[Milton-L] Free Will, Forgiveness

Stephen Fallon fallon.1 at nd.edu
Thu Jul 27 18:42:24 EDT 2006

I agree with Michael Bryson that we should be engaged in Milton 
studies and not Milton ministries (at MLA in December I'll speak on 
"Why Milton Is Not a Religious Writer").  My point was not that one 
shouldn't let oneself consider the possibility that God is cruel, 
mendacious, etc.  Quite the opposite.  I'd tried to say that Milton 
himself admitted that possibility when he took up the justification 
of God as a serious intellectual project as opposed the elaboration 
of an unquestionable assumption (Dennis Danielson says something 
similar in his post: "I do see Milton's  theodicy as envisaging the 
possibility of a 'critique of God' given the presence in the world of 
the evil that his creatures must face and try to understand").  Both 
of Michael's options are on the table for Milton, and of course 
they're on the table for us.

When I suggested that it "strains credulity that Milton wanted to 
conceive of God as mendacious and cruel," I was stressing in my mind 
"wanted."  I can see why some readers find the Father morally 
bankrupt, even if I disagree on balance.  I can't see that Milton 
wanted his readers to reach this conclusion.  My comment, in other 
words, was addressed to construals of Milton's intention.  It does 
not entail an assertion that intention is the only standard of 
analysis or warrant of interpretation.

I think that if the poem fails to justify the ways of God to men, 
then it fails in that intention.  Not, I hasten to add, that this 
would mean the epic's failure as a poem; I think that most of us on 
either side of this question agree on its success as a poem.

Arguments for the Father's moral bankruptcy have to contend with the 
convergence between the Father's speeches in Book 3 and Milton's own 
theological principles articulated in DDC.  Now I know that an epic 
is not a treatise nor vice versa, but the parallels between these two 
works can't be discounted by rehearsing this formula, as some attempt 
to do.  It strains credulity that Milton wanted us to conceive as 
cruel judgments that he himself ascribes to God without ironic intent 
or the screen of literary characterization in the treatise.

Finally, I don't recognize Milton in Michael Bryson's distinction, 
"one [Milton's literary God] is a way of thinking (through a glass 
darkly) about what cannot finally be grasped, and the other [God] is 
precisely that which cannot be grasped (only crudely point to) in 
human terms."  In theological terms, at least before Samson 
Agonistes, Milton is rational to a fault.  I don't see in him much in 
the way of a sense of mystery, or much in the way of bowing in 
silence before the unsearchable.

Steve Fallon

>With the disagreement between Stephen Fallon and Peter Herman, I 
>think we have come to the central controversy (which has never gone 
>away) about Paradise Lost: God, and Milton's literary character the 
>Father (with a dash of the Son as well).
>Ever since I can remember, I have been reading defenses of this 
>character, hearing defenses of this character (in classrooms, 
>seminars, conference presentations), and being at times nearly 
>overwhelmed by what seems the emotional urgency behind the various 
>defenses. In my undergraduate studies of the poem, it was made clear 
>to me that certain questions were simply off limits, that what I was 
>discouraged from questioning was simply to be assumed (it seemed to 
>me even then that Milton studies were alarmingly like Milton 
>ministries). Fine. Well and good. I did what was expected of me, and 
>parroted the opinions I was told were the only correct options (how 
>many of our students do *exactly* the same thing when we come on a 
>bit too strong about our readings of texts? The gut-level feeling 
>that *something is wrong here* is not going to be persuaded away, or 
>brow-beaten away with any amount of historical contextualizing...). 
>And, with all due respect, Professor Skulsky speaks of "rhe!
>torical intimidation"? In my admittedly limited experience, such 
>intimidation (often in institutional form) has come exclusively from 
>the side that *wills* to read Paradise Lost as presenting a "good" 
>God. Now, does that mean that arguments against such a paradigm are 
>automatically correct, that it is the only correct option to read 
>the Father (and the various pictures of the Son) as mendacious or 
>malevolent or evil? No. Of course not. Definitely not. But both 
>options are on the table--especially for modern readers, many of 
>whom are not Christian even in name (and by this I do not mean 
>Empson's Chinese students, but many of my own students in southern 
>Milton's intention is fascinating, even crucial, but it is not the 
>only standard of analysis (though I consider it a very important 
>standard, we do, after all, live in a world in which the privileging 
>of authorial intention has been put into question--Freud, Derrida, 
>Foucault, etc., even Fish's idea of "interpretive communities" can 
>be pressed into service here: there can exist more than one 
>interpretive community for a text). That is why I find Peter 
>Herman's quotation of Drummond so telling, "Of course, this isn't 
>Milton's intention. It can't be Milton's intention": it captures 
>perfectly a certain dynamic that has long been prevalent in studies 
>of Milton. Stephen Fallon, whom I respect greatly, expresses this 
>neatly in his recent post here:
>"it strains credulity to suggest that Milton wanted us to conceive 
>of God as mendacious and cruel.  Milton implicitly admitted the 
>logical possibility of divine malfeasance in taking up the project 
>of theodicy seriously in the first place.  But as I read the poem 
>Milton concludes that God is just after all."
>Why does it strain credulity? Why is this thought more or less 
>unthinkable? It was quite thinkable for the author(s) of Job (as 
>evidenced, at least in part, by the history of brutally girdled 
>"translations" and interpretations of 42:6), as it also was for many 
>of the 17th-century exegetes for whom the book of Job was a suddenly 
>urgent problem. The hypothesis that Milton *may* have wanted his 
>readers to confront a "mendacious and cruel" image of God does not 
>necessarily lead to the conclusion that such an image is what Milton 
>wanted to justify to his readers, after all. "Divine malfeasance" 
>and the malfeasance of a literary character are two enormously 
>different things. I find it perfectly within the realm of 
>possibility (not a strain to credulity at all) that Milton may have 
>taken the project of theodicy seriously *by* presenting a "cruel and 
>mendacious" *image* of God, while still concluding that "God is just 
>after all." Why? Because the image and the God are not the same t!
>hing: one is a way of thinking (through a glass darkly) about what 
>cannot finally be grasped, and the other is precisely that which 
>cannot be grasped (only crudely point to) in human terms.
>And, Milton's intentions aside, does it "strain credulity" to 
>suggest that the Father in Paradise Lost might be experienced by 
>some, even many, readers as "mendacious and cruel"? Are we 
>simply--Drummond-like--to discount that reaction? The persistence of 
>the reaction over the centuries suggests that sort of strategy 
>hasn't been too effective. Far more effective, as Stephen Fallon 
>noted, were Fish's and Danielson's arguments. And yet, the reaction 
>persists, as new, and new, and new readers experience the text that 
>is right in front of them and think: *Something is wrong here.*
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