[Milton-L] "Ontological superiority"

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Thu Jul 20 09:24:10 EDT 2006

Much appreciation to the responses to my post, in agreement or
disagreement.  My attempt was to present traditional notions of the
Christian God (the only self existent, uncreated being), which I
believe are consonant with versions of Chrisitanity influenced by
Plato and Aristotle.  I respect Mr. Strier's obsevation of different
Christian thinking about the matter, but his dismissal of my
presentation doesn't really address the main point: if the one God is
the creator of "everything," there are no other sources of value
possible -- all is derived from the one God, so there's no thinking
outside or beyond the mind of God.

The traditional philosophical question well stated by Mr. Strier: "The
question of whether something is good because it is divinely
commanded, or God commands the good because it is good, actually
precedes Christianity by centuries.  See Plato's Euthyphro." just
doesn't apply to the Christian God, because at bottom God is a unity
of all his attributes with no outside source for ideas possible, so
the relationship between ontology and morality becomes tautological.

My assumption is that Milton would, by intent, agree with something
like my presentation: whether he actually executed something like my
presentation of God in the text of PL is another matter and certainly
subject to debate.  If we agree on Milton's intent, however, then this
presentation of mine is hardly irrelevant.  We should also keep in
mind that Milton may have been justifying God's ways to man not for
God's sake, but for man's.

Jeffery Hodges points out a viable alternative:

<<In this scheme of things, "The Father" is the fallen one, the sinful
one, the one in need of redemption by the sacrifice of "The Son." It's
a pretty neat twist on the traditional Christian economy of salvation.

Not that I agree that Milton intended this as the proper
interpretation of Paradise Lost, but I see the argument's power...

Jeffery Hodges>>

What Mr. Hodges is presenting is a Gnostic, alienated God, in which
creation is a mistake made by a lesser deity or an attempt to supplant
the major deity by a lesser deity.  I think this is a significant
alternative reading because it so very well captures a Gnostic reading
of Milton's God.

These days I'm using Hans Jonas' _The Gnostic Religions_ for my source
information on Gnosticism.  Jonas' argument is that the earliest
gnosticisms were the product of hellenized middle eastern cultures,
that Hellenism brought with it a view of the cosmos integrated and
harmonious from top to bottom (as did Judaism and Christianity), but
that hellenized middle eastern cultures, responding to conquest,
hellenization, and the spread of Judaism, deformed these symbols into
a narrative in which the physical universe was created by minor
deities attempting to replace or supplant the primary deity, who was
then trapped within the creation somehow.

Human souls are fragments of the primary deity attempting to
reintegrate with its alienated self, so that gnosticism is
characterized by alienation from the self and nature.  Alienation is
part of the very structure of existence in gnostic thought, while in,
say, Christian thought it is a sign of the self's fallenness and need
to change. Gnosticism therefore stands in contrast to urbane, hellenic
pantheism which sees a mirror of human life even in the stars, in
contrast to Plato and Aristotle, and in contrast to the Jewish God who
declared creation to be "good." Those gnostic movements familiar with
Judaism (most were, and were deliberately engaged in an anti-Jewish
polemic, according to Jonas) might identify Satan as the hero of

This is a very basic pattern with many variants.

This is all very interesting to me because the English Romantics, esp.
Blake, approrpriated gnostic symbols consciously and
employed/reconfigured them to comment on their own society -without
being taken in by them- (at least not for long). Blake described the
prominent gnostic present before him, Swedenborg, as lighting "a
candle in sunshine."

I don't know how well this narrative holds up across the boards, but
Jonas presents a convincing argument. His _The Gnostic Religions_ is
actually a gleaning off the top of a much larger project which
collected all then available gnostic texts into a multivolume
collection with commentary, so it has a great deal of scholarship
behind it. The Nag Hammadi texts had just been discovered prior to the
release of the 2nd ed. of Jonas' work, of which very little was
available at the time.

Hermetic literature is important in this context, esp. since "thrice
great Hermes" is mentioned in PL. The panentheism assumed by
hermeticism might be seen as an exception, but even there I think the
deity cast itself outside itself for the sake of self-understanding
and history is the process of it reabsorbing itself back into an
integrated unity (reminiscent of Hegel's Absolute Idea?). While this
is a slightly different narrative than the one above as there are no
secondary players, the basic plot of alienation then reintegration
still holds.

I don't understand the thinking behind immortality being offensive.
Immortality, and hell, gives the current life the greatest possible
significance; otherwise human life becomes a triviality, as nothing is
of -ultimate- importance, only -transient-.

Jim R

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