[Milton-L] Milton and Sin

Alice Crawford Berghof aberghof at uci.edu
Sat Jun 28 16:28:26 EDT 2008

Dear Professor Skulsky,
I cannot thank you enough for this posting.  It is central to my work 
and to the work of many people on this list.  I consider this an essay 
that I will consult often in the coming months.  I have written five 
questions, any one of which I would be grateful for you to answer at 
some point in the future, if not immediately, given that I imagine you 
are very busy.  I am posting this to the list at large in case anyone 
shares my interests.
Alice Berghof

On Jun 28, 2008, at 12:07 PM, Harold Skulsky wrote:

>>> 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."
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.

> 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.
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.

> 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.

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?)

> But this does not quite end the matter. Let's assume for the sake of
> argument that God did indeed command the law.

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.

> 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
> commands.
> 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
> relations.
> This position aligns Milton with Erasmus, Suarez

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?

> , 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
> not.
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