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The Power of Choice

Any lesson focused on “The Power of Choice” raises a wide range of philosophical, theological, and psychological questions. Even when examined in the context of a series of lessons on Health and Healing, the authors of the Adult Quarterly rightly place the focus not on specific nutritional choices but instead on the larger issue of human freedom, and the consequences that come with exercising that freedom. Eve’s dilemma was not whether apples were good for her, whether the apple was being eaten between meals, or whether the apple was organically grown; rather, the issue in Eden was the basic fact that she had been given the power of choice. With no “forbidden fruit,” choice is inconsequential.

No author forces us to examine this question more thoroughly than John Milton in Paradise Lost. When he makes the audacious claim in the opening invocation that in his epic he will “justify the ways of God to men,” he implies that God’s choice to give humanity the freedom to fall needs to be justified. And, indeed, anyone who has ever struggled to understand the problem of evil has, in essence, been seeking this same justification. How could God leave his creation so vulnerable and seemingly ill-equipped to use the power of choice they had been granted?

For Milton, this question is both spiritual and political. Milton was on the side of the Puritan Parliament during the English Civil War, even going so far as to publish a defense of regicide in 1649, shortly after the victorious Puritans executed King Charles I. During the Interregnum of the British republic, Milton served as Latin Secretary for Oliver Cromwell and was briefly imprisoned following the restoration of Charles II due to his anti-Royalist sentiments. So it is no surprise that when Paradise Lost opens with Lucifer having been thrown out of heaven, our sympathies are very much with the rebel who chose to fight against what he perceived was a monarch (God) who had overstepped his royal authority. (In Milton’s version of the story, Lucifer’s rebellion is precipitated by God’s sudden choice to appoint Christ as his heir.)

During the first half of the epic, God is presented as aloof and dictatorial – clearly representing the kind of monarch against whom Milton himself had rebelled. Lucifer, in contrast, is the paragon of democratic virtues: he was willing to sacrifice his own high-ranking position in heaven to rebel against a perceived abuse of power, and once in hell he establishes an apparent parliamentary process for debate and discussion about what steps to take next, using language of “free choice” and “full consent” (II.24) in direct contrast to God’s dictatorial management style. In perhaps his most famous statement on choice Lucifer declares

…Here at least

We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in hell, than serve in Heav’n. (I.258-263)

Knowing the degree to which Milton agrees with Lucifer’s political position, it is difficult to imagine at this point in the epic how (or whether) Milton will be able to “justify” the actions of an absolute monarch who represents the antithesis of choice.

And yet readers become equally indignant later in the story when God steps away from his authoritarian ways to provide his creation with the freedom (or opportunity) to fall. We see the tension between freedom and protection from the very moment when Lucifer (now Satan) approaches the gate to Eden, “which when th’arch-felon saw/Due entrance he disdain’d, and in contempt,/At one slight bound high overleap’d all bound/Of Hill or highest Wall, and sheer within /’Lights on his feet” (IV.179-183). This description begs the question: What is the point of a wall that is so easily breached? If it is for protection, then it is a very bad wall; if it isn’t for protection, then what is its function? If not to keep enemies out, then it must be to keep the inhabitants in – but what kind of freedom does that represent? We feel indignant about the presence of the wall, while simultaneously indignant that God didn’t build it high enough to protect His creation.

Milton highlights this tension between freedom and protection yet again in the scenes leading up to the fall in Book 9. Eve has suggested to Adam that they will be more efficient in their labors if they work separately for a while. After complimenting Eve on her work ethic, Adam reminds her that they have been cautioned by the angel about potential evil in the garden, and that they will be safer if they stay together. Eve (quite logically, it seems) points out that it is a strange paradise, indeed, which is so fraught with danger:

Let us not then suspect our happy State

Left so imperfect by the Maker wise,

As not secure to single or combin’d.

Frail is our happiness, if this be so,

And Eden were no Eden thus expos’d. (IX.337-341)

Adam is forced to agree that indeed she must have the freedom to leave his side, even if it means making both of them more vulnerable.

This debate highlights on a human scale the dilemma faced by God on a more cosmic level. How can He offer protection without restricting certain freedoms? Despite the authoritarian image of God conveyed in the first six books of the epic, it turns out that God’s only flaw (if it can be called that) is excessive generosity. This theme of excess is established early on in descriptions of the garden which emphasize the excessive foliage which is forever growing out of control. Even on her way to the marriage bower on her wedding night, Eve stops to contemplate the excess represented by the stars which will continue to shine even when nobody is watching: “But wherefore all night long shine these,/for whom/This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?” (IV.657-8).

Satan also accuses God of being overly generous when he contemplates his own motives for rebelling: “O had his powerful Destiny ordain’d/Me some inferior Angel, I had stood/Then happy” (IV.58-60). Had God not granted him so much power, he wouldn’t have fallen prey to ambition. And, by extension, had God not granted humans freedom of choice, they would not have fallen. But neither would they have been fully human. God is in the same predicament as Adam: If he restricts Eve’s freedom, he is an overbearing tyrant; if he lets her go, he makes vulnerable the person he adores.

In striking contrast to the political (and cosmic) struggle for individual freedom that plays out in the opening of the epic, the closing image focuses on the value of community. After Adam and Eve have exhausted themselves in acts of lust and recrimination following the fall, they are faced with the choice of what to do next. Truly alone in this new world, should they choose to face their fate together or as individuals? Should they even allow for their sin to impact the generations to come, or, as Milton has Eve suggest, should they cut short the impact of their sin by choosing not to have children, or even by committing suicide?

In the end, they choose community over despair and together prostrate themselves before God in acts of humility and repentance. The consequence of the choice to eat from the Tree of Knowledge is that they are no longer able to choose to stay in Eden – but that does not mean their freedom of choice is taken away; in fact, the closing image is one of an infinity of choices:

Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon;

The World was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way. (XII.645-649)

The emphasis in these final lines is not on limitations. Instead, they now face a world of possibilities, and are even given Providence as a guide to help them make these choices. In the garden, the only real choice they faced was whether to eat from one tree since it was the only act that could have negative consequences. Now, they face an excess of choices and all of the consequences as well.

While many readers continue to debate whether Milton succeeds in “justifying the ways of God to men,” he indubitably does force us to recognize that there is no easy way to resolve the tension between protection and freedom – even for God. And the final image of Adam and Eve, now “hand in hand” despite the rift between them following the fall, reminds us that as much as we value our individual freedom of choice, we must be willing to relinquish some of those freedoms in order to enter into the equally valuable bonds of the community that protects us when we fail to make the right choice.

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