Friday, May 19, 2006

A damned rich argument...

(Borrowed from Wikipedia)

Milton's greatness as an epic poet lies partly in his willingness to give the devils their due and allow them good arguments.

Take the demon Mammon's remarks on the impossibility of forgiveness for the fallen angels, and their potential greatness in accepting their damned conditions:

... Suppose he [i.e., God] should relent
And publish Grace to all, on promise made
Of new Subjection; with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict Laws impos'd, to celebrate his Throne
With warbl'd Hymns, and to his Godhead sing
Forc't Halleluiah's; while he Lordly sits
Our envied Sovran, and his Altar breathes
Ambrosial Odours and Ambrosial Flowers,
Our servile offerings. This must be our task
In Heav'n, this our delight; how wearisom
Eternity so spent in worship paid
To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue
By force impossible, by leave obtain'd
Unacceptable, though in Heav'n, our state
Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek
Our own good from our selves, and from our own
Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easie yoke
Of servile Pomp. Our greatness will appeer
Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,
Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse
We can create, and in what place so e're
Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain
Through labour and indurance. (PL 2.237-262)
The fallen angel Mammon makes two points. First, submission again to God after such a rebellion as theirs would be impossible, for how could they ever again serve the one whom they hate? Second, freedom in hell is preferable for rebels such as they, and the hard freedom that they enjoy there will serve to enhance their stature as they learn to thrive under evil.

Milton makes the fallen angels almost admirable in their honesty and fortitude. Of course, he's also careful to remind us of their fallenness and inadmirable traits:

Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From heav'n, for ev'n in heav'n his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav'ns pavement, trod'n Gold,
Then aught divine or holy else enjoy'd
In vision beatific: (PL 1.679-684)
Even in heaven and unfallen, the guy was bad news ... which raises the question as to why God created him, especially if "his looks and thoughts / Were always downward bent"! That temporal adverb "always" makes incrementally harder Milton's task of "justify[ing] the ways of God to men," for taken literally, it would mean that God created Mammon with an already bad character.

That aside, however, Milton usefully employs Mammon's excellent points to imply God's justice. God is not harsh in refusing to extend forgiveness to the fallen angels, for they don't want it; rather, God is lenient in allowing the fallen angels liberty to pursue their willfulness wherever it might lead ... within circumscribed bounds, of course.

Thus does Mammon -- as did Belial -- unknowingly imp upon the wing of his small arguments Milton's greater argument to "assert the eternal providence, / And justify the ways of God to men."


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