[Milton-L] help interpret a line

Harold Skulsky HSKULSKY at email.smith.edu
Mon Jan 26 17:53:32 EST 2004

Alan Horn writes: "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." 

"Identical" misrepresents my objection, which is that "fear of death"
doesn't MEAN the same as "fear of God," and that a reader is not
entitled to replace meanings by fiat. 

Horn argues that "metonymy" allows us to to make "fear of God" be the
figurative meaning of "fear of Death." But the burden is on him to show
that this step is motivated by some defect in reading "fear of Death"
just as it stands. It is simply too easy to argue from "CAN read
such-and-such" to "SHOULD read such-and-such"; the default reading is
the literal one, and needs to be contextually ruled out before we are
justified in looking for a nonliteral meaning.

Horn objects that the argument I attribute to the Tempter in this
passage (1) conflicts with one the Tempter resorts to earlier, and (2)
is sillier than the earlier argument. Neither objection has much force,
I think. (1) The subject of the line in question is  (by default; see
above) the fear of death and what that specific fear "removes." (2) The
Tempter's argument in my version is silly. Indeed so. The Tempter is a
sophister. Sophistry is the art of makling the worse appear the better
argument (see on Belial)--the art of taking silly arguments to market
and getting them sold. 

As for the earlier and allegedly less silly argument, the Tempter
rhetorically asks whether God won't, when all is said and done, turn out
to applaud Eve's courage in disobeying his "petty" prohibition. There is
no reference here, pace Horn, to a general "greater good," much less to
a recondite distinction between the proscribed evil act and "other evils
not explicitly proscribed." Just a silly suggestion that God will count
as courageous a suicidal act performed for the sake of living more
happily, and that on witnessing that courageous act a just God will
reward it by sparing Eve its consequences . This riot of begged
questions on the Tempter's part, I submit, is a tour de force of
silliness. Tempters, to repeat, are not fastidious; caveat emptor.

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