Thursday, July 03, 2008

Vertiginous Acrophobia and a Return to Paradise

Depicting JK's Visceral Abhorrence of Evil!
(Image from Wikipedia)

After yesterday's debacle -- the poem from my juvenilia that so grated on the nerves of poor, longsuffering JK -- perhaps we had best return to the Paradise Lost and learn to distinguish good (e.g., the good poem by John Milton) from evil (e.g., the bad poem by yours truly).

The Milton List has an ongoing discussion about Adam and Eve's knowledge of good and evil prior to eating from the tree of knowledge. A distinction has been drawn between an abstract, conceptual knowledge of evil and a concrete, experiential knowledge of evil. In their prelapsarian state, Adam and Eve have the former but not the latter. On this point, the Milton scholar Jim Rovira appears to disagree with the Milton scholars Michael Gillum and Harold Skulsky:
Jim Rovira wrote:
"My argument is that for Adam and Eve there is only one possible prohibition: do not learn about evil. So what is a multitude of rules for us is only a single rule for them."
Michael Gillum has already responded to this in his remarks about the natural law to which Adam and Eve are attuned through their reason -- "in all things else, our
reason is our law" -- but I will agree and also quote the precise lines from Paradise Lost in their larger context:
Serpent, we might have spar'd our coming hither,
Fruitless to mee, though Fruit be here to excess,
The credit of whose vertue rest with thee,
Wondrous indeed, if cause of such effects.
But of this Tree we may not taste nor touch;
God so commanded, and left that Command
Sole Daughter of his voice; the rest, we live
Law to our selves, our Reason is our Law.
Paradise Lost 9.647-654)

(Luxon, Thomas H., ed. The Milton Reading Room, July, 2008.)
There is only one explicit command (the Bat Qol, "daughter of a voice," as Harold Skulsky has noted), a rule that would otherwise be unknown and therefore has to be revealed, but there is also reason to guide Adam and Eve, enabling them to freely choose good over evil based on their abstract (as opposed to experiential) knowledge of evil. Eve emphasizes: "our Reason is our Law." I take this to mean that Adam and Eve follow moral 'rules' discoverable by reason, 'rules' that need not be made known through revelation -- and thus not explicitly formulated as rules but nevertheless rules.

The revealed command is arbitrary, for God could instead have chosen some other command to test Adam and Eve, and as an arbitrary rule, this command falls outside the bounds of reason in the sense that Adam and Eve would never be led to it by rational thought.

Satan, incidentally, is able to make use of the arbitrariness of God's command not to eat of the tree of knowledge. This is the one rule opaque to reason, a rule not discoverable through reasoning. By reason alone, Eve cannot defend herself against Satan's seemingly plausible arguments. There is no rational defense of the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge; on this point, Eve (via Adam) must rely upon trust in God's revelation beyond reason, and on this, she pointedly fails. Trust in God would be reasonable in Paradise, of course, and Eve 'knows' that eating the fruit leads to 'death' . . . but as to why it leads to something called 'death'? Reason fails because the command is arbitrary.

This arbitrary command, however, is not the only law; it is simply the only arbitrary law.
In yesterday's poem, "Nocturne Eternal," poor JK had a close encounter with the 'experience' of evil but chose to reject it as 'bad' -- trusting in some inner voice of an arbitrary but true revelation -- and thereby remain in his prelapsarian state.

By his good example, JK thus reminds us about the fact of acrophobia, the real and present danger of vertigo, and the cautionary principle of not straying far away toward but of staying far away from edges.

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