Academic journal article
By Walker, William
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Vol. 47, No. 1
Over the last thirty-five years, Stanley Fish has provided one of the most comprehensive and influential treatments of how, in Paradise Lost, Milton understands and dramatizes the human freedoms to believe and to act. This treatment, I wish to suggest, fails to acknowledge properly the way in which Milton, in this poem and elsewhere, grounds these freedoms in reason and the way this understanding of freedom, reason, and faith conforms with rationalist as opposed to voluntarist theological tradition. That Milton grounds the freedom to believe in reason, I will further argue, does not mean that, in requiring that man have faith in him, Milton's God is requiring him to do something he is not free to do. For Milton's God does not ask of his creatures endowed with reason that they believe in him independently of that faculty.
In Surprised by Sin (1967), Fish presents his views on these issues most forcefully in his reading of Milton's representation of the Fall in book 9 of Paradise Lost. Though Fish acknowledges that the poem asserts that God gave Adam and Eve reason, and that this faculty is one of the things that distinguishes them from the animals, he claims that it also very clearly establishes that reason "is irrelevant to any decision concerning the forbidden fruit." (1) Eve herself, according to Fish, affirms this fact when in response to Satan's temptations she claims,
But of this Tree we may not taste nor touch; God so commanded, and left that Command Sole Daughter of his voice; the rest, we live Law to ourselves, our Reason is our Law. (2)
Eve here states her correct understanding that, in the words of Fish, "in this instance alone, reason is not her law" (Sin, p. 254). The reason God issues to Adam and Eve "a command beyond reason" is that he requires of them a belief in him that is what Fish calls an "act of faith" (Sin, pp. 243, 245). This act of faith, which Fish also refers to as a "leap of faith," is the result of an exertion of free will that is in no way answerable to reason or experience: "the arbitrariness of God's command ... its unreasonableness, is necessary if compliance is to be regarded as an affirmation of loyalty springing from an act of the will" (Sin, pp. 242, 270). The reader must remember that God requires Adam and Eve "to perform an act of the will, signifying faith, not understanding, and that lapses in logic do not affect her sufficiency" (Sin, p. 254). Fish here says little about the content of that faith out of which Adam and Eve are then freely to obey the command beyond reason, but he implies that this faith is a freely willed belief in an omnipotent and beneficent deity who is always to be obeyed. Describing the reason and faith of Adam and Eve in this way. Fish argues, Milton conforms with his assertion in On Christian Doctrine that "'the seat of faith is not in the understanding, but in the will'" (qtd. in Sin, p. 254).
Fish thus sees Adam and Eve in Paradise having and exercising the freedom to believe things about God and the freedom to act on that belief. They are free to believe that God is a beneficent and omnipotent deity who is always to be obeyed and free to believe that he is an envious oppressor, obedience to whom results in unhappiness and self-debasement. And they are free to act in accordance with these beliefs about God. Neither these freedoms nor their exercise are to be grounded in reason; they are to be grounded solely in the will. By issuing them a command for which there seems to be no reason--indeed against which there may seem to be all kinds of reasons--God requires Adam and Eve to display their freedom to believe, their faith, by freely obeying that command. Fish thus understands Adam and Eve's disobedience of God not as a failure of reason but as a failure of that faith he understands as a product of free will: "the error of substituting the law of reason and the evidence of things seen for the law of God is repeated by the reader if he regards Eve's failure as a failure of reason and declines to judge her in accordance with the terms of God's decree" (Sin, p. …