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Free will and necessity
in Milton's Paradise Lost.

John Rottenburg

John MiltonSamuel Johnson, two centuries ago, noted that Milton's theological opinions can be said “to have been first Calvinistical, and afterwards, perhaps when he began to hate the Presbyterians, to have tended towards Arminianism.”[1] In a more recent work, by Julia Walker, on Milton and his ideas of free will and necessity, she concludes that “Milton the artist could not accept the reality of Milton the theologian who so unambiguously set forth God's ‘sufficient to have stood, though free to fall' speech, so the artist created a human, poetic reality which made Adam's and Eve's actions believable and understandable.”[2] So what are we to understand by Milton internal conflict between his poetic sensibilities and his theological beliefs? Furthermore, would a further investigation into this conflict suggest an answer to whether Milton actually later in his life did drift towards an Arminian theology? By examining Milton's earlier work, Aeropagitica and his later epic, Paradise Lost, we can understand how he felt about free will and necessity, and if he did actually undergo a theological shift. Lastly, I will investigate how his ideas about free will and necessity then inform his view of the human condition before and after the fall in Paradise Lost.

Had Calvinism or Arminianism an influenced Milton and his work? One's belief in Calvinism or Arminianism is really determined by the notion of salvation. Do all men have the free choice to either accept or refuse God's plan of salvation (the Arminian view) or is God's grace so irresistible (and Man's will so contaminated) that Man is not able to make an informed choice to accept God's limited offer? First, we must examine the views of both John Calvin and Jacabus Arminus, and then in light of these conclusions consider Milton's earlier work Aeropagitica to understand what view Milton held on free will and necessity.

One of the earlier Protestant reformers John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, developed his five points of Calvinism, which includes his discourse on free will and necessity. First, Calvin believed that God not only foresaw the fall of Man, but also arranged it. Calvin says, “ Nor ought it to seem absurd...[to say] that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”[3] Second, Calvinism teaches that Man's will is subject to God's will, so when Man does “will” something, Calvin and his followers would argue that God has already willed it before hand, for his own pleasure. This of course would include God's “will” for salvation.

Calvin's doctrine on free will propagates that Man can not even “will” to be reconciled to God. In fact, it is only by God's irresistible grace, a grace that can not be refused, that God chooses who ever he pleases to be reconciled to him. Danielson says it is with this point that Jacobus Arminius, earlier in his life, had supported Calvin. Danielson quotes Arminius as saying “That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good.”[4] Jacobus Arminius in deed had studied in Geneva with Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor. However, later in Arminius' life when he was called to Delft to refute Calvin's doctrine against Coornhert, a humanist critic of Calvinism, that a change occurred in Arminius.

Following Delft and perhaps Coornhert's influence, Jacabus Arminius wrote “Five Arminian Articles” “to which the five points corresponded to Calvin treatises included in his Institutes, however, no longer agreeing with Calvin”[5] Arminius' major disagreements centered around the issues of free will and necessity. Jacabus Arminius now believed that grace was offered to all of Mankind, and not only to an “elect” group. Danielson comments on Arminius' change:

First, like Eramus, he believes that sufficient grace is offered to all; ‘were the fact otherwise, the justice of God could not be defended in his condemning those who do not believe'...Second, in contrast to the orthodox Calvinists, he claims that grace is resistible rather than irresistible...Put in another way, if sufficient grace were not offered to all, then those to whom it was not offered would be incapable of willing good, and would thus in no meaningful sense be free, so that God alone, in with holding grace, would be responsible for those who perish without salvation.[6]

Furthermore, Arminius' change in theology implicitly created a new doctrine, which is Man's free will to either accept or refuse God's grace, and reiterating Jesus' words, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”[7] Since grace is offered to all, but only a few choose, then obviously there are those who refused (and will refuse) the offer, and thereby establishing Man's free will to do so. Does Milton adhere to this view?

Milton, in his Aeropagitica, initially felt that Jacabus Arminius' doctrine was perverted, and perhaps this is so because Milton might have misunderstood Armininism or even that Arminius had separated himself from Calvinism. Danielson says “in his Apology Against a Pamphlet (1642), Milton implies that Arminians ‘deny originall sinne.' Furthermore, in the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), he mentions that ‘the Jesuits, and that sect among us which is nam'd of Arminius, are wont to change us of making God the author of sinne.'”[8] However, there is much confusion on Milton's part about Arminism here. Since Milton writes in his Aeropagitica, “It is not forgot, since the acute and distinct Arminius was perverted merely by the perusing of a nameless discourse written at Delft, [by Coornhert?], which at first he took in hand to confute.”[9] It seems that Milton does recognize that Coornert had influenced Arminius, but on the other hand Milton recognizes that Arminius refutes Calvinism when he says that Arminians “are wont to change us of making God the author of sinne.” This latter idea reflects a Calvinistic doctrine and not a Post-Delft Arminian view, since Calvin believed that God took pleasure in arranging the fall. So anyone adhering to a Post-Delft Arminian view would argue against Calvin's doctrine that God took pleasure in arranging the fall, on the basis that Calvin's view would release Man of any responsibility of origin sin.

In his Aeropagitica (1644) Milton writes about free will, and his ideas refute the Calvinistic view of Man's depravity. Milton writes:

Here in this passage, it is clear that Milton does believe in free will, “When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose.” Furthermore, Milton also argues against the doctrine “that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it” when he says, “Many there be that complain of divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress. Foolish tongues!”

In Milton's Paradise Lost, especially the books that deal with Adam and Eve before and after the fall, Milton is more an Arminian than a Calvinist. This is so because grace is offered to all Mankind, and in addition to that Man is responsible for the fall, not a predetermining or causative God. Milton sums up his disagreement with a predetermining God in his Christian Doctine too when he says:

In Book III of Paradise Lost Milton, poetically, deals with the present idea, which is that God's foreknowledge does not impose any necessity upon us. After God reveals to the Son that Satan will take revenge on Man, and in defense of Man God will “redound/Upon his won rebellious head,” God also reveals to the Son how Man will be perverted by the lies of Satan to fall:

Milton's disagreement with Calvin's belief that God took pleasure in arranging the fall is also evident in the following passage, God says in Book III:

This passage also examines what Danielson had reiterated earlier, that is Arminius' argument against Calvin's idea that irresistible grace is for the elect only “so that God alone, in with holding grace, would be responsible for those who perish without salvation.” Furthermore, Milton's God does not take pleasure in Man's obedience to sin. And if any idea of necessity is caused, it happens when Man chooses to be obedient to Satan instead. And by doing so, Man serves “necessity,” and not God. In addition, by Milton choosing his diction as such, “nor can justly accuse / Their maker, or their making, or their Fate,” the poet expresses an Arminian theology. Milton expresses an Arminian view that Man has the free will to either choose or reject obedience to God, and by doing so, Man is made responsible for his decisions to serve either Satan or God. For Milton's God also says,

Milton expresses his concern that by Man's “freedom” did Man ordain his fall, and Milton does not seem to agree with the Calvinistic doctrine that God took pleasure in arranging it.

Milton's God reacts to Man's foreseeable fall by his plan of grace, and it is by this action that we understand more clearly Milton's disagreement with Calvinism. Milton's idea of grace is not “irresistible,” but “conditional” upon Man's choice to accept or refuse it. Milton's God says to the Son in Book III, “Man shall not quite be lost, but sav'd who will, / Yet not of will in him, but grace in me” (ll.173-74). There seems to be an element of Calvinism here, since we are told that “Yet not of will in him, but grace in me.” However, this does not neglect Man choice to make a decision to be saved by the grace of God. For Milton, Man does not have the “will” to save himself, but can choose to be “saved” by a will that can save him. This of course only pertains to Adam and Eve after the fall and not before.

If we consider the context of Adam and Eve before the fall, it seems that Milton presents them with an unimpaired will. However, whether Milton's choice to do so supports Calvin's idea that after the fall Man's “will” became contaminated, so much that he could not even make an informed choice to be saved, is not a theology that Milton irresistibly accepts. In Book IX, before Eve and Adam are deceived into “serving necessity,” Adam reminds Eve that “But God left free the will, and reason he made right” (351-2). However, a question arises from this, that is whether the fall changed Adam and Eve's ability to reason freely, and if so perhaps this is contrary to “but sav'd who will, / Yet not of will in him.” When we examine Eve being tempted by the serpent, we may find a clearer answer. Eve says:

Not only is Reason her law, but also, as stated from Milton's Aeropagitica and Book III, Reason is the basis for choice. Free choice. It is here that Eve must choose to be obedient to the Law of God and thereby “live Law to our selves.” If she follows the Law of God, she will not submit to her desire for autonomy, and as a result remain free from sin. However, she decides to become autonomous, and in doing so, ironically she serves necessity instead. When she makes her decision, her perception of Reason changes, and perhaps even the state of human Reason itself. It becomes divided.

As a consequence of Eve's choice to obey the serpent (necessity) instead of God, a dualistic nature develops within the faculty of human Reason. For example, when the Serpent tempts Eve, we are told:

Here in this passage, Reason and the Serpent's lies merge, since the Serpent's persuasive words rung and were “impregned / With Reason, to her seeming, and with truth.” In addition, when she later recounts her unreasonable act to Adam, she informs Adam that she felt a change happen within her that led her from the state of “Reasoning to Admiration...that I / Have also tasted, and have also found” what the serpent has found. That is a change in the faculty of Reason. And if Reason and deception have merged, then the human condition is no longer the same as in the Garden before the fall.

And later in Book X when Milton's God recounts to the Son Man's foreseeable dismissal from the Garden, and his plan of salvation for them, God also mentions, at that moment in the future, a change will occur in the human condition as well. He says, “Nor can I miss the way, so strongly drawn / By this new-felt attraction and instinct.” (262-3). Milton investigates an idea so profound to the human condition. That is, if humanity continually refuses to consider its implications, humanity will destroy itself: When our ability to Reason is removed, we are going to be reduced to instinct to solve our problems. Furthermore, if this is so, the consequences to such a change in the human condition will eventually lead Man to rely more on “Might” instead of reasonable diplomacy to solve conflicts. We were told this when the serpent tempted Eve, “Might tempt alone, and in her ears the sound / Yet rung of his persuasive words.” Two important words are chosen to emphasize this consequence to Man's fall, they are: “Might” and “rung.” These two words invoke the idea of “power” and “force.” As a result of the fall, humans will resort to these qualities to achieve their goals instead of using reasonable diplomacy. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that Eve solved her current conflict in such a manner.

Does Eve rely on Reason or instinct to manipulate Adam to take part in the fall? First, after Eve's change she tells us:

In this passage Eve's divided self is already evident. Will she lie to her husband as the serpent did to her? And in doing so, will she reason with him, or will she rely on base instinct to “equalize” him? She decides to “keep the odds of knowledge [Fallen Reason?] in my power...So to add what wants / In female sex, the more draw his love.” Eve resorts to her female instinct to manipulate her husband. In addition, the power struggle is also noticeable when she says, “And render me more equal...for inferior who is free.” So Eve decides to equalize Adam to her state of inferiority by both base instinct and corrupt human reason.

When she meets Adam later she not only lies to him (by omission), but uses her base instinct intentionally to deceive Adam to his tragic end. But before we examine this, we must first understand how she feels in that fallen state, and thereby also understand her tragic end. She says to Adam, Thee I missed...The pain of absence from thy sight. But strange / Hath been the cause.” She not only feels the pain of separation, but she is also fully aware that she “Hath been the cause.” Even more tragic than the pain she feels is her motive to deceive her husband. She says, “...and wonderful to hear: / This tree is not as we are told, a tree.” There is a double irony here in this passage, and it makes the passage an excellent commentary on the human condition because we are led to consider by who “we are told,” God, Satan, or even Eve herself?

It is clearer to us that Eve is placed in Satan's army, but to Adam it is not so clear where she stands. After lying to Adam, we are told, “Thus Eve with countenance blithe her story told; / But in her cheek distemper flushing glowed” (886-7). Eve's lie does not convince Adam absolutely. He is “amazed / Astonied stood and blank, while horror chill” probably because he is aware that his wife has been transformed. After realizing that she could not “Reason” “Against his better Knowledge,” since he is not yet “divided,” she resorts to her female base instinct to win him over:

Juxtaposed here are two different methods in which humans attempt to solve their problems, one is by Reason and the other, human instinct. Adam's better knowledge is set against the power of Eve's female charm. But he is not deceived. And, as we have been given the opportunity to see the serpent's method to deceive Eve, we are now shown the method that a human will use against another. Eve in doing so becomes Satan's disciple, who is now used by Satan to lead her husband to his tragic end, as Satan had done to her. And whereas Satan appealed to Eve's desire for status, Eve appeals to Adam's sexual needs, and once Adam has been deceived by instinct, he like Eve will become divided too.

If Milton had left Mankind in this state, there would appear to be little hope for the human condition. But Milton does not leave them there in perpetual conflict. Milton provides a solution to the plight of Adam and Eve in Book XI, and at the same instance, reveals an Arminian view of free will and necessity:

The “Prevenient grace” mentioned in this passage does not imply a Calvinistic form of grace since it is not “irresistible,” and furthermore this “Prevenient grace” was established after God foresaw Man's fall (III.174), and not before. Furthermore, Danielson says that Milton's idea of prevenient grace is an “undeserved divine grace.”[12]

Prevenient grace is an “undeserved divine grace” but it is not imposed upon Man. It is offered as a “choice” solution to Man's tragic predicament. Also, the Son in book XI reveals that it is an "implanted grace in man” (l.23), not to predetermine Man's return to God, but to remind Man that there is always a way out of sin, if he desires. Furthermore, Milton's idea of grace is not based upon Man's merit, but upon the merit of the Son, by his sacrifice, and Man has to recognize this when he chooses freely to either accept or refuse this grace. The Son says:

Milton reveals his ideas of the Divine at work, not a predestined work, but a reactionary event that was foreseen in Book III to save Man. Milton's God is a God of free will. In Book XI, Milton's God offers even the Son a choice to either accept or refuse to provide a way out for Man, when he says, “To whom the Father, without cloud, serene. / All thy request for man, accepted Son. / Obtain, all thy request was my decree” (ll.45-47). Milton's God mentions his decree, and although it is written in the past tense, “was my decree,” it is a cognitive rather than causative statement. However, this divine act of grace does not eliminate the consequences of Man's decision. Milton makes it clear that Adam and Eve must live with the consequences to their choices, because after all Adam and Eve was expelled from paradise as a result of their disobedience.

With all these events in mind that have helped to formulate the human condition in Paradise Lost, can we infer that Milton's view of free will and necessity are in fact influenced more so by Calvinism or Arminianism? It would seem that Milton offered solutions that agree more with Jacobus Arminius' theology than Calvin's, in that Milton believed Man is free to sin, and that God did not arrange the fall for his own pleasure. In addition, Milton would have us also believe that grace is offered to all Mankind, however, only some “Accept” it. If so, this would make Milton less a Calvinist and more so an Arminian. However, for me, there is another question that Milton has not dealt with to a great extent in Paradise Lost that could have made our conclusions much more definite, and that is the idea of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil being place in the Garden of Eden. By placing the “Tree” there, couldn't we say that God had set Mankind up for failure, for the purpose of making Man dependent upon Him? If so, than perhaps Calvin's interpretation that God did arrange the fall for His own pleasure should be considered more seriously, but I can't agree with this answer, because we would be reduced to mere actors upon God's stage. And in Paradise Lost, the poet does not reduce the human condition to a deterministic state, for Milton's God does tells us that the tree of “Knowledge of good and ill, which I have set' is for “The pledge of thy obedience and they faith.”

Works Cited

Dennis Danielson “Milton's Arminianism and Paradise Lost,” Milton Studies 12 (1978): 47-73.

John Milton John Milton: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

John Milton Paradise Lost.1674 (Ebook - PDF format)

Julia M. Walker “‘For each seem'd either': Free Will and Predestination in Paradise Lost,Milton Quarterly 20:1 (1986): 13-16.


[1] Samuel Johnson quoted from Dennis Danielson's “Milton's Arminianism and Paradise Lost,” p.47.

[2] Julia M. Walker, “ ‘For each seem'd either': Free Will and Predestination in Paradise Lost,” p.16.

[3] Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (III. xxiii. 7). Quoted from Danielson, p.53.

[4] Danielson, p.57.

[5] Danielson, p.55.

[6] Ibid, p.56.

[7] Mathew 20:16b.

[8] Danielson, p.60.

[9] John Milton, p.249.

[10] John Milton, p.252.

[11] John Milton, p.728.

[12] Daneilson, p.52.