[Milton-L] Milton and Sin

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at email.smith.edu
Sat Jun 28 15:07:35 EDT 2008

>>Could we have your translation, please?  Michael

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

More information about the Milton-L mailing list