[Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)

Campbell, W. Gardner Gardner_Campbell at baylor.edu
Sun Sep 6 15:13:34 EDT 2009

While I respect the arguments Prof. Skulsky advances, I have to say that I think them prematurely conclusive. What is that worthwhile thing that Eve is seeking to do? Is it one thing only? Is its worth uncomplicated given the nature of the Garden and the complexities of the poem to now? If the matter were cut-and-dried, why would we need the drama of this scene at all? 

"Hubris" is too strong a word, I agree, and I wouldn't use it myself. But what about "ambition"? Eve begins the separation discourse ambitiously, as countless critics have remarked: she initiates the discussion, she interjects her own thoughts first, etc. Many critics insist that's evidence she's already begun to fall. I think it's strong evidence of her complicated maturing--complicated, "yet sinless," just as Adam's risky and ambitious inquiry into the heavens is "yet sinless" (and it's striking Milton uses the same phrase in both cases). Either way, the poem does not suggest that her motives are simple or unitary or have nothing to do with ambition. Rather the opposite.

I myself would never conclude that Adam and Eve cannot resist temptation singly. I also wouldn't argue that they can't resist temptation together, though the Fathers who thought sex involved with original sin seem to have thought so. But on the matter of sufficiency to have stood Prof. Skulsky and I are in complete agreement. That said, it should be noted that many fine critics (Blake, Waldock, Bloom, etc.) have argued that Milton has to have Adam and Eve fall through weakness of will, as free will in a Paradise untainted by sin seems to them to have no plausible way of consenting to disobedience. These critics say Milton has to cheat, or that Adam and Eve don't have the knowledge they need, or that the entire Garden is a trap of some kind. I think theses critics are wrong, but they're making a mistake worth making, and they're putting weight on Milton's argument where it might be weakest. After all, Milton himself writes in "Areopagitica" that he has encountered many complaints against Providence for the situtation in the Garden. These complaints cannot be resolved simply; if they could, the critical dispute would have died out long ago. Here's where I think the matter of temptation becomes very important, as I argued many years ago in a paper I presented at a Milton Society MLA session.

I'm not sure what to say about motives and novels. I do think that complex motives as a legitimate object of artistic representation and critical inference predate the novel. Is it naive to talk or inquire about Lear's motives? The Pardoner's? Achilles'? I don't think so, myself. 

I agree that Milton is working quite rigorously to argue the idea of creaturely freedom, but I quickly add that I don't think his characters are merely allegories of doctrine (if Spenser really was his "great original," even the idea of allegory becomes more than "mere"), and I do think that for Milton the typical constraints (as I understand them) of a free will argument won't justify the *ways* of God to men. If Milton were pursuing the argument in a typical way, "Areopagitica" wouldn't be as strange and compelling a document as it is.

From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Harold Skulsky [hskulsky at smith.edu]
Sent: Sunday, September 06, 2009 12:08 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: RE: [Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)

The available evidence does not show that Eve is seeking to be tempted,
only that she is seeking to do something she thinks is worthwhile —
something that carries with it the danger of being tempted. There is a
difference between refusing to cower from temptation and actively
seeking temptation out. Eve's actual encounter with the serpent shows no
sign that she is expecting, much less eagerly expecting, the appearance
of a tempter.

As to the charge of hubris in Eve's debate with Adam, it is baseless.
Her approach to the debate is marked by "sweetness," "austerity," and
"composure," not pique. She stands her ground against arguments that are
filled with gaping flaws, which she exposes systematically. She stands
ground; Adam, to his credit, progressively gives ground.

If PL presupposes that A&E require each other's presence to resist
temptation, then their eventual failure is due to weakness of will and
not to freedom of will, in which case their Creator's verdict on their
fall is not only unjust but disingenuous (in creating them, he created
their dispositions). In a work designed to help us reach the
diametrically opposite conclusion, allowing this presupposition is
authorial incompetence on (pun intended) an epic scale. Milton is a
logician and philosopher of some attainment; a sophomoric pratfall of
this magnitude, at this crucial stage in his Great Argument, would seem
to be out of the question. At the very least, the poet is entitled to
the usual presumption of innocence.

Regrettably, the naively motive-hunting novelistic language in which
20th-c. treatments of PL 9 are typically couched does scant justice to
the constraints imposed on the poet by a rigorous pursuit of the Free
Will Argument.

There is a detailed treatment of the relevant passage in my *JM and the
Death of Man*.
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