[Milton-L] Perspectivism and Chaos

Horace Jeffery Hodges jefferyhodges at yahoo.com
Sun Sep 23 14:48:42 EDT 2007

I don't know if this is directly relevant to Professor Mascetti's query, but I went off on an excursus 'through' Chaos in my article "Milton's Tree of Knowledge: Why 'Sacred' Fruit?" (MEMES 16.2, November 2006), so I'm posting it below just in case it contributes something relevant.
  In passing, I'd just note (and perhaps more relevant to Professor Mascetti's question about perspectivism) that Satan may find in the 'existence' of Chaos some evidence for his belief that he and the other angels has arisen independently of God, for he sees that possibility before his eyes in the 'atoms' of Chaos coalescing as he watches. Temporarily, of course:
  For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Maistrie, and to Battel bring
Thir embryon Atoms; they around the flag
Of each his faction, in thir several Clanns,
Light-arm'd or heavy, sharp, smooth, swift or slow,
Swarm populous, unnumber'd as the Sands
Of Barca or Cyrene's torrid soil,
Levied to side with warring Winds, and poise
Thir lighter wings. To whom these most adhere,
Hee rules a moment; (PL 2.898-907)
  Not much evidence for independent origins, admittedly, but such is perhaps Satan's perspective.
  Excursus follows...
  Jeffery Hodges
  Excursus: Chaos and Evil 
  The view that impurity is linked to the "infernal" dregs of chaos touches upon an issue that has received some attention, namely, whether or not chaos is evil. Nearly 60 years ago, A. S. P. Woodhouse located Milton's view of chaos within the Neoplatonic tradition and argued for a basically good chaos but in a footnote acknowledged that "it is difficult to escape the inference ... that this disorder is, or at all events has some affinity with, evil" (Woodhouse 229, n. 30). Over 40 years ago, A. B. Chambers drew upon Hesiod, Plato, Greco-Roman atomism, and Genesis to argue, in "Chaos in Paradise Lost," that "Chaos and Night are the enemies of God" (65) and that "Chaos is as true an exemplar as hell of that state which everywhere prevails when the laws of providence are set aside, when the ways of God to man are opposed and overturned" (84). Similarly, Regina Schwartz, in her generally illuminating book Remembering and Repeating: On Milton's Theology and Politics, argues
 that chaos is evil by virtue of its impurity in not respecting boundaries (Schwartz 17). Moreover, she argues that God's creation is itself holy: 
  With [his] ... emphasis upon boundaries, Milton subscribes to that rich category of thinking on the sacred and profane, pollution and purity, that informs Biblical thought. As the creation is first hallowed by separations, so it is remembered and sanctified by observing those original distinctions. (Schwartz 14; cf. 12: "creation is sanctified by its divisions") 
  In my opinion, Schwartz's views -- that chaos is impure and that creation is holy -- are mistaken. Creation is not hallowed by separations. It is kept pure in this way, but purity is not synonymous with holiness in biblical thinking, and I see no evidence supporting the view that Milton differed from the Bible on this specific point. As for chaos, while Milton does present it as not respecting boundaries, this in itself is not enough to qualify it as evil. Chaos does not respect distinctions within its realm because God has not imposed any distinctions upon it, yet only in a system of distinctions can one talk about impurity. The cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas notes that "uncleanness is matter out of place" (50) but chaos is a realm "Without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth, / And time and place are lost" (PL 2.893-894), which means that it has no internal order and thus defines no impurity. This point also meets the argument presented by Chambers above.
 God's laws and ways are not opposed by chaos, for they have never been imposed upon chaos. The realm chaos can be put to evil use, and the great tempter Satan even manages to lure the old anarch Chaos into league against God, but this simply means that Chaos and his realm of chaos can also 'fall' (PL 2.968-1009). Thus, I agree with Michael Lieb that chaos is -- at minimun -- neutral (Dialectics of Creation, 16-17). Milton even calls it "good" in Christian Doctrine (308), which I take to mean that chaos fulfills God's purposes unless misused. I therefore concur with John Rumrich in rejecting the view, tentatively suggested by Woodhouse and Chambers and asserted by Schwartz, that chaos is evil (Rumrich, "Uninventing Milton," 256). 

  Chambers, Alexander B. "Chaos in Paradise Lost," Journal of the History of Ideas 24 (1963), 55-84. 
  Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge 2002, 1966. 
  Lieb, Michael. The Dialectics of Creation: Patterns of Birth and Regeneration in Paradise Lost. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1970. 
  Rumrich, John Peter. "Uninventing Milton," Modern Philology, Vol. 87, No. 3 (February, 1990), pp. 249-265. 
  Schwartz, Regina M. Remembering and Repeating: On Milton's Theology and Politics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 
    Woodhouse, Arthur Sutherland Pigott. "Notes on Milton's Views on the Creation: The Initial Phase." Philological Quarterly, 28 (1949), 211-236. 
  Yaakov Mascetti <mascety at mail.biu.ac.il> wrote:

  Dear All:

A brief note in this erudite debate to propose a different way to 
interpret the role of Chaos in Milton's PL: what would happen if we 
were to read the nature of this ambiguous and problematic realm from 
the perspective of the single protagonists who face it throughout the 
epic. Meaning: the Word, Satan, Death and Sin. How does Chaos appear 
to each of these? And if there is a difference, how must we interpret 
the fact that the same thing is seen in different (very different) 
ways? Let me ask an even simplet question: why does Chaos interlocute 
with Satan, but it does not with the Word? Why does it react 
rebelliously to the building of the bridge by Sin and Death, while it 
placidly undergoes a "similar" act by Gd?

If there is an issue of perspectivism in Milton's conception of 
Chaos, would this help us to understand the different versions we 
have of it" Boundless, bounded, inchoate, fertile womb of creation, 
good matter, destructive forces, infernal dregs, etc.

Hope this may ignite further discussion on a subject I am much 
interested in.

Best regards,

Yaakov Mascetti

Yaakov A. Mascetti PhD
Dept. of Comparative Literature
Bar Ilan University

On Sep 22, 2007, at 9:43 PM, Harold Skulsky wrote:

> Hi, Michael!
> I share your doubt about whether (unlike heaven, hell, and nature 
> [the physical universe]) chaos deserves to be included among 
> Milton's multiple worlds. For one thing, it is the womb of nature-- 
> the quarry for the basic raw material of the physical universe. In 
> other words, it's part of that universe in which God puts forth his 
> goodness in an inchoate form; the atoms may be powerless to form 
> objects spontaneously, but they obey dynamic laws that doom them to 
> an endless cycle--unless the Creator intervenes.
> I think this last is the point of what amounts to a thought 
> experiment: Democriitus and his modern epigoni are wrong to think 
> that the natural order results from the chance collisions of 
> elementary particles in the absence of intelligent design. "Swerve" 
> isn't enough to give us galaxies. Atomism (on this view) would be 
> well advised to beef up its explanatory hypothesis with a clause 
> about intelligent design. In short, part of M's literary project is 
> to produce a Christian materialist corrective to Lucretius or 
> Manilius. I can imagine an alternate history in which we had a De 
> rerum natura (in characteristically marvelous Latin) from M's hands.
> Cheers,
> Harold
>>>> Michael Gillum 9/20/2007 3:16 PM >>>
> I'm not sure Chaos ought to be listed in series with the three 
> created places as one
> of four "worlds."
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University Degrees:

Ph.D., History, U.C. Berkeley
(Doctoral Thesis: "Food as Synecdoche in John's Gospel and Gnostic Texts")
M.A., History of Science, U.C. Berkeley
B.A., English Language and Literature, Baylor University

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