Paradise Lost

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Free Will and Predestination Theme Analysis

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Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Paradise Lost, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon

In Paradise Lost Milton argues that though God foresaw the Fall of Man, he still didn’t influence Adam and Eve’s free will. Milton’s God exists outside of time and so sees all times at once, and thus can see the future without actively affecting it. God specifically says that he gives his creatures the option to serve or disobey, as he wants obedience that is freely given, not forced. Some critics have claimed that the God of the poem undercuts his own arguments, however. Milton did not believe in the Calvinistic idea of “predestination” (that God has already decided who is going to Hell and who to Heaven), but he often comes close to describing a Calvinistic God. God purposefully lets Satan escape Hell and sneak past Uriel into Eden, and basically orchestrates the whole situation so that humanity can be easily ruined by a single disobedient act. In describing the Fall before it happens, God already predicts how he will remedy it and give greater glory to himself by sending his Son to die and restore the order of Heaven.

This possible predestination leads to the theory of the “fortunate fall,” which is based on Adam’s delight at learning of the eventual coming of the Messiah. This idea says that God allowed the Fall of Man so that he could bring good out of it, possibly more good than would have occurred without the Fall, and be able to show his love and power through the incarnation of his Son. In this way the free will of Adam and Eve (and Satan) remains basically free, but still fits into God’s overarching plan.

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Free Will and Predestination ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Free Will and Predestination appears in each section of Paradise Lost. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Free Will and Predestination Quotes in Paradise Lost

Below you will find the important quotes in Paradise Lost related to the theme of Free Will and Predestination.
Book 1 Quotes

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse…
What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

Related Symbols: The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
Page Number: 1.1.26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous opening passage, John Milton maps out his project in Paradise Lost. Milton aims to accomplish a great deal: he's going to write a great epic poem about the original human story (according to Christianity), the story of how Adam and Eve fell from grace and paved the way for all of human suffering.

There's a lot to unpack here--scholars have written whole books about these first few lines. Notice the word "fruit" in the first line--a punning allusion to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which will eventually bring down Adam and Eve. Note, too, that Milton keeps on speaking about his relationship with a Heavenly Muse. Like Homer, the original epic poet, Milton describes himself as the passive transmitter of an age-old story: he's using his imagination and creativity to describe the Biblical story, but he remains (mostly) loyal to the Bible itself. Milton's project is at once incredibly humble and incredibly ambitious: he humbly acknowledges his dependence on a muse (in Homer's case a goddess, but for Milton something like the Holy Spirit) for inspiration, and yet also claims that his poem will accomplish a great feat, describing the ultimate "epic," and justifying the ways of God to mankind. Milton, as we'll see, will try to use his poem to explain the great moral mystery of the Biblical book of Genesis: how Adam and Eve could be said to deserve their punishment when it was God himself who created them.


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Fall’n Cherub, to be weak is miserable
Doing or suffering: but of this be sure,
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil…

Related Characters: Satan (speaker)
Page Number: 1.157-165
Explanation and Analysis:

Critics have often noted the irony of Milton's poem: although he's writing about God and the fall of man, the most fascinating character in the book isn't a man at all; it's Satan. In this passage, Milton shows Satan's fall from Heaven--cast out by God for rebellion, Satan writhes in agony in Hell. Satan tells his loyal follower, Beelzebub, that they must find hope: even if they've been punished for their acts of evil against God, they must spend their time doing evil and undermining the work of God.

A natural question, then, is how can Satan hope to undermine the authority of almighty, omnipotent God? Satan seems not to know himself--he's so new to the world of evil that he's working it out as he goes. In a way, Satan's ambition to overcome his odds and do evil is oddly inspiring, and Milton actually seems to build sympathy for Satan by narrating the story from his point of view. Some have argued that Milton is trying to "tempt" readers to sympathize with Satan, while others have argued that Milton actually  (subconsciously) sympathizes with Satan himself.

Book 2 Quotes

Thus Beelzebub
Pleaded his devilish counsel, first devised
By Satan, and in part proposed; for whence,
But from the author of all ill could spring
So deep a malice, to confound the race
Of mankind in one root, and earth with Hell
To mingle and involve, done all to spite
The great Creator? But their spite still serves
His glory to augment.

Related Characters: Satan, God the Father, Beelzebub
Page Number: 2.379-386
Explanation and Analysis:

Satan has assembled a vast group of devils, his henchmen (who were cast out of Heaven along with him). Satan has held the council to decide what to do now that their open revolt against God has failed, and everyone is confined to Hell. After a series of speakers come forward, Beelzebub takes the floor, proposing that the devils work their mischief on God's new creations, the human race.

Notice that Satan has actually planted Beelzebub to propose such an idea--the whole "debate" is just a farce, allowing the other devils to think that they have a democratic voice. (In this devilish council Milton also critiques the human politics of his time). Beelzebub is trying to persuade his fellow devils to go along with Satan's plan: to use fraud, instead of open rebellion, to try to hurt God--and to do this by corrupting mankind, God's favored new creation. And while we know the result of this plan of "deep malice," Milton also notes the bright side: all of Satan's mischief will be in vain. One day, God will send Jesus Christ to redeem mankind, saving the human race from damnation in Hell. It is characteristic of the Christian universe that evil, while horrific by itself, is actually useful for achieving good ends. Milton will show how Satan's rebellious evil actually helps God and ensures God's plan.

If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert;
For man will hearken to his glozing lies,
And easily transgress the sole command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: so will fall
He and his faithless progeny: whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

Related Characters: God the Father (speaker), Satan, Adam
Page Number: 2.91-99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this Book, we transition from Hell to Heaven, and the contrast couldn't be clearer. God wields effortless authority over his angel followers, the setting is filled with light and music, and everything is also a little bit less interesting. Here, the angels ask God what will happen when the devils try to corrupt mankind. To everyone's surprise, God says that Satan will succeed: he will tempt Adam and Eve to disobey God.

The big question here is, why isn't God himself responsible for mankind's fall? If God is all-powerful and created the human race, and foresaw their fall, then isn't he liable for the corruption of his own creations? God responds that he created mankind with the gift of free will: mankind is "sufficient to have stood yet free to fall." Therefore, God isn't directly responsible for humans' decisions--he allows them to be free of all control, including his own.

Why does God endow mankind with free will? One could argue that he does so because free will allows human beings to achieve more and please God further. It's true that free will can be dangerous, since devils can tempt human beings into sin. And yet it's only through free will that humans can truly embrace God--they choose to do so, rather than being forced to.

This passage also brings up the important idea of predestination--if God can foresee what will happen, and states it now (and God is never wrong), then do Adam and Eve really have free will? Many of Milton's contemporaries, the Calvinists, believed wholly in predestination--that God has already chosen who goes to Hell and who goes to Heaven, and all human action is just the playing out of that predetermined plan. Milton doesn't buy this idea, however, as he emphasizes with the "free to fall" statement. God's foreknowledge can then be explained with the idea of time. In many versions of Christianity, God exists outside of time, and so he can see what will happen in the future, but it's not the future to him--all times exist at once in the scheme of divine eternity. Thus within their own concept of time, Adam and Eve have free will, but to God it's as if they've already chosen to sin.

Book 3 Quotes

So man, as is most just,
Shall satisfy for man, be judged and die,
And dying rise, and rising with him raise
His brethren, ransomed with his own dear life.
So Heav’nly love shall outdo Hellish hate,
Giving to death, and dying to redeem,
So dearly to redeem what Hellish hate
So easily destroyed, and still destroys
In those who, when they may, accept not grace.

Related Characters: God the Father (speaker), God the Son, Adam
Page Number: 3.294-302
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, God continues to explain his plan for the human race to his angels. God explains that mankind will not be wholly damned after its fall. Rather, a future "man" will make a sacrifice, allowing all of mankind to ascend with him back to a state of grace.

God characterizes the sacrifice as crucial to the redemption of humankind. Satan's evil cannot be allowed to win; the only way to make sure that mankind ends up in Heaven is to have someone atone for mankind's innate corruption. Immediately after the passage, God's Son (who, in human form, will be Jesus Christ) volunteers to go to Earth and sacrifice his life for the sake of the human race. (It's also worth noting that the scene was parodied in the second Book of the poem when Satan volunteered to "sacrifice himself" and fly over the abyss to go corrupt the world of men.)

Book 5 Quotes

Happiness in his power left free to will,
Left to his own free will, his will though free,
Yet mutable; whence warn him to beware
He swerve not too secure: tell him withal
His danger, and from whom, what enemy
Late fall’n himself from Heav’n, is plotting now
The fall of others from like state of bliss;
By violence, no, for that shall be withstood,
But by deceit and lies; this let him know,
Lest wilfully transgressing he pretend
Surprisal, unadmonished, unforewarned.

Related Characters: God the Father (speaker), Adam, Raphael
Page Number: 5.235-245
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, God tries his best to keep Adam and Eve "sufficient to have stood yet free to fall." Satan has just visited Eve in a dream and filled her with corrupting thoughts. It seems that Eve is going to tempt Adam to disobey God. God decides to give mankind more of a chance to redeem itself, so they can't claim ignorance when they fall (after all, what you dream about isn't really free will). God thus instructs the angel Raphael to fly to the Garden of Eden and teach the humans about God and Satan, and warn them that Satan might try to tempt them. With the knowledge of Satan, Adam and Eve will have sufficient defenses to ward off Satan in the future.

The passage is important because it refutes the argument that Adam and Eve were inevitably going to be corrupted--they have no freedom to resist. On the contrary, as Milton shows it (diverging from and expanding upon his Biblical inspiration), God took every precaution to keep Adam and Eve free from evil--or, as he puts it, to keep them from arguing that they had no freedom after they fall, as God knows they inevitably will.

Book 7 Quotes

But lest his heart exalt him in the harm
Already done, to have dispeopled Heav’n,
My damage fondly deemed, I can repair
That detriment, if such it be to lose
Self-lost, and in a moment will create
Another world, out of one man a race
Of men innumerable, there to dwell,
Not here, till by degrees of merit raised
They open to themselves at length the way
Up hither, under long obedience tried,
And earth be changed to Heav’n, and Heav’n to earth,
One Kingdom, joy and union without end.

Related Characters: God the Father (speaker), Adam
Page Number: 7.150-161
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage Raphael is still telling Adam about the history of the world. After Satan rebelled against God and was cast out of paradise, God decided to repopulate his universe with new beings. He decided to create the race of man--in other words, Adam and Eve and all their descendants. By creating Adam and Eve, God said, he would replenish his ranks (replacing the fallen angels) and exercise his own creativity and love. God also lays out a plan that is not strictly adherent to the Bible, but that makes more sense in Milton's universe--God created Adam and Eve as innocent but he gradually intended to "raise" them up until they were like angels themselves, and then God would join the earthly Paradise with Heaven itself. This is a fleeting glimpse of what might have happened had Adam and Eve not eaten of the forbidden fruit, and it both makes God seem more sympathetic (Adam and Eve weren't always going to be ignorant and simple followers, but would have gained God-approved wisdom) and the Fall itself more tragic (instead of this happy progression to Heaven, we get our present world of suffering and struggle).

In terms of the "plot," this quote is important because Adam is hearing it. From hereon out, Adam has no deniability--when he chooses to disobey God, he knows full-well what he's doing: he knows that he is turning down a life of eternal happiness.

Book 9 Quotes

No more of talk where God or angel guest
With man, as with his friend, familiar used
To sit indulgent, and with him partake
Rural repast, permitting him the while
Venial discourse unblamed: I now must change
Those notes to tragic; foul distrust, and breach
Disloyal on the part of man, revolt,
And disobedience: on the part of Heav’n
Now alienated, distance and distaste,
Anger and just rebuke, and judgment giv’n,
That brought into this world a world of woe,
Sin and her shadow Death, and misery
Death’s harbinger…

Related Characters: God the Father, Adam, Sin, Death
Page Number: 9.1-13
Explanation and Analysis:

With the beginning of the final third of the poem, Milton turns to the tragic side of his story. He explains that it's time for him to talk about the fall of man--the tragic, repeatedly-foretold event to which his poem has been building up for hundreds of lines now. Man's fall into sin was a crushing defeat for the universe itself, because it ushered in a history of death, misery, disease--all that we now know of human history.

Milton describes the fall of man here, but doesn't yet mention that man's fall is, ultimately, a good thing, because it paves the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. Milton doesn't give this passage anything like a silver lining: instead, he emphasizes the enormous stakes of Adam and Eve's disastrous decision, and saves his optimism and hope for the poem's end.