Saturday, June 23, 2007

"a provoking object"

"Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour..."
(Image from Milton Reading Room)

Given our recent foray into the realm of the Islamists, their worldview, and their aim of banishing corruption from the earth by means of shariah and its legalisms, perhaps the penetrating words of the great John Milton in his difficult but rewarding Areopagitica are relevant here:
If every action which is good, or evill in man at ripe years, were to be under pittance, and prescription, and compulsion, what were vertue but a name, what praise could be then due to well-doing, what gramercy to be sober, just or continent? many there be that complain of divin Providence for suffering Adam to transgresse, foolish tongues! when God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had bin else a meer artificiall Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We our selves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he creat passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly temper'd are the very ingredients of vertu? They are not skilfull considerers of human things, who imagin to remove sin by removing the matter of sin; for, besides that it is a huge heap increasing under the very act of diminishing, though some part of it may for a time be withdrawn from some persons, it cannot from all, in such a universall thing as books are; and when this is done, yet the sin remains entire. Though ye take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewell left, ye cannot bereave him of his covetousnesse. Banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercis'd in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste, that came not thither so: such great care and wisdom is requir'd to the right managing of this point. Suppose we could expell sin by this means; look how much we thus expell of sin, so much we expell of vertue: for the matter of them both is the same; remove that, and ye remove them both alike. This justifies the high providence of God, who though he command us temperance, justice, continence, yet powrs out before us ev'n to a profusenes all desirable things, and gives us minds that can wander beyond all limit and satiety. (John Milton, Areopagitica)
By "pittance," I understand Milton to mean a small wage, perhaps indicating a small reward for acts of virtue, and by "gramercy," he means merit or worth.

His point -- if I may belabor the obvious -- is that God gave individuals a rational, libertarian free will and placed them in a world with many "a provoking object" so as to test their morally praiseworthy virtue in resisting the wrong and doing the right. Without allowing individual freedom to choose good over evil, by enforcing virtue through coercion, we would in fact make virtue less attainable because attained not out of love but of fear even while not truly decreasing vice because only the practice and not the motive could be removed by external means.

What the Islamists -- and the 'puritanizers' everywhere -- fail to see is precisely what Milton saw so clearly:
Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involv'd and interwoven with the knowledge of evill, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discern'd, that those confused seeds which were impos'd on Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixt. It was from out the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdome can there be to choose, what continence to forbeare without the knowledge of evill? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd vertue, unexercis'd & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall 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 triall, and triall is by what is contrary. That vertue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evill, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank vertue, not a pure; her whitenesse is but an excrementall whitenesse.... (John Milton, Areopagitica)
For those of us without a education in the classics (which often includes me), the Milton Reading Room helpfully explains:
The story of Cupid and Psyche is found in Apuleius's The Golden Ass book 5 .... Venus, Psyche's mother-in-law, expressed her jealously by pouring wheat, oats, lentils, and other seeds in a great pile and assigned the girl the seemingly impossible task of sorting them by sundown.
Milton's point here is that good and evil in our fallen world are so intermixed as those seeds, and our 'doom' -- by which is meant the judicial sentence that God has pronounced upon fallen mankind -- is that "of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill."

For this reason, Milton avers that the one who "can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, ... is the true wayfaring Christian." One could say that such a one truly 'submits' to God because one does so freely. Trials, of course, remain, for "that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary."

Milton does not offer a utopian vision of a humanly reformed earth in which no temptation exists that might attract us to commit evil, for we have no power sufficient to form such a world. At our best, we would only make things worse.

And that, as Milton phrases it, would be "but an excrementall whitenesse."



At 10:23 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

A "blank virtue". What a marvellous phrase that is. I think this posting is timely. Much of the desire to kill/to cleanse/to purify is driven by a notion that a perfect earth is possible. Where in history has cleansing ever produced a paradise on earth? The purifcation of Iraq has been a "notable" success. "Paradise Lost" is a wonderful study of the art of I now think about it after your post.

At 3:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Milton may have wanted to have it both ways -- to argue for freedom but to fight for the purifying revolution -- but he perhaps also learned a few things from life by attempting that.

We really do need a new Milton who understands religious motivation and could compose a literary tract that Islamists could understand and that would set forth for them why their efforts at purity will always fail because they fail to understand the human heart.

Jeffery Hodges

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