What is the relationship between law and morality in Paradise Lost?

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jam898 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It can be argued quite effectively that the law and morality are depicted as being in conflict with one another in Milton's Paradise Lost.  Two examples that can be drawn out to illustrate this point are Satan's rebellion against God and Adam and Eve being cast out from the Garden of Eden.

In the first example, God can be understood as the symbolic embodiment of the law while morality comes into play as an issue faced by Satan and his rebel army.  The first point is straightforward enough.  God holds supreme authority over all things, therefore he is the law.  The second point is less direct.  Morality concerns the principles of good and bad or right and wrong. Satan and his cohorts were faced with a decision - choice or free will being the key concept in this discussion of morality - they could live under God's rule for eternity while enjoying the splendor of heaven or they could attempt to overthrow Him in the name of ruling themselves.

On the one hand, Milton would have likely disagreed with the notion that this is an example of morality and the law being in conflict, but rather an example of how free will can potentially be in conflict with the law.  For Milton, God is a perfect being, incapable of flawed judgment.  Therefore, it is our own flawed judgment that both separates God from us and places us in conflict with Him.  This is to say that Milton would have viewed Satan's rebellion against God as "wrong" and that Satan and his army were justly cast out of heaven.  Instead, it was Satan's blindness and ability to make his own choices that led to his banishment.

On the other hand, the Romantics (such as William Blake) viewed Satan as a tragic figure.  Satan is someone who humans can relate to in that we are burdened by free will and unhappy when enslaved to a higher power.  In fact, the first chapter does not make God's "supreme" nature as clear as we might expect it to be when it is stated that it is uncertain as to whether God put down the rebellion through "strength, or chance, or fate." The Romantics would agree with Milton's assertion that this shows how "free will" is in conflict with the law; however, they would disagree that this justifies God to the human race.  Instead, this episode raises the question of why should we be expected to live a life enslaved to one being?  Is "free will" necessarily "free" if we are expected to make decisions based on a moral code dictated by one entity?  Perhaps not so ironically, for someone like Blake who found institutional laws (such as marriage) dictated by the church to be in conflict with the potential of religion to bring spiritual serenity, Milton's poem is a masterpiece when Milton's authorial intent is ignored.

The second example of Adam and Eve plays out in the same manner as Satan's rebellion.  God gives them one law: not to eat from the tree of knowledge.  Satan, of course, tempts Eve to eat from the tree in a number of ways (i.e. through her dreams, speaking to her, etc.).  However, both Adam and Eve have the free will to either give into the temptations or to abide by God's law.  They, of course, choose to eat from the tree.  The action results in them being banished from Eden and bearing the burden of having brought sin into the world.  Again, Milton would likely argue that this is a justified punishment and serves as an illustration of how we are flawed beings who cannot quite grasp the divine perfection of God; therefore, we must make a concerted effort to choose wisely and not give into temptation.  For the Romantics, this is a tragic fall from grace that comes with an unjustified punishment.  Desiring a fruit is as natural and harmless as desiring the flesh (a parallel that Milton makes himself, yet with the opposite intention); yet institutional forces corrupt with power wish to control the masses by perverting the spirituality of religion.