[Milton-L] Abdiel (thought-sins)

Kim Maxwell kmaxwell at stanford.edu
Sun Jul 6 07:30:21 EDT 2008

  We have been discussing what and how Adam and Eve understand things before the fall in the context of evil.  We have said nothing so far about what the poem represents regarding what they know after the fall.  An observation or two.  Adam’s first sentence in the poem, long-winded, digressive, and not entirely coherent (and hence suspicious) reflects the idea of “to obey is best.”  His last speech in the poem states this idea explicitly, with a clear summary of the perfect Christian martyr life.  In between is the fall and Adam’s two book education at the hands of Michael.  We might assume that Adam is somewhat confused at the beginning (he is of course, but exactly how is not so easy to state), and that he may not be confused at the end (some say yes, some say no).  However, it seems to me that the book-end speeches can be explained in one of two ways.  (a) a version of the felix culpa or Gnosticism, that Adam must be evil (or experience evil) to understand God’s power,
 that which insists upon unconditional obedience.  This of course is Abdiel’s argument to Satan, that God’s power is unexceptional and non-political, something Satan also only understands after the fact.  (b)  Rather than gain knowledge  of evil, Adam has lost knowledge of good.  This is the argument from depravity, the loss of right reason with liberty twinned.  Adam may at last understand the power of God, but as their experience after the fall suggests, they (and by implication we) are no longer able to apply it to all human circumstances.  From the sole and easy command we have a plethora of laws and generalizations (love) that do not always read perspicuously on concrete human affairs.  (Their confusions in Book X are the closest analogs to our confusions today.)  Hence Adam may know that to obey is best, but he does not always know what to obey.  
              I personally prefer the second.  It explains quite a bit.  For example, it helps explain God’s role before and after the fall.  Before the fall, God provides persistent temptation to provoke voluntary service through the sole command.  We (the reader) may judge Adam and Eve to have fallen before the fall, but God clearly does not.  Thus human morality before the fall is completely independent of God’s purpose for us (the meaning of all dominion granted to Adam and Eve except eating of the tree).  It may or may not be derived from reason and natural law (God actually claims responsibility for natural law at 11.49), but it certainly cannot be subsumed under a divine commandment (unless we believe there are divine commandments without divine consequences).  After the fall, our moral codes and God’s interests in us become intermingled.  We can no longer be trusted (God’s final words in the poem are “man once more to delude”) because we have lost whatever power we
 may have once had to reason our way to proper action.  In Book III God seems to say that he will select some for redemption by grace alone.  For the rest he will “clear their senses dark” and install his umpire conscience to offer them a new opportunity to earn safe arrival.  But neither God nor the poem suggests a means by which an individual may know what group he or she is in, or what their senses cleared will actually be capable of seeing, or what positive or negative human actions constitute obedience.  We know it cannot be Edenic, which did not work so well anyway.  We know sin and confusion persist.  We know God’s curse persists.  The poem virtually denies the possibility of an incarnate intercessor to help.  It will not take many logical steps from here to see our relationship to God as entirely personal, and inexpressible, with the individual end either Calvinist (God alone decides) or Pelagian (man alone decides).   Meanwhile, the poem has gone a long ways
 towards explaining our public human condition and forced us to puzzle, as we have been doing, about how human understanding connects to human behavior. 

Kim Maxwell

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