Sunday, July 13, 2008

John Milton: potestas ordinata, potestas absoluta, reason, and arbitratry commands

The Garden of the Hesperides, 1892
Had apples been a matter of complete indifference . . .
(Image from Wikipedia)

The Milton scholar Harold Skulsky, not only a Miltonist but also a philosopher and historian of science, recently posted to the Milton List some interesting points on Milton's views concerning God's power, and since these points bear on my view of how Milton understood the Tree of Knowledge, then I'll post them here along with the brief exchange that followed.

Concerning God's power and moral law, Skulsky argues:
In the Augustinian tradition the moral law is an expression of God's ordained power (potestas ordinata). But God retains the absolute power (potestas absoluta) to have established another law entirely. Divine law could diverge from morality as divinely enacted, but (given God's unity and constancy) it never will. Milton rejects the voluntarism underlying this view.
In other words, God cannot arbitrarily create a different set of moral law. God could not, for example, have enjoined rape as a moral act. Concerning physical law, however, God could freely have ordained a different system:
In my view, Milton takes "A efficiently causes B" to mean "According to the laws God has decreed for his creation, A-type events are always followed by B-type events." Since God could have chosen a different physics, efficient causality reflects the potestas ordinata, not the potestas absoluta, making Milton a voluntarist in this respect. By contrast, morality for Milton, if I am not mistaken, is ontologically rock bottom and not a matter of naked will.
I think that this is correct about Milton, with one exception, and I have posed the following query on the Milton List:
Professor Skulsky, I have a question, and I will echo your own words to express it.

I found interesting the distinction that you note between God's ordained power (potestas ordinata) and his absolute power (potestas absoluta).

Milton, you explain, rejects the voluntarism underlying the view that God might have to have established another moral law entirely because morality for Milton is ontologically rock bottom and not a matter of naked will.

In contrast to this, Milton accepts the view that God could have chosen a different physics, for efficient causality reflects the potestas ordinata, not the potestas absoluta, thereby making Milton a voluntarist in this respect.

My question is this: Is the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge arbitrary? Put differently, are there some commands that forbid acts that ordinarily would be morally neutral? Could one say that Milton would never accept that God might forbid the good or enjoin the bad but that Milton might accept that as a test, God might forbid or enjoin something otherwise morally neutral?

That, you will recall, was the distinction that I was attempting to make concerning the opacity of the command not to eat of the tree. The command was opaque to reason, whereas rationality would have guided Adam and Eve correctly on all other points of moral thought, word, and deed.

What is your opinion?
Professor Skulsky replies (and "A&E" refers to "Adam and Eve"):
Yes, Milton accepts the principle formalized in Stoic ethics that some moral issues are "adiaphora," "indifferent" choice situations in which no moral consideration tips the scale in favor of either option and the chooser may choose as he pleases. The inaugural choice of a symbolic test of loyalty to God is such a situation. As it happens, the symbol of faith and constancy is a forbidden apple; but there are possible worlds compatible with the justice of God in which A's & E's faith and constancy are tested by their willingness to abstain from pears.

This doesn't mean, of course, (a) that God's decision to set up an arbitary test is itself arbitrary, or (b) that the arbitrariness of the test trivializes the moral consequences of failing it.

As to (a), Milton holds (with the main stream of Christian theological opinion) that a world in which there is no challenge to free moral decision is morally vacuous and hence unworthy of a supremely good Creator. As to (b), the magnitude of the Creator's gift to A&E (the emerging hexameral world lovingly described in PL 7) establishes a debt of love and gratitude that (on Milton's view) infinitely outweighs the sacrifice of abstaining from the fruit, even if one adds the possible benefits implied by the name of the fruit.
By "the name of the fruit," Skulsky means not "apple" but "fruit of knowledge," or some such expression. Anyway, this sort of clear, learned, detailed response provides an example for why I like the Milton List. For the most part, people are civil, they know a great deal, and they bring expertise from various fields -- literary criticism, history, philosophy, theology, rabbinics, art, linguistics, ethics, and any number of things in no particular order other that the sequence in which they occurred to me.

Today, I learned (or probably re-learned) the word for the Stoic principle "adiaphora," a term well worth knowing even beyond the world of Paradise Lost.

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