[Milton-L] "Ontological superiority"

Steve Fallon sfallon at nd.edu
Wed Jul 19 15:55:59 EDT 2006

More often that not I agree with Richard Strier, but I have to 
disagree here.  Not that ontological superiority in this sense 
entails moral superiority--Richard is right to call that move into 
question.  But one must sort through a lot before answering the 
questions of whether the Father loves his enemies, forgives them, 
delights in their torture.

One must ask, e.g., in what sense Satan is an enemy of God.  In one 
sense he clearly is an enemy, and he glories in the name.  But Milton 
attempts to make clear Satan's hostile actions 1) are possible only 
because God permits them and 2) are turned to good.  Satan tries to 
be an enemy or adversary, but his actions recoil, and he can't hurt 
God.  Forgiveness, at least as we experience it, involves pardoning 
one who has hurt us; Satan can't hurt God.  I realize that the Father 
in Book 3 says that devils will not find forgiveness, suggesting that 
he is withholding it, but I take this not as a sign of implacable 
vindictiveness but of clear-eyed recognition that Satan will not 
repent (the inability to repent is on display in the speech to the 
sun in Book 4--an interesting and puzzling case in itself, for the 
motions evident in this speech, before Satan rejects the possibility 
of repentance, fall in Christian theology under the heading of 
motions made possible by prevenient grace).  In years of reading the 
poem, God's statement (man therefore shall find grace, the other 
none") has struck me increasingly as descriptive rather than 

Satan becomes an instrument in the temptation of Adam and Eve, which 
is to say he fulfills a crucial role in the testing of Adam and Eve 
as moral beings (without a real test, Adam and Eve would not be 
treated as adults but as children).  Had Adam and Eve stood, the 
tendency to see God's employment of Satan as malign and morally 
suspect would be lessened (Calvin, not Milton, viewed the fall as 

Does God delight in the torture of the devils?  Perhaps, though I 
think it more accurate to say that Milton delights in the 
construction of a hell worse than which none could be imagined. 
Confusion, physical pain, hunger, sexual frustration, jealousy, loss 
of identity, etc., etc.  Even the hope denied to Dante's damned 
becomes an instrument of torture, as devils are haled between hope 
and despair in an unending cycle.  I see here some typical epic 
one-upmanship as work: I'll write the greatest epic; I'll write the 
worst hell.

If one sees the Father as reacting in pique and in angry retaliation, 
Richard's view makes more sense.  But Milton tries at least to defuse 
that reading.  Satan's various claims to have injured God, shook his 
throne, made him doubt his empire, etc., are meticulously falsified 
in the poem.

One other thing to keep in mind is Milton's high-wire act with the 
dialogue of Father and Son in Book 3.  The Father is ineffable, and 
the Son is the visible and audible expression of the Father. 
Nevertheless, the Father and Son converse audibly in the poem.  What 
can one make of this?  There is either a contradiction or a 
ventriloquism here.  To the extent that the Father is audible, he is 
given voice by the Son.  In one sense the Son speaks both the 
Father's lines and himself.  Or one could turn this around: both the 
Son's insistence on mercy and the Father's on justice originate in 
the Father (this at least is what the Father claims, "All hast thou 
spoken as my thoughts are").  The Father looks better if we take 
seriously the idea that the Son expresses the Father (though I'd 
qualify this by stressing that at times, particularly in the free and 
meritorious choice to die for human beings, the Son speaks for 

If the voice of mercy expresses the Father (I can see that this "if" 
is arguable), then arguments for the Father as morally dubious are 
weakened.  I've not forgotten that the precipitating issue is the 
Father's treatment of Satan.  Satan, however, as a free creature who 
has made (however mysteriously) a morally significant choice, is 
living out the consequences of that choice.  One could argue that 
allowing a creature to experience the results of free choice is an 
expression of respect for the creature.  Universal forgiveness is a 
more comfortable doctrine, but it lowers the stakes of free will.  To 
have free will but to be free of consequences in exercising it is in 
a sense to be treated as a child.

Steve Fallon

>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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>Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu
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