and include aspects incompatible with our nature. For example, Christian theology argues that God gave man sufficient power to resist the temptations of sin. So man's depravity cannot be easily excused. In the final analysis, it is more reasonable that finite beings such as ourselves serve God, than for God to serve man. If that means that some of God's creatures suffer more than others, then so be it. As cruel as it sounds, God's ways are knowable only to God. Eventually, when death approaches we all, like Job, ask God to justify his ways to man. But the answer we receive is seldom the one we seek.

3/27/2006 3:09 PM  

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