[Milton-L] The War in Heaven

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at email.smith.edu
Wed Jul 12 16:55:30 EDT 2006

"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."

Any readers who protest against the doings of God in PL are not
adopting a position on how PL is to be interpreted; they are
embellishing the poem by introducing themselves into the narrative as
God's interlocutors. The issue of interpretation is whether the poem
Milton has written implies that God's punishment of the Satanic
rebellion is neither arbitrary nor unjust, and whether the poem has
thereby begged the question that it raises by promising to present a
narrative that will justify the ways of God to man. 

Some readers find themselves able to point to countless passages in PL,
and countless theological passages in which Milton speaks clearly on his
own behalf, that support an affirmative reading on the question of
whether on the showing of PL God is right to suppress a rebellion based
on ingratitude, envy, and a reckless or self-serving defiance of reality
about the ontological relation between God the Father, God the Son, and
any angel. 

A subset of such readers understand that PL's assumption of God's
justice doesn't beg the question because it functions as a hypothesis to
be tested against the facts as recorded in the traditional account, and
presented in the narrative; PL on this understanding does not preempt
objections to its hypothesis--objection to the effect that, when granted
for the sake of argument, the hypothesis is either internally
inconsistent or fails to accord with the facts, and is therefore either
false or unconfirmed. (This is the traditional modus operandi of
theodicy from Plotinus on, through his many heirs in Christian

A subset of that subset of readers (including this reader) will
conclude that at the end of the day PL fails, out of serious
inconsistencies in its moral premises, and inconsistencies between the
premises and the facts it alleges. Such readers will join with defenders
of PL in regarding protests against God the Father's despotism as either
gross confusions or covert attempts to recruit Milton against
Christianity, in defiance of the historical and biographical record, and
above all in defiance of principles of interpretation so fundamental
that they make a serious dialogue impossible.

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