[Milton-L] help interpret a line

Carol Barton cbartonphd at earthlink.net
Mon Jan 26 09:26:29 EST 2004

Re: [Milton-L] help interpret a lineI think this argument (like many of the
others) demonstrates exactly the object lesson Milton is trying to teach in
this scene: there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in
our philosophy, and when we try to reason above what is "lowly wise," we get
ourselves into all sorts of trouble (see Samson Agonistes and Marlowe's
Faustus for two other poignant examples).

Eve's epistemology includes one "knowable" binary truth: "God is good," and
"God said no." As a greater power than I has argued, Jesus demonstrates
obedient understanding of this truth when he rejects Satan's temptation of
the flesh in Paradise Regained: turning the stones into bread to feed the
hungry "seems" like a good thing, an act of charity not unlike the miracle
of the loaves and fishes---but Jesus knows there has to be something wrong
with it, because it involves doing the devil's bidding. He refuses.

Eve makes at least three gross mistakes in logic. First, she assumes that
"in the moment ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die" means NOW, like the
victim of poison in a bad movie (or lesser Claudiuses), coughing and
spluttering and clutching one's throat the moment the abominable substance
touches the internal organs. God means that "in the moment ye eat thereof,
ye shall BE SUBJECT TO death."

Second, she assumes that the serpent hath eaten and liv'd---to reason and
speak like Man, a level above in the Great Chain of Being. God did not
prohibit the serpent from eating, and neither did it derive its cognitive
abilities from the Fruit.

Third, as Diane McColley with rhetorical modesty suggests, KNOWLEDGE DOES
NOT INHERE IN THE FRUIT: the fruit is an arbitrary symbol of disobedience.
It is the disobedience itself---the breaking away from the unity that is
God, after the manner of the first bringer of discord and division, that
brings knowledge of good (already known) and evil (known now because of this
disobedience), not some magic ingredient that opens the eyes to things not
visible to the uninitiate (Edenic LSD?).

Satan's arguments are specious, but like the arguments contained in
contemporary polemics and distributed to a barely-literate reading public,
they are far above the audience's (that is, Eve's) skills to analyze. Over
and over again, she makes the only argument she can cogently make: "but God
said no."

She is no match for Satan, as she demonstrates by imitation: the reasoning
that leads her to offer Adam the fruit, and her response to his having
ingested it, is specious logic at its basest and most blatant.

I agree with John Leonard that "Satan's tactic, at least in part, is to
assure Eve that she doesnt need to be afraid of something she doesnt
understand," and with Gardner that "At this moment Milton acknowledges with
unusual candor the limits of reason, mapping its potential to answer desire
instead of correct error." Samson makes the same mistake . . .  and so does
Milton himself (where Cromwell is concerned---and by extension, perhaps even
in supporting the regicide itself). We justify ourselves into believing that
what we know is wrong is right (Samson); or that what we want is right,
whether it is wrong or not (Satan, Samson, Eve, and Adam ); and willingly
(stupidly, Milton tacitly argues here and elsewhere) participate in other
variations on this theme to our own clear detriment. The Jesus of _Paradise
Regain'd_ demonstrates that perhaps most vividly by exception, and for me,
most memorably in the example given above.

With malice toward none,

Carol Barton

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