[Milton-L] "Ontological superiority"

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at email.smith.edu
Thu Jul 20 00:31:01 EDT 2006

I heartily agree that PL 3 represents God the Father as unloving and
unforgiving toward at least some of his enemies (the theology of grace
as he outlines it ibid. is more complicated and harder to dismiss
without working through the complications). On the charge of sadism I
demur; possibly some of God's gloating can be literalistically
interpreted in this way; an old freethinking relative of mine used to go
through his Bible with a red crayon, marking juicy evidence of Jehovah's
fascism, especially in Exodus and the Book of Justice--perhaps a similar
crayon hunt will bear fruit in the text of PL, though I doubt it.

The issue for Milton is whether God's failure to love and forgive Satan
and Co. is evidence of injustice; ditto God's provision of an eternal
penal colony for the housing of the unforgiven. It seems clear to me 
that Milton presents God's failure to love and forgive as just. Milton
assumes, like many Christian theologians before him, that Satan's
instigation of a rebellion against God was freely unloving--freely
treacherous, envious, ungrateful, malicious (as well as freely
self-deceptive and self-destructive); and that an infinite punishment of
an infinitely evil but free will is proportionate and hence just. 

More fundamentally, Milton assumes (against Origen and others) that,
however long or short, punishment is retributive and not corrective, and
that to commit a crime of a certain magnitude (think of Pol Pot's or
Hitler's or Abu Musab al Zarkawi's) is to forfeit the right to
correction. (I think these claims about Milton's assumptions are
provable out of the text of PL and out of many other Miltonic texts, but
I have neither the space nor the energy to accumulate and analyze proof
texts here.)

If this assessment is right (assume it arguendo), it is also not
surprising, and above all not to Milton's discredit--even if (as I too
think) Milton is dead wrong about what justice requires in the case of
the crimes (angelic and human) that he describes in PL. and also dead
wrong in thinking that the notion of retributive justice (or the
associated notion of free will) is coherent. For all that, his position
is tenable, consonant with a perfectly respectable tradition of moral
discourse, and worth a cool and careful analysis. The easy gesture of
shaking a righteous fist at it strikes me as fundamentally unserious. 

A serious criticism of Milton's vision of retributive justice would
begin by modestly acknowledging its attractions and complexities and its
ramified history (again, no time to make good here on this promissory
note). It would end by acknowledging that it is no part of our job as
scholars of literature to engage in such criticisms; that when we do so
we have switched hats and gone from the task of understanding our text
to the task of judging it. For my money, conflating these tasks is a
corruption of both.


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