Satan's Trouble With Eve

Friday, March 16, 2007

Milton's God, Milton's Satan, & the Atheist Fallacy

Critical responses to Paradise Lost change in emphases over time, but interpretative attention to Milton's God & Milton's Satan is seemingly perennial.

I especially appreciate the clarifying work of scholar David Renaker on the history of Paradise Lost criticism at his Atheist Seventeenth Century Website. Reading through his praiseworthy blog stimulated my own engagement with the issues around Milton's God & Milton's Satan and much sharpened my understanding, for which I am grateful.

Dr. Renaker states the issue, pertinent to our engagement, with perfect succinctness, thus:

1. Satan, in Books I and II, is magnificent.
2. God, judging man in Book III, is detestable.

He further makes a most helpful binary classification -- with which I quibble -- of Milton's vast supporting "Army of Davids" into (i.) "poet-sacrificers" who argue that [1.] and [2.] are caused by poetic failure in Milton, and (ii.) "poem-sacrificers" who, Renaker says, assert that [1.] and [2.] are failures of judgement by Milton's readers.

Dr. Renaker is to be lauded for offering a distinction -- but not for the categories themselves. Specifically, his designation of poem sacrificers is tendentious. This is evident in his definition of this group, who, he says,

....give up the poem, twisting and wrenching it unmercifully to throw a veneer of justice on God and of viciousness on Satan, Adam, and Eve, or for the like purposes.

Clearly, this is mere partisanship, for the only "poem" that is "given up" is Dr. Renaker's anti-theistic reading of Paradise Lost; and what is his "twisting & wrenching unmercifully" is another's straightening aright. To be clear, this is not concern with the personal set of dogma which the estimable Dr. Renaker -- or any other Miltonist, for the matter of that -- happens to presently confess. Rather, it is that Dr. Renaker has constructed a peculiar "poem" by ordinary process of dogmatics from a primum principium, which he states with creditable publicity, here:

That the God presented in the Bible, and proposed by the churches for the belief of Europe, is morally ugly....

So, we can thank Dr. Renaker for making a distinction, while objecting that poem-sacrificers is a factional formulation of what might be better termed poet-supporters. The Principle of Humility, or Ogden's balm, states:

The greater the quality of artistic genius, the greater the likelihood that accusuations are failures of critical perception.

There is, then, in the present case a non-sacrificial way of reading [1.] & [2.] that neatly avoids the bellicosely atheistic approach to Paradise Lost in favour of a respectful interpretation that harmonises Milton's art with his beliefs & intentions.

Observe that Dr. Renaker has fallen into what I term the Atheist Fallacy: to wit, condemning Milton’s God on external terms while praising Milton’s Satan on Milton’s Satan’s terms. "Atheist" not from a fallacy of atheism but the fallacy that a prosletysing atheist may, as it seems, make.

Thus, Milton's Satan protests that God "reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven," (I,124) .... and Dr. Redaker declares God Tyrannical and Satan oppressed. Of himself, Milton's Satan praises "courage" (I,108), where "mind and spirit remains/ Invincible (I,139-140) .... and Dr. Renaker interprets a Homeric hero. In short, Milton's Satan is "magnificent" because Milton's Satan declares his own magnificence.

Not so for Milton's God. He declaims His perfect lack of guilt (III, 96-7), His absolute committment to Justice (III,210) and, more, of His Divine humility that "Love hath abounded more than Glory abounds" (III,313) -- and Dr. Renaker pronounces Him "detestable." (Note, of a care, that this is said here of Milton's God solely, not any other category of Divinity.) Again in short, Milton's God is evil because standards and materials extraneous to Paradise Lost are applied: the Atheist Seventeenth Century Website is voluptuous on Supralapsarians, Sublapsarians, Arminians, Calvinists, and other historical, theological and rationalist minutae.

This inconsistency, then, falls into the atheist fallacy: fallacious condemnation of Milton's God & praise of Milton's Satan. (It is, of course, possible to non-fallaciously condemn Milton's God and praise Milton's Satan. This would require nothing more than an external standard applied equally to both, or an internal standard applied equally to both.) The specific contradiction is evident in an obvious reductio: on the atheist fallacy, Milton's God is exactly Milton's Satan, triumphant. In other words, if (per impossible) Milton's Satan -- who is praised -- were to triumph in his War for Heaven, he would become, ad optim, a ruler like Milton's God -- who is condemned.

The atheist fallacy reduces to this plain remark, that Milton failed. Books I & II of Paradise Lost fail by making Satan magnificent and Book III fails by making God detestable. Surely stating this is almost its own refutation.

In answer, Ogden's balm accords Milton sufficient artistic power, and sense, to match his intent to his creation. Call this perhaps the lay validity. First, to the magnificence of Satan in Book I & II. Lay -- that is, non-atheistic -- readers credit the magificent artistic creature Satan to its magnificent artistic creator, Milton. The poet's task was to make "the Adversary of God and Man" seductively attractive to the highest degree of his art: else where is Satan's power to tempt humanity away from God? A weak and contemptible Temptor means accordingly not only a weak & contemptible Tempted -- mankind -- but more disasterously for the poet, a God who is Himself no more appealing. Milton's success in creating an original Satan of towering appeal -- success established by critics of even Dr. Renaker's excellence falling prostrate seduced -- redounds to the power both of Eve, his protagonist, and the overmatching Brilliance of Paradise Lost's God. Milton's artistry in drawing the Satan of Books I & II is double-credited by the contrast it then allows for the descent and diminishment, moral & existential, of Satan through the rest of the poem: from hero to cherub to unclean fowl to lecher toad then eternal snake. As much as we are compelled by Satan in the first two books of Paradise Lost so much does Milton confront us with our demonic weaknesses: for the lure of the form of heroism without attention to its moral content; for the rousing attraction of command shouted from podia; for the cultivated indulgence of "sence of injur'd merit;" and, above all, for the appeal of power its own sake. Such is Satan; such his admirers.

On to the portrayal of God in Book III. Among Milton's uncountable sources consider here one only: an attribution to Anslem of Canterbury, published in 1639 and translated from the Latin as "Man in Glory" by Henry Vaughan in his 1652 Mount of Olives. Once Milton had made (from, as I believe, classicist motive) the choice to represent God as a character in his epic poem, his course was prescribed. Here is Anselm.

.... those delections or pleasures which in the world to come shall be poured out upon the righteous are everlasting and rational. And for this cause I do not see how it is possible to expresse them so, as to make them intelligible, or subject to our understanding in this life, especially because we cannot find in the pleasures of this life any example or similitude which hath in it any collation with them, or can give us the least light or manifestation of them....

Mortal portrait of God whatsoever the genius is necessarily inadequate from the fact that in a fallen world no example of heavenly experience is available. Satan, on the other side, is easily -- too, too easily -- drawn (as C.S. Lewis remarks in his Preface to Paradise Lost) by simply extending in imagination our constant and frequently immediate experience of pain, hate, betrayal, spite, failure, deprivation and misery. Milton's method of portraying God reverses this double-sided difficulty into advantage.

"Man in Glory" tabulates the "state of man:"

Two blessed and two miserable states of man we know to be, the greater and the lesser. His great or perfect state of blisse is in the Kingdom of God; his lesser is that which Adam forfeited, the joy of Paradise .... Now it is clear, that no man in this life (after Adam) did ever taste of either of those two states of blisse .... Wherefore seeing the pleasure we speak of, is a branch or portion of that greater state of blisse, I cannot conceive of any possibility to expresse it, unless we may do it by some similitudes that are quite contrary to the greater state of misery, and drawn from the lesser....

Though there is an experiencial analogy to Hell in the present, fallen, world, there is no corresponding experience possible of the "lesser state of blisse" in Paradise by which Heaven, the "greater state of blisse," can be analogised. There is, however, available to art -- and taken by Milton -- analogy to Heaven by similitude from its contrary state: the "greater state of misery:" Hell. So, consider an extreme case of this world's misery (Anselm selects "....a naked man with hot and flaming irons thrust into the very apples of his eyes"); now expand that to eternity for a sense of Hell; and then, holding that intense image, imagine the inverse intensity of pleasure and blisse: that is Heaven, analogised. Milton, realising a Christian readership, designed, with customary magnificence, a Satanic state to reinforce by inverse effect to his portrait of Heaven.

Furthermore, if not a fallacy, certainly a mistake the atheist critic of Paradise Lost is prone to make is neglecting general Christian beliefs uniting Milton and his assumed readership. The Divine actions Dr. Renaker finds deplorable the Christian understands nothing more than inscrutable.

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55, 8-9. "Great the LORD, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness unsearchable." Psalm145:3

Quaint to the modern agnostic; disgusting to the atheist: yet so far from a sign of artistic failure in Paradise Lost as to be a proof of supreme success. The atheist critic is further disposed to miss the Trinitarian nature of God in Book III (however uncertain Milton's private trinitarian committment, his character of the Son is orthodox co-equal: " him all his Father shone/ Substantially express'd; and in his face Divine compassion visibly appear'd,/ Love without end, and without measure grace" III,103-5). [Emphasis mine.] The objections are to God the Father, notably to His Judicial absolutism. Dr. Renaker writes of Book III:

....let me quote one line only: "He with his whole posterity must die." Many people believe a sentence of death can be justified; but to put a man to death along with all his children? Milton with all his genius multiplied by ten could never make that line part of a becoming speech.

To which the non-atheist can immediately reply; Milton, with his genius multiplied by no more than one, could .... and did. God the Father is understood to, is expected to, is fearfully implored to, maintain Justice with absolute fidelity. "He with his whole posterity must die"? Well, sir, Christian Milton in persona Dei sobering reminds, "Die hee or justice must." (III,210). Should the sin of Adam and Eve be once allowed to sever from its exact just consequence, then all subsequent evil -- torture, rape, incest -- rightly claims like exemption, thus flourishing.

God the Father, however, is not Milton's "God." That "God," on point of Christian orthodoxy, is joined in Trinity with God the Son and with God the Holy Spirit. Thus, when "God" in Paradise Lost sentences humanity to death, that same "God" -- in the Person of the Son -- Himself serves the sentence -- agony and death. Our atheist critic may not like -- he certainly will not believe -- this doctrine. He must, nonetheless, accept it ex hypothesi when reading, and writing critical analysis of, Milton's art.

Justification of Milton's portrait of God is available from manifold sources. The majority of the readers of Paradise Lost, agnotics and believers united, need not "with wand'ring steps" take the atheists' accusatory way. Plato, for one, by his ".... real judgement of the life of the just and unjust" in the Republic establishes that, in the eyes of the fallen world, perfect Goodness will always appear Evil. As Socrates explains the certain fate of the just man to Glaucon:
....scourged, racked, bound--will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, will be crucified.

When it is put that way, it is plainly understandable why Milton today should be "suffering every kind of evil" for the very Goodness of his portrait of God and Satan....


  • I am not only witty myself, but I am the cause that wit is in other men.---David Renaker

    By Blogger draker, at 4:08 PM  

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