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Milton's Protestant Individualism 
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Post Milton's Protestant Individualism
Milton’s Protestant Individualism

Having now just finished reading Paradise Lost, I do commend it to all as a wonderful and deeply profound book. The challenge is to see through the mythic imagery to understand the ethical ontology – the critique of human culture and its constraints and the indication of a path of progress.

A theme which strikes me as dominant and pertinent is how the defence of truth is generally a matter for individuals, while the crowd tends to follow easy deceptive lies. This theme of the conscience of the individual was of course a key part of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s, in which Milton was a major political figure as a member of Cromwell’s government. The reformers’ critique of the Roman Catholic Church was that Rome had placed temporal worldly power before its duty to implement the teachings of Christ. The Protestants found the focus on Christ a difficult lonely path, consoled only by the integrity of faith and hope and love, and complicated by the need to reject extremists such as the ranters and levellers. This theme of the individual against the wicked world looks to indicate Milton’s own life experience, advocating Biblical faith against the licentiousness of the Stuart Kings.

There are three parts of the book which on my reading particularly highlight this theme of conscience – the response of Abdiel to Satan at the end of Book 5, the descriptions of Enoch and Noah in Book 11, and the description of the Roman Catholic Church in Book 12. In this thread I will discuss each of these points in turn.

Robert Tulip



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Sun Mar 01, 2009 6:47 am, edited 2 times in total.



Sun Mar 01, 2009 6:34 am
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Abdiel v Satan

In Book 5, the Archangel Raphael tells Adam about the great rebellion in Heaven. Satan was jealous of the Son, and at the end of book 5, (from line 756) through sophistic argument Satan got about one third of the angels to follow him. Only one of Satan’s followers stood up against him—Abdiel, who returned to God. Abdiel condemns Satan for arguing that the primacy of God and the Son undermines the equal freedom of all angels. Abdiel calls Satan blasphemous, false and proud, and an impious ingrate. Abdiel says of God “we know how good and …how provident he is, how far from thought to make us less, bent rather to exalt our happy state.”

Not one of Satan’s legion seconds Abdiel’s zeal. Instead, they all judge it as “out of season, or singular and rash”. Here we have a deep moral tale of how often a courageous statement of truth by a conscientious individual is seen as untimely or foolish. Satan takes the timidity of his devils as cue to attack Abdiel, arrogantly asserting his equality to God. Satan says “our own right hand shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try who is our equal” telling Abdiel “fly, ere evil intercept thy flight”. Abdiel “fearless, though alone encompassed round with foes, thus answered bold. ‘O alienate from God, O spirit accursed, forsaken of all good; I see thy fall determined, and thy hapless crew involved in this perfidious fraud… soon expect to feel His Thunder on thy head.”

Milton describes Abdiel as “faithful found, among the faithless, faithful only he; among innumerable false, unmoved, unshaken, unseduced, unterrified. His Loyalty he kept, his Love, his Zeal; Nor number, nor example with him wrought to swerve from truth, or change his constant mind though single." As Abdiel departed alone and isolated from the demonic throng, "from amidst them forth he passed, long way through hostile scorn, which he sustained superior, nor of violence feared aught; And with retorted scorn his back he turned on those proud towers to swift destruction doomed. THE END OF THE FIFTH BOOK.”

Here we have the Reformation in summary. Perceiving the evil of the world, Milton describes the true religious as individuals of conscience in a faithless context. These days we tend to think of the Reformation as a highly religious period because faith was universally imposed. However, this is a distortion, because lip service did not translate into real understanding or adherence. Milton sees this problem primarily as the weakness of the Roman Catholic Church, where ritual masked a faithless world. Abdiel is the single individual with the courage to beard the lion, to state the emperor’s nudity, to stand on an integrity which he knows will be justified in time.



Sun Mar 01, 2009 6:39 am
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Thanks for writing this essay for us, Robert. I was wondering about the precedents for what Milton is doing here in extolling the individual conscience. We should probably note first that this is not all the same as extolling the individual himself, not the same, that is, as a defense of individuality. That would have seemed perverse to Milton (even Satanic?). The cause for which the individual stood was the only really important thing. But getting back to the precedents, what do you think of in terms of previous literature? Is what Abdiel does of a piece with heroic stories of saints and martyrs and of Jesus Christ himself? Or is there a difference? We are quite used to such stories of conscience today, and that is why I'm interested to know if Milton is an originator of this essential part of a liberal tradition.

Certainly you are right that this theme was of particular importance to Milton personally. His willingness to be outspoken against those wielding power put him in jeopardy. He could be excused if he saw himself in Abdiel.

In reference to Satan's skillful rhetoric, effective with the multitude but not to one man (a favorite theme of Milton's), I think C.S. Lewis must have schooled himself on PL before writing The Screwtape Letters.

Off topic: Another time, you might give your views on how (if it indeed is true) PL is a poem that could only have been written by a strong Protestant. I'm working under an assumption that a Roman Catholic might not have, for lack of any better phrase, taken the bible this seriously, or made it a sole source of theology.


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Sun Mar 01, 2009 10:09 pm
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Thanks Bill. You are right that Milton's outlook is not supporting individualism per se, considering that Satan is a prime individualist. Rather, it is about how conscience is foreign to our world, so that a courageous person who stands with integrity can expect isolation. Integrity in Milton's terms is about knowing who you really are in an eternal or cosmic sense, whereas individualism is often about pursuing temporal interests. I am not sure it is right to see his approach as liberal, in your term, as it emphasises duty to the exclusion of personal inclination.

PL has a jarring integrity which is much more attuned to the Protestant focus on salvation by grace than the Catholic emphasis on good works and the ritual role of the church. Milton's view seems to be that the scale of the Roman church had enabled people of cunning to hypocritically rise through its ranks, mouthing pious words while really focussing on temporal power. Here is Milton’s description of the church of Rome from Book 12 of PL:
Quote:
Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves, who all the sacred mysteries of heaven to their own vile advantages shall turn of lucre and ambition, and the truth with superstitions and traditions taint, left only in those written records pure, though not but by the Spirit understood. Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names, places and titles, and with these to join secular power, though feigning still to act by spiritual, to themselves appropriating the spirit of God, promised alike and given to all believers; and from that pretence, spiritual laws by carnal power shall force on every conscience…. What will they then but force the spirit of grace itself, and bind his consort liberty; what, but unbuild his living temples, built by faith to stand, their own faith not another’s: for on earth who against faith and conscience can be heard infallible? Yet many will presume: whence heavy persecution shall arise on all who in the worship persevere of spirit and truth; the rest, far greater part, will deem in outward rites and specious forms religion satisfied; truth shall retire, stuck with slanderous darts, and works of faith rarely be found: so shall the world go on, to good malignant, to bad men benign, under her own weight groaning, till the day appear of respiration to the just, and vengeance to the wicked, at return of him so lately promised to thy aid, the woman’s seed, obscurely then foretold, now amplier known thy Saviour and thy Lord, last in the clouds from heaven to be revealed in glory of the Father, to dissolve Satan with his perverted world, then raise from the conflagrant mass, purged and refined, new heavens, new earth, ages of endless date founded in righteousness and peace and love, to bring forth fruits joy and eternal bliss.
Here he links the Roman Church to “Satan with his perverted world” for claiming infallibility against faith and conscience. The only hope he holds out is the return of Christ as an individual able to dissolve the power of evil and build a new world.

Milton’s Protestant emphasis on the single just individual against the world also appears in the descriptions of Enoch and Noah in Book 11. Michael shows Adam the future history of the world, presenting a similar moral tale to the Abdiel story, with one rational and just man standing against a world gone to ruin. It is easy to imagine that Milton identifies with Enoch and Noah.

Enoch is described thus:
Quote:
“One rising, eminent in wise deport, spake much of right and wrong, of justice, of religion, truth and peace, and judgement from above. Him old and young exploded, and [would have] seized with violent hands, had not a cloud descending snatched him thence unseen amid the throng. So violence proceeded, and oppression, and sword-law through all the plain, and refuge none was found.”
Enoch is
Quote:
“The only righteous in a world perverse, and therefore hated, therefore so beset with foes for daring single to be just, and utter odious truth, that God would come to judge them with his saints.”
Next, the evil world encountered by Noah is described by the image of a
Quote:
“fair female troop … so blithe, so smooth, so gay, yet empty of all good … To these that sober race of men, whose lives religious titled them the sons of God, shall yield up all their virtue… to the smiles of these fair atheists… from man’s effeminate slackness it begins”.
I expect on this basis Milton would regard Cosmopolitan magazine as a hotbed of atheism. :P

By Noah’s day,
Quote:
“All now was turned to jollity and game, to luxury and riot, feast and dance, marrying or prostituting, as befell, rape or adultery... At length a reverend sire among them came, and of their doings great dislike declared, and testified against their ways. He …preached conversion and repentance, as to souls in prison under judgements imminent. But all in vain.”
Noah builds the Ark and survives while all perish. Michael then explains to Adam the moral:
Quote:
“Those whom last thou saw in triumph and luxurious wealth are … of true virtue void. Who having spilt much blood… shall change their course to pleasure, ease, and sloth, surfeit, and lust … So all shall turn degenerate, all depraved, justice and temperance, truth and faith forgot. One man except, the only son of light in a dark age, against example good, against allurement, custom, and a world offended; fearless of reproach and scorn, or violence, he of their wicked ways shall them admonish, and before them set the paths of righteousness, …and shall return of them derided, but of God observed the one just man alive; by his command shall build a wondrous ark, as thou beheld, to save himself and household from amidst a world devote to universal rack.”
After the flood, Adam says
Quote:
“far less I now lament for one whole world of wicked sons destroyed, than I rejoice for one man found so perfect and so just, that God vouchsafes to raise another world from him, and all his anger to forget…. Such grace shall one just man find in his sight, that he relents, not to blot out mankind, and makes a covenant never to destroy the earth again by flood…Thus thou hast seen one World begin and end; and Man as from a second stock proceed. “
RT



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Of course, the whole of Paradise Lost is an embellishment, and how Milton embellishes the spare Bible stories of those who were righteous says a lot about his attachment to virtue and his attitude toward heroism. The Bible gives no illustrations of the virtue and heroism shown by Enoch and Noah; they are simply described as the only good men left. So Milton quite legitimately fills in some of their actions. He responds very strongly to the idea of one righteous man against the world, strongly enough to perhaps believe in the reality of the fables told in the Bible. For we know that there never has been a time when all but one man (Lot) in a city was wicked, or all except one man on the entire earth was pure enough not to merit destruction. These are devices used in simple narratives or folktales.

Milton as you illustrate was incensed by the abuses of the prelacy. I wouldn't dream of defending the church against these charges, but Milton, as a fierce partisan of his brand of Christianity, paints all of Catholicism as evil, when we know that also this could not be true. For Milton, religion was truly a life or death matter, so I can't really blame him for manning the ramparts as he does. He does work himself up to a height of passion over the issue. I feel that his moral indignation has more weight when he has Michael speak of the way in which warfare and daily violence came to dominate life on earth, and admiration was given only to the violent in battle, not to those who tried to live in peace.


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Post Re: Milton's Protestant Individualism
Robert Tulip wrote:
A theme which strikes me as dominant and pertinent is how the defence of truth is generally a matter for individuals, while the crowd tends to follow easy deceptive lies. This theme of the conscience of the individual was of course a key part of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s, the ranters and levellers. .. This theme of the individual against the wicked world looks to indicate Milton’s own life experience, advocating Biblical faith against the licentiousness of the Stuart Kings.

Thinking a little bit more about this as the take-away message of Paradise Lost, I think it is pretty good. I can't do better. It is, however, much less than Milton was aiming for, since that was nothing less than justifying God's ways to man.

Robert, a ways back in a different PL thread much of which I somehow overlooked until now, you wondered why we were reading such a retrograde work of literature, and you suggested its ideas might belong in the dustbin of history. With regard to Milton's intent, I incline toward the dustbin, too (though you, after having read PL, might have changed your mind). This theology, certainly, is far from what you have been talking about as your reformed Christianity. Milton may have had many heterodox opinions on Christian theology, but today these don't mean anything to us. It is his biblically literal view that stands out, his willingness to take a simple creation myth and make it carry an extremely heavy freight. The machinery Milton erects totters under the weight, and no doubt comes crashing down for many readers. His attempt to characterize God creates big problems for him artistically, providing an opening for the villain to steal the show! His laying out of his Christian doctrine only seems to give it an exposure that makes its weaknesses more glaring.


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Wed Mar 04, 2009 11:19 pm
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A great big thanks to Robert & DWill -- nice discussion guys!


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Thu Mar 05, 2009 8:47 am
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DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
A theme which strikes me as dominant and pertinent is how the defence of truth is generally a matter for individuals, while the crowd tends to follow easy deceptive lies. This theme of the conscience of the individual was of course a key part of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s, the ranters and levellers. .. This theme of the individual against the wicked world looks to indicate Milton’s own life experience, advocating Biblical faith against the licentiousness of the Stuart Kings.
Thinking a little bit more about this as the take-away message of Paradise Lost, I think it is pretty good. I can't do better. It is, however, much less than Milton was aiming for, since that was nothing less than justifying God's ways to man. Robert, a ways back in a different PL thread much of which I somehow overlooked until now, you wondered why we were reading such a retrograde work of literature, and you suggested its ideas might belong in the dustbin of history. With regard to Milton's intent, I incline toward the dustbin, too (though you, after having read PL, might have changed your mind). This theology, certainly, is far from what you have been talking about as your reformed Christianity. Milton may have had many heterodox opinions on Christian theology, but today these don't mean anything to us. It is his biblically literal view that stands out, his willingness to take a simple creation myth and make it carry an extremely heavy freight. The machinery Milton erects totters under the weight, and no doubt comes crashing down for many readers. His attempt to characterize God creates big problems for him artistically, providing an opening for the villain to steal the show! His laying out of his Christian doctrine only seems to give it an exposure that makes its weaknesses more glaring.

Bill, my comment about the retrograde nature of PL was in the Opening Comments thread, pointing out that the book is creationist and so was a surprising choice for Booktalk - sympathy for the devil and all that. Since I equate Satan with delusion, I have to say creationism has a special bond with Old Nick as well. So I agree with you that the defective cosmology in PL means Milton fails in his quest to justify God to Man because he does not have an accurate vision of the nature of Satan. The inaccuracy comes through in the misogyny and exclusiveness which of course were par for the course at his time.

Yet, your description in the Closing Comments thread of “the myth of Eden becoming such a huge influence over all of Western culture - It seems to have become a myth on steroids” indicates that a non-Creationist reading of the myth of Eden can have a meaningful resonance. I certainly see this in the idea of hunter-gatherer life as a stress-free paradise, picked up in Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage. In one of the lost posts on 9-13 February, I compared PL with Our Inner Ape, which we discussed here last year. The bonobo of the Congo lived in a real paradise of abundance, and have a friendly kind manner as a result, whereas their close relatives the chimpanzees lived in an environment of scarcity and so evolved competitive violent behaviour. The implication is that the idea that humanity emerged from Eden- understood as a situation of stress-free abundance - has a very strong psychological attraction, as does the idea that we can return to such a state by once again finding our true nature.

The problem of how to achieve this return to abundance raises the messianic problem, that a single individual needs to see the whole problem and exercise courageous leadership – like Luke Skywalker zapping the Death Star in Star Wars, Frodo Baggins hurling the one ring into Mount Doom in Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, and Neo conquering Zion in The Matrix. Similarly, Milton presents the return to Paradise - Paradise Regained - as a challenge for the world that is only possible through the individual leadership of the incarnate Son.



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Robert Tulip wrote:
. The implication is that the idea that humanity emerged from Eden- understood as a situation of stress-free abundance - has a very strong psychological attraction, as does the idea that we can return to such a state by once again finding our true nature.

Yes, I see now that the Eden myth does more than explain our painful human life, but is also aspirational in some sense for us. This contributes to the profundity of the myth, separates it from myths in general, perhaps.

Quote:
Similarly, Milton presents the return to Paradise - Paradise Regained - as a challenge for the world that is only possible through the individual leadership of the incarnate Son.

Though this was one we also read in graduate school, I think I'll not suggest it for Booktalk due to Milton overload already! But Milton is undoubtedly a great poetic genius. I'm fond of "Lycidas," "Comus," "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (which Dylan Thomas called his favorite poem in English), and "L'Allegro" and "Il Pensero." And Paradise Lost is a remarkable for both its poetry and its drama.


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