Remorse and Supplication in Paradise Lost

J. van Dijkhuizen

In Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea (2010), David Konstan argues that the modern concept of interpersonal forgiveness as enabled by a wrongdoer’s remorse was alien to early Christianity. Remorse was seen as an emotion felt before God, not before fellow-human beings, and it was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that remorse-based forgiveness came to be applied to the interpersonal sphere. Paradise Lost is an ideal case study for testing Konstan’s argument. It is centrally preoccupied with reconciliation and forgiveness, and can be seen as offering nothing less than a genealogy of reconciliation: a narrative of how the need for reconciliation — both between God and humanity and among humans themselves — emerged in the first place. I argue that Milton’s understanding of interhuman reconciliation is structured by hierarchical pardoning — modeled, ironically enough, on royal pardoning — rather than by inner remorse. In Milton, remorse, as a heartfelt emotion, figures only in scenarios of divine forgiveness: humans have an obligation to feel remorse for their sins towards God. Adam and Eve reconcile because Eve humbles herself before Adam as a suppliant. Remorse, by contrast, is an emotion which they express only before God, not to each other. In Paradise Lost, divine and interhuman forgiveness do mirror each other in that both require supplication and self-humiliation — before God and before a superior or more powerful human being respectively. In this sense, Paradise Lost also offers also a case study in the intensely political dimension of remorse — a dimension that is often overlooked in modern-day debates.