[Milton-L] help interpret a line

Alanhorn3 at cs.com Alanhorn3 at cs.com
Mon Jan 26 16:21:17 EST 2004


According to Harold Skulsky, Satan argues that Eve needs to taste the fruit 
of the tree of knowledge in order to know whether or not she ought to taste it. 
But Satan does not say that. Rather he admits that that act is a "trespass;" 
what he's arguing is that it's a "petty" one that is redeemed by the greater 
good it will bring--the ability to know and therefore avoid other evils not 
explicitly proscribed. Eve will be a hero, daring death to achieve a happier 
life, and if God is just he will not punish her but praise her "dauntless virtue."

Skulsky sees Satan making a sillier argument, one that he might have made but 
didn't: "How do you know you shouldn't do what God tells you not to if you 
don't know what's good and what's evil? So go ahead, eat the fruit and find 
out." It's silly because it leaves open the big risk for Eve that she'll find out 
she was right in the first place to listen to God. Like: how do you know this 
liquid is poison if you don't drink it? The fact that you're afraid to do it 
makes it all the more important to make the experiment and find out for sure. 
That's how Skulsky reads "Your fear itself of death removes the fear."

I think the line was better explained by earlier posters. As Beth Bradburn 
writes, it summarizes the argument of the previous two lines. To punish Eve for 
trying to know good and evil is not just, and God is just. If he weren't just 
he wouldn't be God and therefore needn't be feared. Since Eve does fear him he 
must be God and therefore she needn't be afraid he will punish her unjustly. 
(Or, alternatively, Satan might not endorse Eve's fear of God; he might be 
saying, "Let's say you're right to fear God. Even if you are, he's not to be 
feared in this case precisely because he is to be feared in general--which implies 
that he's God and therefore must be just.")

Skulsky objects that "fear of death" is not literally identical to "fear of 
God," but fear of death is fear of God's punishment and therefore fear of God. 
Skulsky admits a nonliteral reading is called for, so why can't we infer this 
simple metonymy? The reading he rejects follows his own proclaimed rules 
better than he does. Dionysius Halicarnassensis would approve of it, I'm sure.

Alan H


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