Saturday, June 28, 2008

John Milton: "transcendentalizing the flesh"?

A transcendental sort of flesh?
(Image from Wikipedia)

On the Milton List recently, Professor John Geraghty made an interesting remark about Alexander Gill, John Milton's old schoolmaster at St. Paul's School, in which Milton enrolled at age 12 -- or did Geraghty intend Alexander Gill the Younger, a lifelong friend of Milton? Anyway, here's the remark:
I remember Alexander Gill referencing that God weaving himself into human flesh at Christ's Nativity sanctifies and redeems human flesh to the point it transcendentalizes it and makes it abhorrent to Satan.

I'd have to look up the reference again, if anyone is interested.
I need to ask him to look that up (and also inform me which Gill is meant), for another list member, James Rovira, observed that this:
Sounds like basic neoplatonic Christian theology.
I wasn't entirely sure about that observation, so I inquired:
Jim, could you (or anybody) elaborate a bit on this sort of Neoplatonism? What makes it Neoplatonic? I'm not challenging, by the way, just asking out of ignorance.

My understanding of the Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition is that it looks upon the body with disdain, spirit and body being fundamentally, dualistically opposed -- the body (soma) as tomb (sema).

The point about God transcendentalizing human flesh reminds me of what Raphael tells Adam about the human body as they discourse upon food in Paradise Lost 5:496-503
And from these corporal nutriments perhaps
Your bodies may at last turn all to Spirit,
Improv'd by tract of time, and wingd ascend
Ethereal, as wee, or may at choice
Here or in Heav'nly Paradises dwell;
If ye be found obedient, and retain
Unalterably firm his love entire
Whose progenie you are.
(Luxon, Thomas H., ed. The Milton Reading Room, June, 2008.)
This possibility seems counter to the Neoplatonic tradition to me -- though it seems to share the view that the spiritual is higher than the corporeal -- for it accepts an underlying commonality between spirit and body.

Ultimately, isn't this more consistent with the Jewish element in Christianity that emphasizes the resurrection of the body than the Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition, which disdains the body?

In other words -- to repeat my initial questions above -- could you elaborate a bit on this sort of Neoplatonism and explain what makes it Neoplatonic?
James Rovira replied:
I think this depends upon what you mean by "transcendentalizing the flesh." For example, you do acknowledge a hierarchy in the passage from PL, but don't you think the body/spirit opposition (hostility) is maintained in that quotation from PL? Our physical bodies are "transformed to spirit" and "improved." Depending on how you read this passage, this idea is very different from saying that our bodies are transformed from one type of body to another while our spirit remains something distinct from, though united to, our physical body, as described by Paul in 1 Cor. It appears to me in this passage that our body transforms into spirit, so that we exist as pure spirit when the process is complete. I should search other relevant context in PL, but these are my first thoughts on the matter.
The list discussion has since gone in other directions, but I wanted to remember my query in case I have some time to pursue it . . . so I'm inflicting it upon you readers of my blog.

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At 10:43 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

"Ethereal, as wee, or may at choice"
I know this is not a question that a Milton scholar would ask, but is the "wee" a spelling for we and if so why did he spell it like that?

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeanie, there's probably a reason beyond the fact that spelling conventions have changed -- and I was ready to joke about Milton considering his own 'wee' etherial, yet restrained myself -- but I don't know the real reason for this spelling.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:01 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Milton here sounds distinctly Neoplatonic, to me, echoing Pico, in his Oration, that man might raise himself to the angelic level. "Il Penseroso" suggests the same: by starving/transcending the body, the poet is lifted into an angelic furor.

At 7:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good to hear from you, Eshuneutics.

Interesting link . . . but neither Adam nor Eve are starving in Paradise, and angels can partake of physical food, so there seems to be no denigration of the physical body, nor does spirit seem to be some totally other substance.

Is this consistent with neoplatonism . . . even of a Christian sort?

I'm somewhat ignorant here...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:55 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

"Il Penseroso" is a curious work, I feel, written at a time when the young Milton was associated with radical Puritanism, yet filled with the rich deserts of Neoplatonic mythology and cryptic detail. "Paradise Lost" is written from a different ideological position in which the Pagan is fallen and a different theology prevails. Raphael/Hermes stands in PL as the Hermetic angel and his statement on food is more of a Christian banquet of sense than a Symposium... I suggest. Milton seems to uphold Christian Neoplatonism.

At 5:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Does "Christian Neoplatonism" denigrate the material world? The Platonic tradition generally did, as I recall.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:45 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

No, not as I understand it. The Platonic world of Forms undoubtedly guided the Neoplatonic imagination, but the god central to this world view is Hermes...a god of the underworld and the entry of Spirit into earthly matter to transform it. Milton's Il Penseroso upholds a dark Neoplatonism, it isn't the usual Platonism of Light.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting. It sounds as though there are links to Kabbalah/Cabala.

So much to learn...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:12 PM, Blogger JG said...

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