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

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Sun Jan 4 19:35:24 EST 2009

This might be an interesting text for the study of the question of Milton
and Gnosticism, esp, since it makes explicit reference to Hermes


I make the argument in my dissertation that Blake appropriated Gnostic myths
to present his character Urizen as a gnostic deity, so that, by extension,
the God of the British church/state complex is a Gnostic sub-deity who has
imprisoned the true God in matter (Bacon, Newton, and Locke's empiricism)
and is ruling the visible world by a coup.

Jim R

On Sun, Jan 4, 2009 at 3:46 PM, John Rumrich <rumrich at mail.utexas.edu>wrote:

> 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 argument.
> 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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James Rovira
Tiffin University
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