ENGL 220: Milton

Lecture 13

 - Paradise Lost, Book III


In this second lecture on Book Three of Paradise Lost, the dialogue between God and the Son in heaven is explored with particular attention paid to Milton’s modification of the Calvinist theory of predestination. The terms and implications of Milton’s attempt to justify the ways of God to man are considered. Milton’s misgivings regarding the doctrine of the Trinity are examined, and the relationship between his theology and seventeenth-century political movements is expounded upon.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 13 - Paradise Lost, Book III

Chapter 1. Introduction: Milton’s Vindication of God [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: I want to revisit just for a moment the opening of the invocation to holy light, which is of course, as you know, at the beginning of Book Three of Paradise Lost. This page 257 of the Hughes. This is how Milton begins the invocation, as you remember: “Hail holy Light, offspring of Heav’n first-born, / Or of th’ Eternal Coeternal beam, / May I express thee unblam’d?” You’ll remember that last week we looked at Milton’s desire to imagine himself unblamed or in some way unblamable for the condition of his blindness. Milton had for years gone out of his way to justify himself before his nation and before his God; but that was only one way to read this line, “May I,” and this question, “May I express the unblam’d?” “Unblam’d,” it seems to me, can just as easily modify the “holy Light” being addressed by the poet. It can correspond to the “thee” as well as the “I” in that question. It’s this alternative syntactical possibility that I want to explore in this lecture. I’ll be focusing on the status of this poem as an attempt to exculpate not only this poet but this poet’s God, to render God blameless for the range of losses that this epic so eloquently enumerates.

Look at the sentence that I’ve written on the board from Dr. Johnson’s Life of Milton.

His purpose was the most useful and the most arduous; to vindicate the ways of God to man [it continues, I’ll finish the sentence]; to shew the reasonableness of religion, and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law.

I’ll read it one more time

His purpose was the most useful and the most arduous; to vindicate the ways of God to man; to shew the reasonableness of religion, and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law.

Johnson here is clearly thinking of Milton’s ambition of producing a theodicy, an attempt to justify the ways of God to men, and I think he’s right to identify Milton’s theodicy as really one of the central tasks of the poem. Milton seems genuinely sincere in wanting to provide a rational and reasonable account of the ways of God; but you’ve probably noticed that Johnson’s gotten his quotation wrong. He may have gotten his quotation wrong because he is not thinking directly of the Milton, but he’s thinking of Alexander Pope’s earlier thinking of the Milton from Pope’s great poem The Essay on Man. Pope gets it wrong as well. Milton, of course, doesn’t end the opening invocation to Book One of Paradise Lost with the claim that he will assert eternal providence and vindicate the ways of God to men. Milton says that he will justify the ways of God to men. I think it’s slight but nonetheless there’s a difference between these two words, and I think there’s something instructive here about Johnson’s slip and perhaps something instructive, too, about Alexander Pope’s slip a few decades before.

Now when Milton says that he’ll justify God’s ways, I think he means simply that he will account for the justice of God’s ways and he will demonstrate their justifiability, but to vindicate God’s ways – vindicate is a slightly different word, although they could certainly be seen as synonyms – to vindicate God’s ways is, I would imagine, to presuppose at the outset that God is under some suspicion of guilt, that he’s assumed to have done something wrong and that it’s our job to vindicate him or to get him off the hook. Milton of course can’t himself, and doesn’t rightly, use the word “vindicated.” It’s too prejudicial. It seems on some level to criminalize God’s behavior in advance, and this is of course exactly what he does not want to do. That said, on some level it’s impossible for us to read Paradise Lost and not assume that this God requires vindication. God seems in so many ways to be responsible for the Fall, and it might even be impossible to read the story of the Fall in Genesis and not attribute some of the guilt to the Yahweh who placed the forbidden fruit in the garden in the first place. Dr. Johnson inadvertently here reveals something about Milton’s poem that Milton himself perhaps isn’t willing or able to admit, and that’s that God appears to be guilty and it’s up to Milton to clear him of any suspicion of guilt.

Look at the headnote that Milton attaches to the beginning of Book Three. This is page 257 in the Hughes. And when Paradise Lost initially appeared – in its original appearance in 1667, these arguments, or headnotes, weren’t there. He added them to a later printing presumably at the request of a printer who thought that the readers needed a little help with the poem. You actually may want to think about it, this is an interesting phenomenon and very little written about: the general relation between these summarized arguments – they’re essentially plot summaries – to the actual story, the actual narrative that follows in each book. The beginning of this argument strikes me as an especially interesting one. So this is Milton’s argument for Book Three.

God sitting on his Throne sees Satan flying towards this world, then newly created; shows him to the Son, who sat at his right hand; foretells the success of Satan in perverting mankind; clears his own Justice and Wisdom from all imputation, having created Man free and able enough to have withstood his Tempter…

I’m just going to focus on a couple of those clauses: “foretells the success of Satan in perverting mankind…” Then we get Milton’s semicolon, and then, “clears his own Justice and Wisdom from all imputation…” You kind of get the feeling here – at least I get the feeling here – that this semicolon is working as hard as it possibly can to yoke these seemingly conflicting principles together. I’m not sure it’s the case that any semicolon is up to such an enormous theological task. In this formulation, Milton seems to own up on some level to Johnson’s characterization of the theodicy of Paradise Lost as a vindication. God needs to clear his own justice. He needs to clear his name, in essence because that name has been clouded over with some kind of suspicion.

Now I take this absolutely seriously that I think it has to be seen as authentic and sincere, Milton’s desire to justify God. He needs to imagine a God who can’t be held responsible for the Fall because only a blameless God could be worthy of Milton’s praise or even worthy of Milton’s interest. Frankly, I think that Milton does a pretty decent job of representing a God who cannot be seen as some kind of guilty coconspirator in the Fall of man. He does a pretty decent job vindicating God, but then when we think about it, there are few poets more adept at the art of vindication than John Milton. Milton had been practicing the art of vindication and the art of defense, something like the art of criminal defense, all of his life.

We looked last time, on Monday, at the lengths to which he went in his poetry and his prose to vindicate himself with regard to his blindness; but long before that, before Milton’s sight had been cut off and long before his tender orbs of vision had been quenched, to use his poetry, Milton had been exercising his talents in the rhetorical art of self-defense. In Sonnet Seven and actually throughout the early works, Milton was defending himself against that fear, you remember, that God would punish him for waiting so long to begin his career, that God was angry with Milton: Milton was already twenty-three years old and he had so little to show for himself. Later Milton devoted a good deal of energy to other kinds of defense. He labored to vindicate the radical Puritan left in England when it was held that they had committed a crime in killing the king and in raising a hand against God’s anointed monarch, when Europe was aghast at the barbaric behavior of the English revolutionaries. Milton wrote in Latin for the benefit of the entire European intellectual community two defenses of the crime of the regicide. He wrote a First Defense of the English People and then a work entitled the Second Defense of the English People, and there is no question that he would have been capable, had there been time or had there been interest, of writing a third defense and a fourth defense. The labor of defense, the work of vindication, was something that Milton was getting very good at and it really goes to the core of his intellectual temperament.

Chapter 2. The Faculty of Free Will [00:09:55]

Now, Milton lays the groundwork for his sweeping vindication of God in the discussion in Book Three between the heavenly Father and his Son. This is essentially the same theology that Milton will establish in the theological treatise that he’s writing at the same time that he’s writing Paradise Lost, On Christian Doctrine, parts of which were assigned for today’s class. Now it’s important for Milton to establish something like – and this is what he gets to do in the venue of the prose treatise as opposed to the poem: he has the opportunity to establish a theoretical basis for a lot of his beliefs and thus a theoretical basis for his vindication of God. He needs to prove theologically, not just poetically or narratively, that God did not place Adam and Eve in the garden with the intent or with the purpose in mind of punishing them for eating the fruit. He needs to convince himself and he needs to convince his reader, Milton does, that the fact of God’s foreknowledge of the Fall doesn’t in any way cause the Fall. This is a huge worry not just for Milton but for all philosophically minded Christians, that the faculty of free will is a genuine faculty – this is something that Milton really needs to believe – and that it’s not just some papier-mâché concept pasted together by a cynical and manipulative deity or by a cynical and manipulative poet.

In order to assert this belief in a genuinely meaningful faculty of free will, Milton has to tackle head on the theology of his fellow Puritans, the prevailing theology of his fellow Puritans. Milton has to dismantle – and this is no easy task – dismantle the Calvinist doctrine of divine predestination. Now the most prevalent belief among Milton’s contemporary Puritans was this belief in divine predestination. Nearly all the men and women that we can identify comfortably as Puritans embrace the faith in God’s omnipotence outlined in the works of John Calvin, Calvin being the sixteenth-century Swiss theologian – actually French theologian – living in Geneva who insisted that everyone’s salvation could be traced back ultimately to the predestinary will of God. For Calvin, God has not only known since the beginning of time what we will do, but God actually causes us in some sense to do what we do. There’s very little space for a meaningful range of free will in a strict Calvinist system. It’s God then who has for Calvin elected in advance who will be saved and who will be damned; and Calvin was justified – or at least he felt he was justified, and many of his followers felt he was justified – in this assertion of God’s control when he read the passage from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. This is the passage: “For whom” – oh, let me read the whole thing. This is Romans 8:29.

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.

Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate”: it’s a perfectly devastating Bible verse for anyone committed to a strong stance as Milton was in the Doctrine of Free Will. On some level, at least in this passage from Saint Paul, Romans 8:29, scripture seemed to provide incontrovertible evidence for the fact that God already predestined the elect, those Christians who had arbitrarily at the very foundation of time been elected for salvation; and that by extension God had also – and this is another important component of the Calvinist theological system – arbitrarily marked another group of men and women for punishment and eternal damnation.

It seems incontrovertible, but this course is about Milton and, of course, nothing is incontrovertible for Milton. You see him tangle with just this passage, this passage from the Book of Romans, for two solid pages in On Christian Doctrine. You just have a sense that Milton is saying, “This can’t possibly mean what it seems to mean.” There’s a genuine and powerful urgency charging Milton’s – it’s like a wrestling match, almost, with a biblical passage like this. So one of the important conclusions that Milton comes to in his wrestling match with scripture is that the term “elect,” as Saint Paul uses it in the Bible, doesn’t refer to God’s absolute predestination. Actually, let me ask you to turn to your Hughes. This is page 921 of the Christian Doctrine. Milton writes that “I conclude that believers are the same as the elect, and that the terms are used indiscriminately.” I’m going to read that again: “I conclude that believers are the same as the elect, and the terms are used indiscriminately.” Believers are the elect and because of course, on some level we get to choose whether or not we believe, we therefore get to choose, and we have some agency in, whether or not we are going to be one of God’s elect.

This is one of Milton’s most compelling and really wonderful perversions of mainstream Calvinist theology. Calvin had insisted on predestination to assert God’s absolute control over his creation and God’s absolute control over that final separation at the end of time between the saved and the damned. Calvin felt that his theology was the least we owed to the grandeur and the omnipotence of God, but for Milton to say that believers are the same as the elect is essentially, I think, on some level to strip God of that control. It’s as if Milton were defending something like a usurpation of God’s authority, and it’s the same strategy that you will see Milton employing time and again. It’s the damndest thing: he’s able to take the most depressingly constrictive biblical doctrine and he turns it into a proof for his own faith in man’s absolutely free will. Milton’s philosophy of – he’s not the only person doing this, but he does it with more ingenuity perhaps than just about any of his contemporaries – of free will is often called Arminianism. Arminianism is named after the sixteenth-century Dutch theologian James Arminius; I can’t remember the Dutch name off the top of my head, but Jacobus Arminius is the Latin name that he published under.

Now, I’ve been speaking of the theology of free will as if it were simply a matter of religious doctrine or exclusively a matter of religious doctrine. Of course, probably more importantly than any other way it is a matter of religious doctrine, but religion – and I think this can be said not just for Milton, it surely can be said for all of us – religion serves a whole range of cultural functions. We saw last time some of the deeply personal uses to which Milton was able to put his theology. Just as he needs to prove that God’s omniscience and omnipotence is not a sign of his responsibility for the Fall, Milton needed to prove that his blindness wasn’t a sign of God’s punishment of Milton.

That was a personal motivation for some of the theological energies of Milton’s poem, but I think more central to Milton’s theology than anything like a personal motivation is Milton’s politics, although the political sphere is intimately intertwined with anything that we would want to think of as personal. Theology and political philosophy – these obviously seem to us such radically distinct spheres of thought, but they’re incredibly closely intertwined in the seventeenth century, and I think there are all sorts of political and social motivations for Milton’s theology. There are political and social reasons for the fact that some of the period’s radical intellectuals like Milton are beginning radically to assert the importance of man’s free will and, beginning at the same time, to diminish the authority that had traditionally in the Calvinist system been accorded to God. I think there’s a political significance to the period’s renewed attachment to and investment in the philosophy or the theology of Arminius who, as you can see, had died at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. Arminianism has a new wave, maybe its third wave, by the later part of the seventeenth century.

Now, as we know from the treatise Areopagitica and from Milton’s regicide writings as well, Milton was establishing himself in the middle part of the century as one of England’s foremost, one of England’s most articulate, spokesmen for a phenomenon that we can call, although it’s an anachronistic term, liberalism. And so obviously the word liberalism hasn’t emerged yet, but you have something like a theory of liberalism, or at least a theory of libertarianism, beginning to assert itself in the middle of the seventeenth century. You have a serious formulation of liberalism later in the seventeenth century shortly after Milton dies with the philosopher John Locke, who was a great reader of Milton. Traditional Renaissance political thought before Locke, and I think you can say before Milton, was more or less authoritarian. It placed a monarch at the top of the society, at the top of the polity. Traditional Renaissance political thought needed to imagine that monarch’s control, his ultimate governance over the behavior and the actions of all of the individuals in that society – this political philosophy invariably asserted the importance of a radical image of centralization of power. It’s really not until the middle of the seventeenth century that Europeans – and it’s not just Englishmen – are beginning to articulate any serious alternative to the authoritarian, centralized model of political organization. There are people on the radical left, and Milton is one of them, who begin to posit the idea that the disbursed individuals throughout a society can be reasonably depended on to govern themselves with sufficient self-control.

Of course, such a theory assumes a lot of things. It assumes a sufficient degree of self-control that every individual would have. With this self-control, rational individuals could organize themselves without a king, without the top-down hierarchical structure of a monarchy. This position is most often associated in England, at least in the middle of the century, with the Levellers. The Levellers are the high-minded intellectual component of the army during the English Revolution during the middle of the seventeenth century, and the leveler theory of sovereignty is something like an elected sovereignty. If there is a sovereign, that sovereign will be elected or chosen by the people; the sovereign’s not going to be imposed upon the people. So election in a lot of ways is not simply a theological term, obviously to this day. It has political resonances as well.

So this brand-new liberal – what I’m calling a liberal– theology is not only political in nature. However, it’s also economic. It’s precisely the same period, the mid-seventeenth century, when something like – again, I’ll use the term anachronistically – when something like a liberal market theory of economic exchange is being theorized. I’ll give you a brief history of economic thought in the early modern period. Up until this point, it was assumed that the only efficient way to organize the economic life of a nation was to have the monarch – the sovereign, the authoritarian center of the government – fix prices and determine the value of currency: in general, to oversee the dynamics of just about all economic exchange. But suddenly – and this really is happening in the 1650s and it’s happening first in England – suddenly a liberal economic theory is coming into view. It was being conjectured that individuals, meaning individual merchants, could freely set prices and values according to the law of supply and demand rather than according to the law of the authoritarian will of the king. There’s a wonderful book on this subject by Joyce Appleby if any of you are interested. I can’t remember what it’s called, but you’ll figure out [laughs] from Orbis [the Yale library search engine] which of Joyce Appleby’s wonderful books this is. The argument is essentially that a free-market philosophy had simply been unthinkable. Free free-market philosophy that we just take as a given almost was unthinkable before the middle years of the seventeenth century.

So, you have these two enormous shifts in the way that English intellectuals were thinking about their political and also about their economic lives. It seems to me that it only stands to reason that there’s going to be a corresponding shift or some sort of related shift on the level of religious thought. If individuals are going to be liberated from their earthly monarch, if merchants are going to be liberated from the centralizing power of the sovereign in charge of the economy, then individual souls are going to have to be liberated at least to some extent from the predestinary stronghold of the heavenly monarch as well – as if intellectual life could operate with these huge analogous forms. I think that that’s one of the functions of Milton’s insistence on his liberal theology of free will. It’s as if he needs to bring his religion in line with his liberal politics.

Chapter 3. A Dialogue in Heaven between Father and Son [00:25:52]

Now, let’s look at the dialogue in heaven. Turn to page 260 in the Hughes. This is Book Three, line ninety-three. It’s here in the dialogue in heaven between the Father and the Son where so many of the tensions between Calvinist predestination and Miltonic free will get worked out – but let me digress for a moment. Before we actually look at the dialogue, I think it’s important to ask why it is – and I think people have been asking this question ever since people have been reading Paradise Lost – why it is that God the Father and God the Son need to be holding a dialogue at all. “What is it that they need to say to one another?” I think we can reasonably ask.

For orthodox Christians in Milton’s time and I think for a lot of orthodox Christians in our time, the Father and the Son are members of what’s known as the Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are paradoxically – according to most Trinitarian thinking – three separate entities, but they are also most importantly one unified entity. Because they are all one and all equally one, it borders almost on blasphemy to imagine the Father and the Son needing to discuss anything, but Milton realized that – and this was an extraordinary and bold move on his part – Milton argued that there was no basis in scripture for belief in the Trinity; people had always known that the word Trinity actually appears nowhere in the scripture. You can see Milton in the Christian Doctrine supplying mountains, literally mountains, of scriptural evidence to disprove the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Milton took very seriously the biblical metaphors of Father and Son. The Father and the Son are not aspects of the same deity. They are literally for Milton a father and a son, and when God refers in scripture to “my only begotten Son” or to “my first begotten son” he really means it, according to Milton. The Father generates the Son. He gives birth to Him at a specific moment in pre-creation history, and Milton is therefore – he has been called a subordinationist. He subordinates the Son to the Father because the Son will never be – or at least not until the very end of time – will never be the Father’s equal; and so the Son can in no way be imagined identical or equal to the Father. The Father can when he chooses – and this happens in Paradise Lost – he can grant a certain measure of power to the Son, but the Son in no way possesses any kind of power that hasn’t been granted to him at God’s pleasure. The Son nothing like the foreknowledge or omnipotence that the Father has.

Now, we see the Son doing things, performing actions, in Paradise Lost. For example, he’s responsible for having created or serving as the vehicle for the creation of the entire known universe: not negligible perhaps, but he can only perform these God-like feats and he can only be called God-like, not actually God, when the Father permits him to perform such feats. He needs his Father’s permission and, like Adam and Eve, it’s beholden upon the Son to obey the Father. This is crucial to Milton’s theology. Look at how all these essentially domestic relations get theologized in the dialogue in heaven, line ninety-three of Book Three. The Father of course – and it just drives me crazy – the Father speaks in the future tense of absolute foreknowledge because he can; and you’re right to think – I hope you’ve thought – that there’s something a little chilling about the Father’s discursive manner here, the way in which he can shift so easily between the past tense and the future tense. So, line ninety-three. This is the Father:

For Man will heark’n to his [Satan’s] glozing lies,
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall
Hee and his faithless Progeny: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate [Ouch! Whose fault? Whose but his own?], he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all th’ Etheral Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who fail’d;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Now, I’m going to set aside here, because I can’t deal with it, this little outburst that seems so incredibly indecorous and inappropriate, “ingrate.” I am going to discuss instead the last line that I just read, which indicates, I think, one of the central rhetorical strategies of the Father’s speech. Now look at line ninety-nine first. There’s something liberating about the Father’s credo here: “[I created man] sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” This is kind of rousing and, as rousing as this is, the Father doesn’t leave it there. He broaches the subject of the fallen angels and he repeats the same formulation, but he repeats it with a difference. Look at line 101. He’s just discussed both them who stood and them who failed: “freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.” The Father recasts that original statement within a repetitive rhetoric. It’s essentially a repetitive rhetoric of tautology, and in so doing, I think he exposes something of the highly schematic nature of his sense of justice.

This last line is often cited in Milton criticism as a positive example of Milton’s commitment to the doctrine of free will, but I don’t really buy it. I’m not convinced by the Father’s statement. This line may begin with that exuberant adverb “freely,” but the rest of it, at least to me, smacks of something like predestination. It’s a little depressing. They stood who stood and fell who fell – is it a stretch to extrapolate from that a paraphrase like this: the type of person who was created to stand did stand and the type of person who was created to fall did fall? There’s something disconcertingly programmatic about the Father’s repetition here, the repetitiveness of his explanation, and the tautological force of this formulation seems to rob the opening word of the line “freely” of some of its liberatory energy.

Okay. That was the Father’s speech. Wonderfully, the Son seems almost to recoil from the rigidity of the Father’s position. In fact, he seems actually to soften the Father a little. He asks the Father to show mercy toward man since man, like the Son himself, is a son of God. It’s at this point you get the Father’s – [laughs] and you want to throttle him – the Father’s condescending claim that of course he knew all along that the Son would be asking for mercy. Milton is obliged to make the Father omniscient, of course, because the Father is omniscient, although the entire drama of this dialogue [laughs] is structured, as any drama or any dialogue has to be structured, to suggest that there are two individuals who are reacting genuinely to one another’s speeches because they don’t know in advance what the other is going to say. That’s what a dialogue is, but there’s clearly a powerful asymmetry here in this dialogue, and the asymmetry threatens, I think, to cast this entire scene into something like a potentially ridiculous light; but the Son does seem at least to have made a kind of impact on the Father. The Father seems to relent, and the Father agrees to accept the repentance of Adam and Eve.

Look at line 194. This is at the top of page 263. The Father promises to show mercy and he promises to permit Adam and Eve a safe journey back into his good graces. So line 194:

And I will place within them as a guide
My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear,
Light after light well us’d they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.

It’s as if the Father has been cajoled by the Son, cajoled out of his repetitive cyclicality and nudged toward something like a more linear and, to my taste, a more palatable form of human progress. I think we sigh with relief at the knowledge that all will be well again after the Fall. We have all the earmarks here of a narrative, moving from a beginning, through a middle, toward an end. We sigh with relief at the knowledge that everything is going to be okay.

But of course, this relief is only momentary. As soon as the Father has agreed to this concession, as soon as he’s promised their safe journey back to God, he adds a condition, and this condition appears at line 203. This is near the top of page 263. He returns to that rhetoric of repetition and equivalence that had marked his earlier speech; “but yet all is not done…”:

[W]ell us’d they shall attain,

And to the end persisting, safe arrive. [It did seem pretty much all was done but there’s some backtracking here.]

But yet all is not done; Man disobeying,
Disloyal breaks his fealty, and sins
Against the high Supremacy of Heav’n,
Affecting God-head, and so loosing all,
To expiate his Treason hath naught left,
But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posteritie must die,
Die hee or Justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.

“But yet all is not done”: you can almost hear Milton in this line catching himself and realizing that man, of course, wasn’t redeemed simply because Adam and Eve were repentant, simply because they said they were sorry. It has the same force as that incredibly startling moment in the Nativity Ode when Milton tells us, “But wisest Fate says No, / this must not yet be so.” Although he certainly [laughs] gives it a shot, he can’t get away from the unhappy fact that man was not redeemed simply because Adam and Eve said they were sorry. Man was redeemed through the much more troubling, for Milton, mechanism of the Father’s sacrifice of the Son. Milton has successfully avoided finishing his poem about the crucifixion, “The Passion,” the poem called “The Passion,” when he was a young man. It just went unfinished. As you read the dialogue in heaven in Book Three of Paradise Lost, for a while at least, it seems that Milton is going to be able to evade the entire question of the sacrifice one more time – but he catches himself: “But yet all is not done.” He forces a consideration of the atonement, of the crucifixion, and it’s crucial to understanding exactly how it is that Milton here is imagining the dynamics of the redemption.

So Milton first of all has to reject the orthodox understanding of the Christian redemption. I’ll remind you what that looks like. In the New Testament, and for a lot of Christian theologians, the redemption seems to work along the lines of something like a revenge sacrifice and, as cultural anthropologists have taught us, there is something like a primitive logic, an intensely primitive logic, at work behind the notion of the Christian notion of the crucifixion. One of the Father’s sons, Adam, has died and so the Father will avenge that death by murdering someone else. Of course, that means murdering another son. This model of redemption is based on the repetition, or a repetition, of the initial crime, and this logic of repetition, I think, is largely responsible for that rhetoric of repetitiveness that we hear so often in the Father’s speech. According to this – we can think of it as a sacrifice theory of redemption or of the atonement, God chooses to sacrifice his son since someone is going to have to be punished for Adam’s sin. The logic demands that.

But Milton, I think, can imagine no aspect of his religion, no aspect of Christianity, more barbaric than the image of the Father’s willing sacrifice of his son. This would be a God truly unworthy of Milton’s justification. Milton’s struggling here, and there are a few of his contemporaries who are doing the same thing in the seventeenth century. He’s struggling to bring Christianity in line with certain standards of rationality and, as Dr. Johnson had said, in the rest of the sentence that I wrote on the board, Milton wants to show the reasonableness of religion; and so Milton replaces the sacrifice model of the redemption with something like a satisfaction model of redemption. According to this way of thinking, in Adam’s sin, a debt has been incurred, and this debt can be satisfied by someone else’s payment so revenge is no longer the motive. It’s something like an economic desire simply to balance the books.

There is something impersonal about this new way of imagining the atonement, and it’s here that Milton gives the notion of the Christian redemption its particular Miltonic twist. Milton’s Father does not willingly sacrifice the Son. It’s magnificent: he simply asks for a volunteer, and the Son out of his goodness volunteers. He chooses to make himself mortal. It’s a perfect example of how Milton has shifted the emphasis away from Christian orthodoxy and forced the authoritarian image of God’s sacrifice to yield to Milton’s liberal image of a kind of volunteerism or libertarian image of volunteerism. The Son chooses to humiliate himself and subsequently God chooses to compensate that humiliation with the Son’s supreme exaltation. You see the extent of this compensation at line 311 in Book Three, page 265 near the bottom of the page. God says to the Son:

Because in thee
Love hath abounded more than Glory abounds,
Therefore thy Humiliation shall exalt
With thee thy Manhood also to this Throne;
Here shalt thou sit incarnate, here shalt Reign
Both God and Man, Son both of God and Man,
Anointed universal King; all Power
I give thee, reign for ever, and assume
Thy Merits; under thee as Head Supreme
Thrones, Princedoms, Powers, Dominions I reduce…

To reward the Son for having sacrificed himself, the Father is going to give the Son all power. It seems like it’s going to be a complete transference of power, and it’s a transfer that will hold until at the end of time. There will no longer even be a difference presumably between the Father and the Son because, as the Father says at line 341, “God shall be All in All.” There will be no power differential whatsoever between the Father and the Son, and presumably there’ll be no power differential between or among any of us. We’ll all be joined at the end of time in one massive liberal, nonhierarchical state of harmony. The image of the “All in All” is Milton’s most exuberant visionary endpoint, and it satisfies, I think, a lot of Milton’s most liberal impulses. Even the authoritarian structure of heaven – and of course, Milton’s heaven is as authoritarian as any heaven has ever been conceived – even it will be transformed into something like a fantasy of egalitarianism, a fantasy of absolute equality. This ecstatic redistribution of power and glory at the end of time can only come about because the Son has willingly humiliated himself. He subjects himself to the Father’s wrath.

I think we recognize this gesture, this image of the noble and voluntary self-sacrifice. This is the matter: this is the image that Milton had established in his defenses of his blindness. Milton had written in the sonnet that we looked at on Monday to Mr. Cyriack Skinner, and he had also written in the Second Defense of the English People, that he had willingly sacrificed his sight for the good of his fellow Englishmen. He lost his eyes “overplied in liberty’s defence, my noble task,” Milton had written in that sonnet. In the Second Defense, Milton explains that he continued to write his regicide treatises despite the advice of his doctors who insisted that he would go blind if he continued – that’s how important the project was for Milton and the sacrifice. You begin to see a way in which the two dominant features of Book Three, Milton’s invocation to light and the discussion of blindness therein and the dialog between the Father and the Son, are speaking to one another and they’re functioning in a kind of parallel fashion.

Just as the Son’s voluntary sacrifice will be rewarded with his inheritance, on some level the heavenly plot of Paradise Lost is essentially an inheritance narrative. The Son’s voluntary sacrifice will be rewarded with his inheritance of all of God’s power. Presumably too, Milton’s sacrifice will also be rewarded by God. It’s as if Milton wants the same compensation of paternal power that the Son had been granted for undergoing his sacrifice.

Let me see what I have time for. The transfusion of divine power that Milton imagines, the transfer of power from Father to the Son, if extrapolated to the situation of the poet and his God, would guarantee the inspired success of the poem. What would that mean? It would guarantee essentially the status of Paradise Lost as scripture itself, as something divinely authorized or perhaps even divinely authored. That, at least, is its relation to Milton’s personal concern with his own composition of Paradise Lost, but this image of a kind of divine transfusion of power and an ultimate transference of power also, I think, speaks to the political component of Milton’s theology. You have in this passage an image of a transfer of power from a centralized authority, the creator of the entire universe, to the humble individual. The image supplies essentially the conceptual foundation for Milton’s liberalism, that form of social organization whereby power has been shifted away from the center, away from the monarch, and toward the subject. You will find images of inheritance and of transference and of transfusion abounding in Paradise Lost; they crop up in all sorts of venues, often having nothing whatsoever to do with the domestic interactions of the godhead.

These images prepare us for that beautiful but truly outrageous endpoint of Christian history that Milton foresees, the one that God had foretold in his speech to the Son. There will come a point in time in which God shall be “All in All.” That’s an idea that works on the level of theology to satisfy nearly every desire; to satisfy the personal, the social, and the political desires of what we can, I think, not entirely wrongly think of as Milton’s idea of the liberal Christian.

Okay. I’m going to end there. We will all read very closely Book Four for Wednesday’s class.

[end of transcript]

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