[Milton-L] The War in Heaven
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
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.
>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
>Just to keep things lively (since the pornography discussion died down)!
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