Kira TsougarakisCaryn O’ConnellEnglish ColloquiumDecember 11th, 2017Merit : How God’s Role in Giving Merit Shifts in Paradise LostIn Book VII of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the angel Raphael, at Adam’s request, tells the story of how the world was first created; that God, after Satan is cast out of Heaven, declared his intention to createAnother World, out of one man a Race 155 Of men innumerable, there to dwell,Not here, till by degrees of merit rais’dThey open to themselves at length the wayUp hither, under long obedience tri’d,And Earth be chang’d to Heav’n, & Heav’n to Earth, 160 One Kingdom, Joy and Union without end.
(VIII.154-161)This is the way to Heaven, the ultimate goal, and though it emphasizes “long obedience” and perseverance in God’s will, Raphael also mentions another earthly way by which humankind can improve itself; merit. Neither Raphael nor God state explicitly what this “merit” entails, but it is implied that in addition to withstanding the long trial of obedience to God’s will, there is something that humankind can do to “open to themselves” the way to Heaven. “Merit,” in other words, appears to be a viable earthly means of justifying oneself before God. But “merit” is also used as a standard of justification in Heaven and Hell, as both the Son and Satan are praised by virtue of their merit: the Messiah, God declares, “by right of Merit reigns” (VI.43) and Satan is “by Merit rais’d” to the Gates of Hell (II.
5) As the book progresses, two kinds of merit seem to emerge; God-given merit and earned merit (merit stemming from works or deeds.) Whereas God-given merit governs Heaven, earned merit is Satan’s territory, and the rules of Hell bow to it. These two types of merit compete to reign the earthly realm throughout Paradise Lost, and while God-given merit is portrayed as superior, after the fall of Adam and Eve, earned merit becomes the channel by which humankind decides their destiny.God-given merit is borne and doled out in the realm of Heaven, and the primary person to whom God-given merit is given is the Son. There is no mention of merit-related deeds when God grants him power.Here shalt thou sit incarnate, here shalt reign Both God and Man, Son both of God and Man, Anointed universal King.
All power I give thee; reign for ever, and assume Thy merits; under thee, as Head supreme, Thrones, Princedoms, Powers, Dominions, I reduce: 320 All knees to thee shall bow of them that bide In Heaven, or Earth, or under Earth in Hell. (III.315-322)God simply gives the Son power, allowing him to assume his merits by virtue of being his Son. Regardless of the Son’s seeming lack of merit-related deeds, he remains “King / Messiah, who by right of merit Reigns.” (VI.40-43) Satan, too, was once a possessor of God-given merit, exemplified when Raphael tells Adam that Satan was “of the first,/ If not the first Arch- Angel, great in Power,/ In favor and pree’minence” (V.
659-661), and that “great indeed/ His name, and high was his degree in Heav’n” (V.706-707). However, Satan’s choice to reject his God-given merit by trying to usurp Heaven’s throne, gets him thrown out of Heaven and into Hell, where he is made to suffer for eternity. The acceptance of God-given merit grants the Son the power to rule Heaven by birthright, while the rejection of such God-given merit banishes Satan to Hell.
Thus, God-given merit is upheld as an enormous source of power.The concept of earned power, or power stemming from deed, is created by Satan after his removal from Heaven. The prioritization of God-given merit in Heaven angers Satan, as he sees no justification and no proof that the Son deserves to rule.
In reaction to this injustice, he creates his own form of hierarchy, one which bases itself on earned merit, and allows him to rule. In his opening speech to the Council of Hell, he distinguishes between these forms of merit. Mee though just right, and the fixt Laws of Heav’nDid first create your Leader, next free choice,With what besides, in Counsel or in Fight, 20 Hath bin achievd of merit, yet this lossThus farr at least recover’d, hath much moreEstablisht in a safe unenvied ThroneYielded with full consent.
(II.18-24) Satan, not content to rely only on the leadership powers given to him by the “fix’t Laws of Heaven” (II. 18) justifies his rulership twice-over by mentioning his deeds “in Counsel or in Fight” (II.20). His attempts to build a kingdom based on earned merit prove successful, seen as such when Sin says to Satan about his kingdom:”O Parent, these are thy magnific deeds, Thy trophies, which thou view’st as not thine own; Thou art their author and prime architect.” (X.
290-292)The prioritization of deed, or earned merit, in Satan’s kingdom is what separates it from Heaven, in which God-given merit alone allows one to lead.These two types of merit are often positioned against each other, both by the literal position of the realms in which they operate and in the ways they are talked about and described. For example, on a literal level, Heaven, the realm of God-given merit, is called throughout the tale, “their highest Heaven,” (I.24) “holiest place,” (IV. 759), and “Paradise,” (III.478) which is put in juxtaposition with descriptions of Hell, the realm of earned merit, as “low,” (I.
114) a “deep tract,” (I. 28) and “the gloomy deep.” (I. 152) Immediately, the kinds of merit are put into competition by the simple juxtaposed descriptions of the locations in which they reign.
Satan also repeatedly puts the two types of power in direct conversation and competition with each other. In a speech to his followers, he says “by proof we feel / Our power sufficient to disturb his Heaven” (II. 101-102). In a speech to Death, he advises him to “learn by proof,/ Hell-born, not to contend with Spirits of Heav’n” (II.
686-687). In these lines, he refers to earned merit as “proof” and uses “Spirits” to refer to God-given merit. By putting them on opposite ends of the comma, Satan posits them as being in opposition to each other.
Juxtaposed as such, it is clear these two types of merit seem to be battling for power. The merits of Heaven and Hell battle, but one type of merit is eventually chosen to govern the third realm– Earth. Before the fall, Adam and Eve are the possessors of God-given merit. They are “with native Honor clad” and “Lords of all” (IV.289- 290).
Adam seems to be well aware of the gifts they have been given; needs must the PowerThat made us, and for us this ample WorldBe infinitely good, and of his goodAs liberal and free as infinite,That rais’d us from the dust and plac’t us here In all this happiness, who at his handHave nothing merited, nor can performAught whereof hee hath need, hee who requires From us no other service than to keepThis one, this easy charge. (IV.412-421) Adam feels no “need” to perform “services” for God– he knows his only duty is not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Regardless of the fact that he has done nothing of merit to deserve God’s grace, he is still “with native Honor clad”: his naming of the beasts, his conversations with Raphael, as well as his clearly superior physical strengths mark him, and Eve also, as creatures with many God-given merits.
Satan sees that Adam and Eve are “Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,/ Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright” (IV.360-362), and uses their God-given merit, and (what he sees as) a weak spot, to appeal to Eve; happy though thou art,Happier thou may’st be, worthier canst not be: Taste this, and be henceforth among the Gods Thyself a Goddess, not to Earth confin’d,But sometimes in the Air, as wee, sometimes Ascend to Heav’n, by merit thine. (V.75-80) Satan implies that Eve can aspire beyond her God-given merit and “Ascend to Heav’n” by “merit thine,” or, in other words, merit she has earned with her own deeds. Knowing Satan is tempting Adam and Eve, God sends Raphael to tell them the story of Abdiel, the angel whose staunch belief in his God-given merit was strong enough to withstand Satan’s lures. Raphael emphasizes the fact that Abdiel’s merit was due to his stiff perseverance.
Unlike Satan, he did not have to prove his worth with active deeds of temptation. Thus we see him “unmov’d,/ Unshak’n, unseduc’d, unterrifi’d” with “constant mind/ Though single” (V.898-899, 902-903). Raphael encourages Adam to do the same in the face of temptation: I in thy persevering shall rejoice,And all the Blest: stand fast; to stand or fallFree in thine own Arbitrement it lies.
Perfet within, no outward aid require;And all temptation to transgress repel. (VIII.639-643) Before the fall then, Adam’s merit, like Abdiel’s, lies in his staunch obedience and perseverance to God’s will. He does not feel the need to prove his worth, and he is unwilling to doubt his worth. Another word for this kind of devotion is faith. Before the fall, Adam and Eve are given merit by God because of their faith in him– shown by their reluctance to doubt or prove their worth.
But after Eve eats from the Tree of Knowledge, she demonstrates that humankind’s faith in God is faulty– thus, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden, and the way of earned merit becomes the way of humankind. Eve speaks to Experience, indicating that, like Satan, she has yielded to earned merit as opposed to God-given merit: Experience, next to thee I owe,Best guide; not following thee, I had remain’dIn ignorance, thou op’n’st Wisdom’s way,And giv’st access, though secret she retire. (IX.807-810)By eating from the tree, Eve fails to trust God’s given merit in her own capability to make decisions, and thus, fails to have faith in God. This lack of faith in God mimics Satan’s fall from Heaven, and both Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, where there is no merit but earned merit.
Thus, we return to the angel Raphael’s description of how the world was first created; that God, after Satan is cast out of Heaven, declared his intention to createAnother World, out of one man a Race 155 Of men innumerable, there to dwell,Not here, till by degrees of merit rais’dThey open to themselves at length the wayUp hither, under long obedience tri’d,And Earth be chang’d to Heav’n, & Heav’n to Earth, 160 One Kingdom, Joy and Union without end. (VIII.154-161)As mentioned above, this is the path to Heaven– the only place for true and eternal salvation and happiness. Though it emphasizes “long obedience” and perseverance in God’s will, Raphael also mentions another earthly way by which humankind can improve itself; merit.
Though Adam and Eve prove their lack of faith in God in the fall, God gives humankind one more chance to redeem themselves, or to “open to themselves” the way to Heaven. Unlike the works of the fallen angels, to whom God’s grace has not been extended (Satan is punished forever and has no chance of salvation) the works of fallen men– their earned merits– may be a sign of their being “refin’d/ By Faith and faithful works” (XI.63-64). Earned merit now becomes a qualifier in the quest for eternal salvation in Heaven. The “long obedience” that would have originally been enough to pave humankind’s path to Heaven is still required– but because the “long obedience” was forsaken in the Fall, now the “long obedience” must be supplemented, or proven, with “faithful works.” Eventually, humankind will no longer need to earn merit at all because the Son’s “obedience/ Imputed will become theirs by Faith, his merits/ To save them, not thir own, though legal works” (XII.