Monday, February 14, 2011

John Milton: The Word Unbegotten and Begotten in Paradise Lost?

"This greeting on thy impious Crest receive."
Abdiel Attacks Satan, PL 6.188
(Image from History of Art)

Several days ago, Dario Rivarossa called my attention to an odd contrast between two passages in Paradise Lost. In Book 5, verses 600-606, God states:
Hear all ye Angels, Progenie of Light, [ 600 ]
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Vertues, Powers,
Hear my Decree, which unrevok't shall stand.
This day I have begot whom I declare
My onely Son, and on this holy Hill
Him have anointed, whom ye now behold [ 605 ]
At my right hand; your Head I him appoint;

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, February 2011.]
But in Book 5, verses 833-838, Abdiel maintains:
Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom [ 835 ]
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev'n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav'n
By him created in thir bright degrees,

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, February 2011.]
Why is this odd? Because we know from the work of Milton scholars (e.g., Michael Bauman, Milton's Arianism) that Milton held to a quasi-Arian view on the Godhead, namely, that there is no Trinity and that the Son is not co-eternal with the Father but is begotten at some point in time, and that fits quite well with Paradise Lost 5.600-606, where God declares in heaven to His assembled angelic host that he has that very day begotten his Son (i.e., "This day I have begot . . . / My onely Son"), which would appear to put the process by which the Son was begotten some time after the creation of the angels.

That, however, comes into tension with Paradise Lost 5.833-838, where Abdiel reminds Satan that the begotten Son made all things, including the angels (i.e., "by whom / As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things"). The Son surely cannot be begotten twice. That would be like the statement of a janitor at Baylor, when I was an undergrad back in the 1970s, who told us that his father died of pneumonia twice.

But there was a resolution to the janitor's odd statement -- his father died of double pneumonia -- and there might be a resolution to Milton's two statements if we read carefully. The begotten Son was the one "by whom / As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things." This line can be read as distinguishing between two states of the Word of God: a pre-sonship state and a sonship state, differentiated by the event of being begotten. If so, then for Milton, 'divine sonship' is a role taken on by the eternal Word of God in the act of being begotten by God Himself, who (I presume) becomes the Father at that point. This reading of Milton raises the question as to what Milton thought the act of begetting to mean. I haven't looked into that yet, but perhaps Milton thought that the Word was a power of God that became hypostasized through an emanation of God's own substance, but I'm merely guessing.

I suppose that one could try to take the position that Thomas Burgess took in his 1829 book, Milton not the author of the lately-discovered Arian work De Doctrina Christiana (London: Thomas Brettell, 1829), for he calls attention on page 151 to Abdiel's contention in Paradise Lost 5.831-837, i.e., that the Word created all things, as evidence that Milton could not have been Arian in his theology, and therefore asserts that Paradise Lost 5.603-604 (i.e., "This day I have begot whom I declare / My onely Son") "has nothing Arian in it" and merely denotes "a high commission then declared" (page 168), but most scholars today seem to accept the Doctrina Christiana as Milton's work and Milton as some kind of Arian in his theology.

Speaking of Abdiel's words, when he meets Satan on the field of battle and says, "This greeting on thy impious Crest receive" (PL 6.188), and then brings down upon Satan's helmeted head his righteous sword, isn't he using the term "greeting" in a sense so ironic as to be contradictory, in that it contains two meanings that contradict each other, as in some puns?

Does Abdiel thus speak in a postlapsarian, 'fallen' tongue?

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At 5:44 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Or is Abdiel, the faithful angel being faithful to what is happening, welcoming Satan with a double-meaning that befits his state? I don't know.

At 5:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You mean the 'greeting'? I was being a bit facetious, for I'm not convinced that a pun is, in itself, fallen -- merely when it's used to deceive would it be 'fallen' language.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:12 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

a pre-sonship state

That's the kind of words that make me love English so much!

Unfallen, absolutely unfallen language. (That's another sample.)

At 6:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's all due to that old, Anglo-Saxon linguistic background . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Simon said...

On a side note, I used to have all of Satan's first looking upon earth speech memorized. I can still recite 20 lines of it or so, but get forgetful around the middle of it.

At 3:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're a better man than I am, Simon.

Jeffery Hodges

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