[Milton-L] obedience to your creator

cbartonphd1 cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Wed Apr 9 13:57:10 EDT 2014


Harold,  thank you for that elucidating post!  Oddly enough,  there is a concept in government contracting (called, I kid you not, "the Christian Doctrine"--because it was named after litigation brought by a man whose surname was "Christian") that mirrors the concept that we do it because it's right, whether the contract (in this context, "the law") expressly provides for it or not. In other words, in cases in which the contracting officer has neglected to include a clause important to the well-being of the taxpayers,  the clause is assumed to be included anyway by operation of law.

Ironically, what you've said is echoed by Satan right before the Fall (9.701): "not just, not God." That should be another red flag to Eve, but it isn't: why would a just God forbid something beneficial? By the same token, why would a just God require anything that was unjust or unfair or harmful (even in the sense of unnecessarily restricting our freedom to choose?).

Forgive the rambling--I wrote a long message because (distracted by other things) I could not write a short one--but your post is definitely a "keeper"!

Best to all,

Carol
Sent from my Samsung Galaxy S®III

-------- Original message --------
From: Harold Skulsky <hskulsky at smith.edu> 
Date:04/09/2014  12:54 PM  (GMT-05:00) 
To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu> 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] obedience to your creator 

"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 l
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.richmond.edu/pipermail/milton-l/attachments/20140409/47efbd7f/attachment-0001.html>


More information about the Milton-L mailing list