Milton's Vitiated Serpent?
Over on the Milton List, there has been an interesting discussion concerning the 'punishment' of the hapless serpent, mere guiltless instrument of Satan's malice in his temptation of Eve to eat the fruit of knowledge, a verdict rendered in PL 10.163-182, immediately following Eve's 'displacement' of guilt onto the poor reptile:
Which when the Lord God heard, without delayThe lines 175 to 181 are taken over by Milton from the Genesis account, which Milton accepted as inspired, so he had to make do with the scene, though it doesn't accord well with his theory of justice, where guilt is attributed solely to those who are moral agents, namely, those with free will -- those whose reason remains in control.
To Judgement he proceeded on th' accus'd
Serpent though brute, unable to transferre [ 165 ]
The Guilt on him who made him instrument
Of mischief, and polluted from the end
Of his Creation; justly then accurst,
As vitiated in Nature: more to know
Concern'd not Man (since he no further knew) [ 170 ]
Nor alter'd his offence; yet God at last
To Satan first in sin his doom apply'd
Though in mysterious terms, judg'd as then best:
And on the Serpent thus his curse let fall.
Because thou hast done this, thou art accurst [ 175 ]
Above all Cattle, each Beast of the Field;
Upon thy Belly groveling thou shalt goe,
And dust shalt eat all the dayes of thy Life.
Between Thee and the Woman I will put
Enmitie, and between thine and her Seed; [ 180 ]
Her Seed shall bruise thy head, thou bruise his heel.
Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, April 2012.
The central lines to examine are descriptive of the serpent as "polluted from the end / Of his Creation; justly then accurst, / As vitiated in Nature." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "pollute" in Milton's time can mean "to render ceremonially or morally impure," and the word "vitiate" in Milton's time could mean "to make impure" (OED, Compact Edition, Vol. 2, 1988, pp. 2230 and 3645). The word "end" of line 166 refers to the purpose, or telos, for which God created the serpent.
Milton is combining biblical concepts and Greek philosophical concepts -- the former concerning impurity, the latter concerning teleology -- and he's perhaps interpreting the former in terms of the latter, though the two cohere only uncertainly. The crux is this: impurity is an active, unholy force that penetrates and pollutes, whereas the telos ("the end") allows for a more passive, instrumental misuse, namely, the serpent's use as an instrument to pervert rather than effect God's purposes. The problem for Milton lies in explaining how the misuse of a creature without free will leaves its mark upon that creature. For such to be the case, impurity would have to be an active force remaining in the serpent even after Satan has withdrawn from that creature. Otherwise, the serpent would simply return to its prior purity and its previous role in God's purposes. Milton, indeed, seems uncomfortable with impurity as a force, else he wouldn't write that the serpent had been used as "instrument / Of mischief, and polluted from the end / Of his Creation," for in expressing the term "polluted" in the context of the words "instrument" and "end," he assimilates "polluted" to "perverted," mere misuse. But why should a one-time misuse leave the serpent tainted? In Milton's system of justice, creatures with free will can cetainly misuse God's creation, for absent that power for misuse, free will would be without effect, but justice would require punishment of the guilty alone, not of their hapless instruments. Milton thus draws upon the connotation of the term "polluted" for its sense of 'taint' -- even though this is repugnant to his system of justice -- because he needs to account for God's judgment upon the serpent.
Milton's discomfort with this 'solution' shows through in the rather passive manner in whch God 'judges' the serpent ("judg'd as then best: / And on the Serpent thus his curse let fall"), as though the judging is meant in the sense of evaluating, namely, seeing that the serpent is accursed ("thou art accurst") and stating that as a fact.
Judge for yourselves . . .