Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Seeing man before and from above

Here's God in Book III, talking with his Son, about his "youngest son," man. (We recall from Genesis the repeated pattern of the younger son getting preferential treatment). I've put in bold words that are referred to in the commentary below, or that will probably receive attention in a future post:

Authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
formd them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change [ 125 ]
Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain'd
Thir freedom, 


Man shall not quite be lost, but sav'd who will,
Yet not of will in him, but grace in me
Freely voutsaft; once more I will renew [ 175 ]
His lapsed powers, though forfeit and enthrall'd
By sin to foul exorbitant desires;
Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand
On even ground against his mortal foe,
By me upheld, that he may know how frail [ 180 ]
His fall'n condition is, and to me ow
All his deliv'rance, and to none but me.
Some I have chosen of peculiar grace
Elect above the rest; so is my will:
The rest shall hear me call, and oft be warnd [ 185 ]
Thir sinful state, and to appease betimes
Th' incensed Deitie while offerd grace
Invites; for I will cleer thir senses dark,
What may suffice, and soft'n stonie hearts
To pray, repent, and bring obedience due. [ 190 ]
To Prayer, repentance, and obedience due,
Though but endevord with sincere intent,
Mine ear shall not be slow, mine eye not shut.
And I will place within them as a guide
My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear, [ 195 ]
Light after light well us'd they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.

Much is coiled within these compact lines. For now, let's just note that compositionally, placing this scene -- in which God decides what he will do to, for, and about his creature man after man has been seduced by Satan -- placing that statement of intent before we meet Adam and Eve for the first time, is at the very least unorthodox.

God is talking about man's "nature," and how he would change it if he were to alter man's powers of judgment and choice. Here's a clue then, as to what human nature means to God and presumably Milton: the freedom and power of judging and choosing. Change that and we are no longer human.

Then God, foreseeing the Fall, talks about what he will do for man after it: There are a lot of verbs: He will "uphold" man -- He'll put him back on "even ground" with Satan, giving man another shot at being "saved," at "deliv'rance." He'll place his umpire, conscience, in man, clear his senses, and soften his heart.

This seems like radical surgery. Clearly much has happened to man -- he's fallen, he's lost his way, his senses, and become a brute -- a Hobbesian brute? -- but, instead of consigning him to a war of all against all, God holds him up, returns the playing field to even, clears our senses, and softens our hearts.

What's amazing is that the intention of God in his first creation of man here is stated, then revised -- the human being that emerges after the Fall, with conscience, on even ground, upheld with cleared senses and a sensible heart is not the same creature that had been planted in the Garden of Eden.

That is to say, before we meet Adam and Eve for the first time, we are already getting wind of the tragic changes resulting from the Fall, and of how God will intervene to help them out -- not changing their nature, but equipping them for a new form of battle.

As storytelling, this is very unusual, and bold. Before we have met Adam and Eve, we are told of three temporal moments in their history: their original state (very briefly), then their condition after falling, and then a prospective account of the situation after their rehabilitation (which some have referred to as the "human condition"). From that we can read backwards, so to speak, to get some notion of what they - we - were before the Fall. That being was free, but it was another creature -- far from the vulnerable, darkened, conscience-burdened one we see in the mirror.

In a sense, we sharing a glimpse of the atemporal, eternal vision that the narrator ascribes to God:

Him God beholding from his prospect high,
Wherein past, present, future he beholds,

whose scope of vision offers the reader a knowledge of himself as a complex, conditional being with a history richer than anything he could come to know experientially through his own fallen selfhood.

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