[Milton-L] theodicy and critique

Jeffrey Wilson jrwilson at uci.edu
Thu Jul 27 13:34:27 EDT 2006

Stephen Fallon wonders what Milton gains by having a poetic intention  
that is different (not, by any means, "at odds") from the narrator's  
intention, i.e. by having a narrator who sets out to justify God's  
ways even though the poem does not do so itself. The answer, in my  
humble grad-student opinion, is that Milton gains the knowledge that  
his poem will motivate its readers to justify God's ways themselves,  
on their own terms, outside the imagined space carved by the poem  
(i.e. in their day-to-day lives where the stakes are much higher than  
in his poem).

I read _Paradise Lost_ in the context of Milton's repeated and well- 
documented insistence on the primacy of 1) VIRTUE, which he defines  
not as the performance of a morally good action but as the choice of  
a morally good action in the face of an (often more tempting) evil  
alternative, and 2) CONSCIENCE - which he variously calls charity,  
discernment, Christian liberty, or the Spirit within - in all things  
religious (or, for that matter, all things period). Milton's intent  
when he writes _PL_ is not to justify God's ways but to "leave  
something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let  
it die." He figured out how to do this, I believe, by writing the  
timeless problems of the world, rather than the situated answers of  
one man or one age, into his poem. In other words, Milton presents  
the problem of evil, not the solution, for by doing so he ensures  
that the imperative to interpret necessarily remains in his readers  
(i.e. the need to exercise [in the sense of "train"] one's  
conscience). It is the reader, in other words, and not the poem that  
must determine God's justice. If Milton determined the justice of  
God's ways for us, then our theodicy would be no more than implicit  
faith (and we all know how Milton feels about that). And here I nod  
to Diane McColley's recent comment about "individual persons, who  
make their own decisions about justification, as we see on this list."

The loaded history of the following line not with standing, the poem  
is "not so much a teaching as an entangling," and it will not show  
its readers the way out (on this last point I disagree with Professor  
Fish; those moments he cites as readerly correctives I have found  
only to be additional problems).

Jeff Wilson

P.S. In truth, I imagine Milton laughing at the idea that God needs  
to be justified to men (wouldn't he think it's the other way  
around?). Theodicy is a humanistic discipline governed by the the  
discourse of reason, and it seems to me that Milton always insists  
upon, as Victoria Silver points out, the absolute distinction between  
creator and creature (i.e. deus absconditus). For a human to justify  
God's ways in the court of human reason, it seems, would "wrest the  
Sword of Justice out of Gods own hand, and imploy it more justly in  
thir own conceit" (Eik).

On Jul 27, 2006, at 11:01 AM, Stephen Fallon wrote:

> In response to Jeff Wilson: It's hard for me to imagine Milton  
> attributing to his narrator an intention so grossly at odds with  
> his own covert one.  What would be the percentage in that for him?

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