Milton and the Metaphysics of Labor

By Sam Ben-Meir

In Milton’s conception of labor in Paradise, he conceives of Adam and Eve’s productive activity in the Garden essentially in terms of artistic creativity. By conceptualizing work in this way, he gives us a glimpse of what unalienated labor might look like. The use of Marxian terminology here would seem permitted in this case because, as I will argue, Milton anticipates certain fundamental ideas associated with Marx’s view of labor and his concept of man in general. In their philosophical anthropology both Milton and Marx share a common set of assumptions. Both can be said to reject any form of dualism that regards the human subject as somehow ontologically real and independent of the natural world; instead, both hold that human reality is characterized by a necessary internal relationship between human beings and the natural world which is constitutive of human existence itself. Moreover, the natural world is conceived as necessary for the confirmation and objectification of human powers; for each thinker, it is absolutely necessary for human beings to objectify themselves in the world through labor.  Labor is a process of externalization in which human beings not only transform the environment, imbuing the object with human subjectivity, but themselves as well; that is, in changing the world, human beings change man. Labor becomes a process of self-transcendence.

This is, as it turns out, a timely reading of Milton, as excellent material has been written analyzing Milton as an “ideologist and poet of emergent capitalism,” but little has been done to show how Milton actually presages Marx, by viewing work and its place in man’s relationship to the natural world in such a way to allow us to imagine a mode of productive activity that is strikingly at odds with labor as it is constituted under capitalism. In addition, just as we might understand Milton’s portrait of prelapsarian labor in terms of unalienated activity (which is essentially artistic and self-transcendent in nature) so we might also view the fall as issuing directly from the introduction of a division of labor, marking a negative alteration in Adam and Eve’s relationship to their world and the appearance of alienated activity.

Allow me to begin by backing up the suggestion that Milton anticipates Marx in rejecting any form of dualism that postulates a human subject standing in a mere external relationship to the natural world. It is clear that, for Milton, Adam and Eve are not merely in the Garden, but of it, as well. They are not only gardeners, but part of the Garden, “planted” by God and expected to grow, mature and perfect themselves through cultivation. Milton’s first description of Adam and Eve would seem to corroborate this idea: Adam’s “Hyacinthin Locks / Round from his parted forelock manly hung / Clustring”; and Eve’s “disheveled” and “unadorned golden tresses … in wanton ringlets wav’d / As the Vine curles her tendrils” (IV, 301-307). By utilizing imagery associated with the Garden in his description of Man and Woman, Milton is illustrating the internal relationship between human realty and the natural world. Human beings are not just in the world, but constituted by it – ontologically defined by the dynamic internal connection obtaining between the human being and its environment.

Given that human existence is essentially and internally related to the natural world, we also find that man differs from the “other Creatures” that “all day long / rove idle unimploid” precisely in that he “hath his daily world of body or mind” been “appointed” – for it is his productive activity that “declares his Dignitie, / And the regard of Heav’n in all his waies” (IV, 616-620). According to Milton (and later Marx, as well), man distinguished himself from the other animals by his laboring activity, that is, by purposefully transforming his environment in accordance with particular aims and purposes (and, in the process, transforming himself). Man is “planted” in the Garden and expected to grow, to blossom – but unlike all the other objects in his environment, man’s maturation is self-conscious, and in his own hands, so to speak.

We have discovered, thus far, that the relationship of human beings to the natural world is constitutive of human existence itself; and that furthermore, the differentia specifica (as well as the dignity) of human nature lies in conscious, creative activity. The point I want to make here, drawing on these observations, is that for Milton, the productive activity of human beings in and upon the natural world is also transformative of man himself; in other words, in the process of objectifying himself through labor, man creates his own nature. Adam and Eve are gardeners also of the paradise within. The image of Adam and Eve “in the happie Garden plac’t / Reaping immortal fruits of joy and love, / Uninterrupted joy, unrivall’d love” (III, 66-68) illustrated the internal harvest that man was intended for provided that he create and perfect himself by tending to the subjective garden. I am suggesting that man’s externalization through, that is, the confirmation and actualization of his “dignitie” through work (upon the natural world) is necessary to the internal paradise and its cultivation, which is to say, man’s conscious self-creation.

Now, we are in a better position to examine more closely how Milton understands prelapsarian labor, including what its conditions and characteristics are. I began to argue that (objectifying) labor-activity in and upon the natural world is necessary for Adam and Eve, but how shall we understand this necessity; is it an external compulsion or rather subjective in origin, issuing from the internal need to exercise and confirm man’s essence? We will begin to see what Milton has to say this question by considering a peculiar feature of the Paradise he envisions; namely its surprising tendency to excess and disorder. As soon as we are introduced to Eden, we are informed of its “hairie sides / With thicket overgrown, grotesque and wilde” (IV, 135-136). We are often reminded that the Garden’s hyper-fecundity requires the continuous labor of Adam and Eve: “… what we by day / Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind, / One night or two with wanton growth derides / Tending to wilde” (IX, 209-212). This observation ostensibly suggests that the gardening activity of Adam and Eve has its source in external necessity. But surely this would be an unfortunate interpretation; for Milton makes it clear that labor in Paradise is “pleasant,” a “delightful task” (IV, 625, 437). Indeed, since the Garden is not lacking in produce and is no need of augmentation, it would seem that human labor there was (externally) unnecessary.

For Milton, human existence in Eden is characterized by freedom from want, from scarcity, and we might take this to be a condition of unalienated/prelapsarian labor. Their world is demanding enough, we are told, but still Adam and Eve are not under the strain of external compulsion. Rather than suggesting the external necessity of labor, Eden’s super-abundance serves to emphasize how Adam and Eve work because they want to, because it is a form of joyous creation. Indeed, were we to regard Eden’s tendency towards overgrowth as signifying a compulsion from without, then their labor would be nothing more than a negative activity, an incessant process of subtraction and removal. But this is not the case, as we shall see. For Adam and Eve, labor is a form of artistic creation and not merely a negative enterprise. The Garden’s abundance is a precondition of this creative work, in terms of establishing freedom from scarcity and the concomitant domination of one human being by another; but also in terms of providing the material with which to work on – as a sculptor, for example, requires the excess marble in order to carve a statue.

Still, we must come to terms with the tendency within Paradise to revert to a chaotic wilderness. How is it constitutive, that is, essentially and internally related to Adam and Eve’s work as creative artists? To put it another way, what is that nature of their artistic labor in connection to a world that seems to require negative activity consisting of removal and not positive work involving creation? Milton’s description and representation of the Garden in terms associated with painting, embroidery, etc., suggests that Paradise is a work of art created by the Dive Artist. For instance, we are told that the trees bear “Blossoms and fruits at one of golden hue / … with gay enamell’d colors mixt” (IV, 148-149). And the bower belonging to Adam and Eve “was a place / Chos’n by the Sovran Planter, when he fram’d / all things to man’s delightful use”; here the Supreme Artist “wrought / Mosaic” about the walls, interweaving “each odorous shrub” with “each beauteous flow’r,” and with “Violet, Crocus, and Hyacinth he “Broiderd the ground” a “rich inlay / … more color’d than with stone / Of costliest Emblem” (IV, 690-703). We also find, however, that God did not create the Garden complete but requiring the labor of Adam and Eve to lift it higher in perfection. I submit that Eden is a work of art authored by the Divine, then the process whereby Adam and Eve participate in the continuing creation of their world is also an artistic one – their labor is an artistic endeavor and their object is beauty.

It is not only Adam and Eve that share in the realization of Paradise conceived as process. All of the inhabitants imitate the Divine according to their measure; even “The Birds their quire apply; aires, vernal aires” (IV, 263). Aesthetic activity in the Garden is not the province of man alone, strictly speaking. But here we come to the crucial point: not only does man alone truly engage in productive activity, but man applies the measure and the standard appropriate to every species. In other words, man can assist all the other creatures in contributing to the ongoing process of realizing Paradise, precisely by applying to each the appropriate standard. It is this activity of enabling nature to realize its own inherent potential that more than anything characterizes the labor of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Man’s work essentially consists of serving as helpmate to nature; the natural world, in turn, becomes a helpmate to man by allowing him to objectify his powers and declare his “Dignitie.” This claim derives textual support from the references that Adam makes to their labor as something almost requested by their environment. For example, Adam suggests that they must rise early in the morning “to reform / yon flourie Arbors” (IV, 625-626). The word ‘reform’ implies that man is somehow freeing nature even as he alters it. A few lines later we are told that “Those Blossoms also, and those dropping Gumms, / That lie bestrowne unsightly and unsmooth, / Ask riddance” (630-632). Man is attentive to nature’s needs; indeed, nature is treated as a subject in its own right, ‘asking’ things of man: “Awake … the fresh field / Calls us” (V, 20-21). We find that the things of the Garden, the “Fruits and Flours,” realize their own inherent telos with Eve’s supportive care: “her fair tendance” causes the flowers to spring and “gladlier” grow (VIII, 44-47). The labor of Adam and Eve is diametrically opposed to the exploitation of nature; rather, it is matter of allowing nature “on the poor earth to become what perhaps it would like to be,” to use Adorno’s phrase.

I have been discussing prelapsarian labor activity as essentially a process of liberating nature so that it may realize its inherent potentialities and grow in degrees of perfection. At the same time, this work liberates human nature as well, insofar as it is objectifying and self-transcendent activity, contributing to the self-creation of man’s internal paradise and the cultivation of his sensibilities in every sphere. The point I want make here is that man’s freeing nature to become what “it would like to be,” depends intrinsically upon the aesthetic-erotic attitude. Eroticized human relations are constitutive of the unalienated labor process; as is the possibility of a sensuous exchange between the man and the object of labor. Milton seems to be saying as much: Adam and Eve work together, which is to say, the conditions of production are erotically charged; the transformation of external nature involves imbuing the things of the Garden with (human) subjectivity and aesthetic-erotic qualities. Thus, Adam and Eve are depicted leading “the Vine / To wed her Elm; she spous’d about him twines / Her marriageable arms, and with her brings / Her dowr th’ adopted Clusters, to adorn / His barren leaves” (V, 215-219). Eve herself was earlier identified as a “vine” with tendrils clustering about Adam; the point being that Adam and Eve create a world, through their labor activity, which is the externalization of human erotic powers. The Garden is allowed to realize its inherent telos, provided that human labor is an expression of man’s own erotic-sensuous nature.

Adam and Eve work together, but only until Eve suggests they divide their labor and Adam agrees with some initial reluctance. Interestingly, it is the decision on their part to work separately which directly leads to the fall. The introduction of a division of labor in Book IX signifies the forfeiture of labor’s aesthetic-erotic aspects for the sake of efficiency and productivity. Eve suggests they ought to work apart, for when they are “so near each other thus all day … Looks intervene and smiles, or object ne / Casual discourse draw on, which intermits / Our days work brought to little, though begun / Early” (IX, 220-225). The eroticized labor condtions prevent Adam and Eve from getting as much accomplished as they would if they worked apart – that is, without one another’s amorous distractions. But Adam’s reply is very telling: he informs Eve that “not so strictly hath our Lord impos’d / Labor, as to debar us when we need / Refreshment … this sweet intercourse / Of looks and smiles, for smiles from Reason flow, / To brute deni’d … For not to irksome toile, but to delight / He made us” (IX, 235-243). God made man to enjoy his work, and for human beings labor is most joyous when it is a social activity expressing man’s erotic nature.

The introduction of a division of labor marks a break with man’s viewing his work as creative activity to be valued in itself; that is, Adam and Eve will no longer produce spontaneously for the sheer pleasure it gives them to do so. This prepares them for the dualist epistemology that characterizes man’s fallen consciousness, in which the human subject is viewed as standing in a mere external relationship to the natural world; finally, the outcome is that nature, both inner and outer, is regarded as something to be overcome and dominated. Thus, man’s fall begins with the reconstruction of his labor activity away from its aesthetic-erotic constitution towards its functional aspects. In closing, I add that for Milton, as for Marx, labor can be a process of self-realization, of realizing man’s unbounded human potentialities; at the same time, man himself creates this potential though his very labor activity. Hence, when man is estranged from his work he is estranged from himself, from his human essence; but when his labor is his own, that is, the labor of man as creative artist, then he transcends the fall and the paradise within is realized as paradise without.