Tuesday, January 03, 2012

John Milton: "The end then of Learning . . ."

Adam, Eve, and Archangel Michael
Illustration for John Milton's Paradise Lost
Gustav Doré

Jessica Martin has a somewhat interesting, four-part series in the Guardian on Milton's epic, Paradise Lost, and in her first of the four, she quotes a statement from Milton's 1644 essay Of Education that caught my attention -- though her hyperlink is to the wrong text (so I'm linking here and for other of Milton's texts to Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January 2012):
The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.

With the right hermeneutic key, one sees that Milton is applying an Arminian understanding of human effort together with divine grace as both together cooperating to bring the individual into a right knowledge of God. Indeed, given the temporal sequence of learning followed by assisting grace -- whether prevenient or soteriological -- as reflected in the verbal sequence of clauses, the careful hermeneut could be forgiven in concluding that for Milton, human effort comes first and is completed (possibly rewarded?) by grace, as though deserved! I therefore suspect that we are to read the following passage from Milton's 1643 essay on the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce as subtly indicating agreement with the Jesuit position on Middle Knowledge and the views of Arminius, which seem derived from those Jesuit teachings:
The Jesuits, and that sect among us which is nam'd of Arminius, are wont to charge us of making God the author of sinne in two degrees especially, not to speak of his permissions. 1. Because we hold that he hath decreed some to damnation, and consequently to sinne, say they: Next, because those means which are of saving knowledge to others, he makes to them an occasion of greater sinne. Yet considering the perfection wherin man was created, and might have stood, no decree necessitating his free will, but subsequent though not in time yet in order to causes which were in his owne power, they might, methinks be perswaded to absolve both God and us.

Why do I suspect subtle agreement? Because Milton slyly remarks "they might, methinks be perswaded to absolve both God and us"! I therefore also think that Milton was even signaling suble agreement with the Jesuits and Arminius through his reference to their views in his 1644 essay Areopagitica:
But of our Priests and Doctors how many have bin corrupted by studying the comments of Jesuits and Sorbonists, and how fast they could transfuse that corruption into the people, our experience is both late and sad. It is not forgot, since the acute and distinct Arminius was perverted meerly by the perusing of a namelesse discourse writt'n at Delf, which at first he took in hand to confute.

Admittedly, one has to read Milton's words here as ironic, but I think that we should, for we know from other writings that Milton soon came to express open agreement with Arminius, and Maurice Kelley tells us that even in Areopagitica, Milton "at least tacitly accepted the Arminian position on free will" ("Introduction," Christian Doctrine, Complete Prose Works of John Milton, Volume 6, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973, page 82). But did Milton know of the Jesuit views on Middle Knowledge? I've not yet found any obviously smoking gun in Milton's works to support this for certain.

I strongly suspect it, however, and Benjamin Myers book on Milton's Theology of Freedom makes the possibility even more plausible, for he notes the widely known debates over Middle Knowledge in the mid-seventeenth century.

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At 11:20 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Milton reminds me of Plato describing his notion of Anamnesis, or remembering. Plato believed education is recovering knowledge we already possess. We--or our souls--possess the knowledge of our past cycles of embodied and disembodied existence. Education is simply the recovery of this "lost" knowledge. Moreover, consider Milton's emphasis upon ethical/moral recovery in the passage you quote, and it is very hard not to conclude this is a very very close parallel to Socrates (and Plato's) notion that what makes a man sin is lack of knowledge, that the cause of evil is ignorance, and that knowledge is therefore virtue.

Milton adds and underscores the notion that we must pass through a period of ignorance in order to somehow fully and properly recover our virtue. And what Milton also seems to add is the idea that the restoration of our knowledge is affected by forces outside of us, though, as Plato suggests, the knowledge that is recovered is all the time within us.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

And thank you for this post, Jeffery.

At 7:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I had noticed a quasi-Gnostic aspect -- or what is often taken to be Gnostic -- but decided to deal with that some other time.

Hans Blumenberg has some interesting things to say on anamnesis and Gnosis in his Legitimacy of the Modern World.

Jeffery Hodges

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