[Milton-L] help interpret a line

Carol Barton cbartonphd at earthlink.net
Mon Jan 26 10:27:41 EST 2004


James Fleming writes:

> I must say I remain somewhat uncomfortable with the suggestion, voiced on
this thread by Gardner but widely approved both here and elsewhere, that in
the passage under consideration M is demonstrating "the limits of reason." I
am uncomfortable with this view because the people who hold it always seem
to pair it with the claim that Satan has a bad argument (which I think is in
fact the case, for the very simple reason that he uses false premises). But
how can M be demonstrating the limits of reason by representing a bad
argument? Doesn't that strategy, rather, demonstrate the sovereignty of
reason?
---------------------------------------

Rather, I think, it demonstrates the *misuse* of reason, Jim---as I tried to
suggest in my previous post---the same kind of overreaching of which Faustus
is famously guilty.

Sin is an idea, personified in the character who springs Athena-like from
her author's head----a creature, like Pandemonium and other "creations" of
inferior beings (the ones that escape from Pandora's box, to continue the
classical analogy), a product of not-God, and therefore not good. Eve gives
birth (in effect) to Sin II in her overreaching reaching; to Sin III in her
inducement of Adam's co-partnership in her transgression; and to Sins IV-ad
infinitum in her Book X suggestions of celibacy, suicide, and so on (by
analogy, progeny that like Sin's feed on her body and soul). I'm not sure
Milton's point is exactly "the" limits of human reason, as much as that
there *are* limits of human reason---that as so many other authors have
tried to point out (Marory's parable of the prophet and the rabbi and
Twain's _Mysterious Stranger_ come immediately to mind), God works in ways
that we may not understand, may not be able to reason through: Satan thinks
God's test is strange (why deny them wisdom?) because he doesn't understand
that that's not the point of the test. Even Sophocles cautioned against
trying to out-think the gods (the crime for which Oedipus and Iocasta pay so
heavily). The point, I think, becomes clearer by analogy: the only reasoning
Eve can follow is that

1. God is good.
2. God loves me.
3. God has given me everything I could need or want.
4. God would never do anything to harm me.
5. Therefore, if God says don't do this, He must have a good reason for
it---whether I can discern that reason or not.
6. I choose because I love and obey God not to do it.

Make Eve (as Marjorie Hope Nicolson did, for a similar argument) a sixteen
year old. The benevolent parent (God) has forbidden her to date the 25
year-old with whom she believes herself "in love," without wanting to
explain why: the standard parental logic "BECAUSE I SAID SO!" obtains. If
Eve believes that the parent loves her, she does as bidden (Ophelia, giving
Hamlet back his gifts). If she's hell-bent on doing as she pleases (and the
phrase is an apposite one here) she dates the young man anyway---and suffers
the consequences of the ignorance from which obedience to the parental
command would have protected her. (Eve pre-enacts this when she leaves
Adam's side, again with a specious argument: "Whatsamatter, you don't think
I'm smart enough to handle Satan alone? How am I 'free,' strait'n'd by a
Foe?" and so on.

Milton is not arguing against the use of right reason (far from it!), but
against the self-serving abuse of reasoning by which we entrap ourselves and
justify that which we should know better than to do because it comports with
our *desires*---not our intellects---as Gardner has suggested.

Best to all,

Carol Barton


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