[Milton-L] help interpret a line

Harold Skulsky HSKULSKY at email.smith.edu
Mon Jan 26 01:58:27 EST 2004

The discussion of "The fear of death itself removes the fear" in this
thread has been wide-ranging and philosophically ambitious. These
virtues unfortunately don't license neglect of three elementary
constraints on interpretation: 

(1) Note the literal meaning, if it is available. 

(2) Note the anomalies that make the literal meaning problematic or

(3) Try for a nonliteral reading that coheres with the prior line of
thought, if there is a prior line of thought. 

These constraints have been well known and well respected since
Hermogenes and Dionysius Halicarnassensis--indeed, since Aristotle; they
are given a straightforward and nuanced review by Augustine in his work
on Christian teaching; they are provably well known to Milton--indeed
inescapable (because omnipresent) to somebody exactingly reared in the
educational traditions from which Milton emerged. What follows is a
reading that attempts to honor (1)-(3).

(1) As the context requires, the fear the Tempter needs to discredit to
succeed in his project is Eve's fear of eating the apple. His purpose
all sublime is to get her to eat. In the quoted line he claims that fear
of eating is removed by another of Eve's fears, viz., the fear of DEATH.
Improving the quoted line by replacing "death" with "God" (among other
strange inventions recently offered) is rewriting the text, not
interpreting it. 

(2) The Tempter is claiming what is on its face a striking paradox: that
it is precisely because Eve fears death that she should, far from
fearing the apple, eat the apple forthwith. What has he just been saying
that could warrant this strange conclusion? How can fear of death
eliminate fear of eating a deadly meal? Read on.

(3) The Tempter has just been saying that the best way to SHUN evil--and
the evil of death in particular--is to learn from the apple how to KNOW
evil when it presents itself. As the name of the fruit indicates, it was
created precisely with this prophylactic purpose in mind. If the
Prohibition were seriously intended, it would involve Eve in a nasty
Catch-22: how can she shun what she doesn't yet know? No just God, and
hence no one who truly was God, would put his creatures in such a bind.
Eve, if you truly fear death, the apple is the last thing you should
fear! The fear of death itself removes the fear! So go ahead and eat,
and learn what really deserves to be feared!

Eve clearly reads the whole argument along the lines of (3): "What fear
I then, rather what KNOW to fear, / Under this IGNORANCE of Good and
Evil, / Of God or Death, of Law or Penaltie?" The apple is a "cure" (her
word) for a death-dealing ignorance.

The fallacious premise in the Tempter's argument is that Eve doesn't
know what evil is--that she is not yet capable of drawing moral or
axiological distinctions. Ignorance, argues the Tempter in effect,
sometimes excuses; this is one of the times. 

But Book 9 has been busily and abundantly showing us Eve's
sophistication in moral argument; in particular, she is well aware that
the point of abstaining from the apple, whatever its virtues, is to test
her "faith" and "love." Above all, if evil is unintelligible to Eve,
then so is fear, and so are threats. If threats are unintelligible to
Eve, then so are the terms of the prohibition. But the prohibition is
not lost on her, and she does fear the threat. This is hardly
surprising. Milton's God may be vulnerable to many grave charges, but he
is not stupid.

End of reading. Does this passage really address many of the
philosophical aporiai ventilated in recent communications? A heavy
burden of proof, I think, is on those who say so. 

But perhaps there is a philosophical issue lurking here.

The knowledge of evil provided by the fruit is not (a) conceptual
knowledge of what evil is, but (b) experiential knowledge of what it's
like to BE a doer of evil; "knowing" evil in sense (b) is compatible
with not knowing anything essential ABOUT evil (sense (a)). In fact, as
an agonized Adam will eventually realize (too late), knowledge (b) of
evil leads to a terrible deficit of knowledge (a). "Knowing" (like
"being") is systematically and treacherously ambiguous.

More information about the Milton-L mailing list