[Milton-L] obedience to your creator

Matthew Jordan matthewjorda at gmail.com
Thu Apr 10 13:41:42 EDT 2014


This prompts me to share one reflection on the academic mind: how liable it
is to jump to the end point of any logic or chain of reasoning; and how
little *judgement* is often exercised - indeed, it sometimes seems the
garlands go to those who jump quickest and farthest, with least
consideration. (I naturally exempt all those on this list from my
stricture.)

To quote a Prime Minister manque, Denis Healey, on Richard Crossman,
darling of the "intellectual" Parliamentary Left in the 1950s: "It's easy
to be brilliant if you're not concerned about being right."

Best

Matt


On 9 April 2014 13:02, 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
>
>
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