Being Loyal and Being Obedient
Words with the root “obedient” or “obedience” appear thirty-two times in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, while the root word “loyal” appears only four times. Nevertheless, ties of loyalty are central to the narrative of man’s first fall. Questions of character morality are determined not only through obedience to God, but by the loyalties that men, angels and demons hold with each other. Milton sees value in the loyalty that the fallen angels have for Satan, even though they are disobedient and disloyal to God. Equally dynamic ties of loyalty exist between Satan and God, Abdiel and God, and Adam and Eve. The ethical implications of loyalty are redefined with each relationship until Milton arrives at an ideal of voluntary, reasoned allegiance. Milton admires the virtue of loyalty independently of obedience to God, such that characters who disobey God because of other loyalties are less culpable for their sins.
Obedience to God is the most explicit virtue propounded in Paradise Lost, though what God desires from his creations goes beyond obedience into the realm of loyalty. As the opening line states, this is the story “Of man’s first disobedience” (Milton 1.1). Obedience is defined as “The action or practice of obeying or doing what one is bidden; submission to the rule or authority of another” (“obedience”). God commands Adam, and by extension Eve, to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. However, in his defense of the fall, God reveals higher expectations: “Not free, what proof could they have given sincere/ Of true allegiance, constant faith and love,” (3.103-106) Rather than just obey a simple command, God desires a “true allegiance” more like loyalty than obedience. Obedience lacks the connotations of deliberate action and free choice that loyalty implies. Loyalty is “giving or showing firm and constant support or allegiance to a person or institution” (“loyal”). The distinction between obedience and loyalty is more reliant on modern connotations than Milton’s own use of the words in Paradise Lost. Semantics aside, this distinction is vital in tracing the morality and culpability in each character’s actions. As we shall see, Milton values the voluntary, reasoned loyalty which God also desires over unquestioning, unchallenged obedience.
Satan is the most blameworthy sinner in Paradise Lost for his unprecedented betrayal, but Milton values the loyalty of the millions of demons who follow Satan. Satan disobeys God first of all creations, untempted by any other characters or loyalties. Though he cites seemingly rational reasons for rebelling to his followers, Raphael says that “‘envy against the Son of God”” spurred Satan’s rebellion (5.662). On the way to Eden, Satan laments how his own “‘pride and worse ambition threw me down/ Warring in Heav’n’” (4.40-41). Devoid of loyalty to anyone but himself – not even loyal to the democratic ideals he espouses in front of his followers – Satan receives no mercy from God: “The first sort [all fallen angels] by their own suggestion fell,/ self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived/ By other first: man therefore shall find grace,/ The other none” (3.129-132). Unlike the character God, Milton has sympathy for Satan’s followers. Compelled by Satan’s former eminent role in Heaven and his persuasive orations, millions of angels were tempted to fall as man did. Milton describes them as such: “The fellows of his crime, the followers rather/… For ever now to have their lot in pain,/…For his revolt, yet faithful how they stood,/ Their glory withered…” (1.607-612). Milton alleviates blame for millions of rebels with the labels “followers” rather than “fellows” and “his revolt” rather than “their revolt”. The turn of phrase in “yet” indicates a more optimistic or applauding tone as Milton admires the demons’ loyalty to Satan. Their loyalty does not save them from turning into tortured serpents in Book 10, but only Satan is given individual punishment: Eve’s seed through Christ “Shall bruise the head of Satan, crush his strength/ Defeating Sin and Death, his two main arms” (12.430-431). Thus, Satan faces the harshest punishment as the most culpable, loyal-less sinner in Paradise Lost. His followers are less reprehensible because of their faith in Satan’s standing and reason before the fall and loyalty to Satan even after the fall.
In contrast, Abdiel represents an ideal moral character in his loyalty and obedience to God. His shining moment occurs at the close of Book 5, surrounded by the millions of angels about to follow Satan, “Among the faithless, faithful only he;/ Among innumerable false, unmoved,/ Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,/ His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;” (5.897-900). Notably, this is the singular use of “loyalty” in Paradise Lost. (Man is twice described as “disloyal” (3.204, 9.7) and “loyal” once describes wedded love in Eden (4.755).) Harkening back to the definition of loyalty, Abdiel maintains his faith in extreme circumstances, his steadfastness accented by Milton’s many repetition of the prefix “un-”. The option to disobey lies open before Abdiel, but he maintains faith on the basis of reason. Satan argues that angels were not created by God and therefore owe no loyalty to him, an “‘argument blasphemous, false and proud!’” which Abdiel promptly retorts (5.809). At no point does Abdiel seem inclined to disobey God, such stands his level of obedience. The combination of deliberate, reason-based loyalty and unwavering obedience culminate in Abdiel’s ardent “zeal”.
Adam embodies the median between Abdiel’s loyalty and Satan’s lack thereof: Milton elaborates on the fall of man as told in Genesis such that Adam’s main incentive to disobey God is his loyalty to Eve. Adam’s loyalty to Eve makes him less culpable in committing the same sin as her. The ramifications of this gender disparity extend far beyond the text of Paradise Lost and even Milton’s era. Eve does not eat from the Tree because of any loyalty and thus receives harsher punishment than Adam. One counterargument is that Adam follows Eve out of a misguided obedience founded on pleasure or “nature” rather than deliberative loyalty.
At the close of Paradise Lost, the fall of man may be seen as “goodness infinite, goodness immense” for allowing humans to have loyalty towards God rather than just obedience (12.469). Before the fall, Adam and Eve do obey, worship, and love God. They do this instinctually, without ever considering an alternative. Within Adam’s first moments of life he deduces that a “’great Maker’” exists and asks “’how may I know him, how adore’” (8.278-280). Adam and Eve’s original naivety, or blind faith, starkly contrasts with Abdiel’s deliberate, reasoned loyalty while confronting rebel angels. Adam addresses his lack of choice pre-fall in this Job-inspire speech: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/ to mold me man…or here place/ In this delicious garden?” (10.743-746) Adam uses the language of a contract entered unknowingly – “Thy terms too hard”, “Sufficient penalty”, “cavil the conditions” – whereas loyalty is by definition the allegiance to something like a contract. A major shift towards loyalty occurs after the fall. God originally placed the Tree of Knowledge in Eden to grant man freedom of choice, but Adam and Eve do not actively choose faith until after eating from the tree. They first consider several paths of disobedience – worshipping the Tree itself, suicide, refusal to procreate – before choosing loyalty and obedience to God. In Adam and Eve’s choice after the fall, faith becomes infinitely more significant. Obedience and loyalty marry in Adam’s statement, “Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,” (12.561).
Ties of loyalty are exceptionally complex in Paradise Lost, just as they must have been in Milton’s own life during the poem’s conception. Milton probably began writing the poem in 1658 under the English Commonwealth that he helped to establish (Kerrigan, xxii). Two years later the monarchy returned under the Restoration and Milton is imprisoned for two months (Kerrigan, xxii). Paradise Lost was first published in 1667. The Restoration was a crushing political and emotional blow for Milton. The invocation of Book 7 portrays Milton as an Abdiel figure, solely faithful “On evil days though fall’n, and evil tongues;/ In darkness, and with dangers encompassed round,/ And solitude…” (7.26-28). Milton may have wondered if the Parliamentarians has somehow been led astray, like Adam in his excessive loyalty to Eve. In his direst moments of doubt, Milton may have wondered if the Commonwealth was a blunder on a societal level, like the angels who followed Satan. John Milton would at least have the assurance that through the virtue of loyalty, even when in conflict with obedience to God, one can find mercy and forgiveness.
“loyal, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 13 November 2014.
“obedience, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 13 November 2014.
Carroll, Robert P., and Stephen Prickett. The Bible Authorized King James Version. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Kerrigan, William, John Peter Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon. “A Chronology of Milton’s Life.” The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. By John Milton. New York: Modern Library, 2007. Xxi-xii. Print.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. Eds. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, Stephen Fallon. New York: Modern Library, 2007. 293-630. Print.
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