In my course on the devil, I have emphasized the contrast between patristic accounts of the fall of the devil (whereby he generally gets jealous of humanity) and Anselm’s radically ahistorical account in De casu diaboli. On the one hand, the more “mythological” patristic account makes more narrative sense, while Anselm’s represents more of an attempt to think through free will at its most radical and abstract. On this scale, Milton’s account in Paradise Lost is basically in the patristic vein, albeit altered by Milton’s Arian theology — Satan becomes jealous, not of humanity, but of the revelation of the Son, who seems to interpose another “layer” between God and angels, implicitly demoting them all.
In class today, however, I argued that the real action is not in the fall of the devil — which Milton never “directly” narrates, putting it in the mouth of an angel who himself was not present for the event — but rather the fall of Eve. What is interesting to me is the way Milton’s account of the fall of Eve reveals an inherent limit to “mythological” narratives of the fall, namely that the pressure of creating a comprehensible narrative creates a tendency to insert some kind of fundamental imbalance into the situation such that, in this case, Eve was bound to fall long before the devil entered the scene. The fact that Milton was such a clearly devout man who wanted to “justify the ways of God” shows just how irresistible this logic is (and shows Milton’s own integrity as a thinker, as well).
The main imbalances I see are (1) that God has made Adam and Eve unequal even though Adam correctly identifies equality as a condition for stable fellowship; (2) that there seems to be something intrinsically imbalanced in Eve’s physical beauty and indeed in bodily existence as such; (3) that God has given Adam and Eve the overwhelming and impossible task of taking care of the Garden of Eden; and (4) that the commandment of God is so worded as to incite disobedience (as Satan recognizes when he apparently spontaneously sympathizes with Adam and Eve upon hearing of the commandment — though of course you can never tell if Satan means what he says in this text, nor can Satan himself).
After the commandment is violated, woman has triumphed over man and the body over reason — all incited by the angel who sought to overthrow God. At root, then, the fall is about a reversal of the divinely ordained hierarchy. But if we have to identify a root-level “imbalance” in the situation that prompts disobedience, what is this imbalance but the very existence of that hierarchy itself? Both the impossible task and the prohibition of knowledge of good and evil seem, in this context, intended to inspire humility and knowledge of their limits in Adam and Eve (Milton says the same of the vastness of the cosmos), but this very knowledge impels a desire for more. Why this emphasis on their lowliness? Why not let them simply be what they are without encouraging them to compare themselves? (Similarly, in the context of Satan’s rebellion, the good angel Abdiel is said somehow to have known about the Son the whole time, so that the revelation of the Son isn’t a new imposition but is simply the status quo — this discrepancy of knowledge is never explained.)
The rationale for submitting to the hierarchy is that it’s ultimately for one’s own good — but how can that be true if the people on the higher levels really do have more and better? Perhaps people at a given level “can’t handle” the higher level of power, etc., but in that case, why not create everyone at the same level? The answer is of course that God knows best, that creating all the various levels actualizes the fullest potential of God’s goodness, etc. But at bottom, it’s hard not to think of the “for your own good” as a kind of protection racket — submitting is good for you because failing to submit induces God’s punishment. And what is the best God can offer to those who have fallen out of their proper slots in the hierarchy? He engineers a plan that can reincorporate them!
I understand that this is a rather blunt reading of Milton that doesn’t capture all his nuance or really do justice to his own intentions — obviously Paradise Lost is not intended as a screed against God’s order of the world, right? Yet it seems to me that the ease with which it can be read as one must mean something. (Perhaps I’m getting no further than Blake did in his famous quote on Milton.)