Gratitude in Paradise Lost IV.50-57
Bill Long 11/17/09
The following lines from Book IV are often quoted but rarely, at least on the Net, commented upon. The purpose of this essay is to give an explanation of these beautiful and memorable words:
"And (Satan) understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharg'd..." IV.55-57.
Setting the Context
As he is journeying toward the Garden of Eden and Mount Paradise, Satan is stabbed by various thoughts: his hatred for the sun's light, his disobedience to God, and his reason for reaching beyond his place in the created order--a reaching that led to his exclusion from Heaven (IV.32-50). One thing that sticks in his craw is the difficulty, even the weariness attendant upon the duty of gratitude he owed to God as an angel in Heaven. But he is clearly conflicted about it. On the one hand, nothing could be easier than serving God ("nor was his service hard"--line 45); on the other hand, the duty of gratitude was just so grating. We are brought into the inner thoughts of Satan:
"yet all his good prov'd ill in me...lifted up so high
I sdein'd (disdained) subjection, and thought one step higher/ Would set me highest, and in a moment quit/ The debt immense of endless gratitude,/ So burdensome, still paying, still to owe," 48-53.
He rebelled, then, because gratitude was a burden. If he only could rise one step higher, then higher, he might be "quit" (released) from the duty of gratitude, a duty that so exhausted him.
But here is the fundamental misunderstanding of Satan: he considered an expression of gratitude as analogous to the payment of a debt. Once you pay the debt, you are discharged from any further obligation. It is gone. You are free. Satan looked at the indebtedness he had to God in this same light; he was greatly indebted to God because of God's creation of him and enduement or adornment of him with such high position. If only he could "pay God off." The burden is getting so heavy!
Explaining Gratitude Aright
But Satan has misunderstood gratitude completely. Milton has Satan come to the following realization:
"Forgetful what from him I still receiv'd,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharg'd; what burden then?" 54-57.
This difficult passage teaches that the "debt" of gratitude is fully different than the debt of money. With the latter, you pay it off and are forever released from it. With the former, you continually pay it. The essential point is that the grateful person continually receives the grace that s/he then continually reflects to others and to God. That is, grace is just a "pass through" from God to the grateful person to others and back to God, and that by "paying" this grace, one is just opening oneself to receive more of it and discharging it at the same time. One is continually indebted to God for the grace but, because it passes through you back to God and to others, you have discharged the debt that grace requires. A grateful mind, as Milton's Satan says, is "at once/ Indebted and discharg'd."
Milton relies for some of his insights here on classical models--especially the Roman philosopher and rhetorician Cicero. In his oration concerning his friend Plancius, Cicero praises his character and then digresses on gratitude, with an attempt to distinguish between a money debt and debt of gratitude:
"And yet, debts of money and gratitude are not alike. Whoever repays money no longer has what he paid; whoever owes, retains what is another's. But whoever repays favor has it and who has it repays it in the very fact of having it," Pro Plancio 68.
Commentator Matthew Riggsby has this to say:
"This passage brings up an important point about the exchange of favors. A loan of money creates an obligation for that amount of money; when the appropriate amount of money is repaid, the debt is canceled. When, however, one is the recipient of a favor (beneficium), the return obligation is for a state of gratia [gratitude]. Doing a favor in return does not end this relationship, for ending the relationship would mean leaving the state of gratia and thus reneging on the original obligation. Rather the second beneficium creates a reciprocal obligation," Crime and Community in Ciceronian Rome, p. 45.
So much did Cicero like this thought that he also used a very similar one in De Officiis II.69, written a few years later. The key point is that once you are in the "state" of gratitude, you can't really leave it. You continue to be indebted to pass on new acts of favor, and you continue to receive acts of favor. Gratitude, then, becomes your permanent "state."
Milton has brilliantly taken over this concept and Christianized it by pointing to God as the one originating the entire system of grace/favor. Thus, he takes it potentially out of the political arena and puts it where it belongs, in theology. Satan was "forgetful" of what he "still received" (i.e., continually received). He made it seem as if he had to "pay" and that he was responsible for coming up with the "gold" with which he had to pay. But he wasn't. It was being supplied by God. He lost that vision and became shortsighted. Thus, he vaunted himself, wanting to "get free" from the "massive debt" that he owed. But he couldn't--because he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of grace.
That, friends, is the nature of gratitude. We are continually being given that which we give to others and give back to God. We are continually indebted to God for this, but our debt is also discharged as we "pay it off." But we never finish the payment. Yet, it isn't burdensome, because what we pay is all supplied for us. The result? A grateful person, heart and life. That is the key to gratitude. And Milton, in a few words, has hit it out of the park once again.