[Milton-L] obedience to your creator

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Wed Apr 9 12:54:38 EDT 2014


"You've heard of the golden rule?  He who makes the gold makes the rules."
(My wife thinks that's a horrible message to send to kids and she's
probably right).  Milton's version was "He who makes, makes the rules."



If one of the deepest truths you feel about yourself is that you were not
self-begot, self-raised, then it is reasonable to think that you would be
served by putting your actions in accord with the will of your Creator; he
might reasonably be thought to know better what is good for you than you
could possibly ever know yourself (even more, perhaps infinitely more, than
the parent that Carol often invokes as an analog).

If the rules we we're talking about are the rules of moral right and wrong,
Milton surely doesn't believe that "God makes the rules." On the contrary,
in our poet's consistent judgment, "God hath taught us to love and to extol
his laws, not only as they are his, but as they are just and good to every
wise and sober understanding. God hath created a righteousness in right
itself, against which he cannot do" (emphasis mine)*. *In other words,
moral principles (like "one should never be cruel" or "one should always
choose the option that does the most good or, in the absence of good
options, the least harm") are in Milton's view really the declarative
sentences they seem to be (and therefore capable of being true or
false)--and not merely imperative sentences in disguise (and therefore
incapable of being true or false). The moral fact underwriting every
command of a just God is the righteousness in right itself, an objective
fact that God can't undo on pain of absurdity. In short, truthfulness and
kindness are not right because God commands them, God commands them because
they are right.

A celebrated metaphysician and moral philosopher on the Roman side,
Francisco Suarez, draws the same distinction: God's judgment that a given
act is "intrinsically" the right thing to do is independent of, and prior
to, his precept or command that we should do it. That's what it *is* for
rightness and other moral properties to be "intrinsic" to the things that
have them; in Suarez as in Milton, truthfulness and kindness are not right
because God commands them, God commands them because they are right.

Scholastics in the Conceptualist tradition believe, on the contrary, that
properties in general, and rightness and goodness in particular, are not
facts about what a thing or act *is* but facts about how God wills us
to *conceive
*of it and *behave* toward it. But even some Conceptualists, notably
Gregory of Rimini, deviate from the party line when it comes to moral
principles. So Suarez is able to add Gregory's august name to the
authorities who follow what he characterizes as the consensus of
theologians (*communis sententia theologorum*). Milton has probably come
across the dictum Suarez borrows from Gregory: even if (*per  absurdum*)
God had  neglected to command us to do the right, or (more absurdly) hadn't
existed, our rational knowledge of the right would have had precisely the
force of that otherwise missing command.

The conceptualist position survives in our day under the names of
"metaethical subjectivism" or "nihilism" or "expressivism" or
"noncognitivism." It has been popular because a great many clever writers
have tried to make it work, because of the natural human urge to find ways
of playing tennis with the net down, and just possibly because it is
unworkable.

Needless to say, an infinite mind can know what's good for us infinitely
better than we can. But it doesn't follow, and Milton clearly doesn't
believe, that in most matters that are of near concern to us, we can never
know what's good for us well enough to toddle a crucial step or two without
leading strings.


On Wed, Apr 9, 2014 at 8:02 AM, Gregory Machacek <
Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu> wrote:

> One quibble with Bryson (Michaels to the left of me, Michaels to the
> right . . .) and one substantive disagreement.
>
> The quibble:  not "unquestioning obedience" (To ask or seek I blame thee
> not); just obedience, and then your questioning.  I actually think A&E
> might eventually have arrived at the rationale for God's arbitrarily
> designating one fruit forbidden that we armchair Edenites easily supply.
>  And if they'd got there by reasoning under obedience, it would only have
> strengthened their obedience.
>
> The substantive disagreement (my "and yet"):  not obedience to a "really
> really big and impressive, divine even" being; obedience to a *Creator*.
>  Can the clay say to the potter. . . My dad had a saying when we kids
> thought we could argue about how something in the household was run:
>  "You've heard of the golden rule?  He who makes the gold makes the rules."
> (My wife thinks that's a horrible message to send to kids and she's
> probably right).  Milton's version was "He who makes, makes the rules."
>
> If one of the deepest truths you feel about yourself is that you were not
> self-begot, self-raised, then it is reasonable to think that you would be
> served by putting your actions in accord with the will of your Creator; he
> might reasonably be thought to know better what is good for you than you
> could possibly ever know yourself (even more, perhaps infinitely more, than
> the parent that Carol often invokes as an analog).  Adam does just this bit
> of reasoning before there is any prohibition.
>
> It's true that it's hard for us moderns to share Adam's turn of mind:
>  un-self-begotten-ness to eager-obedience-to-my-Creator's-will-for-me.
>  That is in large measure because our our image of that Creator now takes
> the form of the-fine-tuning-of-25-dimensionless-physical-constants, and
> what those tell us about how we ought to live our lives is not clear, in
> fact could only be discerned (if there's anything there to discern)
> precisely *by* unhampered reasoning.
>
> One of the fascinating things about that freethinking Milton that Bryson
> so admires is how emphatically, in his late poems, he limits the exercise
> of the mind.   (Solicit not thy thoughts, He who receives light from above
> no other doctrine needs).  When the list's conversation made it's jump to
> the Tree of Life, the discussion I was having with Salwa broke off just
> where I thought I thought it was getting interesting.  She and I had both
> granted that God wants you to shut down profitless lines of reasoning, but
> I was in favor of the mind clamping shut as quickly as one sees that a line
> of reasoning is profitless, whereas she was arguing for a full imaginative
> exploration of possibilities before the shutdown.  We were just differing
> on the issue of timing.  And I wanted to ask what Milton thinks about how
> one recognizes fume as fume, how deep one can go down a line of exploration
> before recognizing one should turn back.
>
>
> 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: "Bryson, Michael E"
> Sent by: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
> Date: 04/09/2014 02:22AM
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] obedience
>
> 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 va!
>
>  riation 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 ma!
>
>  ny professional literary critics that he *must* be read as jus!
>  tified, 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*, wel!
>
>  l 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 th!
>
>  e 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.
>
> Michael
>
>
> _______________________________________________
> Milton-L mailing list
> Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu
> Manage your list membership and access list archives at
> http://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l
>
> Milton-L web site: http://johnmilton.org/
>
> _______________________________________________
> Milton-L mailing list
> Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu
> Manage your list membership and access list archives at
> http://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l
>
> Milton-L web site: http://johnmilton.org/
>
> _______________________________________________
> Milton-L mailing list
> Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu
> Manage your list membership and access list archives at
> http://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l
>
> Milton-L web site: http://johnmilton.org/
>
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.richmond.edu/pipermail/milton-l/attachments/20140409/ad505059/attachment-0001.html>


More information about the Milton-L mailing list