“By my own right hand:” The Myth of the Self in Paradise Lost

by Ezekiel Fry

I have often felt (and I am certainly not the first to feel this) that Milton’s Paradise Lost, aside from being a precursor to 20th and 21st century high fantasy, serves as an interesting jumping off point for the American experience, both chronologically and ideologically. There is no shortage of work dedicated to finding democracy in the council at Pandemonium, and seeing the tale as a whole from a revolutionary standpoint. I do not intend here to even discuss the poem in explicit connection with the formation of America, but I will lead the discussion with a statement from D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. Sometimes to gain understanding of ourselves, we need to look to the outside observer (See Alexis de Tocqueville!). In speaking of America, and Americans, Lawrence writes:

Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?
They didn’t come for freedom. Or if they did, they sadly went back on themselves.
All right then, what did they come for? For lots of reasons. Perhaps least of all in search of freedom of any sort: positive freedom, that is.
They came largely to get away–that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.
‘Henceforth be masterless.’
Wich is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not.

Who can truly say they have first-hand knowledge of their own birth? The tale—or myth of our individual birth, or creation—is something that must be related, it cannot be experiential. We may witness, and then recount, another’s creation, but our own personal moment of birth remains mythical. This moment of entry into life, so divergent from the other experiences of the human condition (with perhaps the exception of death), does not truly create identity. The process which establishes each individual as they are, establishes their own personal myth to supplant the established myth of their creation, is a tumultuous upheaval of orientation that I will refer to as self-creation in the proceeding discussion. For Satan, Adam, and Eve of Milton’s Paradise Lost, each finite beings with unknowable beginnings, the process of becoming, of creating the self, is intrinsic, and inseparable, from the fall.
The notion that self-creation may be an option is first touched upon by Satan (I will refer to him as Lucifer for the first section of this discussion) in his debate with Abdiel (book 5). Responding to Abdiel’s claim that, due to their creation at God’s hands, the angels owe him unquestioning allegiance, Lucifer states:

That we were formed then say’st thou? And the work
Of secondary hands by task transferred
From Father to His Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this Creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power… (Milton 5.853-61)

With this cleverly crafted rebuttal, Lucifer establishes himself independent from the existing myth of his own Creation. The cornerstone of Abdiel’s argument is thrown aside, in favor of something tangible, something that may be experienced. The belief that God created the angels is an action of faith, there can be no empirical evidence, other than God’s Word—the catalyst of belief—that Lucifer has not existed exactly as he is now: “self-begot” and “self-raised.” In Lucifer’s eyes the established myth of his birth, and his very identity, must yield itself to the worth of his “own right hand” (Milton 5.864). While he still accepts the truth of God’s Word Lucifer retains his seat in Heaven, but he must also relinquish, or leave dormant, a piece of himself. This dormant piece is what begins to awaken within Lucifer as he sits brooding on the appointment of the Son (Milton 5.659-75). The Word of God, the established myth, is no longer sufficient to explain existence, to give shape and reality to Lucifer’s existence. He must strike out against the established myth and endeavor through his own “highest deeds” to create himself (Milton 5.864).
Raphael relates this tale, and the subsequent fall of Lucifer, to Adam with a prefatory note. As he begins his discussion of Lucifer, Raphael parenthetically states, in a sort of aside, “But not so waked/ Satan (so call him now: his former name/ Is heard no more in Heav’n)” (Milton 5.657-9). Prior to introducing the debate with Abdiel, Raphael establishes that Lucifer is not to be thought of as Lucifer, but instead as what he will become—Satan, he who shall “reign in Hell” (Milton 1.263). In noting that the figure who strides through books 5 and 6 is not the archangel of Heaven, but instead the self-created monarch of Hell, Raphael, perhaps unknowingly, moves towards proving the validity of Lucifer’s argument concerning his own Creation. Here is a figure, that by the deeds of his “own right hand” has been struck from the book of life, and has been created anew. From his name itself this is shown. The identity that was given to him is no longer applicable, thus it is not even explicitly stated by Raphael. Established identity, mythical birth, has been exorcised and, for better or worse, Satan emerges with his own experiential moment of birth, which we have already witnessed in the first book of the poem. The lost name, Lucifer, hovers over the entire tale, casting doubt upon the strong words of both the myth-maker Raphael and his creation, Abdiel. It is not until the conclusion of his retelling of the War in Heaven that Raphael speaks Satan’s prior name with another parenthetical aside, “Know then that after Lucifer from Heaven/ (So call him, brighter amidst the host/ Of angels than that star the stars among)” (Milton 7.131-3). By bookending his discussion with these two names in opposition to their applicability, Raphael cements the reality of self-creation, and the truth of Lucifer’s doubt, the truth of his rebellion.
Raphael goes on to relate the creation of Earth, and the creation of Adam and Eve. This section of the angel’s tale is prefaced by another type of mythical aside, which plays on the Word of God, and its unfathomable quality—its basis in faith. Raphael states:

Immediate are the acts of God, more swift
Than time or motion but to human ears
Cannot without process of speech be told
(So told as earthly notion can receive). (Milton 7.176-9)

With this, Raphael declares that everything he will discuss further will be translated, as the actions of God cannot be deciphered, or much less comprehended, by human ears or minds. Much in the same way that he prefaces his tale of the War in Heaven by stating that he must use earthly language to describe what happens in Heaven (Milton 5.564-76), Raphael here states that while he will relate the story of Creation it will lose something in the translation, further placing it within the realm of myth. While he will tell Adam of his own creation (and Eve will listen as well, albeit in a subservient position) this creation will be told rather than experienced, and told imperfectly. This tale, perhaps the most abstract of all Raphael’s stories, focuses most directly on the world which Adam and Eve inhabit, and yet so fails to hit the mark of their experience that Adam immediately feels compelled to explain his own understanding of his creation. It is within Adam’s relation of his first cognizant moments on Earth that the words of Lucifer (or Satan, whichever name suits us best at this point) hauntingly reemerge. Adam describes awakening into existence, stating to Raphael, “But who I was, or where, or from what cause/ Knew not” (Milton 8.270-1). Adam goes on to state that he believes he cannot have arisen of himself, but must be made “by some great Maker” (Milton 8.278). Like Satan, Adam does not personally know his origin, the nature of his birth, but unlike Satan, or at least the Satan of book 5, he believes that he must have been created by something. This duality, the mystery of existence, and the faith that it arose from a “Maker” form the basis for the difficulties that will soon arise between God and Adam.
These difficulties are a matter of perspective. Adam asks God for an equal companion, but God, being omnipotent, cannot understand equality. Adam’s aforementioned belief that he must be something lesser than his creator, that he is finite, allows him the ability to see the appeal of equality. Strangely, God, who needs no myth of origin, for he has always existed, misses Adam’s point altogether. Eventually this mysterious entity, who claims Creation of the confused and lonely Adam, grants Adam a subsidiary, or lesser-equal, not at all what Adam requested. This communication breakdown between Adam, who wishes to believe in a “Maker,” and God, who claims omniscience but cannot see what his creation truly desires, is the highlight of Adam’s incomplete origin tale. He must take God’s Word (which may again be lost in translation) for it, that he is God’s creation. In light of this difficulty, and several other lingering doubts about God’s work on Earth, it becomes increasingly tenuous for Adam to blindly believe. Perhaps, like Satan, his “puissance” is his own (Milton 5.864). Perhaps the most important aspect of Adam’s tale lies within his audience, or lack thereof. At the advent of the tale Eve, the silent observer, the ordained servant, has left the scene.
Eve does not hear Adam’s own befuddled explanation of his own creation, or his desire for an equal partner, or the detailed description of her own birth. She has heard through a filter the tale of 7-day creation from Raphael, but for all intensive purposes she does not know that, more than likely, she was created from Adam, by God. She exists in a position akin to Lucifer at his moment of self-creation. She exists as a servant of Adam, and of God and his host, but does not know from where this “doctrine” arises, or to what purpose it exists. This element, the room for doubt within the earthly and Heavenly hierarchy, makes Satan’s proposition of equality, or dominion, which seems to snare Eve, particularly appealing. Through her own action, the action of her “own right hand,” she may create herself. By eating the apple the dormant piece that lies within her is awakened. She no longer exists as a thrall of existing myth, and, like Satan, has created an experiential birth, or origin. She has fallen from the mystery of heavenly decree into a tangible reality, and Adam too, seeing the power and knowledge she has given herself will soon follow suit.
All three finite entities now stand in God’s eyes fallen, but have in another sense thrown aside the yoke of the existing myth. Whether it is rebellion in Heaven, or the eating of the forbidden fruit, personal action makes myth reality. The myth shifts a retelling to something experienced. Lucifer gains independence (with a price) and a new name, while Adam and Eve gain a full awareness (also with a price) of themselves, and of their position. In all three cases the fallen gain something very close to truth. They have become whole. Action has created a new existence, and they are fully actualized by their action. They have become products of self-creation, and each established a new mythos.