Adam’s Notebook
Published in

Adam’s Notebook

Milton, Angels, Mortals: a Story Idea

from William Blake’s illustrated “Paradise Lost” (1808)

A couple of years ago, during Covid lockdown, I set myself a small daily task, to give a bit of structure to my days: my wife took up embroidery; others baked bread; I translated a small section from Vida’s neo-Latin epic poem The Christiad (1535), posting each portion on a dedicated blog, until I had translated the entire poem. I enjoyed myself though, of course, nobody else cared in any way whatsoever. That’s fine: it’s pretty abstruse stuff, niche even by my niche-y standards. But a couple of aspects of the project have stuck with me, in the sense that I return to them, think about them and wonder if there’s more there. One is a Miltonic something, which I speculated about on the Christiad blog, and which I have found myself thinking about again recently. I’ll explain what it is.

So: Vida, a Catholic Bishop as well as a poet, took Vergil’s Aeneid as his model and prototype when he set out to write an verse-epic account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. His poem, largely forgotten nowadays, was hugely popular in the sixteenth- and seventeenth- centuries, widely read (at a time when Latin was an actual European lingua franca) as well as being translated into all sorts of vernaculars, from French and English to Croatian and Armenian. A century-and-a third after it first appeared, John Milton set out to write his own Christian epic poem, Paradise Lost. To that end he drew on his own reading, both of the actual classics, but also the wide body of Christianised neo-Latin literature, du Bartas, Grotius’s Adam Exul — and Vida’s Christiad. We know Miton read Vida (he specifically praises him in his 1646 ode ‘The Passion’; and according to John Warton, Milton considered The Christiad “the finest Latin poem on a religious subject”). As I worked through Vida’s epic, that lockdown summer, I also took the opportunity to re-read Paradise Lost, start to finish, something I hadn’t done in a while. It’s very good, I must say.

During that re-read, comparing Vida’s account of the Fall of Man with Milton’s (much longer) version of the same story, I had a moment of startlement that felt like insight; what Edmund Wilson might call ‘a shock of recognition’. I wrote about it in this post, which I’m going to quote now, at some length:

— —

I’ve been thinking a lot about Milton as I work through this translation of the Christiad, for it has become clear to me that the latter influenced the former to a much greater degree than criticism, generally, has admitted; and also for the less obvious reason that re-reading Paradise Lost has really brought home to me how very good Milton’s epic is, actually. But it’s also brought out a particular, and glaring (it seems to me), problem with Milton’s larger conception; one that criticism, so far as I’m aware, simply doesn’t discuss.

Bear with me, and I’ll tell you what I mean.

My starting point was looking around, in a more or less desultory manner, for some big monograph that lays out Milton’s indebtedness to Vida. There isn’t one. It’s not that it’s been entirely ignored. Some scholars have nibbled at the edge of this topic, especially where Milton’s Latin poetry is concerned, but I found myself thinking: what’s needed is a big, proper study that explores all the ways Paradise Lost Englishes (aspects of) the Christiad. I could write one, I suppose. The thing is I am no Miltonist, so writing such a thing would entail ratcheting myself up into an approximation of one, which means reading librariesful of books and articles about Milton, and that’s a wearying prospect to contemplate, really.

Instead of writing such a book, I went back to William Empson, a critic I rate highly. Milton’s God (1961) is, I think, a really interesting book. I mean, the whole, crude “yah boo Christians, Milton’s God is Joe Stalin” stuff is certainly there, but is actually the least interesting bit of the whole, I think. One thing that Empson does is pay Milton the compliment of taking his text on the terms it offers: you’re justifying the ways of God to man, are you? Well let’s look at that, you and I; we’re both civilised and reasonable men after all. There’s something refreshing about the foresquareness of that, I feel . It works because Empson’s critical intelligence was so sinuous and ingenious, and so attentive to the particularities of the text. More interesting than his “God’s a torturer!” argument is his simple proposition: this book makes God a character in its story, and that means we must read him as a character, as we would any other literary character. In effect Milton is saying ‘the way to justify God’s ways to man is to write him as a character’. More specifically: Milton tries two ways of justifying God to his readers, a negative and a positive way. The negative way is to show us what life is like without God, if we abandon God — Satan — and the positive way is to have God and Christ directly tell us what they’re about.

So I have been re-reading through the poem again. Paradise Lost is not a text I teach, but I know it pretty well I’d say, so re-reading it is reacquainting myself with it, no alarms, no surprises, very good, enjoying it. Then, sitting in my garden in the sunshine as I started Book 3. I got to this bit:

For man will heark’n to his glozing lyes,
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall,
Hee and his faithless Progenie: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all th’ Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere
Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love?

At this point I had a sudden revelation, struck by something that had never struck me before. Not the ‘obviously I gave my creations free will; there’s no margin for me in being praised by automata’ bit — that point makes sense, and is clear enough. What hadn’t occurred to me before is this: Milton’s God has been through all this before. He made creatures with free will, and some of them chose to remain true to him and some to rebel (as He knew they would). Let’s say he made a million angels with free will and 500,000 joined Satan in rebellion — or say he made a million angels and only 100,000 rebelled, or 900,000 rebelled … your gut instinct on what those numbers are liable to be will say something about your assumptions about our propensity for going off the rails, I think. Milton thinks that a third of created angels sided with Satan [PL 5:710] but he doesn’t specify how many angels there were to begin with. But it certainly seems that God made a lot, and some rebelled, and some didn’t. Which is exactly what you’d expect — even if you don’t have perfect foreknowledge, as God does.

Then God has another go. He makes a new kind of creature and endows it with free will. But he only makes one. I’ll be honest, reading that passage I just quoted, and noting the specific parallel he makes — as I created Adam, such I created all the Ethereal Powers, free will is just how the creation of Etherial Powers goes, buster — made me slap my hand to my forehead, Grommit-style. Because when you set those two things alongside one another as comparable decisions it leads you inevitably to this thought: what if God had created half a million Adams and half a million Eves? Some would have fallen, but others would not. What would such a world look like? The fallen ones would be banished from Eden of course, but the virtuous humans could remain paradised — and Christ would not have had to be crucified. After all, Christ doesn’t offer to sacrifice himself so as to redeem the fallen angels, does he? (Asking that question, which has also never occurred to me before, opens a whole other can of worms I think).

Now: this may strike you as a pettifogging point. And, of course, Milton couldn’t write a poem in which God creates a million Adams, because he’s constrained by the book of Genesis, which he considered true. This (he would say to me, if I went back in time and asked him) is just how things were: God created just the one Adam, such that his fall doomed all Adam’s descendants. God moves in mysterious ways, and so on. But the Empsonian point is that, by introducing God into his poem and having him justify himself in this way, Milton gives us space to ask: but why?

We might say: humans are different to angels in that they marry and are given in marriage; so in a manner of speaking God is creating millions (today indeed billions) of Adams and Eves. It’s just that, instead of doing it all at once as he did (one presumes) with the angels, he’s doing it over time. Fair enough. But then why permit Satan to enter Eden before those millions had been begotten? Hold off Satan until Adam and Eve have populated the Edenic earth and then let him in; or else

……………………. create
A million Adams and as many Eves
With one swift stride of His vivifick power

… either scenario would have satisfied the specific justification of lines 103–4, quoted above (‘Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere/Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love?’) The only imputation I can draw from this is that God knows a million Adams tempted will leave a residuum of half a million (or 900,000, or 100,000, or whatever — but some) Adams true to him . And he doesn’t want that. We could say, Milton’s God doesn’t need humans like he needs angels, and so is happy to lose them all in a way he wasn’t happy where his angels were concerned. Or perhaps that he needs humans as much as he needs angels, but needs them in a radically different way, in which case the question becomes: what do fallen humans ‘give’ him (as it were) that fallen angels don’t?

Am I just being stupid, here? Honestly, this thought has taken hold of me and won’t let go, and now it’s bending Milton’s whole poem around its lines of force in my head. (By stupid I mean: is this just a loony idea in and of itself? But I also mean: is this notion — that God made a million angels but only one Adam — some trivial Theology 101 point that’s been long ago disposed of by proper thinkers, but I’m too ignorant of the literature to know? I don’t know).

It seems to me that one of the things Genesis is doing is answering the question: where does it come from, all the wrong we see around us? And the Jewish answer to that is: the wrongness is not a new thing, it goes all the way back. It came into the world right at the beginning of things. I get that — I mean, I get it as a kakology, as a way of talking about the nature of things: wickedness is something you inherited from your father and he from his, and so on all the way back, turtles, as it were, all the way up. But I think Milton is saying something else, something about the nature of individuality. Because Paradise Lost isn’t saying ‘evil is there from the beginning’ — in this poem it’s not there from the beginning: Adam and Eve are free and unfallen for two thirds of this lengthy poem, and Milton not only takes care to delineate what their unfallen life is like, he also sets-out the long backstory from before Adam and Eve. So something else is going on, I think.

Creating a million angels with free will is, I suppose I’m saying, a numbers game: a spread bet, a matter of calculable probabilities rather than chance. But creating one Adam, with free will, and giving Satan direct access to him is more like a game of Russian Roulette. It’s all or nothing, everyone is saved or everyone is damned, in one exhilarating-terrifying moment.

The point of writing a “Milton and Vida” books would not be the listing of all the places where Milton took Vida’s Latin and Englished it, just for the sake of the list (a very dull prospect). The point would be to argue something like this: Empson sees Paradise Lost as Milton struggling, to unintended, or only half-intended, creatively brilliant ends, with his desire to justify an unjustifiable God. I don’t think that’s right. What I mean is: I don’t think Milton saw God as unjustifiable, so I don’t think the poem’s struggle — which is manifestly part of the texture of Pradise Lost — is that. There’s more mileage in those historicist readings that say: what Milton is struggling with is not God but the working of authority as such. He has lived through, and indeed been an important part of, the movement to depose ‘bad’ royal authority and replace it with ‘good’ Parliamentary authority. But how different are those two things, in retrospect? How to tell them apart? Describe things from the monarch’s and the rebel’s p.o.v., but do so in such a way that the rebel assumes ‘bad’ monarchicism and the true authority becomes pride’s purge. This though puts the two terms in a complicated relationship, only too amenable to misreading (God = King, Devil = Cromwell and so on).

And in fact what I’d suggest is that Milton’s ‘authority’ problematic is less to do with English politics of the 1640s and more with the larger dynamic of Catholicism and Protestantism. Say Milton loves Vida, but Vida is a Catholic bishop and his poem is intensely Catholic pretty much in every line; so the question becomes: how to transmit what is inspiring about the Christiad into English without also importing Catholicism? Easy enough to make sure that your characters utter only reformed doctrine, but much harder to ensure that your readers don’t fall in love with the idea of high church richness, confuse the continuities of this story of origins and consequences with apostolic succession as such, transmit the quality of Vida-ness along with all the specific quotations — all that. But perhaps this shift is actually what Milton’s poem is in some sense ‘about’? Protestantism is still a matter of church hierarchies and congregations of people of course, just like Catholicism, but Protestantism is more importantly about an individual relationship with God, unmediated by a priest, about a solitariness, an all-or-nothing responsibility for your own soul without the paraphernalia of pardons and confession and exterior forgiveness. It’s much more a Russian-roulette than a spread bet sort of situation. This is ridiculously over-general I know, but I’m sketching a context: arguing that Milton is less interested in the quasi-Catholic older order of god-worship, all those thrones and dominions and principalities and powers, because he’s much more interested in this new order: humanity, Protestantism. Adam is alone to embody something important about what it means to be a Protestant. That, at any rate, is my current working hypothesis. [June 2020]

— — —

That was then. If you click on the link to the original post, you’ll see a couple of people commented upon it: my friend Alan Jacobs thinks I’ve misunderstood the significance of death — which is to say, of mortality as such — to the poem, since angels cannot corrupt and die the way we mortals do. I’m not so sure. And Matthew Jordan, author of Milton and Modernity (Palgrave 2001) thinks I overstate the influence of Vida on Milton, and manifest a thin grasp of the complexities of Milton’s view on free will. There is, I have to admit, something Empsonian in, as it were, a bad way about my speculation: I’m talking about the way Empson’s genius shaded so often into sheer bonkers obsessiveness and leftfield crankiness. I’m certainly not free of such, in my own critical imaginings.

Still, I’ve been thinking about the asymmetry of this theological question again recently: God creates a million angels, all with free will, two thirds stay true to God and one third rebel against Him. Then God tries again, a second time, and creates another kind of creature with free will: humans. But he only makes two of these, such that when they both fall, every yet-to-be-born human being, in the billions stretching out across history, fall with them. Doesn’t that seem an odd way of proceding?

One point I make above is that (we assume) God made his million — or howevermany — angels all at once, where by making human beings capable of marrying and being given in marriage, capable of mating and creating new human beings called ‘children’, he made the billions of men and women in potentia. Another way of talking about this would be to say: the idiom of angels is eternity, whereas the idiom of human beings is time, and so God’s creation of (billions of) people happened across time rather than all at once. Still it seems a bit all-or-nothing, a bit unfair, for the fate of all those future humans to depend upon the individual judgment of one single guy. If Adam had grasped just how many fates were bound-up with his choice, would he have chosen differently? It is one of the oddities of Milton’s framing of the story that the Archangel Michael is sent down, before the Fall (which God knows is coming anyway), to narrate a long account of the backstory to Eden, all the goings-on from before; but that it is only after the Fall that the future, including all those people, gets sketched out for Adam. Isn’t that the wrong way round? To beef-up Adam’s power of choice, wouldn’t it make sense to explain to him beforehand the consequences of his frugiverous action? Wouldn’t it be fairer to spell that out before, rather than after, he bites into the apple?

Anyway, working on something else recently, I was reminded of that bit in Genesis 6 where ‘the Sons of God’, which is to say (according to a number of interpreters anyway) angels, fall in love with the daughters of men, marry them and have children. And that brought me back to this original asymmetry. Because it rather suggests — doesn’t it? — that the idiom of angels is time, just as it is for us: sex and procreation being, after all, the shift by which mortality overcomes its finitude. Genesis suggests that the children of these angelic-human couplings were ‘mighty’, ‘men of renown’ — like the heroes of Greek myth, born when a god and a mortal come together. But Greek heroes are also mortal, however marvellous and strong they might be: ask Achilles. And so we assume is the case of this semi-divine race, the half-angelic. Or maybe not: for some of these Greek heroes didn’t die, but got apotheosed into heaven as constellations, or companions of the Olympians: Herakles, for example.

Since this erodes the difference between angels and humans — making that difference seem less one of kind and more one of degree — it reverts upon my original question. Now: one way of thinking through an issue, or a question, or a problematic, is to write a story about it. So I’m now wondering about a kind of alt-historical Edenic fable. How might that go?

Let’s swap the positions of angels and of men. Say God first creates one angel only, Lucifer. He falls. Then God has another go, creating a huge global population of human beings, and situating them on a world entirely Edenic. But of those billion people, all gifted with free will, several hundred million rebel against divine authority, and their portion of the world loses its paradisical shine. From among this population Lucifer chooses brides, and has offspring, so two species spring up: angels and humans.

Let’s add one more detail: in this alt timeline, Christ comes down as an angel, living among the fallen angels until murdered by them, in order to pay the price to redeem them. After this act, a large population of angels return to God.

Where does that leave us, in this year of our Lord 2022? Here on Earth, the self-renewing population of human beings goes about its business, some of it good and some bad, as it always has. Alongside us is a population of fallen angels who have hardened their heart against the possibilities of redemption offered by Christ’s sacrifice. And in Heaven, with the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, are circles of redeemed angels singing holy, holy, holy and dancing round in circles. Would such a world be all that different to the one in which we currently dwell? Would it be possible to tell an interesting story in such a venue?

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store