Tuesday, September 25, 2007

God's advice: "swerve not too secure"

That swyving swerve...
(Image from Wikipedia)

On the Milton List, Professor James Fleming posed a very interesting query about Paradise Lost 5.237-8:
I have always loved God's instruction to Raphael: "Whence warn him [Adam] to beware he swerve not too secure." What the heck does that mean, anyway?
Okay, you might not find this so damned interesting, but it's a fascinating question for Milton scholars to ponder, however boringly ponderous others might find it. And it has occasioned a lot of discussion, including about the use of "secure" (rather than "securely") as an adverb.

I hadn't posted on this topic until just this morning, and since I'm running late today, I'll inflict my speculations on all of my Gypsy Scholar readership.

But first, I need to quote what Professor John Rumrich suggested:
My suspicion is that, "swerve" here deliberately recalls Lucretius's notion of clinamen in a context where the indeterminacy of animate matter in motion is a function of free will rather than of an inexplicable fact of nature.

Someone else may have already said as much and I missed it. If so, apologies for the repetition.

By the way, the OED lists numerous instances from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of "secure" being used as an adverb: from Marlow, Shakespeare, the AV, and Massinger among others.
Now, finally, my speculations, spurred by Professor Rumrich's post:
I had a similar thought about "swerve" as being linked to the "swerve" in Lucretius, but more as an indeterminacy of inert matter in motion serving two functions: as the precondition of the atoms departing from their straight-line free fall and coming into contact to form larger associations of matter and as the precondition of human free will.

Note that I wrote 'inert'. That's my memory of Lucretius from about 30 years ago. Professor Rumrich refers to "animate matter." Did Lucretius's De Reum Natura assume matter to be animate? Perhaps I'm conflating the earlier, Greek atomists with the Roman Lucretius?

Either way, Lucretius introduced the "swerve" for two reasons, one being the precondition for human freedom. And free will is partly what the passage in Paradise Lost concerns:

Go therefore, half this day as friend with friend
Converse with Adam, in what Bowre or shade [230]
Thou find'st him from the heat of Noon retir'd,
To respit his day-labour with repast,
Or with repose; and such discourse bring on,
As may advise him of his happie state,
Happiness in his power left free to will, [235]
Left to his own free Will, his Will though free,
Yet mutable; whence warne him to beware
He swerve not too secure: tell him withall
His danger, and from whom, what enemie
Late falln himself from Heav'n, is plotting now [240]
The fall of others from like state of bliss;
By violence, no, for that shall be withstood,
But by deceit and lies; this let him know,
Lest wilfully transgressing he pretend
Surprisal, unadmonisht, unforewarnd. (PL 5.229-245)

Adam and Eve have been given only one command, the negative prohibition concerning the tree -- neither to touch it nor to eat its fruit. For all else, they must rely upon their free will guided by reason not misinformed by imagination, inattention, fallacy, or some other mistake that would lead them into making the wrong choice.

Now, the Garden is such and their perfection is such that Adam and Eve would ordinarily encounter no difficulty in choosing correctly. Left free to their own choices, they would freely choose the right.

Yet, they have certain inclinations that they have to be wary of in Eden's changed circumstances, for an evil presence has entered their world, even into Paradise. They cannot leave themselves so much freedom as before. That is dangerous. Thus, when Adam admits to an overwhelming love for Eve, a love that leads him to elevate her to a height beyond himself, despite his knowing better, Raphael advises him to take care and to judge rightly. As we know, he does not do so, but allows his love for Eve to mislead him into accepting the apple from her hand. Eve also 'swerves' too freely in her sense of security. She wishes more latitude from Adam, less constriction, more freedom to work alone, which suggests dissatisfaction with being subordinated to Adam, and that inclination, which would ordinarily lead to nothing evil, leaves her open to temptation in the Garden's altered circumstances. We know what happens.

Adam and Eve both "swerve ... too secure," i.e., they freely choose too securely in their changed circumstances, and thus freely choose to act in ways that lead them to their fall.

That's how I read this phrase "beware / He swerve not too secure."
The Miltonians have yet to respond, but I promise not to report back on this unless I receive an overwhelming response from Gypsy Scholar readers. I think that would mean that at least three of my five readers would have to express interest.

That would overwhelm me...

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At 12:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I swerve to obtain secure knowledge I should not appear foolish.

But. Might it have been an admonition not to go out dancing?


At 5:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dancing? You mean moving your body in three directions at once?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did have that in mind, but what I really had was your request to have at least 3 of your 5 respond.
The comments when I logged on looked so lonely.


At 6:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, there's now two of us, for I'm a reader of my own blog...

Jeffery Hodges

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