Thursday, March 03, 2011

John Rumrich on Moral Order and Begetting of the Son in Milton's Paradise Lost

Living in Korea has its scholarly disadvantages for those of us doing research in the humanities, but generous overseas scholars do sometimes come to the rescue. I had recently gotten interested in a query posed by Dario Rivarossa concerning an odd contrast between two passages in Paradise Lost. In Book 5, verses 600-606, Dario noted, God states concerning His Son:
Hear all ye Angels, Progenie of Light,
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Vertues, Powers,
Hear my Decree, which unrevok't shall stand.
This day I have begot whom I declare
My onely Son, and on this holy Hill
Him have anointed, whom ye now behold
At my right hand; your Head I him appoint;

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, February 2011.]
But in Book 5, verses 833-838, as Dario also noted, the faithful angel Abdiel, arguing against Satan about the Son, maintains:
Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev'n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav'n
By him created in thir bright degrees,

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, February 2011.]
I agreed with Dario that, taken together, these two passages seemed odd coming from Milton because we know from the work of Milton scholars (e.g., Michael Bauman, Milton's Arianism) that Milton held to a quasi-Arian view on the Godhead, i.e., that there is no Trinity and that the Son is not co-eternal with the Father but begotten at some point in time.

That quasi-Arianism fits quite well with Paradise Lost 5.600-606, where God declares in heaven to His assembled angelic host that he has that very day begotten his Son (i.e., "This day I have begot . . . / My onely Son"), which would appear to put the process by which the Son was begotten some time after the creation of the angels. But that same quasi-Arianism appears to be in tension with Paradise Lost 5.833-838, where Abdiel reminds Satan that the begotten Son made all things, including the angels (i.e., "by whom / As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things").

The Son surely cannot be begotten twice. Even that would be beyond God's omnipotence -- assuming that the begetting was unique. But I argued, in a previous blog entry, that there might be a resolution to Milton's two statements if we read carefully. The begotten Son was the one "by whom / As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things." I suggested that we read this as distinguishing between two states of the Word of God: a pre-sonship state and a sonship state, differentiated by the event of being begotten. If so, then for Milton, 'divine sonship' will have been a role taken on by the putatively eternal Word of God in the act of being begotten by God Himself, who (I presume) becomes the Father at that point. I added that this reading of Milton raises the question as to what Milton thought the act of begetting to mean. I still haven't looked into that, but I still suggest that Milton might have thought that the Word was a power of God that became hypostasized through an emanation of God's own substance.

I asked for hermeneutic assistance from scholars on the Milton List and received a number of responses that I ought to delve further into sometime, but the most generous help came from a University of Texas (Austin) professor and Milton scholar, John Rumrich, who sent the above six photos showing pages 156-167 from Matter of Glory: A New Preface to Paradise Lost (Pittsburgh, 1987). These touched on issues beyond just the question of the Son and the Word, but I read them all carefully and responded as follows, but to understand my points clearly, one would probably also need to read the pages yourself (and one can, by clicking the images):
Thanks for the pages . . . . [W]hat you sent was thought-provoking.

I found the distinction between natural order and positive decree interesting, though the distinction was somewhat obscured by the point that from God's perspective of absolute power, even natural order is a matter of positive decree. I am familiar with the tradition of divine voluntarism from reading Hans Blumenberg, but of course, Milton's God is not the arbitrarily voluntarist deity of some forms of nominalism, for Milton appeals to God's intrinsic goodness and reason (so we're not talking Ibn Hazm of Pope Benedict's critique of Islamic theology). And you make this point, too, about God's goodness. I also understand your point about the transition from a naturally good order to a morally good order, an interesting point that I had previously considered only with respect to the tree of knowledge.

The begetting of the Son is also interesting. I think that you're right about the Son being originally the Word and that the 'Sonship' was not eternal. I wonder if one might take begetting as more than metaphorical, however. Much as a baby exists prior to its begetting, so the Son exists prior to His begetting, but not differentiated from God the Father, as the Word. In being begotten, the Word is differentiated from the Father and thereby born as the Son.

This is travestied in the birth of Sin -- which began as a 'conception' in Satan's mind and was born as "Sin" because a "sign" -- the "sign" being travesty of Word. But note that "Sin" is also a pun on "Son" and thus another travesty. Interesting, how Satan gets what he wants, to be like God, except only as travesty.

Thanks again for the thought-provoking pages from your book. I have profited by them.
As noted, there's more here than just the issue of begetting, but on this particular point, I think that Rumrich is correct, namely, that in Milton's thinking, the Word existed prior to its begetting as the Son. Milton is 'heretical' in his quasi-Arianism, but he's rigorous and consistent and grounds his views in scripture and reason, so he's well worth tangling with intellectually, which offers one of the reasons for reading his works, as well as for reading good scholarly interpretations of his works.

But I really need to return soon to my inquiry concerning "and knew not eating Death" . . .

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At 4:36 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

But I really need to return soon to my inquiry concerning "and knew not eating Death"

So, you know not begetting God.

Meaning: "You don't know if God actually begot a Son", or "You don't know if you ARE begetting God, as the Virgin Mary did"?

At 4:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, probably not the latter . . . though I do have a conception of a most perfect being.

Jeffery Hodges

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