[Milton-L] Absolute Freedom

Watt, James jwatt at butler.edu
Wed Apr 15 17:19:43 EDT 2009

I very much like Steve Fallon's response to this interesting question (which, as you anticipate, is sure to come up).  Another approach is that of the Anishinabe (or Chippewa) people of the Northern Great Lakes.  Recognizing the presence of energy (or motive force or power) in all created things, from the storms on the sun's surface to the movement of the butterfly and the recognition in the eyes of a newborn, these people
honor it as a kind of all suffusing guide to behavior.  I mean they DON'T worship, in the Western sense, nature (or what we, in our dualism, call 'Nature'); they acknowledge and honor it.  Power, in this sense can be
associated, in humans (or any agent with choice) with behavior in so far as they are able to direct it to the good.  But Force (or forcing, which we also have to hand as free agents) is understood to be an impostor.  To those who adopt it, it SEEMS to be power, (it APPEARS to 'work') but it is in fact an imposter.  In the same way any addictive behavior confuses its 'power' or 'pleasure' with the REAL THING, and so requires ever larger and larger dosages, leading to utter loss of self in the pursuit; so those who confuse force with power are trapped in a spiral from which there appears to be no escape.  In a word, God's creation is a totally separate and blessed thing from the invented world of those who employ force in pursuit of their own notions of the divine and the human's relation to it.  Remember those most marvelous words at the close of the poem, how the world waits naturally the chastened, but NOT condemned, pair. So many people still want and believe that the pre-lapserian world (which, after all 'exists' along with Adam & Eve --even as it must have 'existed from eternity'-- in the mind of humans, trying to explain their situation to themselves) is the desired one.  So desirable they will cheerfully and in good conscience use force to save people's souls for them.  For them the 'fortunate fall' is a ploy Milton uses to 'save God's 'face.'  Well.  Each person reads his own poem.  And thank God for that!  As I used to say to my Roman Catholic American students, "Just try imagining your religion absent the influence of Paradise Lost!  Milton must be, in the end, even more important to you than Augustine or Aquinas.  Of course that's not to say he is any more Roman Catholic than he is C. of E.  He's just an incredible gift for those of you who like to play mind games with yourselves and others, with this difference: that he is also a great blessing to many who will never hear of him."
Jim Watt
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Steve Fallon [sfallon at nd.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 2:05 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Absolute Freedom


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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