A Noble Failure: Milton, Rationalism, and Ambivelance

Posted: September 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

I’ll begin by observing that , though I ma not agree with Blake that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it, I do consider his theodicy, as a theodicy  like Descartes’ “proof” of God, to be a failure.

This is not to say that the poem is a failure, far from it (though Voltaire, as we’ll soon see, did think it was a poor effort). Milton successfully, in my view, brings new light to the Genesis story, and his creative interpretation is so strong that it is difficult, after reading Paradise Lost to ever see the story of Adam and Eve in the same way. He has made it his story, so that the characters of Satan, Adam, and Eve that we will encounter in art, literature, music, and film for the next 400 years, invariably owe as much to Milton as to the Bible. Could the Rolling Stones have produced “Sympathy for the Devil,” without Milton?

But as a defense of God, the poem is, in my view, a noble failure, if for no other reason than that the character of God, Himself, comes across as so stiff and unsympathetic. When He calls man an “Ingrate” who “had of me/ All he could have” (3.97-8), he sounds like a petulant overlord. When He asks “what proof could they have given sincere/ Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love” without being tested (3.103-4), He sounds like a jealous husband, and when He declares “Die he or justice must, unless for him / Some other, able and as willing, pay / The rigid satisfaction, death for death” (3.21-12), He sounds to me like more like some sort of Cosmic loan shark or gangster than a beneficent God.

And what about the Son? Doesn’t he mitigate God’s justice with his sacrifice? Well, maybe, but, at least as Milton depicts it, how much of a sacrifice is it really? “On me let death wreak all his rage,” says the Son. ” Under his gloomy power I shall not long Lie vanquished. . . . Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave / His prey” (3.241-248). What is the Son saying here? Sure, I’ll die for Man because I know You (God) won’t leave me dead. So then, really, he’s not dying at all. He may suffer, of course, but he knows with certainty—unlike humans—that his death is not real, that it won’t last more than a few days. That doesn’t seem like such a great sacrifice to me.

Am I being blasphemous? Maybe a little, but my point is that—to an objective observer—I don’t think Milton makes a strong case. Yes, the choir may appreciate his sermon, but they are not the ones who need God to be justified.

So it is, in the end, in my view, another example of the Enlightenment’s reach exceeding its grasp. A bold, if failed, attempt to use reason where reason cannot be of much help.

Indeed, the poem, itself, seems to understand, even if Milton does not, the limits of reason. All the way back in Book 2, the poem takes a stance on reason that is, at the very least, ambivalent. What do I mean by “ambivalent?” I use the word in the psychoanalytic sense of the term—meaning not “unsure” so much as holding in one’s heart two diametrically opposed ideas or feelings about the same object. To feel ambivalent about someone in this sense is not to feel like you sort of like or don’t like them but to feel you hate and love them at the same time.[1] Milton’s poem, I would argue, demonstrates powerful ambivalence toward reason.

On the one hand, Milton seeks to “justify the ways of God to men” (1.26). What does “justify” here imply if not some sort of rational defense? And Milton’s poem does attempt to articulate, often through the mouth of God Himself, a justification based on reason, most especially through the argument of Man’s free will alluded to earlier (see 3.96-125) where God explicitly states that if He had not left Man free to fall, Man’s obedience and fealty would mean nothing.

And yet, in Book 2, who else do we find “in thoughts more elevate. . . reason[ing] high / Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate, / Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute”  and who “found no end, in wandering mazes lost “(2.558-61)? Who? Fallen angels, that’s who, demons who in their philosophical speculations seem not very far off from God in Book 3 who excuses himself from responsibility for Man’s fall on the grounds that “If I foreknew / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, / Which had not proved less certain unforeknown “ (117-9). How is God’s philosophizing here any more elevated than that of the fallen angels Milton mocks in Book 2?

Adam praises reason to Eve in Book 9 but also warns of its susceptibility to fraud:

But God left free the will, for what obeys

Reason is free, and reason he made right

But bid her well beware, and still erect,

Lest by some fair-appearing good surprised

She dictate false and misinform the will

To do what God expressly hath forbid. (351-7)

Eve, when debating with the serpent, declares that outside the one commandment given by God to Adam and herself, “our reason is our law” (9.654). But it is the evidence of speech and reason in the serpent (the two capacities Descartes said were denied animals) that ensnares Eve, that and a speech by Satan worthy of the greatest of courtroom lawyers, a speech based as much on rationality as on lies, so that they seem to her  “imprenged with reason” (9.737). She, herself, uses what seems like reason to justify her action, “How dies the serpent? ” she asks. “He hath eaten and lives” (764); if the serpent didn’t die from eating the apple, then neither should she. It’s almost a mathematical equation.

Of course, maybe it’s not so much reason, Eve uses, as rationalization. “Rationalization” is when we appear or even pretend to use reason to justify an act that is based on some other motivation, lust for example. But is that really the case here? What prompts Eve to break the commandment as depicted by Milton? Is it simple lust for godhead? Or has her reason betrayed her as Adam warned?

I’d suggest the latter, that what Milton’s poem seems to be saying is that, ultimately, we can’t trust reason. And, in that sense, the failure of reason accounts for the failure of the theodicy. Reason has its limits. It cannot save us from sin; it cannot bring us to God.

In this sense, the poem seems to take arms against Descartes who looked to reason and reason alone as the ultimate arbiter. Milton seems to be pointing out that, just as we cannot trust our senses, which can, of course, be fooled, we also cannot trust reason, since that is as imperfect as eyesight or hearing.  And yet, even after the Fall, Milton refers to the operation in man of “sovereign reason” (9.1130), according it a kind of kingship in the soul of man.

It’s classic ambivalence, but, again, must be distinguished from Descartes in whom, I would argue, there is no ambivalence with regard to reason. Descartes puts all his hope and faith and belief in rationality; Milton seems to say reason is all well and good, but, in the end, it is as likely to betray you as anything else in our fallen world.


[1] I was under the impression that Freud originated this concept, but, apparently, it was a contemporary of his, Eugen Bleuler, who first articulated this idea of ambivalence. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambivalence.

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