[Milton-L] obedience

Neil Forsyth neil.forsyth at unil.ch
Mon Apr 7 15:18:37 EDT 2014


May I intervene briefly in this interesting discussion, since one correspondent has mentioned my contribution in The Satanic Epic?

I'm not sure that I hammer mercilessly at 'therefore', but I do indeed make it a key to understanding the logic of the epic (theology too perhaps), and in doing so am arguing against, or perhaps developing an argument of, my own teacher Stanley Fish. Here is what I wrote:

	The fate of those unsuspecting legions of angels who follow Satan into the eternal pit (“Millions of spirits for his fault amerc’t”, I 609) has distracted most critics’ attention from the other half of this doctrine. The angels are condemned because they fell “self-tempted, self-deprav’d”, but mankind, who fell because tempted by an outside agent, will be saved. And the connection between the two halves of the doctrine is underlined by that beautifully logical therefore. “Man therefore shall find grace,/ The other none”. The logic, then, is that those legions of troubled and sympathetic angels (they behave exactly like loyal and necessary troops in the kind of wartime that Milton and his contemporaries all knew too well) are condemned so that mankind may be saved. And the logic may be carried one step further: what saves mankind is the very existence of the Satan figure whose leadership damned the other angels.
         Most critics ignore this issue. To his credit, Stanley Fish faces it, if only in a footnote. He argues, as usual, that the offending language is a temptation placed in the way of the reader. He is defending God’s “faultless logic which can be understood if the reader is willing to make the effort”[1]. The faultless logic this time has to do with the separation of God’s foreknowledge from the fact of man’s responsibility (in freedom) for the Fall, but Fish is honest enough to recognize, if only implicitly, that this logic also requires the damnation of Satan and his angels. Further, that damnation is the occasion for man’s salvation, the literally crucial offer of grace. 
         How does he try to extricate himself, Milton, and God, all three of whom are generally assumed to be batting on the same side?
The implication in the syntax is that grace is due man because his error is someone else’s responsibility: man therefore shall find grace. But this is deliberate teasing, if not on God’s part, then on Milton’s. The ‘therefore’ is not logical, but arbitrary; Satan’s presence in the garden is not really an extenuating circumstance: God merely chooses to make it the basis of an action that proceeds solely from his good will. The urgings of the Devil may render obedience difficult (or perhaps make it easier) but never impossible. God points the moral beforehand, ‘Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’ (99), a line that will pursue us into Book IX. Man does ordain his own fall, and we always know it to be so, but a decoy like ‘therefore’ is nevertheless able to make us go against our knowledge, for a moment; we want very much to read ‘deserve’ instead of ‘find’ grace, and do so until the word ‘mercy’ reminds us that grace is gratuitous, cannot be earned and certainly not deserved: ‘But Mercy first and last shall brightest shine’.
         It is always bracing to quote Fish. The move that separates syntax from logic is a common one, and one that all readers of Milton do indeed need to watch out for. But the problem here is elsewhere. Fish is so eager to push before us the issue of man’s responsibility, which is the lesson his Paradise Lost is always teaching us in one way or another, that he doesn’t realize that is not the issue here. It is not the reason for the Fall that is at stake, but the reason for the Redemption. The logic of God’s unavoidable “therefore” leads not from Satan’s presence to the inevitability of the Fall — for Milton’s God would never say any such thing, or dream it — but from Satan’s presence to salvation. Thus in the certainly arbitrary logic of God’s discourse, the fact of being tempted by “the other” warrants God’s concluding words about his mercy.[2]

[1] Fish, Surprised, p. 215. Diane McColley, Milton’s Eve (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 189, thinks God’s words are “prophecy, not decree”, while Keith W.F. Stavely attributes them to Milton’s Arminianism, “Satan and Arminianism in Paradise Lost”, Milton Studies Vol 25 (1989), pp. 125-39.
[2]Thomas Corns, Regaining Paradise Lost, p. 54, says perceptively that “The Father’s differentiation in Book III between the treatment of humankind and the treatment of the fallen angels is abstract and schematic; the concluding books act out what it means experientially. . . . Adam and Eve and their offspring could all share Satan’s fate; some, who pray and repent and persevere, will escape it. The tragedy of Satan makes that divine comedy seem the more remarkable and fortunate.”

Neil Forsyth
neil.forsyth at unil.ch



On Apr 7, 2014, at 12:18 AM, Gregory Machacek wrote:

> But deciding to give mankind grace is an arbitrary decision on God's part, or at least his grounds have needed the kind of vigorous argumentation that suggests people find them arbitrary.  Is it Forsyth who hammers mercilessly at that word "therefore."
> 
> I'm starting to like this reading, even though when I first proposed it, I was spitballing.  God the Father tests other beings, e.g. Adam on his creation.  The same verb, find, is used when the being passes the test (8.438, 3.310).  The Son is a foil for Adam and Eve, showing what obedience to the Father's arbitrary pronouncements could look like.
> 
> Greg Machacek
> Professor of English
> Marist College
> 
> 
> -----milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu wrote: -----
> To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
> From: Michael Gillum 
> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
> Date: 04/06/2014 05:50PM
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] obedience
> 
> PL's God decreed during the first elevation of the Son that angels who do not accept his kingship will be cast out "without redemption, without end" (5.615). So when, in Book 3,  he says the fallen angels will not find grace, he is just reaffirming a ruling that he had announced to the angels before their revolt. The parallel decree for A&E is that they will die in the day they eat the forbidden fruit. Prof. Strier considers this a lie (in Genesis at least), but it is not a lie in the context of PL and DDC. Milton's rationalization of that threat is of course that the various disorders introduced by the fall (and beginning in that day-- "disordered passions rise") constitute a lingering death, a "long day's dying" leading up to physical death. So PL's God keeps his word with both groups, while adding the rider that he would provide a means to rescue humans from death.
> 
> Oydin's ontological argument (a lower creature being deceived by a higher is a different case from equals being led astray by an equal) makes sense as a way of explaining God's distinction between the two cases. We know Milton thought along these lines in defending heavenly monarchy while decrying earthly monarchy. Also consider that the discursive style of human reasoning would seem to be more vulnerable to sophistry than the angels' intuitive reason. So I don't think God's distinction is arbitrary or obviously unfair.
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> On Sun, Apr 6, 2014 at 3:19 PM, Gregory Machacek <Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:
> God the Father's distinction is purely arbitrary.  The Son's response shows how one ought to respond to God the Father's arbitrary dicta.  He operates in the poem as a foil for Adam and Eve, an example of obedience (12.397).
> 
> (I don't know whether I believe this, and I'd be out of my depth to say it solves all of the theological problems the issue raises, but it popped into my head since we'd been talking so much about the arbitrariness of prohibiting one fruit).
> 
> I do think the Son is a foil.  I think that when Milton settled on Man's Disobedience as his topic, part of the process of inventing the poem was to think of foils he could include, just like treating the Wrath of Achilles poetically involves including an unraging, dutiful-unto-death Hector to serve as a foil.
> 
> 
> 
> Greg Machacek
> Professor of English
> Marist College
> 
> 
> -----milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu wrote: -----
> To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
> From: "Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM" 
> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
> Date: 04/06/2014 02:54PM
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] crucifixion
> 
> Exactly, Oydin: in fact, I was posting an argument containing that observation while you were posting this.
> 
> From: Uzakova, Oydin Yashinova
> Sent: Sunday, April 06, 2014 2:39 PM
> To: John Milton Discussion List
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] crucifixion
> 
> I am rather surprised that no one (so far) has pointed out the fact that man was "deceived" by a higher being (an angel), while the angels were "deceived" by one of their own species and thus were "self-deceived" just like Lucifer had been.  I strongly believe that Milton's God makes this particular distinction in determining who will find grace.
> 
> 
> 
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