[Milton-L] Haklyut, Plutarch, Sidney and the Osiris myth

John Rumrich rumrich at mail.utexas.edu
Sun Jan 4 15:46:51 EST 2009

Regarding gnosticism, A. D. Nuttall published in 1998 an erudite and  
skillfully woven book on that heretical tradition in relation to  
Marlowe, Milton, and Blake.  I reviewed it for MP, I think.  In case  
you might find it helpful, I'm pasting the draft of that review  
below.  I was going to send this message to Michael Bryson off list,  
but maybe interest in the topic is more general.  If you aren't  
interested in Milton and gnosticism, however, please do yourself a  
favor and stop reading now!

The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and  
Blake.  A. D. Nuttall.  Oxford, 1998.  Pp. 282.

A teacher of mine, Irvin Ehrenpreis, once claimed that in books by the  
best critics—he specifically cited William Empson—the argument is not  
all that important, no more than a string for the pearls.  So we  
should not, he concluded, worry too much about inconsistency and  
incoherence in the greater argument, but instead attend to the local  
insights.  Reading A. D. Nuttall’s latest effort, The Alternative  
Trinity: gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake (Oxford, 1998)  
brought that claim to mind.

The string for Nuttall’s pearls is the thesis that gnosticism provided  
Marlowe, Milton, and Blake with a refuge from oppressive Christian  
orthodoxies.  Perhaps no critic is so gifted as to make a coherent,  
consistent argument out of gnosticism, a notorious thicket of  
philosophical doctrine and theological attitude.  To make matters  
worse, until 1945, much of what was known about gnostic thinking  
derived from hostile, fragmentary accounts written by orthodox  
Chrisian writers.  Nuttall, however, isolates a relatively simple  
structure basic to the gnostic religious tangle—that of the  
alternative Trinity, “in which the Father is a tyrant, not  
complemented but opposed by the Son” (p. 3).  Informing this  
antagonistic family relation, moreover, is the gnostic insistence on  
the goodness of knowledge, an ethical-epistemological premise that  
makes a villain of the forbidding Father portrayed in Genesis.  It is  
he who prohibits tasting of the tree of knowledge, while the unfairly  
maligned serpent recommends disobedience in a noble cause and may even  
be seen as an ally or alter-ego of the Son.

Nuttall’s identification of this antagonism, internal to the deity and  
organized around creatures’ intellectual aspirations, sets the  
Promethean intellectual-historical stage for the drama of Marlowe’s  
Faustus.  Calvinist Christianity is the anti-gnostic orthodoxy on  
which the drama of Marlowe’s Faustus pivots, according to Nuttall,  
especially in the 1604 text of the play.  He homes in on the  
chronologically disjointed thinking of the stereotypically anxious  
Puritan, behaving with extraordinary moral rigor, “in order to have  
been saved” (p. 33).  Doctrinally, that same Puritan believed that of  
course his or her behavior had no logical bearing on his fate, except  
as an indication of a prior, utterly independent decision taken by a  
deity whose whimsical disposition of his creatures seemed even to many  
seventeenth-century Protestants self-aggrandizing and morally  
outrageous.  If God has already eternally decided to give Faustus the  
grace to repent, Faustus will inevitably be saved.  If God has not so  
decided, Faustus will inevitably suffer damnation.  Theologically  
speaking, the business of the pact with the devil and the agency it  
seems to afford Faustus do not bear on the outcome—are indeed from the  
Calvinist perspective entirely irrelevant to it.  On the other hand,  
from the gnostic perspective, Faustus in making the pact acts as an  
intrepid hero of knowledge.  As Nuttall suggests through a fascinating  
array of examples drawn from broader Renaissance culture, Marlowe thus  
sets in dramatic opposition the quasi-gnostic optimism of hermetic  
philosophy and the pessimism of Calvinist theology.  The same  
contextual tension that Nuttall finds in Marlowe’s drama was pervasive  
during the English Renaissance, as, for example, Sidney’s famous  
pairing of erected wit and infected will suggests.

If this culturally pervasive tension and its resonance with the  
problematic story in Genesis are detectable in the story of Faustus’s  
pact, they lie at the heart of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Nuttall’s  
chapters on Milton consume nearly half of the book, and it is here  
that the argument, which proceeded by digression and indirection to  
place Dr. Faustus in context, is most troubled.  Nuttall admits that  
Milton, though heretical, was a heretic of an anti-gnostic stripe.   
More precisely, where the gnostics exalted the Son above the Father  
and tended to identify the serpent in Genesis with Christ, Milton was  
an Arian—a heretic who denies the Trinity not by making Father and Son  
antagonists, but by exalting the all-ruling Father over the meek and  
submissive Son.  He was also an Arminian dissenter from Calvinist  
determinism.  An Arminian insistence on free will would presumably  
drain much of the repressed moral outrage against the Calvinist God  
that in Nuttall’s view animates the tragedy of Faustus.  To his  
credit, Nuttall is, unlike many Milton scholars, clear-eyed and  
accurate in recognizing Milton’s major heterodoxies, but his exemplary  
accuracy would seem to pose crippling difficulties for his larger  

Inasmuch as the gnostic opposition of the Son against the Father  
cannot be made to obtain in Milton’s Arian narrative, Nuttall instead  
proposes Miltonic variations on the gnostic heresy deep in the poetry  
and theology of Paradise Lost.  For one thing, Nuttall is surely right  
to observe that a quasi-Calvinist plotline seems to govern the  
miserable progress of Satan, whose destiny is to supply a vessel for  
the brimming wrath of God. Like Pharaoh, Satan is provoked and  
exasperated by God to pursue worse crimes and suffer worse torment.   
Nuttall also maintains against Dennis Danielson that Milton does  
indeed embrace a version of the heresy of the fortunate fall and that  
the epic poet’s deity works with Satan to bring humanity into the  
heightened awareness of a postlapsarian  moral framework—much to be  
preferred to the instinctive morality of unblemished innocence, at  
least from the gnostic perspective.  Hence, in Nuttall’s view, the  
gnostic opposition of God and the Son is for Milton internalized  
within the paternal deity: “the tyrannical Jahweh generates,  
mysteriously, a second self, who wills all that the tyrant forbade.   
Here, if you like, is the alternative Trinity we have been  
seeking” (p. 166).  Even if we do like, little in Nuttall’s reading  
moves us to accept this conclusion.  The narrative offers no hint of  
such an internal generation transforming the deity, and the effects of  
the fall as pictured in Milton’s epic can hardly be described as  
intellectually or morally beneficial.  The narrative displays Adam and  
Eve behaving quite stupidly and malignantly after they disobey, a  
pathetic display of degeneracy that Nuttall neglects to take into  
account but that contradicts the premises of his interpretation.

Unfortunately, the contention that Milton’s God evolves into a morally  
improved version of himself during the course of Paradise Lost  
represents the crucial link in Nuttall’s overall argument.  Hence when  
he places Milton in relation to Blake, the tenuous evolutionary  
hypothesis stands at the forefront: “If God willed the strenuous  
freedom attained by Adam and Eve, then God must have given birth,  
within his own nature, to a second self, a self who loves freedom and  
endorses the breaking of the commandments laid on man by the earlier  
paternal deity . . . . I have said that Milton, unlike Blake, revered  
Moses, but this is not certainly true of Milton’s emergent  
Christology.  This implied movement within the godhead is of  
incalculable importance” (pp. 229-30).  Certainly such an implied  
deity, had Milton so presented him, would resonate profoundly with  
Blake’s mythmaking.  Unfortunately, this crucial link stands only on  
whatever faith we can place in Nuttall’s sensitivity to what Milton’s  
theological doctrine and poetic narrative never say and apparently do  
not admit.  On the other hand, if for the sake of a desultory argument  
readers are willing to grant the connection that Nuttall tries to  
establish, they will be rewarded along the way by a wonderfully  
informative and provocative series of insights into the theology,  
poetry, and culture of early Modern England.

John Rumrich

University of Texas, Austin

On Jan 4, 2009, at 2:19 PM, Michael Bryson wrote:

> I think the question of a Gnostic element to (and/or influence on)  
> Milton's thinking is a very interesting one. I am currently working  
> on a project which will take up that question, as part of a larger  
> work on Milton and negative theology, neoplatonic thought, and the  
> basic idea of the God behind (or beyond) "God."
> Most of what I am encountering in Milton criticism simply dismisses  
> the idea, however, regarding Gnosticism as somehow antithetical to  
> Milton's thought (I've done the same--I made a comment, which I now  
> regret, along similar lines near the beginning of The Tyranny of  
> Heaven).  I think one of the key questions is, if there is an  
> influence, or even a compatibility of concerns at work between  
> Gnostic thought and Milton's work, what particular branch of  
> "Gnosticism" might be the most likely candidate, and through what  
> sources (the great refuters like Ireneaeus, Tertullian, Hyppolitus,  
> etc., or elsewhere?) might Milton be encountering these ideas? And  
> if the ideas are present and at work in his writing, to what use is  
> he putting them?
> I also think the scenes with the old "anarch" Chaos might be  
> fruitfully explained either through, or alongside of, explorations  
> of Gnostic ideas. Zoarastrian ideas (and their possible influence on  
> post-exilic Hebraic thought) come to mind as well.
> Questions only at this point...
> Michael Bryson
> ---- Original message ----
> Date: Sun, 4 Jan 2009 11:35:53 -0800 (PST)
> From: Horace Jeffery Hodges <jefferyhodges at yahoo.com>
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Haklyut, Plutarch, Sidney and the Osiris myth
> To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
> Interesting discussion on the scattering and collecting myth of Isis  
> and Osiris.
> As for the passage in Milton's Areopagitica, while it is obviously  
> part of the interpretive tradition concerning this myth, I recall,  
> however, wondering if the Gnostic myth lay in the background to  
> Milton's thinking -- the scattering and regathering of the portion  
> of Sophia lost in the world.
> This raises the larger issue of possible Gnostic influence upon  
> Milton. I can never think of that great realm of Chaos in Paradise  
> Lost without wondering if Milton was influenced by Manichaean views  
> on ! th! ! e eternity of darkness in conflict with the light.
> Has anyone written on this sort of thing in Milton?
> Jeffery Hodges
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