[Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana

Kim Maxwell kmaxwell at stanford.edu
Sat Jan 10 11:42:26 EST 2009

It may help this conversation to make a distinction pressed upon me recently by Regina Schwartz between “theological”
and “doctrinal,” the former meaning only that the poem is about God is some way
or other, the latter requiring of the poem a coherent or plausibly consistent
doctrinal position summoned from the terms of the poem alone.  As I attempted to suggest in an earlier post,
I think the poem is theological but not doctrinal.  Some evidence for this claim is the variety
of doctrinal positions found in the poem by good readers over the last three
centuries, which can be divided into several categories: (1) the poem is
orthodox, the common view before 1825, and one still held by some; (2) the poem
is heterodox and aligns exactly with DCC (Kelly); (3) the poem is heterodox but
does not align with DCC (say, Michael Lieb, but many others now); (4) the poem
is theologically ironic in some way, particularly in its relative representations
of God and Satan (Blake, Shelley, Empson, Nuttall, and Bryson); (5) the poem’s specifically
doctrinal content is irrelevant because religious doctrine has become
irrelevant (Raleigh and his claim of dead ideas may be the first famous one,
but many books have been written about the poem as if it were secular, or at
least amenable to entirely secular concerns).
One might conclude from this variety of readings that the poem
is simply unclear  (or that it was
obliged by historical circumstances to hide its heterodoxy under a veneer of
orthodoxy).   However, what I was attempting to say earlier
was that when we compare DCC to PL (the original question of this thread), we
can see in the former very detailed consideration of the logical implications
of the central heterodoxies, suggesting that Milton understood what a coherent
doctrine would look like (whether he achieved one is another matter).  It seems to me that the free will defense so defensively
espoused by God in the poem (he says it fifteen times) isolates the question of
how to explain man’s first disobedience from the question of how to explain God’s
ways to men (although some famous readers have denied God’s argument and
insisted that he really did cause it).  If so, then the poem has no reason to be unclear about God unless among
the poem’s claims is that we can never be clear about God, and this epistemic
opacity figures into the fall itself in some important way.  If the latter, that we can never be clear
about God, then the distinction between theology and doctrine holds, and the
poem is not only not doctrinal, it denies the possibility of a doctrine in any
event.  (For what its worth, this is my
reading of the poem.)  If this is not the
poem’s claim, then its representation of God should at least attempt the level
of consistency to be found in DCC.  It
rather transparently does not.   To call
attention to a passage not involved in heterodoxy, it seems to me that God’s
recitation at 3.168 on the terms of redemption makes no sense. that God seems
to advocate at the same time unlimited election, limited election, and no
election, when he could have restricted himself the limited election (what DCC
claims).  The poem did not need to do
this if doctrine was its aim.
Kim Maxwell
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