Saturday, April 14, 2012

Milton's Vitiated Serpent?

Biblia Pauperum

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 delay
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 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.

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 . . .

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At 5:10 AM, Blogger dhr said...

ha! gotta go now, but tomorrow morning (CET) I will surely deal with this stuff! meanwhile, thanks for choosing this subject :-)

At 5:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

i've been tainted by Milton and thus can't help myself . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:26 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Hmm. This distinguishes God the creator (of the serpent) from God the judge. And is God here a supreme "judge", or is he more like us in this case?

"As vitiated in Nature: more to know Concern'd not Man (since he no further knew)"

Could it be that God is about as clueless as we are in this matter? That is, God observes the condition of the serpent, and the "judgment" is pronounced but it is simply God stating that a snake is a pretty miserable animal--pretty much the same "judgment" (rather description/observation) any of us would make.

For some reason I am reminded of Starbuck admonishing Ahab for seeking to take out his vengeance upon Moby Dick, who Starbuck calls "a brute animal." With much theological force, Starbuck says that seeking vengeance against a brute animal is "blasphemy."

Perhaps Milton is chafing against the implicit barbarism of the Biblical passage--inspired revelation or no--which presents God cursing the animal for the role it has played?

Further note: A glance at the Talmudic commentary on the Torah passage in question might prove interesting.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The God of Milton is complicated (though not so complex as that of the orthodox trinitarian), but the "Lord God" here is the Son, and in the context is playing the roles of judge and intercessor. He also happens to be creator . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:03 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Genesis itself was not very clear: Was the Serpent simply "the Satan," or a normal reptile haunted by him? In fact, in the history of art and literature, both solutions have been adopted.

Milton follows the same tradition as Dante, i.e. a natural snake being used by the devil. More precisely, in Purgatorio 8 (the mount of purgatory being Eden itself, a revolutionary concept) he sees that very beast; who was then some 5,000 years old, according to the Medieval chronology. Dante says that that was the serpent who "gave the apple to Eve," but the reptile is - at least from a narrative standpoint - different from Satan, whom the poet described in Inferno 34 as confined in the Earth's core.

Even more interestingly, in Inferno 25 the punishment of the thieves has a much more universal meaning, since the serpents 'steal' Man's image, rob him of his dignity, of his likeness with God.


At 3:14 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Another major source of Milton, Torquato Tasso's long poem "Gerusalemme Liberata" (Jerusalem Delivered), shows a big snake threatening the heroes who rescue the knight Ruggiero from the island of the witch Alcina. His description will be almost literally translated by Milton for his Serpent.

So, all in all, in Medieval and Renaissance literature the snake maintained a halfway condition between the natural animal and the religious symbol. The problem with Milton, as you remark, is that he details things too much, he both quotes the Bible and 'explains' it; so that he sometimes has a hard time trying to find a wholly consistent solution.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The difficulty that Milton sets for himself -- or was it set by his Protestant heritage? -- was that he needed to preserve a literal reading to ground his other meanings.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:01 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Yep, in fact. That is nowadays the problem of many American Evangelicals who love dinosaurs nonetheless.

Unlike other poets, Milton seems unable to leave myths in the realm of myths, i.e. something deep, meaningful, 'real,' but at a different level than everyday life. He tries to explain why a biological serpent was able to speak, why the Earth's axis was shifted, etc.

Tasso in his "Mondo Creato" had the very same problems, but he dealt with this difficulty, he discussed the different and opposite conjectures, instead of 'finding a (one) solution.'

At 8:05 PM, Blogger dhr said...

P.S. Milton does this only one time, as to the relative movements of Sun and Earth, presenting the two hypotheses.

At 8:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But he does similar things with the holiness-impurity system and the ethical concept of evil based on free-will choices.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:42 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Do you mean the PL verses you cited, or some theological essay by Milton on those very subjects?

At 6:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In working on an article (published a few years ago) about the Tree of Knowledge as "sacred," I noticed some ambiguity in Paradise Lost on whether the tree was pervaded by a force of holiness that made it taboo to touch or was simply forbidden to touch as a test of human faith in God.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:53 AM, Blogger dhr said...

This also is very interesting.


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