[Milton-L] Re: The War in Heaven

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Sat Jul 15 11:38:49 EDT 2006


In response to Michael Gillum, who wrote the following:

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"Michael Bryson criticized this sentence from one of my posts on Wednesday, 'However, God, being incalculably 'better' than angels or humans, justly rules over his creatures,' saying it begs the question of whether God is morally better than Satan.

True.  My statement was not about my judgement of the Father's moral goodness. It was part of an argument that in PL the Father's ontological superiority (as supreme mind and creator) justifies his rule over his creatures and marks Satan's revolt as wrong. Earthy tyranny is not analogous to heavenly kingship because humans are ontological equals, whereas the Father is Satan's creator. I haven't read a lot of the literature yet, but I assume this is the normal argument to be made in defense of the Father's authority, since the argument is so plainly marked out in PL itself, and so clearly implied by Milton's pronounced emphasis on  obedience to God in sonnets 7 and 19, in PR, and elsewhere. Neither Richard Strier or MB has engaged this ontological argument at all in this thread. As best I recall, MB did not engage the argument in his article about 
kingship and the tyranny of heaven either. (I have not read MB's book yet; perhaps he addresses the issue there.) So it isn't clear to me that I am the one who is begging the question.  I tried to respond to assertions by Richard Strier with an argument. The answers I've heard are along the lines of, 'That's all very smug, tidy, and orthodox, but begging the question.'

I mean all this politely, since I'm aware I'm talking to people who know more about Milton than I do."
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Actually, I think Richard Strier deserves the credit for the response you quote at the beginning. I would say, though, that I am in basic agreement with the point made in that response.

I think there is an important distinction to be made between the divine (whatever it may be) and representations thereof (assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing as the divine at all, an assumption I believe that Milton--and his contemporary reaership--did share, but that not all of his current readers will). One way of expressing this might be to recognize a distinction between the "hidden" God--deus absconditus--and God as evidenced in human experience of the world (but that is only one way). At a further level of remove entirely would be literary, or other artistic depictions of the divine, like the Father in Paradise Lost (from this point of view, the Father of Paradise Lost is at the same level of remove as the figure on the Sistine Chapel ceiling). What is Milton doing with his depiction? Is he presenting his creation as if it were to be taken as an accurate portrayal of the divine (or at least of his idea thereof)? Many readers seem to think so.!
  I!
!
 don't. I think his portrayal is a kind of negation, a nescio, nescio, if you will. So I think the ontological argument about the Father and his relation to Satan, Adam, etc. in Paradise Lost--while interesting--is potentially misleading here. The Father--the King of Heaven in Paradise Lost--is *not* God. 

The often-cited idea that one must apply different standards to earthly politics and heavenly politics runs aground, in my view, on the shores of this dilemna: how is it possible that there can be any heavenly politics in Paradise Lost that are not drawn from the categories of earthly politics? Paradise Lost is a creation of the human mind, and as such can only express human ideas through human categories within the limits of human experiences and perceptions--the very limits that negative theology is so keen to point out. Even presumably inspired texts like those of Ezekiel and John of Patmos cannot transcend these limitations, so how much less can an epic poem, calls to the muse notwithstanding?

Thanks for the interesting conversation...this exchange gets me back in the mindset I need to get some more work done this summer.

Michael Bryson


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