[Milton-L] Re: God as tyrant

Jason Kerr aelfric at gmail.com
Thu Jul 20 19:45:25 EDT 2006

One more thought, in reference to the past (continuing?) discussion of God's
potential tyranny: I am very interested in Milton's treatment of classical
sources in PL. Many of the classical allusions seem to have an ironic twist
(cf. the various references to the muses). Milton was not comfortable, as it
seems Spenser was in _The Faerie Queene_ (please correct me if I am wrong),
to let Jove stand in for the Christian God and leave understanding the
difference to the reader. This is relevant because Jove was a tyrant in the
classical sense, i.e., he occupied a throne that did not belong to him by
right. Does the Father in PL fall into this category? The question of
tyranny arises for Satan and crew in the elevation of the Son, which Satan
frames in the terms of classical tyranny:

                             since by Decree
Another now hath to himself ingross't
All Power, and us eclipst under the name
Of King anointed (5.774-77)

Only later, when challenged by Abdiel, does Satan indirectly extend the
language of tyranny to the Father, if only in attempting to justify his own
attempted tyranny:

That we were formd then saist thou? and the work
Of secondarie hands, by task transferd
From Father to his Son? strange point and new!
[. . .]
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais'd
By our own quick'ning power,
[. . .]
Our puissance is our own, our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try
Who is our equal (5.853-55, 859-61, 864-66)

By arguing that he and his followers were "self-rais'd," Satan implies that
the Father was also "self-rais'd," and that he therefore occupies his throne
not by right, or at least not by any right that Satan himself could not
claim. Satan undercuts whatever force this argument may have by making force
the standard of proof (though he rejects this standard when it no longer can
support his claims). For Satan, at least at this point in the poem, might
makes right.

The question then becomes one of what the poem posits as the basis for the
Father's rule. The answer seems to lie in his attributes ("Omnipotent,/
Immutable, Immortal, Infinite, / Eternal King") and then his status as
creator ("thee Author of all being") followed by his glory ("Fountain of
Light") (3.372-75). In these lines, the epic voice describes the praise
lavished on the Father by the angels after the elevation of the Son, thus
marking the parallel response to Satan's in Book 5. Is tyranny only in the
eye (or perhaps knees) of the beholder?

Jason A. Kerr
Boston College
"Den som vover mister Fodfæste et Øieblick;
den som ikke vover mister Livet."
                                    -Søren Kierkegaard
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