My honourable Ernest,
By whatever trifles of insight my fastidious, observational nature has profited me over the years, I have come to regard the dealings of nearly all mankind as some composite exercise of no more than three essential virtues or vices, which may server either one’s honour or shame, summarising the human experience as a response to the prospective unknown, an artful compilation of but three elements, namely, of faith, fear, and fiction. Of these, perhaps only the first strikes us quite evidently as being a virtue, while the latter two seem to be either vices or mere misfortunes, but I find myself convinced that these may follow, just as does faith, directly from the most universally recognised virtue: love, on account of which is it not but a show of prudence to fear on behalf of the beloved, or of grace to envision something better wherever there may be a deficiency? And yet it seems that love, by which name we are apt, in modern parlance, to call nearly any form of deep affection or attachment, may serve just as well as a virtue or a vice—consider the ‘love’ of Romeo for Juliet, Dido for Aeneas, or perhaps even Adam for Eve. For many, the handling of such cases is a simple matter of refining one’s definition of the word, ‘love’, whittling it down until it lacks all such splinters and no longer allows for these uncomfortable notions of self-destruction and depravity, but the fact that an ideological carpenter finds himself with so much sanding to be done demonstrates a complicated feature of human nature; there is a fine line, as it turns out, between love, the highest virtue, and hate, its utter opposite, which is the lowest vice.
We are left puzzling over just such a paradox when Milton depicts for us the role of love in losing paradise; I am referring mainly to the drama that unfolds in book nine of the Paradise Lost, the apex of which we might explore at line 896 and following. Adam has yet to partake of the fruit, when he somehow finds time to unravel an entire speech to consider Eve’s demise and the human condition, doing so—quite miraculously it seems—without Eve hearing so much as a single word. Our present focus lies in lines 904-8:
… Some cursed fraud
Of enemy hath beguil’d thee, yet unknown,
And mee with thee hath ruin’d, for with thee
Certain my resolution is to Die:
How can I live without thee?
It is difficult to regard Adam’s love for Eve as a virtue, when it seems so distinctly, in this fictitious depiction, to serve as his hamartia. Adam has invented a fiction, a beautiful, quixotic dream, that perhaps even the fallen Eve is the same woman whom he so loved from the start, perhaps he may yet find all the former beauty and splendour of the divine paradise even among its ruins. Along with this fiction, which by an uneasy inclination we are tempted to consider a display of grace, he fears, and prudently so, what the future may be apart from Eve. Ultimately it seems that for better or for worse and by virtue of his connubial duty to Eve, he has no choice but to invest total faith in the judgment of his beloved. He is like the charismatic man who follows his friends when they all decide to jump off a cliff—for whom we may hold a certain admiration, regarding him, perhaps, as a charming and credulous fool, but more pragmatically, we must also fear for his own safety and well-being.
Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Milton’s drama is the way it ends. Paradise is in fact Regained, and in some very bizarre sense, it seems the whole drama of all mankind is ultimately to be so reconciled. On the other side of death, we know there is a resurrection, where by virtue of Adam’s vice, his absurd and inappropriate faith, he lives once more. By God’s grace all that has been broken is redeemed to something better still than it once was; as if even the fall of man itself were in His plan. In this way, it seems that something evil in itself may be used for a good end. The crunching of an apple echoes throughout all eternity as an object of universal derision, but God has harmonised this disgraceful memory with sweeter tones than we could ever imagine, reworking the whole chorus of angels in heaven so that it may be all the more beautiful yet again.