ON MILTON'S DIALOGUE IN HEAVEN
(Presented at the Sarah Lawrence Humanities Colloquium by Elfie
Raymond, on Tuesday, October 31, 1995)
Our colloquy on Milton's colloquy in Book III of Paradise Lost gives me the
opportunity to introduce myself to future students and to touch on issues that
will engage us, colleagues and students in the humanities alike, in Spring. It
occurs to me, as a teacher conversant with a theologically based philosophy of
history, that Milton's argument in the Colloquy in Heaven may be read with
profit by training the intellect's eye, capable of double vision, on the analogy of
the events in heaven to the events on earth. How else can we learn from
Milton's words what we are here for? And, if we don't learn, how will we
answer wisdom's call, or cry, in the Book of Proverbs: "How long will ye love
simplicity? delight in scorning, and foolishly, hate knowledge?"
Now, not being a Milton scholar means that some of the things I'm going to
say may be already well known to you from the scholarly literature, while for
me they still have the ring of personal discovery. This may make some of my
words sound exciting, but not necessarily worthy of your attention. For this
state of affairs, I offer my apologies. In regards to Irene Samuel's and Barbara
Lewalski's tantalizing chapters on the Colloquy, I confess that I read them at
too late a date to respond to them in this brief presentation.
My approach to the colloquy is focused on the dramatic plot where antagonist
and protagonist, Father and Son, personify the poles in the great, ongoing
controversy over the nature of justice, justification, reconciliation and the
possibility of universal redemption. Milton captures in the heavenly debate and
dialogue, held in the language of jurisprudence, a significant moment in the
dialectical development of the central doctrine of the western church.
Incidentally, it stands to reason that the development of the doctrine on
justification is not only the main topic of the intellectual history of Christian
teaching but provides the main spring for politico-cultural history over the last
two millennia. When Karl Barth, a leading Protestant theologian of our time
asks into the teeth of the grin of totalitarian power: "Can history do justice?
Can humankind be reconciled to God?" he is stating and re-instating the
doctrine of justification as the heart of the faith's proclamation through the
Book Three of Paradise Lost, the Colloquy in Heaven, deals with the doctrine
of justification and reconciliation as it was promulgated three-hundred years
ago. The 17th century, not unlike our own, is a period of enormous political
and intellectual crisis. A crisis in which Milton participates directly, albeit in
the Colloquy in Heaven, very, very subtly. His strategy is to distinguish
between the doctrine of justification and "justification" as a scriptural topos, a
creedal common place pure and simple. Both are brought into play in the
colloquy, with the latter, i.e., the words of scripture, correcting the former, a
mere human contrivance.
In lines 168 to 212 we find the doctrine of justification, in its high Calvinist
shape, embodied in the stern words Milton attributes to the Father. By counter
point, starting at 238 and running to 265, Milton introduces justification as
topos, revealed in scripture, to correct, sublate, and overcome the harsh and
cruel doctrine of justification of his ecclesiastical opponents. The words of the
Son's salvific proposal depict here the kind of action which efficaciously flows
from the message the apostle Paul sent to the Galatians, 5:5-6, "For we
through the Spirit wait for the hope of justification by faith. For in Christ
neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which
worketh by love." This distinction between justification as church doctrine and
justification as biblical topos is crucial, in my view, for an understanding of the
Miltonian project in the colloquy.
When reading the colloquy under the perspective of doctrinal and political
history, one finds, as already indicated, a dramatic rendition of the
controversy, not to say collision, between two contending schools of Protestant
thought: High Calvinist scholastics with their coldly legalistic, nominalist
theology of the Father and his absolute will, versus the little band of
Erasmian-Arminian humanists upholding, in a christo-centric theology of the
heart, the principle of reason. The humanist party, with some exception, also
forwards the belief in the reality of universal forms that are actually operative
in divine justice and potentially efficacious in human jurisprudential affairs.
Milton, raised in the Calvinist camp, finds himself in the ironic position to
privilege the humanist theology of reason: a reason that derives from
Anaxagoras and Socrates; Plato and Aristotle; from Augustine, Anselm of
Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas; and is manifest in Maimonides and Spinoza.
Here Reason rules Justice, and, equitably, rules out power's sheer caprice.
When reason is ranked higher than the will, the power to rule rests on reason's
authority and cannot degenerate into the rule of power.
Christ's obedience, doing by faith the works of love, serves Milton to expose
the tragic flaw of Calvinist scholasticism's concept of God that promotes an
irrational, immoderate and retrograde version of justice, worse than the lex
talionis. The Son submits to the paternal decree, though it turns on the Father's
spurious self-justification summed up when the Almighty insists "DIE HE OR
JUSTICE MUST", the clinching argument for the necessity of humankind's
perdition in line 210. This is a decree of SUMMUM JUS SUMMA INJURIA,
of the Highest Law as Greatest Injury. Coldly, it sentences humankind forever
to destruction. The son's submission, enacted in the spirit of faith doing love's
works, overturns the Father's, and heavenly King's, absolute and arbitrary,
that is tyrannical power. The question of whether Milton's portrayal of the
God of high Calvinist scholasticism is just, or polemical caricature, is here only
of secondary interest; but that this portrayal of divine power is an indictment
of absolutism's growth and of the restoration of kingly power on earth is clear.
And while the Colloquy in heaven enacts liberation's triumph, in terrestrial
England the victory of absolutist rule leads Milton to defend, even counsel, the
right to regicide. Thus I submit to you for consideration that the source of
inspiration for Milton's portrayal of the nature of the Father and the salvific
action of the Son is to be found in his knowledge that he, the poet, must not be
silent when Zion's, i.e., humankind's future, is once again at peril. Resolute in
conscience the poet accepts the role of prophet: Propter Sion non tacebo;
because of Zion, I will not remain silent.
This humanist-prophetic stance, somewhat akin to Dante's Vergil, guides
Milton all the way. Since justification is God's judgment upon man, this
judgment better be just if man is to be free and not an abject slave. But justice
of the reasonable variety requires freedom and equality among people and not
humankind's sharp and inexorable division into the elect and the reprobate. To
make this point, Milton lets the colloquy's dramatic persona representing God
the Father speak the harsh words, starting at line 183:
Some I have chosen of peculiar grace
Elect above the rest; so is my will.
The rest shall hear me call, and oft be warned
Their sinful state, and to appease betimes
The incensed Deity.
This, in brief, is the kernel of the high Calvinist doctrine of double
predestination as companion piece to the doctrine of justification. The fact that
Milton renders this dogmatic stance in his immortal words, does this entail, by
any stretch of the critical imagination, that he endorses its full meaning? Or
does he reject double predestination on terms continuous with the theology of
Erasmus, Tyndale, and the continental reformers Melanchthon, Zwingli,
Bucer, and Bullinger?
In the time remaining today these questions can not be pursued. All I can do is
ask your indulgence, and hope you will be taking my words on credit when I
say that Milton does not accept the double predestinarianism of the high
Calvinist doctrine of justification. He rejects it on the excellent grounds that
this doctrine denies even the possibility of human freedom, the freedom
promised to all of Sarah's and Abraham's descendants in the great covenant
sealed by Isaac's transformed sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
In 1618, when Milton was ten, the Synod of Dort made the doctrine of double
predestination an article of faith, binding on all reformed Protestants. Not to
accept this doctrine in an age not known for its liberalities in religious matters,
was a grave offense. And with the doctrinal and the political being Siamese
twins, such a rejection leads to inner exile and threats of persecution. To make
the promptings of his courageous conscience compatible with a measure of
political prudence and the counsels of self-preservation, Milton has to resort to
stylistic masks, aesopian evasions, and other arts of dissimulation known to all
poets and philosophers fighting for the freedom of thought and speech. Only by
artful subtlety and cunning can Milton hope against all hope to forward the
message of the light of liberty which gives the human heart the strength to
resist tyrants. In 1652, a year after the publication of the Leviathan, the
modern absolutist state's bible, Milton went blind. Yet, his vision of faith doing
love's work freely lives on in the words the lonely prophet's voice announces.
These words, even today, have the power to be depicted on the prison walls
where our intellect is bound in fetters. Our colloquy on the colloquy, as best as
I can tell, is a special occasion where we can try to give flawless attention to
these words, to hear them, and to understand them clearly and anew, by
engaging in this dialogue with one another. Thank you.
Elf S. Raymond
Dept. of Philosophy
Sarah Lawrence College