[Milton-L] The War in Heaven

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Wed Jul 12 12:04:33 EDT 2006

This is an excellent summation of what is often the response to an Empsonian provocation. I do wonder why Milton would go to so much trouble to "justify" the ways of "God" (and I have written elsewhere on justification as a combination of accusation and eventual acquittal) if there were not serious questions that needed to be addressed. The position of Lewis (Milton as Aristotelian on authority and Augustinian on theology) is so nice and tidy (and efficient in the way that it smoothes away difficulties) that, viewed in its light, it is a wonder that Paradise Lost was written at all.

But Milton's definition of tyranny is rather broader than Lewis would have it be, I suspect:

"A tyrant, whether by wrong or by right coming to the crown, is he who, regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns only for himself and his faction" (TKM).

In the divided universe of PL, for whom is it possible that *anyone* reigns, other than himself and his faction? That seems--rather than the question of right or wrong in possessing the authority in the first place, and rather than any questions of worth--to be the crucial element in tyranny: reigning over (or attempting to reign over) those who reject the ruler's authority.

But what of "law [and] the common good"? Perhaps what Paradise Lost is setting forth is a universe in which "God" gets to define the common good, no matter any disagreement that may arise? I agree up to a point--it does seem that PL's God is so defining both law and common good. But there we come to an impasse. For some readers, it seems, there is nothing that the character called "God" can do and no questions about that character that can be raised that will disturb them. Well and good, I suppose. But that interpretive position seems to regard the question of justification as settled before it is even raised, which--to me at least--tends to weaken the poem rather than strengthen it.    

As far as not being in a position to judge "God"...well, it seems to me that such judgment is implicit in the entire project of justifying the ways of God to men. (As an aside, it is certainly implicit, even explicit, in the book of Job, and as the famously vexed--and strenuously smoothed over in translation--42:6 seems to suggest, such questions and such judgments are far from easily resolved.)

Michael Bryson

>Date: Wed, 12 Jul 2006 12:58:09 -0400
>From: Michael Gillum <mgillum at unca.edu>  
>Subject: Re: [Milton-L] The War in Heaven  
>To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>

>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.

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