[Milton-L] potestas ordinata, potestas absoluta, reason, and arbitratry commands

Marlene Edelstein malkaruth2000 at yahoo.co.uk
Sat Jul 12 15:22:32 EDT 2008

Let me remark, humbly, that I don't believe that the command to refrain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good & evil is unambiguously arbitrary. If God had said don't eat oranges, or don't eat bananas, that could be accepted as an arbitrary restriction (on the lines of the practice of kashrut - no reason is needed not to eat pork and lobster except that God has prohibited them - health, aesthetics and animal ethics don't come into it). But, doesn't the very name of the forbidden fruit invite a different sort of interpretation, one which sees the prohibition as a challenge or rite of passage rather than merely a test of obedience? 
     Adam in Eve in PL are both curious for knowledge, and both (as the discussion on this list through the last couple of weeks demonstrates) have the aptitude for sin and an innate intimation of evil - these are the characters created by Milton, human, and on the brink of full realisation. And why shouldn't they take the final step to full humanity? They are, after all, formed in the image of God, and, as God states (Isiah 45:7) "I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things". I quote from AV. In Hebrew, the opposition - peace/evil - is shalom/ra, with shalom perhaps better translated as harmony; in Genesis 9 the tree is of the knowledge of good - 'tov' and evil - again 'ra'. Created in God's image, and motivated by attraction to both good and evil, it was inevitable that A&E should eat that fruit. And the 'ra', which is conventionally translated as evil, is in fact a more complex concept: human
 beings are motivated by two necessary drives, 'yetzer ha-tov' - the good impulse - and 'yetzer ha-ra' - the evil impulse, but, as in Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, they are not necessarily good and evil in the moral sense, since in this context 'tov' can signify a state of passive conformity, whereas 'ra' signifies energy, originality and endeavour - the two impulses should ideally mitigate each other. 
     A conception of God as purely good is not only unbiblical, it presents Milton with an intractable problem, one that God tries to reason his way out of in Book 3 (and elsewhere) - how can God be absolved of responsibility for evil? Milton makes a poetically powerful but philosophically clumsy attempt to deal with this issue by means of the allegory of Sin & Death, which attributes the origin of sin to Satan's dawning rebelliousness. But doesn't this beg various questions? 
believe everything, believe nothing

--- On Sat, 12/7/08, Horace Jeffery Hodges <jefferyhodges at yahoo.com> wrote:

From: Horace Jeffery Hodges <jefferyhodges at yahoo.com>
Subject: [Milton-L] potestas ordinata, potestas absoluta, reason, and arbitratry commands
To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
Date: Saturday, 12 July, 2008, 1:25 PM

Professor Skulsky, I have a question, and I will echo your own words to express it.
I found interesting the distinction that you note between God's ordained power (potestas ordinata) and his absolute power (potestas absoluta).
Milton, you explain, rejects the voluntarism underlying the view that God might have to have established another moral law entirely because morality for Milton is ontologically rock bottom and not a matter of naked will.
In contrast to this, Milton accepts the view that God could have chosen a different physics, for efficient causality reflects the potestas ordinata, not the potestas absoluta, thereby making Milton a voluntarist in this respect.

My question is this: 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?
That, you will recall, was the distinction that I was attempting to make concerning the opacity of the command not to eat of the tree. The command was opaque to reason, whereas rationality would have guided Adam and Eve correctly on all other points of moral thought, word, and deed.
What is your opinion?
Jeffery Hodges_______________________________________________
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