[Milton-L] Abdiel (thought-sins)

Alice Crawford Berghof aberghof at uci.edu
Sat Jul 12 06:18:39 EDT 2008

I am quite grateful to Professor Skulsky for these responses, and am 
wondering, in general, about the problem of Milton's Augustinianism and 
his Ramist Aristotelianism, implicitly at odds but both dependent on 
taxonomies of causality.  This may be one of the Milton list 
conversations that goes weekly or bi-weekly rather than daily.  I will 
prepare a brief response to Professor Skulsky's fascinating ideas, and 
post it in about a week.  For clarity, in the meantime, I've cut and 
pasted his original posting at the bottom of this message for those who 
are interested.  My questions and his answers refer to that.

On Jul 12, 2008, at 2:05 AM, Harold Skulsky wrote:

> 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.

Here is Professor Skulsky's original posting, the subject of my 
questions and his subsequent answers, above:

Miilton: "sola eius [scilicet, actionis] obliquitas sive anomalia a
legis norma proprie mala est."

Carey: ""it is only its [the action's]  misdirection or deviation from
the set course of law which can
properly be called evil."

Skulsky: "The only thing [in an action] that is literally evil is its
un-straightness [obliquitas] or unevenness [anomalia] as measured by the
standard [norma] of law."

Comments:  A "norma" is (literally) a carpenter's square. Just as the
square is taken as a paradigm of straightness identifying mismatches as
Not Straight, so (according to Milton's implicit analogy) the law is a
paradigm of moral Rightness identifying the illegal as Wrong. To
describe an action as literally evil, according to Milton, is to
describe the action as not in compliance with the law of God.

This does not quite end the matter. Clearly the faulty carpenter can
protest that, in spite of his envious rivals, it is his square that
should be acknowledged as the true measure of straightness, rather than
the square on display at the bureau of weights and measures. In the
carpenter case, the matter is settled by official consensus.

In the same way the so-called evil agent can protest that, in spite of
the complaints of soi-disant moral arbiters, his action is the true
paradigm of moral rectitude, rather than the alternative action
prescribed by the law. In the moral agent case, the matter is settled by
the fact that the evil agent is legislating for himself whereas the law
being invoked against him is the command of God.

But this does not quite end the matter. Let's assume for the sake of
argument that God did indeed command the law.The difficulty that remains
is this: A command is neither true nor false. If to be right is no more
and no less than to be commanded by God, then it is just redundancy or
sheer nonsense to praise God's commands, as (for example) the Psalmist
does repeatedly, by hailing the "rightness" of those commands.
Recommending them as being right is just recommending them as being

In a number of places, Milton repudiates theological voluntarism —
the claim that moral rightness is to be defined as the property of being
willed or commanded by God. For Milton, such a definition defines
rightness out of existence as a property of actions, and thereby
trivializes moral recommendation as a thinly veiled description of power

This position aligns Milton with Erasmus, Suarez, and some
neoplatonists against Luther, Calvin, and the orthodox Catholic version
of natural law theory. Since Milton's position is also inconsistent with
both the naturalism and the noncognitivism that divide the loyalties of
a majority of modern writers on so called meta-ethics, perhaps Milton
should be thought of as the tragic proponent of a doomed, and now
roundly discredited, form of humanism. Or, on the other hand, perhaps

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