Everyday epiphanies from Milton's Eden and beyond

Month: September 2019

Justifying God

For someone relatively well-versed in Christian theology, the term theodicy was surprisingly new to me. In Greek, theos means “god” and dike means “justice” which makes the term literally mean “justifying God.” The English Oxford Dictionary defines theodicy more extensively as, “The, or a, vindication of the divine attributes, esp. justice and holiness, in respect to the existence of evil; a writing, doctrine, or theory intended to justify the ways of God to men.”

There are many approaches to theodicy, but the most popular (and one mentioned in class) was argued by both Augustine and Aquinas who believed that evil did not actually exist but was instead the absence of something good. A way I’ve heard it explained is through light and dark; you can quantitively measure light but darkness does not exist because it is simply the absence of light. Liebniz takes this concept of theodicy a step further and uses the analogy of a picture with dark spots. While the spots might strike one as ugly, it might add beauty to the whole, explaining his idea that it is better to have a world of rich variety and plentitude… sound familiar?

While I was familiar with these ideas long before class, it was interesting to put a term to it and understand that Paradise Lost is an epic dedicated to this study of theodicy, a complex question that theologians and philosophers have attempted to answer for centuries.

On Image and Glory, Cont.

Dr. C gave me a scholarly article in response to my probing the question of women being created equal in Milton’s theology. It was called “Milton’s Creation of Eve” written by Anne Ferry in 1988 and addresses this question head-on. What I took away from the article was Milton’s relatively progressive yet tactful way in which he presents Eve throughout the entire narrative of Paradise Lost. He purposefully omits mentioning that Eve was taken from the rib of Adam (as seen in the original creation myth) and says nothing explicitly about Eve being a helpmate to Adam. Already by avoiding these two key elements does he go against the grain of those like John Donne who ardently pushed the Pauline theology of what appears to be gender inequality. What I find most interesting, however, is Ferry’s argument that Milton was Eve’s advocate from the beginning by not only giving Adam and Eve equal responsibility within the fall but demonstrating Eve to be the truly repentant one after it. This elevation above Adam in a virtuous sense not only subverts her position as the seducer but equalizes the playing field within their relationship. While Milton acknowledges that Adam and Eve are distinctly different and plays around with this throughout the epic, what is clear is that Milton ultimately believes them to be of the same soul and therefore both of equal value.

Ever Almost in His Eyes

the epistle of James in the New Testament writes:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13)

The exception to this and way in which commentators explain the seeming contradictions within scripture is by categorizing God’s temptation as probative. It serves as a test to prove the individual faithful or obedient. What is incredibly interesting, however, is that Milton strays from this common conception and says that God’s temptation is distinctly provocative in nature. He fleshes this out in Areopagitica:

We our selves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence.

The provoking object, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is “almost ever” in the eyes of Adam. It is an enticing and perpetually present source of temptation. This might lead one to believe that Milton is suggesting God to be an evil antagonist that provokes us to sin; however, Milton’s idea of provocation is far more complex than that. He argues that this provoking goes beyond mere resistance but instead is generative and an actual expansion of being.

A simple way of putting it would be doing something just because someone told you not to. At a most basic level, that is obedience, but does nothing to affect you beyond creating a strict discipline within yourself. What if, instead, two options are placed in front of you and you choose the “good” option in light of the “evil” option. The evil option might be enticing, but by avoiding it, you not only avoid an evil but also expand your knowledge and experience by appreciating the good to a fuller extent. The Cambridge Companion eloquently explains this one step further:

Our temptations, the provoking objects we see before us, are also our nourishments, the last best gifts of a providential universe, for only by them do we find the liberties that infuse meaning into our love and obedience.

So, is Milton suggesting that God tempts us to evil? Almost, but not quite, and we seem the better off for it.


Censorship and Circuits

While there is much to glean from Areopagitica, Milton’s most well-known work of prose, I find his defense of non-licensure extremely interesting and perhaps well-timed in our culture today. He does not cry freedom of the press purely for the sake of unbridled liberty, but instead makes it a point (as he always does) to explain the reasoning behind his position: belief has to be based on understanding, not acquiescence to authority.

Simply put, if published writing is censored, how are we to properly form our own beliefs when we have a select few forcing us into the beliefs they have pre-approved for us?

This ties in quite nicely to what we discussed within “Reason of Church Government” where Milton says, “What the mind at home in the spacious circuit of her musing hath liberty to propose to herself…” which essentially states that our mind is best used when it is free to run and expand its horizons. In the same way, Milton argues that licensing books impedes this spacious musing because there is no room for questioning, examination, or subsequent understanding.

Milton is not saying our minds should necessarily dwell on what one might consider foolish or offensive, things that might be censored, but that we should allow those things to challenge us.

I believe that this concept is lacking in our culture and the political arena specifically. If there is something we dislike or disagree with, we are quick to shut the conversation down completely. We do not let those differing ideas challenge us, which makes us then defend our position, which in return provides fresh examination and a deep grounding of our own convictions regarding the truth.

More often than not, we toss away the person or book (which, according to Milton, might be one in the same…) and flip off the circuit completely.

On Image and Glory

I think Milton’s argument for defilement in  “An Apology for Smectymnuus” is extremely interesting. It appears to be based off of 1 Corinthians 11:7 which says, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”

This verse has stood the test of time in terms of difficult interpretation. Is this saying that men are intrinsically more valuable than women because men are made in the image and glory of God while women are not? That is what some early commentators in Milton’s time suggested. They argued that because man was the first one created in Eden that he had a more direct relationship with God and therefore reflected Him and His glory in a clearer way. 

However, the concept of Imago Dei, that mankind is made in the image of God, is in direct opposition with this and reiterated consistently throughout scripture. This concept is the great equalizer (whether between man and woman, Jew and Gentile) and is where Christians believe intrinsic value of all human life lies. It is now commonly accepted that this does not only extend to men but completely transcends gender.

I am just now diving into Milton’s theological beliefs, but I think it is clear that the historical context and common interpretation of scripture during Milton’s time will begin to help us unearth the complexities of it within his work. 

Before the Mellowing Year

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself particularly interested in the inner world of Milton. Perhaps it is because I have never found myself relating to a 17th century male more in my entire life.

It was at the mention of the Parable of the Talents that really got me thinking; that parable has haunted me ever since I can remember. The common interpretation of it, most concisely, is that you are supposed to do something with what you are given. This is often considered in the context of spiritually-endowed gifts and abilities.

Milton knew he was gifted (in this case, as a poet-prophet) and knew the cost of not using that gift. He also experienced the anxiety that comes with not producing something that adequately showcases that gift… an intense struggle to grasp that lifework, hidden away in the shadows of his being, begging to be brought into the light. Perhaps his preoccupation with fleeting youth (as seen in Sonnet 7) is a direct result of this anxiety. Time is running out and his talents are still buried.

We see a connection to this struggle in the first five lines of “Lycidas” where he begins:

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more

Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,

I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,

And with forc’d fingers rude

Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year (1-5).

This, of course, is referring to the premature death of his classmate Edward King. However, it parallels perfectly into Milton’s own fears; the shattering of leaves “before the mellowing year” could represent a life taken before one’s life talent is truly applied. It could also reflect Milton’s anxiety with being “outed” as a public poet before he felt that his opportune time had truly come.

I relate to both of these feelings completely. I know that I have been gifted with music and feel that there is a song within me begging to be heard, but I cannot tell you how many hours of writing and sitting at the piano I have spent only to leave more frustrated and confused than when I began. I simply have not found my Paradise Lost and wrestle with the thought that I definitely will not create such a cumulative, pinnacle work. However, I also don’t want to produce something premature… that would feel like the uprootal of something growing, the disregard of seasons.

Or, better put, liked plucked “berries harsh and crude” with “forc’d fingers rude.”

Blood in the Veins, Ink in the Pen

After spending a semester on manuscripts with Eckhardt, it was my natural inclination to go check out the Milton manuscript for myself. Below is a screenshot (pg. 30-31) from the makings of “Lycidas”:

What is interesting about this manuscript (beyond the incredible fact that we are looking at the actual handwriting of Milton himself) are all of the notations and corrections he made. We hear about a Milton who awoke feverishly with portions of Paradise Lost formulated in his mind overnight, yet rarely do I consider a Milton who had to agonize over his work. To write and re-write. Below is a closer look at lines 58-63 of “Lycidas” that appear to be particularly pored over:

And it is these lines that reveal to us a Milton who is haunted by this idea of Orpheus’ death (mirrored to that of Edward King’s) which in return makes Milton question his own existence. Not necessarily death, per se, but a life of chastity and poetry unmet. The positioning of these lines in the manuscript leads me to believe they were a far cry from revelation; instead, a reflection of Milton’s deep, inner struggles on a scribbled page.

If you want to check out the manuscript yourself, I’ve put the link below from the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge through the Wren Digital Library.  There is a lot to glean from reading his own hand and I believe it instrumental in transforming the poet-prophet into simply a man with a pen.


Be Wise, and Taste

It’s hard to read Comus (A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle) without somehow viewing Comus as a prototype for the character of Satan we see in Paradise Lost. Even the very words he uses to entice the Lady reflect that infamous temptation:

But this will cure all streight, one sip of this
Will bathe the drooping spirits in delight
Beyond the bliss of dreams. Be wise, and taste. (811-813)

A seductive call to be wise and taste what is forbidden… sound familiar?

What is interesting, however, is that in the garden, Satan tells Eve to first taste and then gain wisdom; it is the converse and therefore in contrast with Comus’ positioning of wisdom. We also see one figure reject this temptation by means of virtue whereas the other succumbs, causing the demise of mankind.

This leads me to believe that Milton is playing with the idea of wisdom and its relation to sin before and after the fall. However, to what he is insinuating I have yet to fully grasp. There’s studying Milton for you. I simply see the parallels here and believe them to be important in helping us on to the bigger questions.

In the words of our dear professor, it has left “a bone for my head to chew on.”  Thoughts?

Milton: Mirth or Melancholy?

L’Allegro and Il Penseroso as companion poems create a kind of tension that initially made me uncomfortable as a reader; which lifestyle is Milton actually promoting here… the one of contemplation or the one of action? We are ultimately left with pure anticipatory choosing between mirth vs. melancholy. This lack of reconciliation between the two poems is hard to sit in.

However, something interesting I found were two paintings by one of my favorite painters, Thomas Cole, who was inspired by Milton to paint both L’Allegro and Il Penseroso as romantic landscapes. What is striking to me about the paintings is that despite the stark contrast between the poems by Milton, the tone and color of the paintings by Cole are remarkably similar. They are, in fact, the very same scene if you look close enough.

It is as if Cole, through his own artistic means, is not promoting one painting above the other but instead is forcing us into that same kind of tension Milton did with his words. We are given no easy answers. Yet, it is still beautiful and the tension allows us to see deeper into each respective piece, whether painting or poem.

Perhaps Cole and Milton were on to something.

L’Allegro by Thomas Cole (1845)Il Penseroso by Thomas Cole (1845)

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