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  • Milton’s Political Ontology of the Human
  • Sharon Achinstein

“Astonied stood and Blank”: here is a Medusa moment in Paradise Lost—the point at which Adam takes in Eve’s trespass—where Adam seems to turn to stone.1 “Astonied,” Adam is, quite literally, struck like a thunderbolt (Latin: attonare). The literary tropology of petrification, turning mute with horror, is familiar (Job, Aeneas); but transformation to stone has other resonances: the sign of male hysteria, for instance; the primal moment in the construction—and deconstruction—of Romantic subjectivity.2 The literal recalcitrance of the heart of stone is familiar from the Bible and in Reformed Christian literary writing: “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26).3 To these ethical accounts we add the ontological: a moment of a live creature turning to stone beckons our thinking beyond the human.4

In the case of John Milton’s Adam here, the turning to stone is represented as a momentary collapse of bodily vitality:

      [S]oon as he heard The fatal Trespass done by Eve, amaz’d, Astonied stood and Blank, while horror chill Ran through his veins, and all his joints relax’d; From his slack hand the Garland wreath’d for Eve Down dropp’d, and all the faded Roses shed: Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length First to himself he inward silence broke.


To the flowers, roses, the damage is simple: they are “faded.” It’s worse for Adam, as the narration moves into slow motion over his changed physiology, the sibilance of the language presenting the snaky effect over Adam’s substance too. What changes there are in Adam are represented with more particularity: we observe as an attending physician might. Perhaps he’s just in shock, but perhaps he’s suffering the as-yet-unknown effects of the Fall; perhaps he is feeling a premonition of his own death.5 Adam seems to have become both more rigid (“Astonied”) and floppy (“all his joints relax’d”). He has at this moment lost a lot of things: motion (turning to stone); color (“pale”); [End Page 591] blood-warmth (“chill . . . veins”); muscle tension (“slack”); and is indeed a “Blank”—completely expressionless, capped by his loss of voice: “Speechless he stood”; there is “inward silence.” His is an Ovidian metamorphosis, indeed, but not simply human into statuary, organic into inorganic matter, but a recalibration of the human into something other—something much, much weaker. Adam retains his standing, but at this moment the human Adam seems to have become evacuated of his humanity; he has just about become mortal. Not by means of a divine thunderbolt or the crack in the universe, that “wound” (9.782), those “signs of woe” (9.783) that attended Eve’s eating; but through his hearing Eve’s “story told” (9.886). His change in embodied experience comes about through his understanding the meaning of her story, even before he himself partakes of the forbidden fruit some one hundred lines later and fully enters into fallen existence.

I am going to return to the occasion of Eve’s “story told” to consider the human expressivity through talk in Paradise Lost, the conversational mode by which human consciousness comes into being within the impersonality of the epic genre. I’m going to suggest that it is not only upon the ground of humans’ doomed experience, presented as limitation, that we can construct Milton’s political ontology. How does Milton’s representation of his first humans give evidence of the situation and capability prior to political institutions, and give rise to what Hannah Arendt would call a “right to have rights”?6 Writing of stateless persons after the Second World War, Arendt detached political rights from the history of statehood. Her notion, of the right to have rights, combines the moral and political aspects of human experience in a common world, “to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions” and “a right to belong to some kind of organized community.”7 For Milton, writing before human rights, I am going to...


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