Study Guide

Paradise Lost Fate and Free Will

By John Milton

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Fate and Free Will

Book 1

"Nor had they yet among the sons of Eve
Got them new names, till wand'ring o'er the earth
Through God's high suff'rance for the trial of man" (1.364-6).

This describes how Satan's associates were allowed to "wander" over the earth because of God's "suff'rance," or forbearance after the Fall. The most important word here is "trial," a word that comes up repeatedly in the poem and in Milton's other writings. It suggests something like a test of man's virtue, which is made manifest when he is tempted and refuses.

Book 3

"So will fall
He and his faithless progeny. Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate! He had of Me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall" (3.95-9).

God makes it clear that Adam will fall through his own "fault." Even though this sounds like predestination, it's actually foreknowledge. God sees all events – past, present, and future – as simultaneous or present, including Adam's fall, which hasn't happened yet (in the poem). Just because God knows it will happen though doesn't mean he makes it happen; He knows how Adam himself will make it happen.

"They therefore, as to right belonged,
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Their Maker or their making, or their fate,
As if predestination overruled
Their will disposed by absolute decree
Or high foreknowledge" (3.111-6).

This passage picks up where the previous left off; things like "fate," "predestination," or "high foreknowledge" don't control one's destiny; in fact, God here places the onus on man's "will," which isn't subject to such external forces as "fate," etc.

Book 5

"advise him of his happy state—
Happiness in his power left free to will,
Left to his own free will, his will though free
Yet mutable" (5.234-7).

The repetition of "free will" in this passage points to its importance and centrality in the poem, but the tortured syntax makes the issue more complicated than a simple matter of emphasis. Adam can control his own happiness ("left free to will"), but free will can turn into something else if he's not careful. What exactly? We're not sure.

Book 6

"The monstrous sight
Strook them with horror backward but far worse
Urged them behind: headlong themselves they threw
Down from the verge of Heav'n" (6.862-5).

At the end of the war in Heaven, the rebel angels throw themselves out of God's kingdom. Wait a minute. What? The fact that they hurl themselves over the edge makes the point about free will perfectly clear: they have nobody to blame – not God, not fate, not predestination – but themselves.

"Firm they might have stood,
Yet fell; remember, and fear to transgress" (6.910-1).

Once again, things could have gone better for Satan if he had "stood." The idea of standing (and its associated rhetoric of uprightness, erectness, etc.) is an important figure or trope in the poem. Courageous figures who do the right thing stand (like Abdiel) while disobedient ones don't. Standing implies effort, which implies free will.

Book 10

"No Decree of mine
Concurring to necessitate his Fall,
Or touch with lightest moment of impulse
His free Will, to her own inclining left
In even scale" (10.43-7)

God reiterates a point he's made throughout the poem. Not even the "lightest…impulse" from God has affected Adam and Eve's behavior. Note the importance God places on words associated with the fate versus free will debate: "decree," "necessitate," "impulse," and "inclining."

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