Everyday epiphanies from Milton's Eden and beyond

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Matter Matters: Insight From Milton the Material Monist

I find it extremely interesting that the fallen angels’ expulsion from heaven where “headlong themselves they threw” can be compared to defecation in which “disburdened Heaven rejoiced.” I did not pick that up during my first read of Book VI by myself but looking at it now through the lens of Milton as a material monist makes a lot of sense; if Milton believes both spirit and manner stem from one first matter or corporeal substance, then spirit and matter to him are going to differ in degree but not necessarily of kind or quality. Therefore, in this light, heaven “defecating” out the fallen angels which can no longer be “digested” by Heaven appears much less like a toilet joke and more like the exemplification of a greater theme: spirit and matter are linked to some capacity, and no material process is arbitrary but actually has spiritual implications.

A Macabre Milton

After reading some secondary sources on Milton, I found a New Yorker article on the enduring relevance of Milton that covers a lot of what we’ve talked about in class. There was, however, a particularly striking bit of new information: the haunting episode involving Milton’s body after his death.

Milton died in 1674 and was buried in the church of St. Giles Cripplegate in London. In 1790, during the renovation of the church, Milton’s grave was a dug up in order to pinpoint his exact burial location in order to erect a monument in his honor. A group of men hauled his coffin out of the ground and knocked out his death, took chunks of his hair, and whatever bones that remained. The desecration of Milton shocked the country, and the notable poet William Cowper wrote about it:

“Me too, perchance, in future days,

The sculptured stone shall show,

With Paphian myrtle or with bays

Parnassian on my brow.

But I, or e’er that season come,

Escaped from every care,

Shall reach my refuge in the tomb,

And sleep securely there.”

So sang, in Roman tone and style,

The youthful bard, ere long

Ordained to grace his native isle

With her sublimest song.

Who then but must conceive disdain,

Hearing the deed unblest,

Of wretches who have dared profane

His dread sepulchral rest?

Ill fare the hands that heaved the stones

Where Milton’s ashes lay,

That trembled not to grasp his bones

And steal his dust away!

O ill-requited bard! neglect

Thy living worth repaid,

And blind idolatrous respect

As much affronts thee dead.

The article goes on to say that a man named Philip Neve managed to buy up the relics from participants of the desecration and returned them to the coffin, which included one of his ribs.

How’s that for a little Halloween spook?

Sugar and SPICE and Everything Nice

I mainly wanted to touch on this subject because of the title that I came up with in class during our discussion of Book IV’s spiciness.

Eve’s “conjugal attraction unreprov’d” certainly was a controversial claim in in 17th-century puritanical England where any kind of physical desire was seen as irrational and linked to the corrupt body. In fact, Milton celebrates this connubial love or “Perpetual Fountain of Domestic sweets” and does not codify desire to men but extends it to females, demonstrating that this is not a sin in the context of a “bed undefil’d and chaste” as it is in Paradise.

My question now, however, is how this complicates the curses after the fall in Genesis 3:16 where God says to Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” I’m no Hebrew scholar but the original word for desire here is teshuqah which essentially means “to long for” and is the same word used in Song of Solomon 7:10 that says, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” which we understand in a sexual context.

I am curious to see if Milton addresses this in Paradise Lost and what a potential argument for the desire we see before versus after the fall. Are they even one and the same, synonymous terms? There is certainly debate about what the rare word teshuqah actually means in scripture, but I’m curious to know Milton’s understanding of it.

Self-Begotten Made Him Rotten?

While reading Satan’s soliloquy again in Book IV, I noticed an interesting contradiction between Book V on the concept of his existence:

From me, whom he created what I was

In that bright eminence, and with his good

Upbraided none; nor was his service hard

What could be less then to afford him praise,

The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks, (43-47)

Here in Book IV, Satan seems to acknowledge that he is a created being who owes God a great debt for creating him. However, in Book V he states:

Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw

When this creation was? rememberst thou

Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?

We know no time when we were not as now;

Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d

By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course

Had circl’d his full Orbe, the birth mature

Of this our native Heav’n, Ethereal Sons. (856-863)

Satan is taking the position that angels are “self-begot” or simply “self-raised” not through the power of God but by the natural course of things. He knows that God says He created them all, but who was there to witness it? By posing this question (and therefore assumedly being sarcastic in Book IV) Satan attempts to diminish God’s authority in a very interesting way that removes himself from any need to feel gratitude towards God. If he had any gratitude towards God, then that would result in some form of subordination which Satan distains, therefore rendering no place for himself in the virtuous cycle of gratefulness which appears to be the reciprocal relationship between God and His creation.

The question I have then is this: is Satan’s belief that he is self-begot one of the driving factors that had a role in his rebellion? If he never at any point felt gratitude, then he could not be a part of the virtuous cycle. And perhaps more importantly, was this of choice or consequence? If Satan never found himself indebted to God from the start, then he never had the opportunity to feel gratitude and therefore no compulsion to be subordinate towards Him, which would inevitably lead to his fall. This, however, could have been an active choice Satan made to not take God for His word.

Is any of this heresy? Probably most of it, but then again what is new when trying to parse Milton’s paradise.

Concluding the Conclusus

The implications of the Garden of Eden as a hortus conclusus are extremely interesting. As we discussed in class, hortus conclusus literally means “enclosed garden” in Latin and is often represented in art by the Virgin Mary in a walled garden to symbolize her purity. This immediately got me thinking about Eve in Paradise Lost and the Lady in Comus. Why is it that Eve succumbs to temptation within her hortus conclusus whereas the Lady displaced in the dark wood resists temptation? This seems quite contrary to the idea that a hortus conclusus symbolizes something that is pure.

I read that real gardens designed in hortus conclusus fashion do so in a way that protects something precious like a sculpture or plant that is placed in the center. We know that the walls did not serve to keep Satan out, but they did frame the Garden of Eden in a way that centered the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

My brain is just running away with different potential implications Milton is making here. Is this really Adam and Eve’s garden at all? While sufficient to have stood but free to fall, the garden as a hortus conclusus does nothing to protect their purity and certainly does not represent impenetrable purity. Whereas we have the Lady, far removed from the likes of the garden, through her knowledge of good and evil who withstood.

I’m interested in everyone’s thoughts and hope for insight on this!

Pop Culture Pandemonium

This is probably my least substantive post to date, but I just got caught up with The Good Place and the final episode of Season 3 entitled “Pandemonium” makes an explicit reference to Paradise Lost. How could I not share?

Eleanor: “The word ‘Pandemonium’ is from Paradise Lost. Milton called the center of Hell ‘Pandemonium,’ meaning ‘place of all demons.'”

Eleanor continues:

Janet, a walking database and NOT a girl, who reminds us of this frequently, replies:  “Oh, no. That’s very on brand for you.”

Eleanor then concludes: “I guess all I can do is embrace the pandemonium, find happiness in the unique insanity of being here, now.”

I wonder what Milton would think about Eleanor using his concept of Pandemonium in this way. I find it interesting that the word “trick” is used in reference to Chidi getting Eleanor to read the poem, and perhaps even more interesting that Eleanor adopts in a way the attitude of Satan who was placed in the actual Pandemonium. Needless to say, I highly recommend this show not only for its humor and lovable characters but constant references to both philosophy and literature!

The Worst Possible Use of Free Will

I recently watched an episode of one of my favorite shows, The Good Place, that tackles the concept of free will and determinism in a mere 20 minutes. For those of you not familiar with the show, I’ll get you up to speed: it is a comedy series that explores the afterlife, focusing on Eleanor (the deceased) and Michael (a spiritual being on whom I will not elaborate for the sake of major spoilers). In this episode entitled “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will,” Eleanor argues that everything she’s ever done is not a result of her choice but Michael’s manipulation of her circumstances. Michael, however, counteracts that argument by saying her choices in the afterlife confounded him and subverted any kind of plan he had devised, therefore defending her free will.

This argument, of course, only extends to Milton’s Arminian theology insofar as the idea of choice, but abruptly stops as we understand his perception of God to be both omniscient and unthwartable.  I think it is interesting, however, that the concept of free will vs. predestination is positioned as diametrically opposed. We clearly see BOTH concepts textually supported within Scripture, so what’s up with that? Are we supposed to accept only parts of the Bible and ignore the whole? I would think certainly not.

A better way to phrase this argument might be the sovereignty of God vs. sovereignty of humanity. Sovereignty can be defined as having ultimate control of everything and is the true heart of this argument. For the sake of brevity, I won’t dive into that, but what I would like to suggest is that God can be sovereign (actively controlling everything) without completely negating free will. What if God uses our conscious choices as a conduit to His predestined plan? They aren’t mutually exclusive but actually run parallel to each other?

I could theorize about this for hours, but want to hear you all weigh in.

Running Circles Around the Enfolded Sublime

My time as an undergrad English major has thoroughly familiarized me with hermeneutics, but the concept of the hermeneutic circle was a new one. The natural response was to go find a YouTube that went beyond what we touched in class, and to all of our luck, there is an informative 12-minute video of a guy with a fancy accent who does a good job of explaining it.

His definition of the hermeneutic circle is a process of interpretation in which we continually move between smaller and larger units of meaning in order to determine the meaning of both. He explains that as we read, we make preliminary interpretations of the words within a sentence and then reconsider our interpretation of the words in context of the entire sentence. We then move on to the next sentence and not only compare the words but now compare the sentence with the previous sentence to make sure it aligns with the context we have gained. This is a process of continual revision where we move between the smaller and bigger units of meaning, or the “circles” within hermeneutics that every reader subconsciously does. It is a process so fast that we hardly realize it. Yet, when the content is difficult, it is a process we must do more slowly and consciously.

With Milton’s enfolded sublime and tricky usage of words that have the potential for multiple meanings, the critical reader lives in these circles and gains a deeper understanding within repitition, but certainly not without the onset of vertigo.

The Problem of Apocatastasis

The concept of apocatastasis served as an aside in one of Dr. C’s previous lectures, but starting Paradise Lost with Satan front and center really got me interested in the history behind it. In brief, the definition we are working with is the restitution of all beings in the final state of existence, which includes Satan. Evil will necessarily cease to be. This was first proposed and chiefly advocated by Origen of Alexandria, a second-century Christian scholar who argued that if God is all-loving and all-powerful, then eternal judgement must be purely purgatorial so that restitution is not “limited” but instead extended to all evil during the end times. This was fiercely rejected by theologians like Augustine (and the majority of the Protestant churches) who argued that this concept was an acute heresy that diminished the necessity of sovereign grace. Apocatastasis is also the basis for Universalism, a theological fallacy that still can be found in many modern-day churches today.  Both of these concepts are fatally flawed by not only mistranslating scripture but blatantly ignoring God’s holiness and justice. I’m extremely interested to know what Milton might have thought about the restitution of all souls, specifically Satan to whom he seems to often sympathize with. Did he flirt with this idea of a redeemable Satan, or align with the Protestant rejection? Perhaps a bit of both?

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.

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