[Milton-L] help interpret a line

David Ainsworth dbainswo at students.wisc.edu
Mon Jan 26 12:33:44 EST 2004

At 01:58 AM 1/26/2004 -0500, Harold Skulsky wrote:
>The discussion of "The fear of death itself removes the fear" in this
>thread has been wide-ranging and philosophically ambitious. These
>virtues unfortunately don't license neglect of three elementary
>constraints on interpretation:

I fully concur, but I'm not sure this discussion has done so.

To reinforce James' comment that fear of death may also be fear of God, I 
offer the following:
Immediately preceding the line in question, Satan is discussing God, and 
that if God is not God he does not need to be feared or obeyed.  Your 
caution rightly demonstrates that our focus in interpreting this line may 
elide the significance of that second element (obedience).  But given that 
Satan has just presented a portion of his argument for eating the fruit by 
focusing on God, and given the colon at the end of line 701, I don't think 
a literal interpretation of the line can ignore "fear of God" as one of the 
fears being discussed.

Nor does Satan seem to be arguing that Eve's fear of eating the fruit is 
unjustified.  He argues rather that her fear of the consequences of eating 
the fruit is unjustified.  (Do not believe the threats of Death, God 
therefore cannot hurt thee, and wherein lies the offense, anyway?)  Eve may 
also fear disobeying God's command, quite apart from the consequences of 
doing so.  But it seems to me that the act of eating, itself, is already 
far too commonplace to Eve for her to fear that in itself.  Only the 
contexts of this particular act of consumption make it fearful.

>(3) The Tempter has just been saying that the best way to SHUN evil--and
>the evil of death in particular--is to learn from the apple how to KNOW
>evil when it presents itself. As the name of the fruit indicates, it was
>created precisely with this prophylactic purpose in mind. If the
>Prohibition were seriously intended, it would involve Eve in a nasty
>Catch-22: how can she shun what she doesn't yet know? No just God, and
>hence no one who truly was God, would put his creatures in such a bind.
>Eve, if you truly fear death, the apple is the last thing you should
>fear! The fear of death itself removes the fear! So go ahead and eat,
>and learn what really deserves to be feared!
>Eve clearly reads the whole argument along the lines of (3): "What fear
>I then, rather what KNOW to fear, / Under this IGNORANCE of Good and
>Evil, / Of God or Death, of Law or Penaltie?" The apple is a "cure" (her
>word) for a death-dealing ignorance.

Indeed, those things Eve claims she should not fear seem to be multiplying 
throughout this section of the text.  I'm not sure the emphasis you've 
added presents the only literal way to read this line, as the final 
prepositions may quite reasonably modify the word "fear."  (What fear I 
then... of God or Death, of Law or Penaltie, since I am ignorant of Good 
and Evil.) None of the four editions of Paradise Lost at my immediate 
disposal include the comma after "fear" in line 773, which you include in 
your quotation and which reinforces your reading of the line over the 

The fear beneath all the fears is the fear Satan peddles throughout the 
poem, the fear that God is not God, that God-as-Tyrant represents 
all-powerful Evil.  When Eve suspects God's motives in forbidding her the 
fruit of the Tree, she operates on the assumption that God is not entirely 
good, that he is Author suspect while the serpent is unsuspect.

I want to introduce the word "empiricism" into the discussion, as I think 
it relates to what Gardner, James, and others have been discussing, as well 
as Harold's concluding statement.  Eve's assessment of evidence as she 
accepts Satan's argument stops at what she knows, or what she can infer 
from what she knows, but entirely ignores the possibility that God might 
know more than she and accurately present that knowledge to her through his 
forbidding the fruit.  God is the ultimate untestable proposition.  How can 
one empirically prove God to be necessarily Good, to be all-knowing and 
all-powerful, when God is also defined as being outside the realm of human 
experience?  If humanity cannot fully comprehend God, empirical knowledge 
of God must remain limited by God's own agency and presence in Creation.

I agree wholeheartedly with Harold's conclusion regarding the experiential 
nature of the Knowledge offered by the fruit.  But I can't agree with him 
that Satan's project is simply to overcome Eve's fear of eating the 
apple.  Satan's project is to convince Eve to disobey God's command.  She 
could potentially be unafraid to eat the Fruit, and yet refuse to do so 
(out of love and respect for God, perhaps, or trust in him). If she had 
eaten of the fruit, and then immediately thrown it back up, she would still 
have accepted Satan's word (or the serpent's) over God's.  Is that 
disobedience not what Satan seeks to provoke?


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