[Milton-L] obedience

Bryson, Michael E michael.bryson at csun.edu
Wed Apr 9 02:18:57 EDT 2014

Michael Gillum wrote: "Milton thinks of God as rational and reasonable." Does he? Perhaps. But even assuming this to be true, does it necessarily follow that he presents his literary character "the Father" in this way? I think the latter a much more crucial question than the former.

In response, Greg Machacek wrote: "Rather than being a freestanding theological disquisition subject to the expectations we might have of such (internal coherence, fidelity to one or another tradition of theological reasoning), it's theology-in-service-of-a-story-element."

Yes. And it takes place in *a story* in which (at least as many seem to read it) "the way one passes these tests of obedience is not to look for reasons and then do the commanded thing because one deems it reasonable but just to obey because God said so," a story that (apparently) valorizes unquestioning obedience, a story written by the same man who wrote this:

"A man may be a heretick in the truth; and if he beleeve things only because his Pastor sayes so, or the Assembly so determins, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds, becomes his heresie." Oh wait. If a literary character called "the Father" tells you, then that's different. You're not "a heretick in the truth" then, because the fallacy of believing something based on authority, "without knowing other reason," stops being a fallacy if the authority is really really big and impressive, divine even.

And this:

"What need they torture their heads with that which others have tak'n so strictly, and so unalterably into their own pourveying. These are the fruits which a dull ease and cessation of our knowledge will bring forth among the people. How goodly, and how to be wisht were such an obedient unanimity as this, what a fine conformity would it starch us all into?" Oh wait. Again, if a literary character called "the Father" tells you, then that's different.

And this:

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." Unless a literary character called "the Father" says otherwise. Then, no knowledge for you!

Yes, I know. Prelapsarian, Postlapsarian, Fall, Original Sin (a concept Milton seems to have a rather tenuous relation to, given his assertion "The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright;" perhaps just a *bit* of knowledge other than "because I said so" might have helped poor A&E). But that is not what the original myth gives him--he has to work with raw material that insists that knowledge is prohibited to the first humans by God, the very same story pattern we see in other NME mythologies. It is, in every other example of the myth that the Genesis writer (of the so-called J strand) is reworking, "suspicious, reasonless," just as Milton has his Satan observe. The Biblical account is of a piece with numerous other stories that narrate the distance that grew between humankind and their gods (variously imagined), though the Bible account differs from some others by making that rift partly the fault of humanity (in a variation on what Biblical scholars refer to as the Deuteronomic Theory of History). But the Biblical narrative does not let the often irascible Yahweh off lightly either--often, it is quite the reverse--and I am perpetually flummoxed by readings of Milton's great poem that practically insist that the Father must be understood as always perfectly just, and honest, and simply chock full of moral rectitude. Yahweh--one of the greatest literary characters in all of the world's literature--is certainly no such thing, and a great number of the people who have lived and died in this world thinking/believing him more than a literary character have experienced him as light *and* shadow, after the fashion of Isaiah 45:7. How is it that a *mere* literary character like the Father in PL, a collection of words on a series of pages, a character no one has ever prayed to, believed in, loved, or suffered from as one might with an "actual" deity has reached such a status in the eyes of so many professional literary critics that he *must* be read as justified, that what would appear arbitrary in the words and actions of any other character from English literature (I cannot help but hear echoes of Lear's "better thou hadst not been born, than not to have pleased me better" in a number of the Father's statements) are devotedly, assiduously, painstakingly explicated as examples of love, and justice, and mercy combined? 

To struggle with, defend, accuse, and even justify (in the sense of accusation *and* acquittal) a God in which one believes (rather in the sense that Elie Wiesel narrates in his play "The Trial of God," which he has always maintained was based on actual events he witnessed at Auschwitz)--*that* I understand. I have been through it, most profoundly and painfully (though in nothing like the way Wiesel narrates). But to insist that a literary character that equivocates, demonstrates a fondness for the word "if," tells a half-truth (if not an outright lie) with his first utterance in the poem in which he appears, and aids and abets the ostensible villain of the piece at practically every crucial point from Book 1 to the temptation scene of Book 9...to insist that such a literary character must be read as just, that his actions must be understood as "loving*, and to maintain that this is *the only legitimate way truly to "understand" the poem in which that character appears*, well all of that simply boggles my mind. It always has. I think it always will.

Milton's "God" is not God, or a god, or anything at all other than the words that create him, and the emotional and intellectual effects those words create. Yes, we can and will understand those words, and those effects, through theological, mythological, narratological, psychological, and other contexts. But they remain outside the realm of deity (whatever that may or may not be), forever, wonderfully, in the realm of human imagination and art. 

And yet...and yet...and yet...and so it goes.

Michael Bryson

From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Gregory Machacek [Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu]
Sent: Tuesday, April 08, 2014 8:09 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] obedience

Well, I'm willing to rethink the word arbitrary.  All I'm trying to get at is that God gives beings tests of obedience.  And the way one passes these tests of obedience is not to look for reasons and then do the commanded thing because one deems it reasonable but just to obey because God said so.  God's therefore may be succeptible to the rationalizing you give below (though my quibbles follow).  But the Son doesn't say, "I assent to your reason."  He says, "you say you want grace; let's see how we can make grace happen."  So let's take point 2.  You have God the Father in effect saying "Oh, what I meant by death was not anything permanent and irreversible, even though, I know, that's kinda the usual definition of death."  The Son could shoot back a "Strange point and new this death that really isn't death in any way that we've understood the term."  But he doesn't.  He says "You say death is a mode of disobedience-punishment that can be undone by mercy? Hey, you're God; you get to make that call."

[Quibbles:  On 1) we're not dealing with degrees of punishment (though it eventuates in that) but in the availability of mercy to the two orders of being.  So if mercy is by definition not deserved, it could be extended to the rebel angels also.  On 3) presumably each order of being had the level of rationality sufficient to pass its test.  In fact God collapses the distinction you're trying to draw when he flatly conflates both orders and says explicitly that each was sufficient to have stood though free to fall.  On 4b) I'm not sure all of the angels have equivalent reasoning powers.  On Mt. Niphates, Satan creates a hypothetical where, if he'd been a lesser angel, he might have gone along with a greater one.  That says to me that he can conceive of himself (as this lesser angel) not having been the one who was intellectually-enterprising enough to come up with the idea of defying God (but being disobedient enough to go along with that smarter guy).  On 4a) when he gave the interdiction, he hadn't included an "unless you're deceived by a higher order of being" exemption.  In fact, deceit is irrelevant to tests of obedience; all you gotta do is obey; the second you make it a matter where deceit could operate, i.e. a matter of reasoning, conclude you then begin to fall.  If so, deceit can hardly serve as grounds for differentiating the disobediences.  On 5) the Son does concoct possible reason's for God's therefore; they come as a result of his obedience, not its cause.]

Anyway, my main point is to propose that perhaps the aspects of book 3 in which many critics find troubling lines of theological reasoning are the way they are because what Milton most needed the Son to be was a foil to Adam and Eve's disobedience, i.e. needed him to be an example of obedience, and so, maybe working from Philippians 2:8, he built a theological superstructure in which Filial Obedience could be manifested.  Rather than being a freestanding theological disquisition subject to the expectations we might have of such (internal coherence, fidelity to one or another tradition of theological reasoning), it's theology-in-service-of-a-story-element.

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: "J. Michael Gillum"
Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
Date: 04/08/2014 11:19AM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] obedience

I disagree with Greg's and Neil's (and Fish's) emphasis on arbitrariness. Milton's God is not the Calvinist God of pure will and power. Milton thinks of God as rational and reasonable. and Milton in PL interprets God's words and actions as reasonable insofar as the Genesis text allows. Yes, God in PL singled out a tree for arbitrary prohibition. He did so for a reason.  He had a reason to set up the test, and (because A&E had a frictionless relation to their environment in Paradise) the arbitrariness of the selection was essential to the test. We should not therefore conclude from the arbitrariness of that prohibition that arbitrariness is basic to God's nature and actions as represented in PL.

God had a number of reasons to be more merciful to A&E than to the fallen angels.

1. Mercy by definition is not deserved, but punishment may be deserved in different degrees. The angels raised impious war in Heaven against the throne and monarchy of God, while A&E violated an arbitrary prohibition. The angels rebelled violently against a good order, while the humans did something that would have been morally neutral except for the prohibition. It seems reasonable to distinguish degrees of punishment. Adam and Eve are still punished.

2. God told the angels before their revolt that rejecting the Son's kingship would cause them to be punished with no hope of mercy. He made no such statement to A&E.

3. The angels had a higher order of rationality which would have made truth and right more obvious to them than to the humans.

4. Eve was deceived by a being of a higher order; Satan misled himself and then his equals.

5. As the Son in Book 3 interprets the Father's decree of mercy (144-66), he gives a whole list of reasons for it:

---The whole race of man would be lost [implicit contrast with the majority of angels surviving].
---The Father had loved mankind as his "youngest son."
---Destroying mankind would give a victory to Satan.
---That victory would raise questions about God's "goodness and thy greatness both."

God's decree of mercy is therefore reasonable and not arbitrary. He does not include all this context in his decree, but--perhaps arbitrarily--chooses to mention only the factor of external temptation.


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