Sunday, July 30, 2006

Milton's God: Ignorant or Deceptive?

Plate 12: "Towards the coast of Earth beneath, Down from the ecliptic,
sped with hoped success, Throws his steep flight in many an aery wheel" (PL 3.739-741)
(Image Borrowed Directly From Wikipedia)

On the Milton List that I belong to, the scholars Peter Herman, Jeffrey Wilson, and Michael Bryson (among others) argue that Milton intended to portray a fallible God in his figure of God the Father and that he employed a sort of indirect method of calling our attention to the Father's inconsistencies in the hope that "fit audience ... though few" (PL 7.31) would note the inconcinnities and -- if I be allowed to phrase it this way -- attempt a quasi-Straussian, esoteric reading in which Milton does not so much "justifie the wayes of God to men" (PL 1.26) as critique them.

For example, they argue that the Father's words to the Son in PL 3.80-92 are untrustworthy, specifically when the Father states that Satan is flying "Directly" toward the "new created world," for Satan's flight from heaven and search for mankind have been anything but direct.

While the charge -- of either deception or ignorance -- against the Father has generated some interesting discussion, I haven't yet seen the force of the argument that the word "directly" implies that God the Father, speaking in PL 3.89, is either dishonest or mistaken.

We last saw Satan in PL 2.1034-1055:

But now at last the sacred influence
Of light appears, and from the walls of Heav'n [1035]
Shoots farr into the bosom of dim Night
A glimmering dawn; here Nature first begins
Her fardest verge, and Chaos to retire
As from her outmost works a brok'n foe
With tumult less and with less hostile din, [1040]
That Satan with less toil, and now with ease
Wafts on the calmer wave by dubious light
And like a weather-beaten Vessel holds
Gladly the Port, though Shrouds and Tackle torn;
Or in the emptier waste, resembling Air, [1045]
Weighs his spread wings, at leasure to behold
Farr off th' Empyreal Heav'n, extended wide
In circuit, undetermind square or round,
With Opal Towrs and Battlements adorn'd
Of living Saphire, once his native Seat; [1050]
And fast by hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr
Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon.
Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge,
Accurst, and in a cursed hour he hies. [1055]

We take leave of Satan as he hies toward the pendant world, i.e., the created cosmos hanging by a golden chain, but he still has some distance to go, for the world is far enough distant that it appears no bigger than a star.

We next hear of Satan, as described by God in PL 3.69-92, closely approaching the world:

... [The Almighty Father] then survey'd
Hell and the Gulf between, and Satan there [70]
Coasting the wall of Heav'n on this side Night
In the dun Air sublime, and ready now
To stoop with wearied wings, and willing feet
On the bare outside of this World, that seem'd
Firm land imbosom'd without Firmament, [75]
Uncertain which, in Ocean or in Air.
Him God beholding from his prospect high,
Wherein past, present, future he beholds,
Thus to his onely Son foreseeing spake.
Onely begotten Son, seest thou what rage [80]
Transports our adversarie, whom no bounds
Prescrib'd, no barrs of Hell, nor all the chains
Heapt on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt can hold; so bent he seems
On desparate reveng, that shall redound [85]
Upon his own rebellious head. And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not farr off Heav'n, in the Precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World,
And Man there plac't, with purpose to assay [90]
If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert;

As some have noted, "world" at that time was the usual term for "cosmos." Given that Satan is "Coasting the wall of Heav'n on this side Night / ... and ready now / To stoop with wearied wings, and willing feet / On the bare outside of this World," then the Father seems accurate in maintaining of Satan that "now / Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way / Not farr off Heav'n, in the Precincts of light, / Directly towards the new created World." At this point, Satan's movement is direct. He has had the newly created world in his sights since first spying it in PL 2.1051ff, where it appeared about the size of a star, knows from the 'rumor' in heaven that he will find mankind there, and has been hieing his way toward it since the moment that he first spied it.

At the time that God describes Satan in flight, he is winging his way directly toward the newly created world, i.e., the cosmos, if we assume that "World" in PL 2.74 has the same referent as "World" in PL 2.89, which seems to me a safe assumption.

Thus, "directly," as descriptive of Satan's direction at this moment in his flight, looks accurate to me.

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At 10:17 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

Hope you have recovered from your holiday. The places looked beautiful. This post has me entirely puzzled. I cannot imagine any reason for Milton asserting that God the Father was fallible. Like you, I can sense no element of mis-direction in God's speech. If Milton had wanted to do this, he could have used numerical composition (as one strategy of irony or ambiguity) to create a "critique". But the Father's view to his Son does no such thing. It is a pefectly balanced panoramic speech, centred by line count on reason, which is a familiar strategy (central/ triumphal structuring) in PL. The flawed Creator theory appears to me to be a matter of flawed criticism.

At 5:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree, it does seem to be flawed criticism -- in this instance, anyway. The arguments, of course, don't rest only this one word "directly." The scholars who read Milton as critiquing the Father-God that he himself presents in Paradist Lost have many other arguments, not all of them so easy to answer. But I'm still not convinced by them.

Oh, and I have indeed recovered and am back to translating some articles on political science from French into English for a journal here in Korea ... time taken away from the articles on Milton that I want to compose this summer.

Jeffery Hodges

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