In Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, there are these amazing round sandbar/reefs. They look like huge lily pads when you spot them from H3, high above. When I lived in paradise on the bay, I used to kayak out to these reefs in the middle, drop an anchor, and stand in knee-deep water looking up at the mountains. Then I would snorkel the edges. There are few experiences like going beyond the warm, sandy edge of the reef and diving down into the liminal region where the water suddenly gets deeper, darker, colder. That is where the really fascinating stuff hides in the coral. It is also, of course, where the predators come to hunt. Hammerheads. Lots of them. I always got goosebumps watching the yellow fins of my snorkeling partner disappear into the darker waters below. It wasn’t the temperature difference. It was the existential thrill of being on that edge.
Like swimming into the deeper water, any transition from higher levels of security to higher levels of freedom can be simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
John Milton’s prose and poetry, composed during and after the English Civil Wars and Interregnum, constantly navigate the numinous space of possibility between security and freedom. After the fall of Charles I, anything seemed possible. The emboldened (and rather unhappily married) Milton asked Parliament, “How about divorce? Or maybe polygamy?” After wild years in which there were few restrictions on the press, Milton’s 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica balked at the reimposition of censorship and argued for toleration of sects and schisms. And even as the Interregnum ended and Charles II was on his way to renew what Milton considered a hateful, paternalistic yoke, the blind poet published daring pamphlets arguing for alternative governments and pleaded his countrymen to maintain as much liberty as possible.
One of the debates about Paradise Lost, dating from its very first readers, has been about genre. Early critics such as Dryden and John Dennis argued that the poem couldn’t really be an epic or “heroick” poem, because it ends unhappily. Joseph Addison wished that the ending of the poem was more abrupt, because Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise is melancholy. Richard Bentley, in 1732, rewrote the ending to make it at least more hopeful. But one of the earliest English critics saw it a different way. “P.H.” (traditionally identified as Patrick Hume) was offended by one of the illustrations in the 1688 folio because it showed Adam and Eve being expelled too roughly:
“The angel led our Parents, loath to depart from their beloved Seat, in each hand, which the Designer of the Copper Plate has not well exprest, representing him, shoving them out, as we say by Head and Shoulders.”
Hume suggests the text provides a more gentle exile, one that may signal hope. And why not? Milton’s prelapsarian Eden isn’t stagnant, it is quite lovely. But there is a sense in which Adam and Eve’s stepping forth into the wider world is a relief. In fact, without getting into the entire “fortunate fall” debate, the entire affair always smacks a little of liberation. Paradise is a bit of a police state, an example of what happens when one gives up too much freedom for dubious security.
When Satan approaches our universe, having easily escaped Hell where his daughter/wife Sin and son/grandson Death have been intrusted with the keys and strike no difficult bargain to open the door, he is watched the entire way by the Father (and readers). Lighting upon the sun, we find there is an angel stationed there keeping watch on paradise. Uriel is keen-eyed enough to see from his perch on the sun that Satan, reflecting on his crimes atop Mt. Niphates, is no cherub. Readers then see Eden from Satan’s point of view as he nears the walls of paradise. Walls? Well… yes, it seems like there are multiple fences around Milton’s paradise:
So on he fares, and to the border comes, Of Eden, where delicious Paradise, Now nearer crowns with her enclosure green, As with a rural mound the champaign head Of a steep wilderness, whose hairy sides With thicket overgrown, grotesque and wild, Access denied; (IV 131-137)
“Access denied?” That doesn’t seem so welcoming, does it? And yet, there are higher fences still:
and overhead up grew Insuperable highth of loftiest shade, Cedar and pine, and fir, and branching palm, A sylvan scene, and as the ranks ascend Shade above shade, a woody theater Of stateliest view. (IV 137- 142)
But wait… we still aren’t “in” yet. Higher and higher we climb:
Yet higher than their tops The verdurous wall of Paradise up sprung: Which to our general sire gave prospect large Into his nether empire neighboring round. (IV 142-145)
Again… “wall”? The sense I get here is of navigating ever higher up a steep embankment, crossing circling fencelines and always seeing the object of my interest in the distance. Once he gets to the wall, Satan looks for a way in and finds there is only one gate. No matter (for Satan); he simply “At one slight bound over leaped all bound” (IV181) and enters Eden.
Eden is also patrolled by a squad of angels, one of which spots Satan whispering in Eve’s ear as she sleeps, giving her dreams that question the one arbitrary rule of paradise. The patrol kicks Satan out of the garden, but not for long. Eve wakes up troubled, but still innocent. She listens intently to the angel Raphael’s story about the war in heaven and the angel Abdiel’s heroic solitary stand against Satan. This, I suggest, paves the way for the first (ever) marriage argument, and the first argument about the balance between security and freedom.
Eve wants to garden alone. She wants (impetuous request!) time apart from Adam. Privacy, perhaps. She just can’t get anything done with him around. And the garden is getting dreadfully overgrown:
For while so near each other thus all day Our task we choose, what wonder if so near Looks intervene and smiles, or object new Casual discourse draw on, which intermits our days work brought to little… (IX 220-23)
If she could just go garden… you know… over there… alone, she’d get more done. But Adam isn’t having it. After all, he can’t even text her while she’s gone. And it might be dangerous if she is alone. Ever.
Eve makes an argument for liberty over security, probably recalling Abdiel’s brave stand against Satan’s rebellion. She begins by asking why Adam doesn’t trust her. What probable cause can he have to doubt her? Adam answers that their adversary is formidable and crafty (after all, he seduced angels into rebellion) so they are safer together. But Eve senses that all is not well if one has to live in fear:
If this be our condition, thus to dwell In a narrow circuit straitened by a foe, Subtle or violent, we not endued Single with like defense, wherever met, How are we happy, still in fear of harm? (IX, 322-26)
Eve asks, “Just what kind of perfection is this if I have to look over my shoulder all the time? How can I be happy if I have to give up my freedom?”
Let us not then suspect our happy state Left so imperfect by the Maker wise, As not secure to single or combined. Frail is our happiness, if this be so, And Eden were no Eden thus exposed. (IX, 337-41)
Eve makes a pretty good point that living in a police state doesn’t seem so happy. Absolute security makes for frail happiness. Of course, soon after this spat she is tempted by Satan in the form of the serpent, eats the apple, and we find ourselves at the border of Eden, facing that “nether empire” and about to dive off the edge of the reef.
Like eighteenth-century readers, we can see this as a melancholy moment. But there are possibilities, too. Sure, there will be no more dinners with angels, but also no more patrolling angels and high walls. As they leave the garden, the dirae facies of the angels left to guard the empty garden might have reminded Adam and Eve of the surveillance state they were leaving behind.
This, of course, is leaning too heavily on the fortunate fall tradition. But as E.W.M Tillyard once wrote, it is easy to believe that had Milton himself been in the garden he would have eaten the forbidden fruit and written a pamphlet defending that choice. There is just something that tastes of relief in the freedom offered Adam and Eve in the wild expanse outside those high garden gates. After all, “the world was all before them….”
We might consider what world we want to make of it as we continue to debate the balance of liberty and security.
-David A. Harper, 11 June 13
The opinions here are my own and do not reflect those of the United States Military Academy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.
All references to Paradise Lost are from the Modern Library Edition edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon.