[Milton-L] Absolute Freedom

Steve Fallon sfallon at nd.edu
Wed Apr 15 14:05:07 EDT 2009


I've attempted a more elaborate answer to these questions in "'To Act  
or Not': Milton's Conception of Divine Freedom," Journal of the  
History of Ideas 49 (1988): 425-49.  Here's a short version: For  
Milton, God can do only good when he acts, but he can choose to act or  
not.  This distinguishes Milton from, e.g., the Cambridge Platonists,  
who argued that God necessarily performs the good.  The Cambridge  
Platonist God must create the world, and must create the world as soon  
as he can, because this God cannot omit any potential good action.

A bit more elaboration: The passage just before the first passage you  
quote contains the answer you need.  Milton distinguishes between  
external or compulsory necessity, on the one hand, and internal or  
natural necessity, on the other.  What limits freedom of action,  
Milton writes (at the top of p. 1155) is "any necessity operating  
externally upon a given cause," which "makes it produce a certain  
effect or limits it from producing other effects" (my emphasis).   The  
perfect freedom of God is a freedom from any external influence or  
compulsory necessity.

For God to be able to will evil would, in Milton's view (and not in  
his alone), amount not to freedom but contradiction.  Because God's  
nature is good, the free expression of that nature is in willing the  
good.  If one views God's inability to contradict himself as a  
limitation of his freedom, then this God is not absolutely free.  But  
neither Milton nor the tradition generally view this inability as a  
restriction of freedom.

There's more in the essay, but this is a start.

In terms of analogy to human freedom, the absolute freedom of God  
resembles the freedom of one who is confirmed in goodness and no  
longer bound to sin (in the state of non posse peccare) and not the  
freedom of the one in this world, either before or after the fall, who  
can choose good or evil.

It's good to hear that you're using the edition. If you (or anyone  
else) find any typos (and there are some), I'd appreciate your  
dropping me a note.

All the best,
Steve Fallon

On Apr 15, 2009, at 1:14 PM, Ross Leasure wrote:

> Dear mentors and colleagues,
> I write humbly to ask for some guidance (as I plow through excerpts of
> De Doctrina Christiana from the recently published Modern Library
> edition) in preparation for teaching tomorrow's class.  I'm sure I'm
> missing something, my own feeble faculties insufficient to comprehend
> Milton's logic.  My particular difficulty is in wrapping my mind
> around what seems to me a problematic contradition presented briefly
> in the following to passages:
> "In God a certain immutable internal necessity to do good, independent
> of all outside influences, can be consistent with absolute freedom of
> action" (c. 3; p. 1155).
> "God always acts with absolute freedom, working out his own purpose
> and volition" (c. 5; p. 1174).
> If an immutable God, of internal necessity, can only do good, is he
> not limited in his freedom since he cannot will evil?  How can God's
> incapacity to will evil be "consistent with absolute freedom of
> action" in other words?  Or could God will evil, but chooses not to?
> Wouldn't that change the essential nature of Milton's good God?
> I'm anticipating that some of my students might ask similar questions,
> and I don't yet have sufficient understanding to untie what seems to
> me a indissoluable logical knot.  I look forward to reading whatever
> correction or redirection will be forthcoming regarding my inquiry.
> Thank you in advance for your assistance and consideration.
> -- 
> T. Ross Leasure
> Dept. of English
> Salisbury University
> Salisbury MD 21801
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