Those rare and solitary: aspirations to godliness

Paradise Lost explores the natural aspiration to stand alone and to be distinguished from the multitudes. Adam, Eve, Satan, even God himself strain to assert their superiority and godliness by attempting to wield the most visible proof of godly power: the ability to create. However, they all (including God) fail to some extent because they are motivated by their narcissistic intentions to selfishly create imitations that seek only to reinforce their superiority. They can merely create copies that are inferior to the originals, due to their inability to realize that only God can create inherent worth. The only way to progress towards a semblance of godliness is not to proudly make external, boastful imitations of oneself, but rather, to humbly make ones’ spirit an intangible, spiritual imitation of God. Throughout Paradise Lost, Satan and God try to distinguish themselves by setting themselves apart from the multitudes that surround them. Out of the whole host of demons, Satan alone offers to take the “ solitary flight” through Chaos. Then, after “ alone thus wandering” (3. 667) and “ walk[ing] up and down alone, bent on his prey/ alone”(3. 441-2), he imagines himself as being “ alone”, even though he is being watched by Uriel (4. 129). Similarly, “ God alone” sits by himself, hidden behind a cloud (4. 202). This seclusion heightens the sense of having untouchable power, of being “ with transcendent glory raised/ above his fellows” (2. 427-8). A state of solitude avoids the oppressive banality associated with being just one among the masses. God’s angels are “ innumerable (5. 585), a “ multitude” (3. 345) of “ ten thousand thousand” (5. 588); Satan’s devils are also “ innumerable” (1. 699). These hordes of creatures are perpetually “ thronged” or “ swarmed”, compared to bees that are so equal that they’re indistinguishable, and incapable of action except in a group (1. 761-9). Like the “ brute” bee created by God, multitudes are often bestial and without “ sanctity of reason”, compressed together into a single unit that seems to serve only to mindlessly applaud and sing praises on cue (7. 507-8). In contrast, gods can think independently. Milton does not put value on the brute force of numbers, but rather on the subtle tricks and wiles that only individuals can pull off. For example, while the devil multitude sits meekly in Pandemonium, their strength and weapons useless, Satan alone manages to destroy humanity’s innocence solely with the persuasiveness of his tongue. With power equal to the collective might of the entire group, these individuals, “ those rare and solitary, [not like] these in flocks” are raised above the fallen and consequently are visible, autonomous and exclusively powerful (7. 461). “ God alone” and Satan are constantly surrounded by multitudes, and as a result, their solitude is even more apparent, which highlights the inequality of their disproportionate might compared to that of the masses, in turn suggesting their godliness. Milton twice states that it is absurd to “ equal over equals to let rein”, and that a monarch must be superior to those he rules (5. 820). Having established themselves to be above the ubiquitous equality of ‘ multitudes’, Milton’s characters seek to be equal with a higher entity. Thinking that their solitude makes them supreme, their inflated egos lead them to aim to “ affect all equality with God” (5. 763). In order to assert their preeminence over the bestial multitudes, and thus prove their godliness, Adam, Eve, Satan and God try to exercise the most noticeable form of godly power: the role of Creator. They reason that they must be superior to beings that they themselves create. God declares the “ creatures which [he] made” to be “ second to [him] or like, equal much less” (8. 407-9). They are “ inferior” to God in their inequality and in their debt to him as their creator. However, the power of these characters is insecure, including that of God himself. For each aspirant, godliness is only achieved if others acknowledge them as gods, if they have a cheerleading squad of worshippers. Satan’s confidence as the leader of Hell’s demons rests on his “ expecting/ their universal shout and high applause” (10. 504-5). The possess the uncertainty of believing that godliness is only legitimized through adulation; it is not enough for them to convince themselves that they can become godlike; only external expression can persuade them of their success as creators. Milton surrounds each of God and Satan’s great speeches with jubilees, “ loud hosannas”, “ awful reverence” and “ solemn adoration” (2. 478), underscoring the importance of acclaim as a ‘ prerequisite’ to divinity (3. 347). It is ironic that the characters try to replicate this outside approval by creating it themselves through offspring that praise them incessantly, almost impassively, as in the vein of professional mourners. God had man “ created in his image, [on Earth] to dwell/ and worship him… and multiply a race of worshippers”, not to benefit from God’s grace, but to refill the empty ranks of his admirers (7. 626-9). Eve is advised to create “ multitudes like [her]self” so that her progeny could revere her as the “ Mother of human race” (4. 474-5). Neither Eve nor God seems to create in order to have something to love, but rather, to have something that loves them. This egotistic, self-aggrandizing impulse leads the would-be gods to abuse the power to create. Their narcissism corrupts their godly ambitions, leading them to create copies of themselves, instead of a responsible hierarchy of creatures that supports all life, like a truly well-intentioned god would. Adam and Eve were pleasurable and “ worthy” to God not because they tended Eden, but because “ in [their] naked majesty/ the image of their glorious Maker shone” (4. 291-2). Furthermore, God did not create these copies to love as separate beings, but rather so that he could have even more ways to admire himself. Likewise, when Adam is “ overmuch admiring/ what seem’d in [Eve] so perfect” (9. 1178), he is actually enjoying himself, “ whose image [Eve] art” (4. 472). This is externalized praise in its most extreme form. It allows these narcissist creators to expand their power indefinitely, to express absolute dominion over their creation. This way, they assure themselves of their superiority by creating beings that are fundamentally inferior and unequal to them while simultaneously reproducing beloved reflections of themselves. However, because these potential gods abuse the power of creation by using incestuous methods, many of their creations turn out to be perverted. Narcissistic Adam and Satan, both enamored of their own likenesses, create daughters from their bodies, the “ flesh of [their] flesh” (4. 441). However, these creations are perverted when both creators, viewing in their offspring their “ perfect image”, desire their daughters (2. 764). As a result, the birth of Eve and Sin does not serve to benefit them as individuals, but rather, to satisfy the ungodly lusts of their creators through the distorted roles of “ daughter and darling/ without end” (2. 870). Similarly, Sin is raped by her own offspring, Death, and the ensuing cycle of unnatural creation results in more depraved offspring, here, “ yelling monsters” (2. 795). In a final irony, Satan “ issues forth” his devilish followers, only to see that the multitudes of his ‘ issue’ are now deformed, “ a crowd/ of ugly serpents”. It is fitting that he, the ultimate narcissist, is then transformed into a “ huge Python” to match his perverted progeny. Though he still “ seemed above the rest” (10. 51-2), his narcissistic need for his offspring to be “ all transformed alike” ultimately equalizes him, making him just another suffering snake in the swarm that he has created (10. 519). God’s natural creations are meant to maintain equilibrium, a homeostasis between all different components of all his creations united in one world. Satan, Adam and Eve are denied these creative powers because of their selfish, narrow motivations for wanting to create, and their subsequent abuse of that ability. Not only are these characters too weak to stand as alone as God, but their failure to instill inherent worth in their creations and inability to comprehend the sublimity of the creative process causes them to only create imitations that are inferior to God’s originals. First, in acting on their godlike delusions, the characters show themselves to be poor imitations of God, the only “ Author of this universe” (8. 359). Satan, the aspiring “ author and prime architect”, attempts to mimic God’s language as if he can attain the divine ability to create just by miming the true Creator’s words (10. 356). After God proclaims that “ the earth now/ seemed like to heav’n, a seat where gods might dwell”, Satan declares “ O earth, how like to heav’n… seat worthier of gods” (9. 99-100). Like God, he addresses his multitudes “ as from a cloud” (10. 449). However, Satan is only able to copy the most visible, obvious, trivial traits of God, because his motivation to be godly is too constricted. He cannot create anything of value on his own because his mind is not independent; rather, he is inexorably tied to God, always wanting to surpass God, ruin God, copy God. Yet, despite imitating all aspects of God, he finds that his competitiveness makes him too weak to be divinely singular, because everything he does is done in response to God’s action. Similarly, Adam and Eve find that they cannot handle the pressures of being far removed and solitary. While alone, Eve is vulnerable to the trickery of Satan’s tongue and Adam is susceptible to loneliness. He muses “ in solitude/ what happiness, who can enjoy alone”, recognizing that humans cannot withstand isolation like God can, nor can they bear the idea of being able to create, but being unable to participate in their creations (8. 364-5). Secondly, the ‘ creations’ of the characters are imperfect imitations of God’s creations because they have no inherent worth. These copies are all created through pictures, using tangible, visual things, evoking the “ bright image” of false goddesses and “ their own work in wood and stone” (1. 440, 12. 119). By allowing themselves to be “ beguiled by fair idolatresses” and fall “ to idols foul”, these so-called creators abandon the active, living nature of creation in favor of static, one-dimensional representations of nothing (1. 445-6). Furthermore, these “ brutish forms” can easily be defaced and destroyed (1. 481), the “ brute image” can be “ maimed… head and hands lopt off” (1. 459). Adam, Eve and Satan are not capable of creating invulnerable creations because they only have the bestial competence to understand just what they can see. They are oblivious to the impenetrability of a deeper layer of the spirit. Imitation is sturdiest when it is not just a physical reproduction, but rather, the soul seeking to be like something better than itself. Ignorant of this, the would-be creators resort to flattery, claiming “ fairest resemblance of thy Maker fair”, merely a prettified version of yet another visual, soulless imitation (9. 538). Furthermore, these creators’ impulse to signify their godliness by making replicas of themselves, their fundamental need to “ delightfully increase and multiply”, is the sign of distinctly human imperfections (10. 730). The true God can simultaneously achieve solitude and singularity while making infinite, omnipresent imitations of himself, copying himself “ numbers without number” and containing them all within his soul (2. 346). This unity of ‘ many’ and ‘ one’ cannot be replicated by humans due to their preoccupation with the strict, immovable boundaries of the physical realm. Without the expandable flexibility of the spirit, when humans reproduce, “ like of his like, his image multiplied, [it will be] in unity defective” because there is no room for compromise or the union of opposites in a single being as there is in God (8. 425-6). Thirdly, Adam, Eve and Satan’s creations can never hope to perfectly imitate God because God is far too sublime for them to even comprehend. Throughout the text, Milton expresses a discrepancy between human and divine language. Human insight cannot possibly hope to grasp the sublime wonder that is God; to attempt to juxtapose the scope of their knowledge would be as “ if great things to small may be compared” (10. 306). Raphael, coming across this difficulty firsthand while explaining God’s world to Adam, is forced to temper his explanations with “ the dialect of men interpreted” (5. 761-2). Men who cannot even understand explanations of God’s creative process cannot hope to create on their own, much less produce creations superior to God’s. Milton understands that when trying “ to attain the highth and depth of [God’s] eternal ways/ all human thoughts come short”, accordingly, he uses metaphor when explaining God to show that he is, in fact, indescribable, and thus, unreachable by men (8. 411-3). God is truly solitary in his superiority and sublimity in language, as if elevated above the multitude of ambitious but unqualified men by an insurmountable tower of Babel. The barriers preventing Adam, Eve, and Satan from becoming like divine creators are built from their pride and narcissistic preoccupation with images, as well as the limitations of their minds and aims. The alternative to aspiring to godliness is to internalize and humble the urge to be stand apart by recreating one’s soul as a modest, spiritual imitation of the only true, superior God. The first step towards producing a creation that will persevere through time is to abandon material, visual imitation, and to imitate God inwardly, “ to leave this Paradise, but… possess a paradise within thee” (12. 586-7). Eve begins this process by imitating God’s language in her repentance, mirroring “ he for God only, she for God in him” with her confession, “ thou against God only, I against God and thee” (10. 930). By seeking to be like God in the first moments of her remorse, Eve illustrates a compromise between autonomous solitude and collaborative multitude. She is now independent to do her penance alone, but she seeks the companionship of God and Adam to help her. Rather than try to transcend equality to become superior above all, man must accept that, because he is incapable of godly things, he must fall into a “ pattern of just equality” with his fellow men (7. 487). Rather than pursue godlike singularity, he must accept the need for companionship and reinforcement. As a result, Eve can be “ hand in hand alone” with God (4. 689), and with Adam a “ fair couple, linked in happy nuptial league/ alone as they” (4. 339-40). The poem ends with that image of joint solitude, as Adam and Eve, “ hand in hand…took their solitary way” (12. 648-9).