[Milton-L] Abdiel (thought-sins)

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at email.smith.edu
Fri Jul 11 21:05:51 EDT 2008

Following, for what they're worth, are my answers to Alice Berghof's
questions about my account of Milton's realism about moral principles. I
am grateful to her for an opportunity to get a bit clearer about my own
position on this matter.

1. If an action is by definition something that is moving and that
therefore cannot be measured as such without iconic representation
against a stationary object (square, straight line, etc), does the sense
of obliquitas as turn make a difference, as a translation? I am
wondering this in an Augustinian sense. 
Answer: In Carey's version Milton defines the wrongness of an action
vaguely, as its getting "off course." In my version Milton's defines
wrongness precisely, as a mismatch between (a) a given action and (b)
the paradigm action prescribed for the given situation by the moral law.
Carey's version and mine overlap in doing justice to Augustine's ideal
of wrongness as a kind of absence or privation (Conf. 3.7). But in my
view Carey's version not only fudges Milton's non-navigational metaphor
but fails to do justice to Milton's idea of the law as a standard of
MEASUREMENT or point-by-point comparison between an object and a model.

2. Might there be such a thing as official consensus in Paradise Lost?
I would be quite interested in this, given the importance of images of
the public good and those who claim to know and articulate public
consensus in the Interregnum. In PL I am wondering whether official
consensus is something that the angels articulate in sung prayer, or
whether it is something for which there is rhetorical consensus, a
notion that I am imagining as an accepted mode of addressing
transgression and salvation. 

Answer: By official consensus I meant a matter of arbitrary convention;
the red light could have meant Go and the green could have meant Stop,
but we have hit on the converse arrangement - ditto the communal
preference of centigrade thermometers  to fahrenheit or vice versa. I
think you're quite right that in their celebratory hymns the good angels
in PL form an official consensus by virtue of conforming their will to
the will of God. But for Milton (at least as I understand him), moral
rightness is not the mere agreement of creature's will with creator's,
but the irreducible reality that the wills AGREE ON.

3. Would Adam, Eve and Satan, in your reading, be evil agents
legislating for themselves, or, given Adam and Eve's Edenic prayers,
would Satan be the only one who would be considered a legal agent
legislating for himself? (Do you see a precursor to Locke's 2nd Treatise
on Govt and therefore to the necessity of branches of govt in our
adoption of his ideas - legislative, executive, judicial, etc?) 

Answer: For Milton choosing to do evil requires awareness that the
chosen act is evil. Once fallen, the confirmed evildoer frames a
constitution of sorts by stipulating "Evil, be thou my good." That is,
"From now on wrongness will play the same role in my senate and court as
rightness does in the senate and court of heaven." The fallen Adam and
Eve do this implicitly at first, but they are saved by prevenient grace
and repentance. The soul of the sinner is a Lockean polity stood on its
head — one with perverted laws rather than no laws at all.

4. Might the alternative, from St. Paul through Augustine to George
Herbert and Henry Vaughan, be to imagine the law as a human
interpretation of a command that preceded the law? I am intrigued by the
possibility that morality and divine law may diverge. 

Answer. In the Augustinian tradition the moral law is an expression of
God's ordained power (potestas ordinata). But God retains the absolute
power (potestas absoluta) to have established another law entirely.
Divine law could diverge from morality as divinely enacted, but (given
God's unity and constancy) it never will. Milton rejects the voluntarism
underlying this view.

5. What is your opinion of Milton's take on efficient causality in
Suarez's terms? Would you align efficient causality with treasonous
motives, re the previous discussion on the list or would efficient
causality be something Milton would reject as voluntaristic? 

Answer. In my view, Milton takes "A efficiently causes B" to mean
"According to the laws God has decreed for his creation, A-type events
are always followed by B-type events." Since God could have chosen a
different physics, efficient causality reflects the potestas ordinata,
not the potestas absoluta, making Milton a voluntarist in this respect.
By contrast, morality for Milton, if I am not mistaken, is ontologically
rock bottom and not a matter of naked will.

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