April 24, 2015
April’s Quarterly Discussion arose from the idea of Free Will. HMU doctoral candidate, Peter Ponzio, and HMU Tutor, Alissa Simon, both created the discussion format and questions. It is possible that the conversation could have run nearly endlessly. One thing is clear however, to be among friends discussing such deep-seated issues is a delightful way to spend a couple of hours! What follows is an introduction to the discussion that our groups created. If you are interested in Milton or Free Will, check in with the blog for the next two weeks as we continue to discuss Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Peter suggested the following quotes from Plato’s “Meno” as a possible frame for the discussion:
Socrates – “Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them[goods]; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?”
Socrates – “But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?”
Meno – “That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.”
Socrates – “But if this is affirmed, then the desire of good is common to all, and one man is no better than another in that respect?” (178A)
When reading Paradise Lost, there are so many directions that one can go. We chose Free Will in order to focus the conversation and better understand the dilemma introduced in Socrates’ statement. Is the desire for good, in fact, common to all and where is the line between good and evil?
In Book III of Paradise Lost, the angels have already fallen and God is deciding on the best course of action following Man’s imminent fall. Man has yet to be tempted, but God foresees their weakness and asks for a volunteer to redeem Man’s sin. This leads the Son, of course, to sacrifice himself for Man’s redemption.
The ironic part of this discussion on Milton, as in all discussions, is that the idea of Free Will was nearly impossible to isolate. Through Free Will, the participants also brought up ideas of Justice, Equality, Sin, Love, the Fall, Creation, Desire, Goodness, Freedom, Sacrifice, Redemption, etc. (As stated before, the conversation could have run on nearly endlessly.) These ideas continually interlace in Milton’s complex and beautifully described world of characters.
Still trying to understand Free Will, the group attempted to understand God’s desire for obedience. God demanded obedience from the angels, but a number of angels chose to disobey. Therefore, God punished the angels with permanent banishment and created man. From man, He asked for obedience. God says, “Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere/ Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,/ Where onely what they needs must do, appeard/ Not what they would? what praise could they receive? / What pleasure I from such obedience paid,/ When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice)/ Useless and vain, of freedom both despoild,/ Made passive both, had servd necessitie,/ Not mee” (lines 98-111). If we understand God’s desire for obedience as a reflection of His love, then, love is necessarily connected to freedom and will. Therefore, He gives freedom and will to man, coupled with reason, but devoid of full understanding.
One wonders how much knowledge or understanding the angels had before they fell. If they knew the entirety of their punishment, would they have still chosen the path of evil? Or, stated in another way, does anyone know the entirety of their path before they walk it? For example, at the end of Book III, Satan descends to the gates that guard Earth and he stands amazed, in wonder and awe. He stands for a moment of reflection, and then from this awe, he grows even more envious. Milton writes, “Such wonder seis’d, though after Heaven seen,/ The Spirit maligne, but much more envy seis’d/ At sight of all this World beheld so faire” (lines 552-4). Satan recognizes beauty, contemplates beauty and is struck motionless for a moment. Instead of enjoying the world for what it is, however, he wants to devour it and own it in a way that is overly desirous, overly greedy. His path is not one of acceptance, and therefore he does not simply accept God’s punishment, but forges an unknown path of destruction. He desires, it seems, to devour God (or at least replace him).
What, however, are Satan’s choices? When thinking about Satan in terms of Free Will, what other choice did he have once he began his path to darkness? God clearly banishes the fallen angels and states that they have no chance for redemption. Therefore, if the world’s beauty had caused enough remorse in Satan to change his mind, would God have forgiven Satan? From Milton’s text, it seems that no matter what Satan’s future choices, he has been condemned to darkness. After the initial fall, then, there is no prospect of a choice between good and evil. There is only evil. So from the hilltop above the new world, the reader also pauses to ponder Satan’s decision-making process as if the world were momentarily reflected upon his face.
These questions are not easy to answer, but they are beautifully portrayed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. We did not finish our discussion of Free Will or of Paradise Lost, but we probably never could. The various dimensions of the poem and some fantastic participants enabled a superb discussion. Please check out the upcoming blogs for more on Milton and Paradise Lost and a sincere thanks to all those who participated in April’s Quarterly Discussion! (For more information on Quarterly Discussions, please email Alissa at as****@hm*.edu.)
We leave you with a few more questions to ponder while awaiting the continued conversation in next week’s blog:
Did Satan have to fall as a necessary aspect of God or of Man? Must Satan continually pursue his path of evil, despite indications that he may want to choose differently? Does evil, as embodied in Satan, have any more freedom than those who chose the path of goodness, such as in the case of the Son?
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