Monday, June 13, 2005

A "cloistered virtue"

Maverick Philosopher, in a post "Milton Praises the Strenuous Life" (an allusion to one of Teddy Roosevelt's speeches?) quotes Richard Weaver quoting John Milton:

"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by that which is contrary."

The quote is from Milton's Areopagitica, subtitled: "A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parlament of England." Milton prefaces this with a quote from Euripides, The Suppliants 437-440:

This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv's high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State then this?

Milton's speech, as you will have surmised, is one in favor of free speech, and he understands this to include a free press.

In his speech, and specifically in the 'strenuous' quote above, Milton argues for freedom by insisting that any growth in our morally praiseworthy virtue requires that we be tested by trials that can lead us to greater moral development and thereby purify us.

In a sense, Milton is arguing that public vice produces private virtue.

Interestingly, Milton presents Eve arguing much the same in Paradise Lost, Book 9.335:

And what is Faith, Love, Vertue unassaid . . . ?

In this line, Eve is arguing that she should have the right to depart from Adam's side and work alone in the Garden of Eden even though Satan might approach and test her through temptation. "Without testing, what is virture?" is her rhetorical question.

In lines 367-369, Adam counters:

Wouldst thou approve thy constancie, approve
First thy obedience; th' other who can know,
Not seeing thee attempted, who attest?

With these words, Adam attempts to dissuade Eve from potentially exposing her virtue of loyalty to God to any testing by a trial of temptation, urging instead her obedience.

But he gives her leave to go. We know the story. She fails the test, and falls. After Adam also falls, he rues having allowed Eve to leave his side, arguing that she had been overconfident in opening herself to a 'glorious' trial of temptation (1175-1177):

But confidence then bore thee on, secure
Either to meet no danger, or to finde
Matter of glorious trial;

So, Eve defends a tested, uncloistered virtue; Adam opposes putting oneself to the test. Who's playing the Devil's advocate here? And does Milton take Adam's side . . . or Eve's?


At 3:29 AM, Blogger Ramona said...

Milton is on Eve's side. That which calls itself "virtue" is just a fancy, cheap word meaning NOTHING unless it has been put to the test. I read Paradise Lost many decades ago and this one idea always stayed with me.

Untried, "virtue" promotes hypocrisy. I think of so many of the church "fathers" whose self-righteousness scapegoated female victims for their own (the men's) crimes.


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