The Price of Autonomy

The Price of Autonomy

The Tutor wisely paraphrases Milton. For those less familiar with Book IX of Paradise Lost, I feel there are several lessons worth mentioning. Before Eve bites the apple, she muses over the fact that the serpent had no power of speech before eating the fruit. The serpent has told her that it was the magical fruit of knowledge that gave him speech, which expands her appreciation of the paradoxical fruit of wisdom:

Great are thy Vertues, doubtless, best of Fruits,
Though kept from Man, and worthy to be admir’d,
Whose taste, too long forborn, at first assay
Gave elocution to the mute, and taught
Thy Tongue not made for speech to speak thy praise:
Thy praise hee also who forbids thy use,
Conceales not from us, naming thee the Tree
Of Knowledge, knowledge of both good and evil;
Forbids us then to taste, but his forbidding
Commends thee more, while it infers the good
By thee communicated, and our want:
For good unknown, sure is not had, or had
And yet unknown, is as not had at all. (IX 745-57)

Eve’s situation, and temptation, is made all the worse by the fact that she just had a fight with Adam over her own autonomy. Adam didn’t want her to stray from him. She wanted to be recognized as a being just as self-sufficient as Adam. It was a desire to be equal (at least as I read Milton) that drove Eve to the final temptation. Having such power visible, and yet forbidden, compelled her all the more. She had no idea that the serpent was lying about the “fruit of eloquence” stuff. However, Eve mused over the price of such power:

In plain then, what forbids he but to know,
Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise?
Such prohibitions binde not. But if Death
Bind us with after-bands, what profits then
Our inward freedom? (IX 758-62)

The paradox of the Enlightenment is that the structures that claim to free us, also enslave us because we seem doomed to replicate them. There is much to be said further; once bitten, the Enlightenment cannot be undone any more than the apple. It’s the “after-bands” that concern Foucault, and I share his concern. I think we stand at a moment where those “after-bands” are most transparent—in the policies of the Bush administration. Indeed, it is the quest for autonomy that has brought us here. It is a bitter fruit indeed.

However, I feel duty bound to point out to the Tutor that he if examines the opening of Book IX, he will find that Milton decries any knowledge of brands:

      . . . to describe Races and Games,
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgeous Knights
At Joust and Torneament; then marshal’d Feast
Serv’d up in Hall with Sewers and Seneshals;
The skill of Artifice or Office mean,
Not that which justly gives Heroic name
To person or poem. Mee of these
Nor skilld nor studious, higher Argument
Remains, sufficient of itself to raise (IX 33-44)

This tends to suggest that Milton chose to ignore the brands of war to look more deeply into the envy of autonomy which precipitates it. However, I think that it is precisely this fancy dress of envy in the guise of national independence that should be examined. We should all be familiar with the “higher Argument” by now—it’s the base application which cloaks itself in Enlightenment autonomy that needs the searing light of day. Maybe we need to choose our brands more carefully. I’m not buying the half-baked Bush brand. Some go so far as to suggest that it is time to shed the rotten rags of Enlightenment entirely, though that seems hardly possible. But I believe that the illness is not the cure.