[Milton-L] The War in Heaven

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Wed Jul 12 13:58:09 EDT 2006


Richard Strier wrote in reference to my post, " It's hardly useful to 
be informed that to rebel against a tyrant is good, whereas to rebel 
against God is bad-- when the whole issue is whether God (as 
represented in the poem and perhaps in the bible) is a tyrant. 
(Note:  Tyrants think their will is law; tyrants are capricious; 
tyrants enjoy exercising their power.)" My statement sounded 
simple-minded, but Milton does insistently judge things as good or 
bad. I agree with Richard Strier and Empson that readers are entitled 
to form their own judgements about things that are dramatized in 
literature, but I would want may own judgements to take account of 
the writer's understanding and also of the whole work as context for 
each part.

Milton's (roughly) Aristotelian understanding of tyranny is different 
from Richard Strier's definition and is grounded in a hierarchy of 
worth. A tyrant is someone who excercises coercive power over his 
equals or betters. Conversely, servility is accepting the authority 
of someone who is your equal or inferior, or "serving the unwise." 
CS Lewis summarizes this idea nicely in his book, but it is evident 
all through Milton's work.  For Milton, "better" of course does not 
refer to social rank but to moral and intellectual qualities. Also, 
since humans are similar on the scale of being, social hierarchies 
and coercive political power are almost certain to be unjust. 
However, God, being incalculably "better" than angels or humans, 
justly rules over his creatures. We are not in position to judge God 
because he is ontologically on a radically different and higher 
plane. One might disagree with Milton's views on authority, but they 
are logical and consistent.

As to the poem, its fictive world is such that, by God's agency, 
creatures pop into existence full-grown, having minds equipped with 
some innate ideas or at least Kantian categories such as time, space, 
sequence, substance, causation, and, I would say, hierarchy. So 
newborn Adam wonders who, where, and what he is, and how he came to 
be, then concludes he was formed " not of myself; by some great Maker 
then, / In goodness and in power preeminent" (8.270). Eve asks the 
same questions in Book 4 but doesn't answer them; however, she 
instinctively obeys the Son's direction (476). In this fictive world, 
it is impossible that Lucifer did not recognize that he was created 
by and owed obedience to God. Fallen Satan has arranged to forget 
that he knew this  and has improvised implausible materialist 
explanations of origin.  But if life somehow evolved or emerged from 
natural processes, you would not suddenly come to consciousness as a 
fully developed being.  So I think Empson's idea that Satan 
reasonably believed God was a usurper fails completely on this point. 
Lucifer had to be as smart as Adam. A modern person has grounds to 
suspect he was not created; Lucifer had evidence to the contrary.

The same point could be raised in reference to what Richard Strier 
calls the "large amount of nasty jeering at Satan in the poem for not 
understanding that "omnipotent" really means "stronger than 
everybody." Adam was able to see that God is preeminent in power.

Empson wrote a great book anyway.

Michael Gillum





>Some remarks from the Empson camp:
>
>1) It's hardly useful to be informed that to rebel against a tyrant 
>is good, whereas to rebel against God is bad-- when the whole issue 
>is whether God (as represented in the poem and perhaps in the bible) 
>is a tyrant.  (Note:  Tyrants think their will is law; tyrants are 
>capricious; tyrants enjoy exercising their power.)
>
>2) There's a large amount of nasty jeering at Satan in the poem for 
>not understanding that "omnipotent" really means "stronger than 
>everybody."  Hah, hah-- you lose!  (God smiting his enemies [and 
>laughing them to scorn in the process] is one of the nastier strains 
>in the Hebrew bible-- picked up  in some of the most unpleasant 
>moments in the Christian continuation).
>
>3) Yes, PL tries to back off from the display of Power as sheer 
>force which we (undoubtedly) get at the end of the War.  Book VII 
>gives us Creation, but its strong Lucretian dimension makes its 
>picture of this cosmic process very different from the decree model 
>in Genesis (which is the true counterpart to the  smiting alluded to 
>above).
>
>Just to keep things lively (since the pornography discussion died down)!
>
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