In the long tradition of Western philosophy, the question of by what means, if at all, do humans comprehend the ways and designs of God, dates back to the earliest efforts of the pre-Socratic philosophers. The later tradition of Christian philosophical inquiry, which commenced with the writings of Origen in the 2nd century A.D., carried with it from its inception the burden of the question of theodicy, and expanded the nature of the investigation to account for the agonistic struggle for the souls of men between an infinite, providential God and His adversary, the fallen angel called Satan.
One subcategory within the general issues investigated by the question of theodicy examines one of the oldest questions facing man’s experience of the world: whence evil? As the antithesis of good, evil is necessarily the privation, negation, or deception of the good. To rephrase the question, because I am afflicted in some way, or deceived, God cannot be good; were God good, I would not be afflicted or deceived; hence, my being subject to affliction and deception contradicts God’s goodness, and implies that if it was an omnipotent and benevolent God who created me, I would not be afflicted or deceived in any way. A multitude of responses have been advanced to elucidate the question and to absolve or convict God of responsibility for the evils that dominate human life, and in reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, we come upon a late contribution to the argument, and in a poeticized rather than a systematic or analytic form.1 The particular concern in Milton’s poem is with accounting for the origins of things, be it the creation, evil, rationality, man— in short, he is concerned with accounting for not only the origin of all things, but with their respective destinies as well. As a Christian poet, Milton holds that only the proper understanding of the eternally existing foundation of things facilitates true human knowledge, and only with this proper understanding can life be rightly lived; all else is a sinful perversion and corruption of the designs and intentions of God. Hence, the light of God’s revelation gives assistance to the fallen human understanding only to a certain and limited extent; knowledge of divine truth must be actively sought, insofar as it remains unrevealed in particular practical matters and cases in human experience. With the limited battery of tools that revealed knowledge provides as a guide for conduct, the cognitive faculties of the will and reason can either act as aides for the understanding and for proper conduct, which ultimately leads souls to God, or as misguided vehicles for justifying sinful and irrational behavior, which lands unrepentant souls in the immortal fry of perdition. The faculty of reason, or what Milton calls “right reason” (ratio recta) is the vehicle for coming to a proper and general— which is not to say a full— understanding of why God created the kosmos, why God allowed the fall of man to occur, and the means by which God will redeem humankind from the consequences of original sin. While man only through the light of revelation knows all of the latter truths, according to Milton, the right exercise of the faculty of reason exclusively coincides with a sincere belief in the truths of faith. According to Milton, the truths of reason and the truths of faith are not mutually exclusive epistemic categories; they are, in fact, two sides of the same epistemological coin.
While Milton’s conception of theodicy in Paradise Lost has no doubt been explored from many angles by many commentators, one side note of interest lies in the similarity between how the question of the origin of conscious beings is explored in Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost, and also in Descartes hypothetical “evil genius” (deus deceptor) from the Second and Third Meditations. Satan’s argument for self-creation in book five of Paradise Lost bears a strong, though likely inadvertent correspondence to the fallacious logic of the argument for self-creation employed by Descartes in his Meditations. Descartes was the “father” of modern philosophy in the sense that mind, or the content of mind takes precedence over the fallible operations of the senses. Cartesian philosophical idealism does not have a direct parallel to Milton’s conception of rationality and the freedom of the will, yet Milton is arguably a philosophical idealist in the same sense as Descartes, in terms of the priority of reason over the data or content of sensory experience.
Milton’s idealism, as well as Descartes’, is evident in the comparison of the two respective arguments for self-creation. The philosophical thrust of these arguments is contained in the philosophical question of theodicy, which is that God, whatever His purposes or designs might represent to human consciousness, is ultimately incomprehensible in His purpose for allowing evil (Milton) and error (Descartes) to actively impair man’s ability to reason, and thus come to knowledge of the truth. Under these conditions, theodicy is either impossible, or there is no such thing as a consistent theodicy. The faculty of reason, or what Milton calls “right reason” (ratio recta) is the vehicle for coming to a proper and general— which is not to say a full— understanding of why God created the kosmos, why God allowed the fall of man to occur, and the means by which God will redeem humankind from the consequences of original sin.
In the First Meditation, Descartes introduces the hypothesis of the deus deceptor in order to push the limits of skepticism further than have Sextus Empiricus and all previous philosophical skeptics, including Montaigne and Pierre Bayle:
And yet firmly rooted in my mind is the longstanding opinion that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am. How do I know that He has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now? What is more, because I sometimes believe that others go astray where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square… But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way because He is said to be supremely good. But if it were inconsistent with His goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to His goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made.2
Note that the structure of the second part of the hypothesis of the deus deceptor resembles the famous Epicurean argument: because there is evil, then God is either evil or impotent or both. Descartes’ argument is analogous: because I have a nature which sometimes deceives me, God is either evil or impotent or both. In other words, the fact that I have a nature subject to deception is proof that God did not create me.3 One notable fact is that in Paradise Lost, neither Adam nor Eve question how they originated,4 whereas Satan, in book five, argues that since none of the fallen angels, including himself, recalls being created, if follows that, “We know no time when we were not as now;/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power…”5 The argument for self-creation questions the existence of God, and from this it follows that Satan’s adversary is not an omnipotent and benevolent God at all, but a demiurge imposter who has set himself up as a tyrant. Accordingly, Satan and the fallen angels have just as much right to heaven as the imposter posing as God. In similar fashion, in the Third Meditation, Descartes inquires as to whether or not the idea of a being more perfect than himself must necessarily proceed from some being which is in reality more perfect, and examines the possibility of whether he himself, who has such an idea of a more perfect being, could exist if no such being existed:
For whom, in that case, would I derive my existence? From myself, presumably, or from my parents, or from some beings less perfect than God… Yet if I derived my existence from myself, then I should neither doubt nor want, nor lack anything at all; for I should have given myself all the perfections of which I have any idea, and thus I should myself be God… And if I had derived my existence from myself, which is a greater achievement [than to emerge out of nothing], I should certainly not have denied myself the knowledge in question [i.e., the knowledge of the many things of which he is ignorant, such as his origin]…
The logic of the argument for self-creation mirrors not only the terrifying logic of the deus deceptor, in which all knowledge is made absurd and impossible, but also the perverted logic of Milton’s Satan, where all manifestations of God’s goodness are inverted so as to seem absurd and unjust. If we consider Milton’s invocation to Book III in light of the question of the source of things— be it creation, revelation, Christian epic poetry, then the fear that the poem may well be nothing more than a self-created fantasy becomes apparent:
Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,
Escap’t the Stygian Pool, though long detain’d
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes than the Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare…6
Milton distinguishes his source from that other than Satan, who had proclaimed himself in Book II as “Alone, and without guide,”7 though by the ninth book, Milton seems less certain that an appeal to the muse will procure the inspiration that he relies on: “If answerable style I can obtain/ Of my Celestial Patroness,” he will succeed, but not “if all be mine,/ Not Hers who brings it nightly to my ear.”8 This echoes, albeit in a different mood, Satan’s fatuous speculation that he and the other angels were “self-begot, self-raised/By our own quickening power.”
In book seven of Paradise Lost, God speaks illuminatingly of his own character:
Though I uncircumscribed myself retire,
And put not forth my goodness, which is free
To act or not, necessity and chance
Approach not me, and what I will is fate.9
The philosophical distinction between necessity, fate, and foreknowledge is complex, and need not detain us. Milton’s project of justifying the ways of God to men becomes less relevant and less meaningful when the answer to the question of why is such-and-such state of affairs so receives the answer “because men and angels have chosen,” which is tantamount to something to the effect that “it is so because it is so.” In Milton’s cosmology, evil and good are ultimately of a piece because God, from which these two principles are derived, is Himself a unity; in the end, evil is good because the source of all things is good, and what seems like needless suffering (good as evil) is, in the end, necessary for immutable goodness to remain self-identical and infinitely free.
In his book Christian Doctrine, Milton writes that, “From the concept of freedom… all idea of necessity must be removed… The matter or object of the divine plan was that angels and men alike should be endowed with free will, so that they could either fall or not fall.”10 In terms of Milton’s conception of theodicy, such an a posteriori case for the freedom of the will is weak when the breakdown of the rational faculty seems to be part and parcel of the human condition. All men inevitably go wrong in thought, word and deed, and no matter how efficaciously the intellect is exercised, men and angel’s willful choice to fall or not fall cannot be considered a genuine choice extended by a benevolent and omnipotent God. Yet, according to Milton, “divine foreknowledge can no more affect the action of free agents than can human foreknowledge… because in both cases the foreknowledge is within the mind of the foreknower and has no external effect.”11 How can Milton reconcile the “free agent” who exists under the crippling curse imposed under Adam and Eve’s first disobedience, with the passive foreknowledge of God that redeems men according to merit rather than predestination?
As the presence of a rational faculty, which is tied directly to the freedom of the will in men, questions the justness of paralyzed divine foreknowledge, so too does the respective Miltonic and Cartesian arguments for self-creation question the existence of God, as well as the justness of God’s actions. Yet what both arguments fail to account for, as both Milton and Descartes were aware, is the palpable limitation in the exercise of cognitive faculties that finite entities such as Satan, the res cogitans of the Meditations, and normal human beings necessarily experience: thinking is not tantamount to creating, nor is the flawed assumption that to be unable to recall a time before one existed mean that either one is the creator of oneself, or that one has always existed. The claim of self-creation made by the deus deceptor and Satan, respectively, and the difficulty with which man apprehends goodness and truth in a world that has come under the dominion of sin and death,points to the origin of error or evil, insofar as it is a byproduct of a perversion of Milton’s principle of right reason, and the Cartesian principle of the light of nature. Under these conditions, the faculty of reason, like the freedom of the will, mirrors the self-identical nature of the divine mind in some respects, rather than the indeterminacy of the way in which the material world is ordered.
In his Meditations, Descartes argues that the data apprehended by the senses are an obstacle to knowing the truth, and that only the rational mind, which inspects the a priori contents of mind, can apprehend the indubitable truth of the existence of God the creator and the immortality of the soul. While there is an apocalyptic element to Descartes’ thinking, Milton’s ontologically ambiguous portrayal of Eden in Paradise Lost presents the reader, on the one hand, with a picture of the most perfect habitation for man; and on the other, Eden as a wilderness that ever exists in a perilous balance between self-generating over-ripeness and rapid decomposition. In the brief period after man was created by God, and before his fall, the question of the reliability of the rational faculty (intellect plus will) as an effective means for coming to an understanding of truth comes under an ironic scrutiny in Milton’s portrayal of Adam and Eve as inexpert stewards and tenders of paradise:
…forth came the human pair…
Then commune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work; for much their work outgrew
The hands dispatch of two gardening so wide…12
Because Eden in “One night or two with wanton growth derides,/ Tending to wild,”13 Eve argues that “till more hands/ Aid us, the work under our labor grows,”14 and thus she enjoins Adam to divide their labors in order that their efforts may be better rewarded. As any good capitalist would argue, the division of labor makes perfect rational sense; yet in the antediluvian world of Eden, rational argument must either contend with or align itself to the content of revelation, as in the case of the angel’s warning to Adam that he and Eve must not separate, unless she unduly expose herself to the wiles and seductions of the serpent. Eve’s argument that she and Adam divide their labors is in accord with reason, but out of sync with the content of revelation; the question then arises, precisely where does free and rational human choice intersect with the infinite will and foregone decrees of God?
While the rationally underprovided author of this paper can offer no settlement, it is clear that in terms of human action, for a decision to be made, one has to be attracted or repulsed by the good or evil that presents itself. Objects attract the will, but not when objects are identical, as in the case of “Burdian’s ass.”15 In his dialogue Crito, Plato argues that men are incapable of doing evil because they cannot do good, thus everything men do is by chance rather than method or intentionally; hence the necessity for the iron hand of the Philosopher King to rule men who cannot rule themselves. Yet men do ostensibly know what is right and wrong, whether it is according to societal norms or natural law, and Christians are refreshingly commonsensical in their explanation of the moral distinction of good and evil as the result of original sin— knowing good and evil comes through the everyday experience of being either wronged or benefited, and then acting in accordance with the circumstance. The Greeks gave a very rational answer to why men pursue what they pursue, but it is morally vacuous, commands a totalitarian solution, and runs counter to everyday experience. So why, according to philosophical idealists Milton and Descartes, do we pursue evil when we know the good? The answer, in both cases, is that the contents of our perceptions deceive us, and only reason is a sure and able guide between one choice and another, between sin and redemption. So, to reiterate the question posed above, i.e., how fit are the recipients of reason to employ the faculty of reason, it should be pointed out that the question presupposes the human faculty16 of reason as a perfection in the human genus; but it is clear that the rational faculty, in a fallen world, is far from perfect or reliable for performing the critical judgments necessary to be constantly in accord with right reason, or otherwise avoid error. If we add sense perception into the will/intellect equation, the faculty of reason must either stand on its own (per se), operating without any influence from the senses, and neither the will or intellect goes wrong; or, reason, operating with the senses, is constantly assailed with misleading and erroneous sense data, thus impeding the will and intellect with an admixture of falsehood, which may even be mistaken betimes for truth. Reason does not supply foresight, and thus Eve’s decision to divide the share of labor with Adam was indeed rational; and yet without the apocalyptic knowledge possessed only of Adam to avoid the consequences of dividing their labor, it was impossible for Eve, though she be rational, to be cogitatively in accord with Milton’s conception of right reason.
Where is the question of theodicy in all of this? With the popularization of Newtonian, and later, Cartesian mechanistic physics, the gloriously romantic universe of Milton, that set no bounds to the imagination of man as it played over space and time, was swept away. In its stead reigned a conception of space that was identified with the realm of geometry, and time with the continuity of number. Instead of the miraculous creative and conserving powers of God, the ultimate elements of the kosmos, in a geometric sense, were reduced to portions of space. As Descartes famously announces in his Fourth Meditation, the Aristotelian search for final causes in the natural sciences and physics is useless to any understanding of immediate, or efficient cause. Asking the question of why, in the ultimate sense, is such-and-such state of affairs the way it is, is devoid of content in the face of the practical question of how is such-and-such a state of affairs the way it is. While Milton and Descartes were in relative intellectual agreement regarding the necessity for asserting the freedom of the will over any theological or philosophical formulation that asserted the bondage of the will, they were out of agreement in terms of whether or not the kosmos operated according to mechanistic laws. Milton was a theo-philosophical contemplative in terms of his investment in the question of theodicy and right reason, yet he was also a hard-line consequentialist ethically. Safeguarded, then, somewhere between action and contemplation lies Milton’s conception of man and God, and his conception of man’s relation to God. In both Milton and Descartes’ respective writings, preserved is a version of man’s moral nature that is structured by a formal conception of God that, at least superficially, is built on the evidences of Scripture. Such a conception of God retains (much according to the philosophical tradition) the monotheistic attributes of omnipotence, omni-benevolence, and infinity, among others. As opposed tothe philosophes naturelles of the latter 17th and 18th centuries, neither Milton nor Descartes ever abandoned the question of theodicy for the life-raft of materialism and fictionalized historicism, maintaining until the end, in their several ways, that morality cannot be cashed out in mechanical terms any more than beauty or truth.
1 Cf. Paradise Lost, V: 99: Best image of myself and dearer half,
The trouble of thy thoughts this night in sleep
Affects me equally; nor can I like
This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear;
Yet evil whence? In thee can harbor none,
Created pure. But know that in the soul
Are many lesser faculties that serve
Reason as chief…
All references to Milton hereafter are cited as PL, and otherwise as the respective work quoted in the text body.
2 Descartes, Meditations,AT VII, 21; CSM II, p. 14.
3 To expand the argument, if God were evil, he could not create, since evil is a privation of good; and because the act of creation is a perfection, if God were evil, he would necessarily be impotent to create the kosmos; thus, neither the kosmos nor mankind could be the work of God.
4 Cf. PL, VIII: 250 ff: For man to tell how human life began
Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?…
But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
To which God replies : “Whom thou sought’st I am…”
“Author of all this thou seest
Above, or round about thee or beneath…
5 Ibid., V: 859-61.
6 Ibid., III: 13-21.
7 Ibid., II: 975.
8 Ibid., IX: 20-21.
9 Ibid., VII: 170-74.
10 Milton, Christian Doctrine, 1:iii.
12 PL, IX: 197, 201-203.
13 PL, IX: 211-12.
14 PL, IX: 207-8.
15 An ass find himself in a pasture with two identical bails of hay on either side of him; because there is no difference in quality or quantity between the two bails, the will of the ass is paralyzed, and he starves to death because he cannot choose betwixt them.
16 Human reason as opposed to God and angels, which are ontologically distinct, immutable, and, by degrees of perfection, more rational beings.