Saturday, October 30, 2010

Milton and the image of god

John Milton: poet, pamphleteer, sarcast, theologian, raconteur, Puritan, prophet.

I've enjoyed a recent biography of John Milton, spurred by the 400th anniversary of his birth. The author (Hawke) is unfortunately a bit overbearing and occasionally unreliable, going off on postmodern/Marxist tangents with precious little support from his subject. Yet all the same, Milton comes through as quite a specimen- voracious reader, auto-didact, polyglot, revolutionary, and leading intellectual of his time. Most unusually for a bookworm whose financial support was usery (money-lending), he was pulled into government service through the turmoil of the English revolution and served as its intellectual correspondent, answering (well, sarcastically attacking, actually) enemies both foreign and domestic. A propagandist and spin doctor, we might say in the modern parlance.

There are perhaps three key elements to Milton's career and thought- his early pampleteering and miscelleneous poetry about freedom in general and freedom to divorce in particular, his government career were he attained great fame for defending the execution of King Charles I and other innovations of the Cromwellian regime, and lastly his magnum opus, Paradise Lost.

Milton was a userer, something of a cross between a banker and a loan shark, as was his father before him, leading to a financially comfortable existence. He was extremely well-educated, but mostly at home, with tutors and by his own efforts which were unremitting, learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Old English. He entered training to become an Anglican priest, and obtained a degree from Cambridge, but then returned home to study and ruminate, becoming a Puritan, though not a particularly straight-laced one. At Cambridge he may have been strongly influenced by the American advocate of religious freedom, Roger Williams.

After a quite grand continental tour, including visits with Grotius, an elderly Galileo, and many other machers and thinkers of the day, Milton settled into further study. He had an unshakeable faith in his destiny as a great poet and intellectual, and though well-liked by his friends, had by this point precious little to show for it, and no positions other than as a self-directed student and a colleague of his father's.

In his early thirties he got entangled with a debtor in Oxfordshire, and came away with a bride half his age. While the origin of the transaction is unclear, the consequences are not. Mary Powell, all of 16, turned out to be rather more dull than shy, and didn't suit Milton's intellect and spirit at all. She fled back home within months, leaving Milton to stew in a legal limbo from which he produced some of mankind's more stirring appeals for freedom. Milton was trapped by a system that granted divorce for sexual non-performance or adultery, but not for psychological incompatibility. Essentially no divorce was possible while both remained alive. (Mary died nine years later, after eventually moving back in and bearing four children.)

"The mind is its own place, and in itself 
Can make a heav'n of hell, of hell a heav'n."
- The author, Paradise lost, Book I

Milton's grand theme was a hatred of servility, whether in domestic affairs (against entrapment in uncongenial marriage, and for household rule by the wiser, of whichever sex), in religious affairs (against popery as well as Presbyterianism, indeed all kinds of religious hierarchy and state establishment), in the state (against monarchy and against censorship), and in personal life (against the slavery of lusts and vices).

"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."
- Satan, Paradise Lost, Book I

His great philosophical insight was that the moral ascendence and freedom he so valued was meaningless without its evil foil. A consequence was his support of uncensored publication, which by exposing bad and immoral views, strengthened better ones. It also led to his great epic character, Satan, who presents the temptations and snares without which humans could never do great deeds and attain high character.

"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."
- Areopagitica

Milton was swept up in the revolutionary mood as Charles I, who had established essentially tyrannical rule justified by divine right, lost control of Parliament, fought a civil war against it, and was finally tried and executed by Oliver Cromwell. The English had entered unknown, revolutionary territory, without precedent in recent European history and appalling to most onlookers. (Groups such as the Quakers, Ranters and Diggers originated at this time.) Even within England, the king's execution was highly unpopular. But Milton had unique insight, having read deeply in the classics of antique history, seen the various governments of Europe in action, and written on the issues of his day from an often heretical point of view.

He understood, as few others of his time we able to articulate, that the principle of the matter was that any monarchy or state was built on the support of the people. The monarch was their instrument, (echoed by his contemporary Hobbes in his Leviathan), not the other way around, and should be deposed and even killed if he was working against the general interest. Milton noted acidly that a tyrant is a moral liability to the nation on a very personal level as well, ensnaring its people in corruption and licentiousness, as his rule feeds on servility rather than on virtue.

".. but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess, [hell]
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp."
- Mammon, to his fellow demons recently cast in hell. Paradise Lost, Book II

Milton had faith that god's hand was upon the revolutionary government, while not going so far as some of his contemporaries who saw the Apocalypse and second coming around the corner. In this he was sorely disappointed after Cromwell died, his system crumbled, and the English turned back towards restoration. He never reconciled himself to the return to state servility and church establishment, (which immediately cannonized Charles I as an Anglican saint!), but was lucky to keep his head, and kept it down the rest of his life, working on a history of Britain, Paradise Lost, and a few other works, despite having gone blind from glaucoma.

I find it ironic that Milton was a ferocious iconoclast in line with Puritan ideology, denigrating all images, altars, relics, costumes, and even church buildings as likely to inspire devotion which detracts from that due to god directly. Yet he produced literary images by the bushel. His prose and poetry is laden with allusions both pagan and scriptural, to the point that his over-the-top style commands its own eponym: Miltonic. From what I understand, the theory was that literary metaphors point to their meanings in a direct way not as prone to displace their referents in human devotion as physical objects can. But now Paradise Lost has been illustrated multiple times, including by William Blake, and many of his allusions are indecipherable to any but the most devoted English major, making the project somewhat odd from an iconoclastic point of view.

Not only that, but Milton saw himself as a prophet, both in political terms, speaking as he does to our time for freedom of conscience in speech, religion, and state, and also in personal terms, as having received Paradise Lost from a heavenly muse (even from the holy spirit) which fed him nightly installments of the extravagant story. While Protestants and Puritans believed in independent and close interpretation of the bible, I think they would have been surprised by someone claiming to hear directly from god, and getting such rich material in return, churning in countless pagan sources and virtually deifying Satan.

Milton's Christian belief, unorthodox and unchurched as it was towards the end, involved the most complex images, all of which were, to my reading (as an atheist), false in detail and false in their ultimate signification, and thus idolatrous. Even to fellow believers, his imagery would have to be viewed as gratuitous and suspect, since so little was based on clear scriptural precedent. Andrew Marvel gave Paradise Lost an introductory poem that assures readers of its ultimately conventional theology despite its wild imagery, a defense that was probably sorely needed on a sensitive point.

In short, Milton was writing his own revised and improved scripture, which would be idolatrous if done without divine inspiration. So he claimed such inspiration, and the fanciful epic has been happily swallowed by Christians of all stripes who enjoy seeing their vague sentiments fleshed out in such bravura fashion. But if we stand back for a moment, it should become clear that Milton was making this poetic world out of his own rich imaginative storehouses, which technically would be idolatry even for those in basic agreement with his theology. That is the issue with artistic embroidery, whether confined to poetry or practiced in architecture, liturgy, vestments, icons, paintings, etc. It simply can't be right as a statement of factual reality and therefore detracts from pure religion (practiced by Quakers, perhaps, or Spinoza). If taken in the secular artistic sense customary in Western art, then no harm is done. But if it is presented as divinely inspired, even a new revelation?

"Whose fault? Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall."
- God, speaking of man and his fall: Paradise Lost, Book III

The thesist will immediately counter that I am being excessively literalist and don't understand, or "get" religious art. Such expressions may be artistically embroidered, but at their core adhere to conventional belief. There is a line between "truth", as defined by theology, tradition, and custom, and the "art" comprising everything else which inspires the reader/viewer/listener with elevated thoughts and ideas all consistent with, and pointing back towards, the core "truth".

My point, however, would be that such a line doesn't actually exist. There is no discernable line where inventive imagination ends and vetted fact begins. Attempts to codify even the most basic "party" line of this sort, such as the Nicene creed, generated enormous conflict, both at the time and since, besides being incoherent and unprovable even on their own terms (e.g. Tertullian's "Credo quia absurdum"). The varying choice of creeds and scriptures ends up being either individualistic and conscience-driven, as for Milton and the Puritans, or else decided by temporal authority. Which, of course, is the position of the Catholic church, which despairs of managing its theologians in any rational way, but subjects them to blatant hierarchical subjugation, headed by the Papal dictator (whom Milton regularly refered to as Antichrist) who issues infallible bulls of doctrine on the one hand, and suppresses or even excommunicates those with whom he (for it is always a he) disagrees on the other.

With no real line between art and theology, my conclusion is to treat theology and religion as art. Milton brought such artistry to new heights, adding something of a new gospel to the religious and secular canons. If we take him too seriously, he himself would scourge us as idolators and say that only few have the ears to hear the high-flown metaphorical and dramatic language he uses. Very well, but where is the destination to which he points, however elliptically? No external sign exists. As far as I can tell, it is in our glorious psyche.

"I sung of Chaos and eternal Night;
Taught by the heavenly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to re-ascend,
Though hard and rare: Thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital lamp; but thou
Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quench’d their orbs,
Or dim suffusion veil’d. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander, where the Muses haunt,
Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,
Smit with the love of sacred song; but chief
Thee, Sion, and the flowery brooks beneath,
That wash thy hallow’d feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor sometimes forget
So were I equall’d with them in renown,
Thy sovran command, that Man should find grace;
Blind Thamyris, and blind Maeonides,
And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old:
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal note. Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of nature’s works to me expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou, celestial Light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate; there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight."

- The author, speaking of his own blindness, Paradise Lost, Book III

  • Total enchantment, WoW-style. Who needs religion?
  • Prayer.. not working so well in this instance.
  • Richard Dawkins sues his Los Angeles-based web-producer for embezzelment of hundreds of thousands of dollars, including "a weight reduction program (or weight loss meals) purchased from Freshology, Inc." Ouch!
  • The Pakistani/Haqqani war on Afghanistan. One wonders how we can justify giving any money, let alone military aid, to this disastrous regime. "Kurram is also thought to be a possible safe haven for al Qaeda's top leaders. Last week, a NATO official told CNN that Osama bin Laden was hiding in an area between Kurram and the northern district of Chitral in Pakistan's northwest. Bin Laden is said to be living comfortably and is being aided by members of the ISI."
  • Bill Mitchell, on the "catastrophe of the human essence"- humanities and education. Video of a recent talk, and quote of the week:
"Much of what Keynes subsequently said was previously developed by Marx. He started from the proposition that capitalists aim to accumulate ever increasing wealth by extracting surplus value. The generation of profit thus requires two actions: (a) surplus value creation as the object of production which aims to reduce the payments to labour (limit their consuming power); and (b) Sale of commodities in market which is limited by the consuming power of society.  So Marx quickly established the inherent contradiction in capitalism and deemed this the precondition for crises."


  1. Good stuff - yes religion is art for sure. And art is religion.

    Both explorations of our psyche, as you say, probing the meaning of existence in search of the next deeper level.

    Thanks for the Bill Mitchell quotes - I repost many of them on Facebook to see if I can generate some interest and debate.

  2. “With no real line between art and theology, my conclusion is to treat theology and religion as art.” I could not quite grasp this statement. From my perspective, both science and art are discovery. In both crafts the imagination is used to hypothesize. In science, the hypothesis is proven or disproven by physical testing. In art, the hypothesis is tested by the impact upon the beholder. In the beholder either beauty or harmony resound from experiencing the art or the art presents itself an unbearable noise, a detestable image. On the contrary, theology and religion rape imagination in order to obtain the satisfaction of controlling individual lives rather than satisfying the lives of individuals. To be noble and effective, art and science must be tolerant of the victims of religion and theology, for it can never be the other way around. (In psychology, Stockholm syndrome is a term used to describe a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express adulation and have positive feelings towards their captors that appear irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, essentially mistaking a lack of abuse from their captors as an act of kindness. ~from Wikipedia)

    Nothing means anything except to the observer. Science and art must, in essence, be free in two senses. First, they must be free to pursue the satisfaction of individual lives and I believe that most scientists and artists do have this goal. Secondly, they must be free from the need to prove that any member of the opposing regime, whether leader or follower, is a fool. While it’s certainly permissible to point out errors, it furthers no scientific or artistic goal to denigrate another human being. Of course, I still do it.

  3. Hi, Silver-

    I think I see what you mean, but you might entertain an additional model of religious belief, which is that many people honestly seek a way to express inexpressible emotions, and find religous "beliefs" a good & durable way to do so. While the philosophical/theological/scientific conclusions they draw are, in the atheist view, completely mistaken, their seeking is honest, and their beliefs are honest as well, though as you indicate, generally channeled by indoctrination from more or less self-interested parties.

    The cynicism and culpability of those religious leaders varies a great deal. Many have complete integrity, however deluded in their models of reality, while others are total scam artists (another type of "art"!). Even for the non-believer, religious art is strongly evocative and perfectly operational "art" in all senses, as I tried to illustrate with Milton. It makes hypotheses, as you mention, and investigates the human condition, if by way of metaphors that are taken way too far by those who "believe" in them.

  4. I agree with your comment, Burk, and did not mean to infer that I would leave Milton out of the artistic congregation. Indeed, I find poetic works in many religious writings. There seems to be a problem, however, with authorship when it comes to religion, especially when the authorship has ties to authority. Evocative thoughts are often dressed in deceit.

    Your blog is most thought provoking itself. Mark Twain said Honesty was the best of the lost arts. I find that here.