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Free Will in 'Paradise Lost': Critical Essay

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Milton’s Paradis Lost struggles with the idea of free will. Free will is a person’s right to live unencumbered and unforeseen, allowing actions to be of their own and not predestined. If people have free will, they are capable of doing good for others but are also capable of causing harm. Milton is tempted at first with giving up due to religion. God knows all that will ever be and that scares Milton. In Paradise Lost, Milton overcomes his primary theory of predestination by God and determines that individual free will is beneficial to the existence of man.

One of Milton’s major concerns facing free will is predestination. Predestination is when a person’s actions will always provide an outcome previously foretold whether or not they aim to achieve their destiny. Predestination is very different from foreknowledge. Foreknowledge is simply knowing information about what may happen if certain conditions or actions are met but can easily be changed by other stimuli. The difference shows when God speaks to his son about Adam and his shortcomings by questioning where the fault lies with Adam’s disobedience. God says, “Whose fault? Whose but his own?” (3.96-97) God knows what choices Adam is most likely going to take which represents his foreknowledge of the situation. This still leaves Adam in a spot where he is still able to make his own decisions and is not forced to betray God. It is not predestined by God but only foretold as God will allow Adam to fall but only by his own hand. Even when God speaks of Adam leaving God’s grace, God still allows his creation, mankind, to make the decision for themselves. It is foreseen when God says, “They themselves decreed their own revolt, not I.” (3.115-116) God even indicates that predestination does not exist telling his son, “As if predestination overruled. Their will, disposed of by absolute decree.” (3.114-115) Predestination does not take part in God’s rule. He specifically means the opposite by announcing predestination is disposed of by an absolute decree. God has ruled predestination to not be a factor in the will of his people. He places all decisions on mankind and allows them to partake in their own decisions due to the ideal of free will.

God does have the ability to control the actions of his followers and creations but chooses to let them make their own decisions throughout their lives. God tells his son, “So were created, nor can justly accuse their maker or their making, or their fate.” (3.112-113) The blame for things going wrong now shifts from God onto humankind and their actions as they are in full control of themselves. God says that they cannot blame their fate may be misconstrued to mean destiny. Fate and destiny are corollary but not the same. Fate is a description of God’s foreknowledge, knowing what individuals may become while still allowing all actions taken on their own accord. God even knew this argument and countered with, “Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, which had no less proved certain unforeknown.” (3.118-119) This quote is the most powerful message God gave in Paradise Lost on the theme of destiny and foreknowledge. It shows that God may know everything a person is going to do, but he did not influence them in any way. When God talks about the possible unforeknown, he means that even if he had no idea of the actions which Adam would take, Adam would take the same actions. This seems like destiny as Adam would take the same actions in both cases, but it is not. God allows Adam to make his own decisions. God implies that whether he knew of Adam’s betrayal or not, it would not change the fact that God did not steer Adam to take certain actions but allowed Adam to choose his own path. The fault is placed on what Adam wants to do, not whether or not God has seen those actions.

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Milton tries to combat his prejudice toward his omnipotent God creating a destiny for mankind in that since he knows everything there is and ever will be that life is already decided. His words counter human destiny when God says to Jesus, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” (3.99) God implies that Adam as well as the rest of future mankind is not predestined by God to serve him. Adam is allowed to materialize his own decisions on how to live. God simply provides assistance in helping Adam first get functioning, giving him all of the materials that he needs to succeed in his service to God. God relates this to his angels as well. Not only does God not control humankind, but he allows all creatures to make their own decisions. The story of Lucifer falling was alluded to in God’s monologue to his son saying, “Spirits, both them who stood and them who failed; Freely they stood.” (3.101-102) God provided the opportunities for Lucifer to make the right decision even while God knew about the impending betrayal. God did not make any suggestions to further lead Lucifer from his own path as doing so would be the creation of a destiny and denial of free will for one of God’s followers. God had focused his energy on providing enough information that his creation would be able to function freely without additional aid from him. God focused on the idea that mankind chooses their own path in life by saying, “where only what the needs must do, appeared, not what they would?” (3.105-106) This can be misconstrued as God giving them insight on how they should live and that they may be unable to live without his guidance. He really means that he gives them the faith and love they deserve to be individualistic and happy while also not giving so much as to have them depend on him for their livelihood. God also retaliated against the notion of predestination with his statement, “The first sort by their own suggestions fell, Self-tempted, self-depraved, man falls deceived.” (3.129-130) This statement shows that God knew Satan would corrupt mankind causing Adam to fall. It relates to both of God’s other points about falling. Satan and Adam both were given the opportunity to stand as they had been given all of the essential tools to succeed but in the end, both fell by their own will. They, as individuals, were responsible for the actions they took to leave the presence of God. Milton’s representation of God did not change their wills nor take precautions to prevent their fall. He simply let free will take over.

Another concern of Milton’s is if humans would benefit from free will or not. This concern is further pondered by Raphael. God answers him by saying, “As may advise him of his happy state, happiness in his power left free to will.” (5.233-234) Mankind has the power to become happy with their state of being and can be told by others that they are feeling happy. However, happiness is a choice. It is mankind’s decision to choose whether or not they want to pursue happiness. The quote is followed up by, “Left to his own free will, his will though free, yet mutable.” (5.235-236) This can be misread by assuming that God may alter the view of man to become a part of his own will instead of remaining individualistic. This is not Milton’s intention of representing God. God in this passage is letting Raphael, the angel, know that humans make their own choices and accept the repercussions that follow. The downfall to free will for mankind is that it is easily subject to change. This means that outside influences can affect a person’s will which is why Adam and Eve fell in the Garden of Eden. Milton moves God away from the idea that he can influence the will of his creation by telling Raphael to only, “Advise him of his happy state.” (5.233) This means that Raphael no longer can tell Adam about Satan due to God’s intervention which continues the free will placed upon Adam. God takes himself out of the picture while Adam makes his decisions and shows up to ensure the wellbeing of Adam. Due to this Milton alludes to human benefit from free will as it allows for happiness and individualism.

Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost endures the complex ideology of free will. Milton speaks through his representation of God to show the free will brought down to humans. God in this story has tried his best to allow Adam, Eve, Satan, and his other creations to partake in any activities they wish after informing them of the consequences of going against him. He does not control their lives or know what actions they choose to form their fates. Milton avoids the term destiny from God. Since God is omnipotent and sees everything that will ever happen, he does not react in ways to bring people away from temptation for they are their own person. He also knows that whether or not he is omnipotent, people will always behave in a way that coincides with their personal will. Milton also shows that free will is very beneficial to mankind. Without free will, humans would not know happiness as it is a conscious choice to be happy. Happiness is a large incentive coming from the free will that almost overshadows the fact that free will is easily manipulated. Since God does not intervene, Satan can roam around to change others into doing acts that would not happen by their own will before negative intervention by Satan. This shows that Milton knows free will exists as God does not directly manipulate people into doing the right thing. Instead, people with free will make choices both good and bad dealing with the individual consequences that come from them.

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