May 14, '97
Through the Narrow Gate:
Impassioned Reason and Rational Passion
Milton's "Paradise Lost"
(Book IX: lines 205-375)
In many interpretations of Biblical texts, an analysis of the pre-lapserian human condition involves the treatment of Adam and Eve as a single being: for example, in Hale's Prim. Origins of Man, he notes the possibility that "Adam had been Androgyna, or one double Person . . . consisting of both Sexes." Whether or not this is an allegorical idea or that such interpreters actually conceptualized a being with both male and female qualities, the main argument is that of complementary unity—Man and Woman exist together for each other, as decreed by God. In the same way that being together, being in love, would create Harmony, so would being disjointed, being in sin, create harsh discord. In Milton's Paradise Lost, Book IX (lines 205-375) he describes a conversation between Adam and Eve and the decision thereafter for a rather capitalistic "division of labor." The ramifications of this discussion and the actions of the heavenly couple demonstrate Milton's notion that Man qua Man is an integrated, composite being.
When reading the "script" of Paradise Lost—intended originally for the stage—the characterizations of speech and thought (in addition to literary constructs of men and women already in existence) reveal the metaphorical significance of the two characters: Adam is Reason manifest and Eve is Passion (or "delight") incarnate. Adam himself indicates that
smiles from Reason flow . . .|
For not to irksome toil, but to delight
He made us, and delight to Reason join'd.
These paths and Bowers doubt not but our joint hands.
It is in this sense that when the two follow Eve's idea to "divide [their] labors," they literally sever their relationship with each other, set apart what God has joined together. As presented in many paintings of Genesis, the original state of Adam and Eve, and, therefore, the proper position of Reason and Passion, is that of a harmonious embrace, a pragmatic co-existence. Thus, the first stage of the fall is when this embrace is destroyed.
Adam clearly understands the potential implications of separating from his spouse:
But other doubt possesses me, lest harm|
Befall thee sever'd from me; for thou know'st
What hath been warn'd us, what malicious Foe
Envying our happiness, and of his own
Despairing, seeks to work us woe and shame . . .
His wish and best advantage, us asunder,
Hopeless to circumvent us join'd, where each
To other speedy aid might lend at need.
Not only does Adam acknowledge the fact of strength in numbers against the malice of Satan, but also, he attempts to explain that he and Eve have complementary abilities to help each other where and when necessary. Further, the allegory of Passion and Reason shows Man to have disintegrated—lost his integrated perception of Existence—during this phase of the fall. Eve herself also recognizes that they are strong together, accusing the serpent with "his foul esteem/ Of [their] integrity"; however, she fails to realize that if they rend themselves separate from each other, this strength is undermined, loses its entire foundation of a structured harmony. In a sense, with this confrontation of Eve and Adam, of Passion and Reason, Milton presents a sort of schizophrenia of the soul, a discord of the self from its natural state, as formed by its Creator. The argument is a powerful echo of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount": "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
The very complaint Eve has, which leads to the separation of the two is that of being too constricted:
If this be our condition, thus to dwell|
In narrow circuit strait'n'd by a Foe,
Subtle or violent, we not endu'd
Single with like defense, wherever met,
How are we happy, still in fear of harm?
But again, Jesus warned his disciples to "Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it." In light of Milton's views on Virtue with freedom as a pre-condition, this may seem a contradiction, asking Man to follow a narrow road, but the apparent paradox is reconciled through Adam's words: "For God left free the Will, for what obeys/ Reason, is free, and Reason he made right." Eve, as a mouthpiece for Milton affirms that a cloistered happiness—like Virtue—is not happiness at all; she, like Milton, ardently disagrees that ignorance is bliss. Parallel to this is Adam's further analysis that Man must give Passion free reign over his Existence, but Reason must hold the reins so as not go beyond the boundaries set by God.
Passion is a necessary element of human existence—so did Adam require his help-mete Eve, to be—together—a complete person. However, both Reason and Passion have their proper place. Though Passion is what gives life much of its vivacity, and is—in a sense—the fount of freedom, Reason must be the final arbiter, simply because actions are objective, and, therefore should be based on an objective standard. This is what Eve fails to accept, what Adam surrenders. For instance, the schizophrenia of their actions appears in the major role reversal, before the fall: when Eve rationalizes with him to divide their work, Adam, impassioned, concedes acquiescence. It is because of this concession that Adam and Eve become Pope's "fools [who] rush in where angels fear to tread." It is also through this surrender by Adam that Milton annihilates the arguments for an accusation of misogyny, directed towards him or the book of Genesis itself: through their conversation after eating of the fruit, Milton shows that Adam played as much a part in the fall as Eve. Though Eve rationalized her passions, Adam also became impassioned, and therefore, forfeited his discerning Consciousness. In addition to not stopping Eve from going by herself, Adam also consciously eats of the fruit, knowing full well the consequences, whereas Eve acted on impulse, without fully considering the results of her actions.
The reconciliation of the proper roles befitting Adam and Eve does not occur until Book X, beginning with Adam overcome by sadness, Eve trying to intellectually justify "violent wayes"; Milton explains in his Argument for Book X:
Adam more and more perceiving his fall'n condition heavily |
bewailes, rejects the condolement of Eve; she persists and at
length appeases him: then to evade the Curse likely to fall on
thir Ofspring, proposes to Adam violent wayes, which he
approves not, but conceiving better hope, puts her in mind
of the late Promise made them, that her Seed should be
reveng'd on the Serpent, and exhorts her with him to seek
Peace of the offended Deity, by repentance and supplication.
It is only when Adam lends himself to a rational approach, "puts [Eve] in mind" of their hope in the future that they begin their reconciliation with "the offended Deity" and move to attempt to undo the harm they have caused.
In light of Milton's views on freedom and Virtue, he seems to believe the fall was inevitable—because men are not perfect, they are bound to make some mistake sometime, even if it is in the name of freedom or Virtue. And any time a mistake occurs, it is because of some forfeiture or another of the proper place of Man's tools of cognition, creating the aforementioned schizophrenia of the soul. (Perhaps it is on this basis of innocence, by insanity, that God is still presented as one who will forgive even the gravest of sins.) Also, in his description of this stage of the fall, it would seem that Milton is arguing against the ideas of love of material wealth vs. love of God, since the cause of the couple's separation is the wish to produce more through organizing their work. On the contrary, what Milton proves is that one's intent is the important element. Productivity is definitely a virtue, but if it is gained by selling one's soul, or acting against God or one's nature, then it ceases to be such. Like Voltaire's Candide, Milton's work argues that one must till one's own soil, cultivate one's own garden. However, in doing so, in making the most of one's Life, neither Reason nor Passion should be sacrificed—rather, the two should be integrated into a proper view of the world in which we live.
|| to Essays on John Milton|
Essay copyright ©1997 Saif Patel. Published by express written permission of the author.
Site copyright ©1996-2012 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved. Last updated April 16, 2012.