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

susan allison jbase484 at gmail.com
Sat Jul 12 17:21:37 EDT 2008

Response from a new member:

For hundreds and hundreds of years the story was told of the Tree in  
Eden and Man’s Fall from Grace. The story changed from place to  
place, year to years, but basically retained its structure and the  
essential elements of the original Eden, Man and Woman, and original  
sin. The moment the story was written the elements solidified and the  
story became the accepted rendition, and was eventually canonized,  
with only minor revision.

Then, for hundreds and hundreds of more years, the Tree was  
unquestioned although it has come to represent many different things  
to many different people.  Believers see the tree of knowledge of  
good and evil as
an actual tree whose fruits revealed forbidden knowledge. Some see  
the tree of knowledge as any consumable that causes visions. Others  
see it as representative of anything which tempts them beyond the lot  
given to them and thus ordained by God. For most it is a spiritually  
abstract belief.  And of course for many it is a bunch of hogwash.

The apple is a luscious temptation, like much ripe fruit it can  
induce craving.  (The apple was a late comer to the story which  
originally said merely "fruit."-- if I recall correctly.) For men  
this version is a double whammy as the delicious red apple is offered  
by the temptress Eve, in-abstinent Eve.

By the time Milton addressed the story, he may have looked upon the  
tree himself as an arbitrary determination but he remained faithful  
to the story. No one can be sure of, though it is fascinating to try  
to discover, his exact thoughts on the subject.

Meanwhile, four hundred years hence can we look at the tree as  
anything other than an arbitrarily derived metaphor? The one thing  
that God said "Don't do."  It is a metaphor or prop used to  
illustrate the denial of God’s will. My question to the scholars: Can  
they justify that the tree is anything other than an arbitrarily  
chosen metaphor? That is not to say that it is not an extremely apt  
and superb metaphor. It is testament to the strength of the metaphors  
that story has survived so powerfully for thousands of years. (Being  
the first book of the Torah didn’t hurt it any either.)

But, are we not yet at a point in the history of ideas that we now  
understand how the creation myth works? How it is derived, how it is  

Women and genderists often see the story as one written from a male  
perspective to explain things to a specifically male psyche. Milton’s  
Paradise Lost maintains the bias perhaps simply due to the fact that  
he is male. Note, this is not arbitrary, the element of male and  
female are not arbitrary. Still, it is from a male point of view.  
Milton’s tale of God and Satan, then god and Adam, as once together  
and then at odds reveals a male point of view. We see Eve primarily  
through Adam's eyes. Eve speaks and in so doing expresses her mind  
well though again, it is a male interpretation. Milton is indeed  
skillful here as was Joyce with Molly Bloom, but again, as it is in  
that case as well, from a masculine perception of life in general.  
Today it comes across as quite sexist, that said, it is still one of  
the most amazing and brilliant poems ever written.

Eve has come to represent almost every man’s dream anima. She is  
beautiful, innocent, sexy, helpful, and made out of Adam’s own rib,  
(or sturdy man piece.) Eve then becomes temptingly irresistible. She  
gives into her whims over God’s will which becomes the cause of all  
our sorrows. Though an earlier point was made that God never actually  
tells Eve the rules directly-- he tells Adam.

The metaphor of fruit/tree is endlessly and brilliantly apt, it works  
well and resonates with so much that is a part of our biological  
existence here on earth. It is a way of tying in the sexual act, the  
sin of nakedness, temptation, and the desire upon which it feeds.

Though apt it is still an arbitrarily chosen metaphor. What if,  
perhaps, the metaphor had been a spring. The command could have been,  
do not drink from that spring, the spring of Knowledge of good and  
evil, you may drink from the spring of Life, but not the spring of  
Knowledge of good and evil.  It is a sin “to know” other than God’s  
will, it is a sin to question and /or go against God's authority.

In most all of human pursuit there comes a time when proceeding seems  
to go against some mysterious, though deeply felt, consensus of  
correct action. In this way the story serves as a conveyor of wisdom  
to both the male and female psyche: Watch out for Snakes!! Whether  
they be metaphors or not!

So,  my question:  Can scholars justify that the tree is anything  
other than an arbitrarily chosen metaphor?

please visit www.paradiselostperformances.com

I  have enjoyed the discussions very much.
Thank you.
Susan Allison, poet.

On Jul 12, 2008, at 7:25 AM, Horace Jeffery Hodges wrote:

> 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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