Excursus on Postlapsarian Language in Milton's Paradise Lost
Recently on the Milton List, a rather energetic debate over "fallen language" in Paradise Lost has taken place. At issue is whether Milton believed in a distinction between pre- and postlapsarian language -- and if he did so believe, did he attempt to distinguish these two in his epic poem, Paradise Lost.
Four years ago, I published an article in Milton Studies of Korea (13.2, November 2003, 321‐54). The article was titled "Free‐Will Theodicy, Middle‐Knowledge Theology, Ramist Linguistics, and Satanic Psychology in Paradise Lost," and it included an exursus on "fallen language," not only in Milton's thought but also in the thought of others around the same time as Milton.
In case anyone might be interested, I have posted that excursus here. The entire article can be read online in a pdf format, but some of my footnotes were lost in the editing process, partly due to a different computer program used by the editors and an incomplete reconstruction of my text (as I discovered after publication). I have put some of the missing notes back in in the material posted below:
"Excursus on Ramus and Language" (from Horace Jeffery Hodges, "Free‐Will Theodicy...," Milton Studies of Korea 13.2, November 2003, pages 336-42)
Of more consequence to my own argument [concerning Satan's use of ambiguous language], however, is a line that occurs in Paradise Regained. In God's own words, spoken to the archangel Gabriel, humanity will regain through Christ:what the first man lostMilton's choice of the term "fallacy" suggests an interest in the proper use of logic. In fact, as is well known, Milton prepared a textbook on the subject, The Art of Logic, an abbreviated version of the logic of Peter Ramus. This strongly implies two things, 1) that Milton's interest in the proper use of logic was rather serious indeed and 2) that Milton's interest lay in a very particular kind of logic called "Ramist." One should note that Ramist logic was openly anti‐Aristotelian. Whereas Aristotle's logic was rigorously syllogistic, Ramus emphasized a different approach that used clear distinctions between paired concepts to form dichotomies of ever‐greater precision and thereby purge language of ambiguity. According to John Carey, Ramus's logical system was intended to guide one to absolute truths through the construction of tabular diagrams illustrating the dichotomies (Carey, John Donne, 218).
By fallacy surprised. (Carey, John Milton, 437: PR 1.154‐55)
Given this understanding of logic, what was the fallacy that engendered the fall? Fowler strongly implies that the fallacy was one of equivocation, for he states that in tempting Eve, "Satan . . . argues . . . fallaciously altering the meaning of knowledge in mid‐sorites" (Fowler, 511, n. 9.698-9), a linguistic skill previously perfected by him during his rebellion in heaven, where he already is "scoffing in ambiguous words" (Fowler, 367, PL 6.568; cf. 5.703). A similar equivocation occurs in 9.713‐14, where Satan shifts the meaning of "death." Eve finds his words "impregned / With reason, to her seeming, and with truth" (Fowler, 513, PL 9.737‐738), thus falling for the equivocations. This recalls Adam's warning in 9.351‐356:. . . what obeysThe phrase "by some fair appearing good surprised" finds its concise equivalent in the phrase "by fallacy surprised," and this equivalence is supported by reference to the tree of knowledge's produce as "fallacious fruit" (Fowler, 530, PL 9.1046). The fallacy of equivocation here implied, i.e., that something appears to have one sense but really has another, is a danger to which human discursive reason is prone because it must pursue truth through language, unlike angelic intuitive reason, which has immediate perception of truth (cf. Fowler, 312, PL 5.487-90; Bennett, 109). Ramus's dichotomies were intended to avoid fallacious reasoning of this sort by making clear distinctions, and Milton specifically discusses the fallacy of equivocation in his Art of Logic.
Reason, is free, and reason . . . [God] made right
But bid her well beware, and still erect,
Lest by some fair appearing good surprised
She dictate false, and misinform the will
To do what God expressly hath forbid. (Fowler, 489, PL 9.351‐56)
Intriguingly, for our interests, Ramus allows that poetry can be used to present logical arguments. According to Walter J. Ong:Ramus . . . , assigning the discovery of all arguments and their arrangement to the one sole 'art' which he styled indifferently dialectic or logic, maintained adamantly that logic was logic, the same in poetry as in mathematics. (Ong, 43a‐b)Ong further notes that the process of:. . . bipartite division employed . . . in Ramist dialectic . . . was . . . 'method,' one of the two types of reasoning processes, of which the other was syllogism. Syllogism handled shorter structures of thought, method all longer structures, whether scientific treatises (including those on dialectic itself), classroom teaching, orations (including sermons), letters, narrations, and poetry. (Ong, 43b)Clearly, such a view on the capacity of poetry to pursue absolute truths as effectively as mathematics would appeal to a rational poet like Milton.
Just as clearly, however, it would not exhaust his reasons for turning to poetry to resolve a logical problem. Poetry, of course, shares the limitations of all postlapsarian language. As Robert L. Entzminger notes:When Adam falls in Paradise Lost, so does his language . . . . Milton's Adam forfeits at the Fall the insight into things that their Edenic names express, and thus his postlapsarian speech bears at most an external resemblance to the purity and clarity of innocent words. (Entzminger, 1)To counter this problem, Milton followed other Reformation thinkers in considering "Pentecost . . . the dispensation which counters the curse, converting the degeneration of language to a felix culpa" (Entzminger, 89). He even partly retrojects this Pentecostal blessing back upon Babel itself by stating in his Art of Logic that every language, "both that first one which Adam spoke in Eden, and those varied ones . . . which the builders of the tower of Babel suddenly received, are without doubt divinely given" (Entzminger, 89). Still, human nature, human language, and human reason remain fallen, even for those regenerated by grace, so Milton must repeatedly invoke and directly appeal to the Holy Spirit to inspire his poem and guarantee its truth:
Original sin introduced the qualities of confusion and ambiguity into human speech, and Babel made them permanent features of the language. . . . (Entzminger, 169). . . O Spirit . . .Milton even claims, quite explicitly, to be "Taught by the heavenly Muse" (Fowler, 167, PL 3.19) who visits him each night as he sleeps (Fowler, 391, PL 7.28-9) and conveys to him exactly what he should say:
Instruct me, for thou knowest; thou from the first
Wast present. . . . (Fowler, 59-60, PL 1.17‐20)
. . . govern thou my song. . . . (Fowler, 391, PL 7.30). . . my celestial patroness . . . deignsDespite this claim, he fears that he may fail in his quest as he wings his way toward a higher argument:
Her nightly visitation unimplored,
And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated verse. . . . (Fowler, 469, PL 9.21‐4). . . higher argumentAll three of these factors ― "cultural belatedness and nature's general corruption," a "cold / Climate," and Milton's 58 "years" ― ultimately "follow from [God's commands to his mighty angels in Book] X 651ff, [which put into effect] the macrocosmicconsequences of the Fall" (Fowler, 471, n. 44-47) and threaten Milton's ability to find an "answerable style" (Fowler, 468, PL 9.20) to the Holy Spirit's nightly dictates.
Remains, sufficient of itself
. . . unless an age too late, or cold
Climate, or years damp my intended wing
Depressed, and much they may, if all be mine,
Not hers who brings it nightly to my ear. (Fowler, 470-1, PL 9.42‐47)
Thus, the problematic that Karl Barth and Emmanuel Levinas identify as "the divine Word within words," i.e., God's Word in the human words of scripture (Ward, 151; cf. 147-70), characterizes Milton's poetry. Yet even if Milton should manage to attain a language adequate to divine truths, this language would not be, for instance, "the mathematically precise language projected by the Royal Society" (Entzminger, 169; cf. 21-2), whose members:. . . sought . . . to purify language through a program of deliberate linguistic reform, eliminating its ambiguities and imprecisions and achieving thereby a verbal system possessing the clarity and accuracy necessary for an instrument of scientific inquiry. (Entzminger, 168)Despite his Ramist logic, Milton did not attempt to eliminate ambiguity in language. As Entzminger notes, not even prelapsarian language was mathematically precise:In his presentation of unfallen language, Milton offers metaphor and pun where the linguists expect mathematical precision, opulent redundancy where they imagine terseness. Employing this verbal play, Adam and Eve are able to express their thoughts immediately and fully, and their words identify their referents without becoming a substitute for them. (Entzminger, 43)These rhetorical tropes of metaphor and wordplay remain a part of fallen language, as does the ambiguity introduced by original sin. Indeed, Milton makes very effective rhetorical use of linguistic ambiguity. Raman Selden and Peter Widdowson note an example of this:Describing the fallen angels' state of awareness, having plummeted from heaven to hell, Milton wrote in Paradise Lost: 'Nor did they not perceive the evil plight' [(PL 1.335)]. This cannot be treated as a statement equivalent to 'they perceived the evil plight.' We must attend, argues [Stanley] Fish [(Fish, 25-6; 33-4)], to the sequence of words which creates a state of suspension in the reader, who hangs between two views of the fallen angels' awareness. . . . [Such a syntactic technique] prevents the reader from establishing a definite or stable image in the mind, and at each stage in the sentence forces the reader to make an adjustment in expectation. . . . (Selden and Widdowson, 58)Milton's effective technique of destabilizing the image that his readers form as they follow the sequence of his words recalls the unstable, shifting images used in Gestalt psychology. The Korean literary critic Sun‐Ae Hwang draws upon Gestalt theory to illustrate the way in which the modernist Austrian writer Robert Musil employs language to evoke unstable and sometimes even paradoxical images in the minds of readers in order to convey aesthetic truths (cf. Hwang, passim), and it might be fruitful to think of Milton's imagery in terms of shifting Gestalts for conveying truths that reason cannot fully elucidate.
There is thus in the act of interpretation a nonrational moment necessary for securing a place for rationality, and Milton makes the most of it. Indeed, it is part and parcel of a turn from a Ramist logos to Baroque mythos. Hans Blumenberg, for example, has argued that Socrates turns from logos to mythos:. . . in order to answer . . . questions that under the strict claim to knowledge would not be answerable . . . . The floating, uncategorical, almost poetical form of assertion that is characteristic of myth is the vehicle by means of which, after Socrates's great turning toward logic and ethics, the philosophy of nature returns to philosophical thought, widely visible and with lasting influence in the demiurgic myth of the Timaeus. (Blumenberg, 251)In effect, mythos secures logos. Milton is doing something similar, using mythos to secure theo‐logos. But he is treading upon dangerous ground. Ambiguity overlaps with deception, the realm of the Satanic. It is the linguistic equivalent of the formlessness of chaos and of Satan's metamorphic ability.
Bennett, Joan S. Reviving Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton's Great Poems (London: Harvard University Press, 1989).
Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Translated by Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983).
Carey, John, editor. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (London: Faber and Faber, 1981).
Carey, John, editor. John Milton, Paradise Regained. In John Milton: Complete Shorter Poems (London: Longman, 1971).
Entzminger, Robert L. Divine Word: Milton and the Redemption of Language (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1985).
Fowler, Alastair. Paradise Lost (London: Longman, 1998).
Hwang, Sun-Ae. Liebe als aesthetische Kategorie: Zu "Drei Frauen" von Robert Musil (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1996).
Ong, Walter Jackson. "Ramus." In Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973).
Selden, Raman and Peter Widdowson, A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993).
Ward, Graham, Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).