Myth of the Fortunate Fall in Paradise Lost
From this descent / Celestial Virtues rising, will appear / More glorious . . . than from no fall. (ii. 14-16)1These are Satan's words to the fallen angels in Paradise Lost. Satan claims that their fall from Heaven will seem like a "fortunate fall," in that their new rise to power will actually be "more glorious" than if they had stayed in Heaven all the while. Can we, as fallen humans, possibly make Satan's words our own, even if it is not our own work but God's that causes our "rising"; or, if we do claim a "fortunate fall," have we been beguiled by Satan to rejoice in our fallen state? While it is common among beguiled critics to claim that Paradise Lost presents the Fall as fortunate, in fact the Fall is much less fortunate than these critics presume.
Millicent Bell is among the beguiled, but he starts off with a vital point that is too easily forgotten. What does the narrative make explicit about the Fall? "The bare story makes no mystery of it. It was infinite disaster."2 From the beginning of the epic we learn that the Fall "Brought death into the world, and all our woe" (i. 3). It "brought into this world a world of woe,/Sin and her shadow Death, and misery/Death's harbinger" (ix. 11-13). We learn that Eve, after leaving Adam to go her own way in Eden (just before the Fall) "never from that hour in Paradise/Found'st either sweet repast, or sound repose" (ix. 406-07). Eve's Fall is a great calamity for the world (ix. 782-84); so is Adam's, completing the original sin (ix. 1003). The couple's early reactions to their sin include disgust, shame, lust, and scorn for the earth (ix. 1010 ff.). The woe of Satan, too, is "perpetual" (ii. 861) and "eternal" (iv. 70). If the Fall is to be classified as fortunate, there is quite a litany of troubles to reconcile.
Worse, as time passes, the scale shall dip farther downward before it can ascend. Sin will reign among men because of the Fall (xii. 285-86). No man or woman shall ever be as good or as fair as Adam and Eve (though this is not necessarily a result of the Fall; iv. 323-24). Michael tells Adam, "Since thy original lapse, true liberty/Is lost." Liberty (with political overtones here) is lost because liberty is tied to "right reason" and depends on reason to moderate the passions. But now that sin is in the world, the passions often eclipse reason. The passions forever after will "to servitude reduce/Man till then free" (xii. 83-90). Worst of all, the Fall is most fortunate, throughout the entire history of the world, until the final triumph, not for mankind but for Sin and Death, and most of the time for the demons as well (x. 270 ff.). "Thou hast achieved our liberty" (x. 368), Satan's progeny say as they thank him for orchestrating the Fall. What good can there be amongst so much evil?
In fact, God makes a point of sending Raphael to Adam and Eve for the express purpose of encouraging obedience and...