[Milton-L] Milton and Sin

Michael Gillum mgillum at unca.edu
Sat Jun 28 16:34:43 EDT 2008

Prof. Skulsky,

Thanks for the translation and commentary. My understanding of these matters
is thin.

1. In the DDC passage, is the idea of un-straightness cognate with the idea
that evil is a defect or a falling-short rather than a positive something?

2. Regarding the analogy of the carpenter's square, I take it that Milton
would say a 90-degree angle would be a 90-degree angle regardless of what
rational being created the universe.

3. "This position aligns Milton with Erasmus, Suarez, and some neoplatonists
against Luther, Calvin, and the orthodox Catholic version of natural law
theory."  Could you briefly explain how the Thomist version of natural law
is voluntarist? I had assumed otherwise.

4. Adam's many correct understandings show that his reason is attuned to Law
and runs parallel to some extent with divine reason. When he commits to
dying with Eve, he knows this decision is wrong from God's standpoint and in
an absolute sense. Of course, one of the most interesting things about the
poem is Milton supplying Adam with motivation so powerful that we wonder
whether he really was created strong enough to stand, since we can't help
but feel that he made the inevitable and humanly "right" choice (cue Fish).


On 6/28/08 3:07 PM, "Harold Skulsky" <hskulsky at email.smith.edu> 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."
> 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
> 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, 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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