[Milton-L] John Tanner's _Anxiety in Eden: A Kierkegaardian Reading of Paradise Lost_

James Rovira jrovira at drew.edu
Wed Mar 17 09:17:31 EST 2004

Tanner, John S. _Anxiety in Eden: A Kierkegaardian Reading of Paradise 
Lost_. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

John Tanner’s _Anxiety in Eden_ reads Kierkegaard’s _The Concept of 
Anxiety_ against Milton’s _Paradise_ Lost to illuminate both texts in 
relationship to questions surrounding innocence, sin, and free will. He 
begins with a short description of a recurring argument within Milton 
criticism about the possibility of a “fall before a fall.” Since both 
Adam and Eve had to decide to eat the fruit before actually eating the 
fruit, they chose to sin before actually breaking any command. Was that 
moment of choice sin itself? If they were able to choose to sin, then 
wasn’t sin already in their nature – were they imperfect, or sinful, 
before actually sinning, and does this make God the creator of sin? The 
problem therefore is one of motivation – to be motivated to sin is 
assumed to be sinful, so Adam and Eve were sinful before they sinned. 
Tanner divides Milton critics into two sides: those who believe the Fall 
was “a single, ethical event, a distinct deed marking a clear dividing 
line between innocence and guilt,” and those who regard the Fall as “a 
psychological process, a gradual drama of defection spread out across 
time through various subtle stages” (20). Arguing that Kierkegaardian 
anxiety stands as a middle ground between these two positions, he 
resolves the conflict by maintaining innocence before the fall but 
describing the fall as a psychological process. The problem is somewhat 
artificial, imposing Christian thought categories upon a distantly 
pre-Christian text and even ignoring the tradition of dispensational 
theology within Christianity itself. The Sermon on the Mount juxtaposes 
obedience to an external command against guidance by an internalized 
ethical system or character traits. It’s not enough to be obedient to 
the command against adultery, for example; one must not even lust. It’s 
not enough to refrain from murder: followers of Christ must refrain even 
from being angry without cause. It’s not enough to keep one’s vows: 
Christians should be so consistently honest that vows are no longer 
necessary. This interpretive tradition sets up the Mosaic law as a 
system of obedience to external commands. Even the command against 
covetousness, the only of the ten commandments having to do with desire, 
could be seen as treating desire as a sustained emotional commitment, 
desire as an internal act leading to inevitable external acts. It also 
locates the primary ethical battles as being a matter of inner struggle 
rather than external act, an assumption so deeply ingrained in western 
thinking that it affects our reading even of texts written long before 
these assumptions were articulated.

Within this context it should be observed that Adam and Eve were only 
commanded not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and 
evil. They were not commanded to refrain from contemplating this act, 
nor to refrain from desiring the fruit, nor to even refrain from 
deciding to eat the fruit. They were only commanded not to eat the 
fruit. From a state of innocence all these psychological predecessors 
were themselves innocent. Consistent with this assumption, the Biblical 
texts present Eve as the victim of a deception, deciding to eat the 
fruit for virtuous reasons: it was pleasing to the eye and would make 
one wise. Adam, according to Paul, did not suffer deception, but freely 
chose commitment to Eve, a commitment that was itself virtuous. Prior to 
the introduction of sin into human psychology only acts, not thoughts, 
could be sinful because only acts (and only one specific act), not 
thoughts, were subject to a command. The transition from commands 
against acts to commands against desire is a rehabilitative position 
only sensible within the context of fallenness, which leads to the next 
failure inherent in the very posing of this problem: all presentations 
of innocence in narrative are always written from the position of 
fallenness, therefore all presentations of innocence are consciously 
presentations of an alien psychology, as are expositions of the 
narratives of innocence. We ultimately cannot properly conceive the 
psychology of innocence because the moment we posit a past innocent 
state we place ourselves in a position of fallenness; the mere 
invocation of innocence alienates us from that which we seek to 
describe. Tanner comes very close to saying this but just misses.

Overall, Tanner’s book is invaluable as a simple, straightforward 
exposition of Kierkegaard’s _The Concept of Anxiety_ and both convincing 
and interesting in his handling of Kierkegaard and Milton. The final 
chapter is essentially a sermon; a common, unwelcome phenomenon in 
Milton criticism which led Tanner away from a fuller discussion of his 


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