Scholars Day Essay: “And I / Another Rib Afford…” (excerpted)
John Milton’s justification of the ways of God to men in Paradise Lost is an intricate epic of pre- and post-lapsarian human nature, vulnerable to the temptations of Satan and bound to original sin through the “bond of nature” which is what ultimately sways Adam to fall with Eve. Informed by natural philosophy, Milton tells a tale which, at times, presumptuously precludes God’s rule and presents us with an absurd depiction of flawed human reasoning.
Adam even dares in Book IX to presume that God would afford him another woman from another rib after he realizes that she has fallen into original sin (9.912) right before he falls with Eve. Given traditional Christian thought, this hesitant consideration by Adam seems presumptuous. Yet in Milton’s poem it makes sense, as Adam has only his bodily experience, dreams and the half patronizing colloquy with Raphael from which to base his knowledge. Satan too is restricted to his own empirical point of view and thus asserts his argument of self-begetting (PL, Book V) in defiance to a version of creation he did not bear witness to. For example, in Satan’s mind, he never saw God create the earth. Though he flew over the dark dome of the earth, God did let the fallen angel view his extraordinary process of creation as Milton elaborates in great detail from Genesis. Stephen Fallon compares this aptly with the creation by the hand of God in Book VII as “the spirit of God hovered over the water,” (201). Satan’s experience keenly foreshadows this hovering: “Satan with thoughts inflamed of highest design, / Puts on swift wings, and towards the gates of Hell / Explores his solitary flight” (PL, 2.630-633). In comparison, Satan must don his material wings whereas heaven’s “winged spirits, and chariots winged” (7.199) come forth pre-winged from God’s armory with an airy easiness: “Celestial equipage; and now came forth / Spontaneous, for within them spirit lived,” (203-204). Satan no longer possesses such an immaterial spirit as the light of God and later Eden reminds Satan of heaven, enraging him with torturous regret and envy. Also, Satan’s flight is “solitary” while God creates with a numberless audience of angels: “about his chariot numberless were poured” (198). Whereas God’s divine spirit is infused across all loyal angels, when Satan takes his flight he is alone, locked in his own material perspective. Thus Milton outlines the upper and lower ends in his monistic universe as God creates heaven and purges Chaos:
but downward purged
The black tartareous cold infernal dregs
Adverse to life: then founded, then conglobed
Like things to like. (7.235-40)
From Satan’s point of view, all he knows is that he was outcast from heaven for rebelling and found himself stretched out in leviathan-like – powerless with the other fallen on a lake of fire. Little does he know that is was only because God willed it that he was eventually able to stand from that lake. Now Satan has achieved the kind of autonomous self-begetting powers — free of god’s control that he always wished for. He can do what he wants in Hell and the leadership position is open for the taking.
The birth of Satan and Adam’s feminine counterparts also compare to this notion of self-begetting as Satan’s seemingly forgotten girlfriend Sin literally ejects out the side of his head in public view of Seraphim as soon as he contrives the idea to rebel against god. Eve on the other hand is birthed in what reads like a tender operation just between God and Adam. By illuminating the differences in these first human and satanic families, one can see two interpretations of natural law: one rooted primarily in mechanist, self-determining materialism (Satan) and another more divinely-inspired materialist monism (Adam and Raphael). Thus, Milton’s creative theodicy consists of such a double-sided natural philosophy or law that stands in opposition to God’s law, rendering divine law arbitrary and beyond human knowledge.
As Adam recognizes Satan’s materialist argument of self-begetting, his logic stems from nature, Eve and her undeniably erotic effects, and Adam’s own faulty reasoning. As innocent as it may be for Raphael to have to calm Adam’s “Commotion strange” (531) one senses an untamed naturalistic state of animist materialism encroaching upon the blasphemy of a self-determinist material drive. In Book VIII, Adam describes the myriad natural delights of Eden and he questions whether God “took perhaps / More than enough” (8.536-37) from his side when he made Eve. Fannie Peczenik suggests that right after the moment of Adam’s dream vision, and after his brief moment of pure, divinely-inspired love for Eve, Adam “tries to read his dream as an actual, physical event which might be subject to scientific scrutiny and almost founder on the absurdity of wondering if God was perhaps overzealous and incautious when he created Eve” (260). The implications of such a God who created a woman perhaps too beautiful for Adam to bear, sparks Raphael to warn Adam: “Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part” (8.561). Yet nature irrevocably proves too much for Adam as it alters his reasoning for the worst.
Peczenik likens Adam’s reasoning to the historical exegesis that “he is a man mutilated for the sake of the woman (261). This misogynist exegesis which built the hierarchy of domestic relations throughout history based its claims in literal readings of Eve taken from man’s rib (Peczenik). Yet Adam apparently forgets that at first Milton dispenses with naturalism to show the rib taken for the sake of love as “Adam’s side is opened as though it were wounded by the blind god Eros” with the eyes acting as “passageway for the spirits travelling between heart and heart” (258). Adam’s reasoning bears Satanic ontological resonance in that “his literal, naturalistic exegesis is unfit for the prelapsarian world where a failure of imagination is not excused by lending it physical substance” (262). Adam, then reasons backwards from the soul back to one heart, then one flesh (262). This mirrors prior satanic conflation and begetting based on literalness and skeptical materialism. For as the airy “link of Nature” changes to the forcible “bond of Nature” the fallen union of humankind becomes indissoluble as Adam’s fall is, in a sense, a fall into literalness and into the “standard assumptions of the commentaries where the rib is flesh and blood reality and where nature and necessity can hold sway” (263).
Thereby, true paradise for Peczenik is actually much briefer. There is only a moment after his dream vision that Adam realizes a love for Eve that is not so forwardly affected by a nature with which he can hardly control himself. For just as The King James Bible accounts for, death resides at the end of the chain of lust and sin (Kahn). This is fully realized in the fall of course, as perhaps an inkling of death is also extracted from Adam as he complains of “nature failed in me, and left some part / Not proof enough such object to sustain” (8.534-35). This object represents some internal failing in Adam’s nature caused by Eve. Perhaps it is his physical arousal towards her which alters his reasoning, or which he must sustain, to the point where he must have her as one flesh. Hence Adam reasons his way back to literalness, related to Sin by the notion of forced inwardness: he must have his rib back to quell the overwhelming nature inside him which the beauteous object of Eve ignites. Therefore, the rib comes back to echo the patriarchal exegetes, especially after the fall (Peczenik). Adam’s innocent extra-biblical love for Eve then, (however only briefly unhindered by an overwhelming nature) represents an animist vitalism that is above all human and in tune with god’s monism.
This love is quickly tested by Adam though, as he reasons his way, absurdly, sublimely, to the point of the fall when he questions whether he could afford another rib (9.913). This thought from Adam shows his faulty reasoning which is based on selfish, inward consideration. We are left wondering, would it be too painful? Would he not be able to stand for another beauty? Whatever the answer may be, we can understand Adam’s reasoning as a version of Satanic ontology. Notably, he pauses after “and I / Another rib afford” (913). He mentions God prior to this, yet this hesitation indicates a begetting from his own material body, cutting God out of the creative process momentarily. As he harps on the materiality of the rib, Adam crafts the fallen logic of dead materialism and self-begetting, similar to the hypocrisy of kingship which assumes a God that would work for a human in the process of begetting.
If only they could have recognized their own individuality. But for a poem ultimately guided by traditional Christian thought, however enticingly fattened with a new humanistic story of the fall, Milton must have the natural law conflate Adam and Eve as one material flesh, stretched across time as allegory for the innate inseparability of human reason and nature, standing in opposition to God’s arbitrary laws. This is the way of God to men and perhaps more illuminatingly the ways of humans under God. For in nature we can realize a human sublime at once idolatrous and fixated on self-preserving exteriors, and at once establishing the soul within the body, a paradise remembered which Satan can never truly experience. The choice is up to us.