Harold Skulsky hskulsky at email.smith.edu
Sat Jul 12 13:44:55 EDT 2008

"Is the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge arbitrary? Put differently, are there some commands that forbid acts that ordinarily would be morally neutral? Could one say that Milton would never accept that God might forbid the good or enjoin the bad but that Milton might accept that as a test, God might forbid or enjoin something otherwise morally neutral?" "What is your opinion?"

My opinion: Yes, Milton accepts the principle formalized in Stoic ethics that some moral issues are "adiaphora," "indifferent" choice situations in which no moral consideration tips the scale in favor of either option and the chooser may choose as he pleases. The inaugural choice of a symbolic test of loyalty to God is such a situation. As it happens, the symbol of faith and constancy is a forbidden apple; but there are possible worlds compatible with the justice of God in which A's & E's faith and constancy are tested by their willingness to abstain from pears.

This doesn't mean, of course, (a) that God's decision to set up an arbitary test is itself arbitrary, or (b) that the arbitrariness of the test trivializes the moral consequences of failing it. 

As to (a), Milton holds (with the main stream of Christian theological opinion) that a world in which there is no challenge to free moral decision is morally vacuous and hence unworthy of a supremely good Creator. As to (b), the magnitude of the Creator's gift to A&E (the emerging hexameral world lovingly described in PL 7) establishes a debt of love and gratitude that (on Milton's view) infinitely outweighs the sacrifice of abstaining from the fruit, even if one adds the possible benefits implied by the name of the fruit.

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