[Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at email.smith.edu
Mon Jan 5 11:28:37 EST 2009

Let me apologize at the outset for the length of this posting. I hope it
will interest a few hardy souls who soldier on to the end.

John Leonard and Michael Gillum have made an interesting suggestion
about the role of Son-Father theology in PL. In their view, PL avoids
emphatically declaring the creaturehood of the Son. The poem contents
itself with showing the Son's creaturehood UNEMPHATICALLY, as a feature
of the narrative background. 

The result is that PL communicates on two levels, one exoteric and the
other esoteric. The exoteric level pursues the story of the Fall, as
evidence for a version of the Free Will Argument for divine justice. The
esoteric level (about the divine persons) will present itself only to
readers committed to a close reading of the poem's theological

There will of course be readers indifferent to such implications, or
readers reluctant to find theology offensive to them in a poem that
otherwise profoundly moves them, or readers inspired by the thought that
theological precision is alien to the genius of poetry. Such readers
will tend to miss or fudge what PL has to say about the Son. 

I strongly suspect that Professors Leonard and Gillum are on the right
track. Consider an exoteric reader of the third kind mentioned.

A bit earlier in this thread, Kim Maxwell argues that in PL "the Son
[has] all the powers of God ('second omnipotence') and is the sole cause
of the Creation, said explicitly to be 'by' the Son, a position only
possible on a Trinitarian or polytheistic account of the Godhead, both
of which DC denies." The use of "by," Mr. Maxwell thinks, indicates that
the Son is the author rather than the means of creation, in accordance
with Milton's "careful distinction [in DC] between “creation by” and
“creation through.” The distinction "allocates to the Son only the
formal cause of the universe." In this respect as in many others, Mr.
Maxwell concludes, "PL is both Trinitarian and not Trinitarian, and
hence is neither, but something else entirely."

Unfortunately this argument is not satisfactory. It ignores the fact
that English "by" often carries the same meaning as the Latin
preposition he translated as "through" (*per*). As Milton says in DC
1.5,"the preposition 'per' necessarily means the less principal cause,
in contexts where the efficient principle 'from which' - i.e., the
principal cause - is either named or implied." ( "*Per* autem
praepositio minus principalem causam significet necesse est, ubi
efficiens a quo, id est principalis, aut nominatur aut intelligitur"
[Sumner 1827, 99]). Unlike Latin "per," the English preposition "by" can
express either authorship or instrumentality, depending on context. In
the hexameral PL 7, the Son is explicitly the MEANS, not the AUTHOR, of
creation, and exercises an extrinsic power that the Father has "sent
along" with him: "Thou my Word, begotten Son, BY THEE / THIS I PERFORM,
speak thou, and be it don: / MY overshadowing spirit and MIGHT WITH THEE
/ I SEND ALONG" (PL 7.163-66). In "by thee," "by" clearly means
instrumental "through."

The point of "second" in the honoric phrase "second omnipotence" (PL
6.684), like "might with thee I send along," is precisely the DC theory
of the Son's DERIVATIVE divinity: "What else can be understood from Heb.
1:3 than that God has imparted to the Son as much as he wished of the
divine nature —  even of the divine substance —  provided that the
'substance' is not taken to mean 'the whole essence'?" ("Ex [Heb. i.3.3]
quid aliud intelligi potest quam Deum divinae naturae quantum voluit
Filio impertisse? immo etiam substantiae divinae, modo ne substantia pro
essentia tota accipiatur"[Sumner 62].) As the context makes clear, the
Son's omnipotence is "second" because it is not literally his own; it is
a resource he has access to as the minister "in whose hand [is beheld]
what by decree I doe" (PL 6.683). (The "doer" of this last phrase is of
course the Father.) Milton's creation doctrine in PL, in short, is not
Trinitarian. Quite the contrary.

It is understandable that some readers who love PL would prefer to
think that a great poem will not stoop to quibbling about matters merely
doctrinal; after all, great poems are up to "something else entirely." 

Like other romantic prejudices, this one is a royal road to fudging the

Arianism is an unemphatic but not unimportant feature of the background
of PL. The most important evidence for it is the Son's abrupt lapse into
pleading with the Father for mercy to mankind: "Should Man finally be
lost, should Man / Thy creature late so lost, thy youngest Son / Fall
circumvented thus by fraud, though joynd / With his own folly? That be
from thee far, / That farr be from thee, Father, who art Judge / Of all
things made, and judgest only right" (PL 3.150-54).

For a telling moment, the Son fails to recognize that judicial rigidity
IS "far from" the Father. Suddenly he find it necessary to plead or pray
that judicial rigidity BE "far from" the Father. In short, the Son falls
momentary victim to a troubling doubt, a doubt apparently motivated by
the angry reproach that begins the Father's speech: "Whose fault? Whose
but his [i.e., Adam's] own? Ingrate, he had of mee /All he could have"
(PL 3.96-98). The Father's concluding promise of grace drops out of
sight in the Son's remonstration, and gives way to an extended argument
designed to give God a reason to relent: if God abandons his erring
child, "So should thy goodness and thy greatness both / Be question'd
and blasphem'd  without defense" (PL 3.165-66). "Without defense" is
virtually a warning that God the Father is beyond the reach of

Typology plays a crucial role in the Son's "that be far from thee,
etc." which Miilton (of course) lifts verbatim from Abraham's plea for
God's mercy for a later group of sinners (Gen. 18:25); in PL at this
point, the Son is a type of the righteous quareller with God, uncertain
of his ground, but impelled, and absolved of lèse majesté, by a sense of
a higher justice. The gulf that has opened up between the Father's mind
and the Son's is flatly inconsistent with the Trinitarian assumption of
an identity between the Persons. According to CD, Scripture itself
repeatedly tells the same story: "We are instructed by many passages
that neither mind nor will is the same in the Father and the Son. . . .
Beings that do not have numerically the same mind and will cannot have
the same essence." ("Nec intellectum nec voluntatem numero eandem esse
Patris et Filii multis ex locis docetur. . . . Quibus igitur nec
intellectus nec voluntas numero eadem, iis essentia esse eadem non
potest" (Sumner 73).)

Milton's reasoning here is impeccable; it is simply a direct
consequence of the truism of logic that has come to be known as
Leibniz's law. 

The poet may well expect more careful readers to notice that  the
truism applies straightforwardly to the Son's advocacy in PL 3, and he
may well expect less careful readers to let their minds wander. That
difference in reception is what makes the Arianism of PL an esoteric
sense of the text. If the Son's creaturehood were part of the poem's
central concern, the less careful readers would be sustaining a serious
loss. But in fact, fortunately, they aren't. In PL the author is not
heavily invested in intradeical theology. He has other fish to fry.

(For a suggestion that the Son's creaturehood may not after all  be
quite so irrelevant to PL's central concern as I say above, see the last
chapter of my *Milton and the Death of Man*.)

More information about the Milton-L mailing list