[Milton-L] "Ontological superiority"

Richard Strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Wed Jul 19 13:26:38 EDT 2006

This notion -- "the Father's ontological superiority" -- raised by 
Mr. Gillum, is indeed crucial.  There is no doubt that this sort of 
"superiority" is posited by the poem:  God the Father was prior to 
all other beings (including, perhaps the Son, though that's not 
important for the question at hand), and more powerful than any other 
being.  He created living creatures.  But the real issue is not 
"ontological superiority" -- which is an oddly medieval phrase, and 
involves notions of levels of being that many philosophers have found 
incoherent -- but MORAL superiority.  That the Father was first and 
is the strongest does not mean that He is morally admirable. 
Strength and temporal priority are not moral categories; nor is 
generativity.  Your father can be a tyrant, even though he was in 
existence first, is causally responsible for your existence, and may 
be stronger than you are.  God's character, as presented in the poem, 
is what is at issue.  A bad character combined with omnipotence is in 
fact a very scary notion.  This was the specter that Shelley meant to 
raise, and that Empson raises more crudely.

Moral questions are things like:  does He love his enemies; does He 
forgive them; does He delight in their torture?

Shelley thought that the God of PL, esp. the Father, but (I would 
say, also the Son in the War), failed to manifest the moral 
characteristics that Christianity at its best asserts.  That is the 

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