Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Milton and Morality

I was struck in reading at the beginning of Book VI these lines concerning Satan and his crew saying that they rejected “reason for their law, / Right reason” (ll. 41-42).  The footnote for line 42 says this about what “right reason” means:  "Scholastic theologians adapted the concept of an a priori faculty of moral judgment from the recta ratio of Stoic philosophy. Milton cites Cicero (Philippics 11.12.28): 'Right reason [is] derived from divine will which commands what is right and forbids what is wrong'" (location 17338).

As I did a little searching on Google+ about morality, I quickly saw that there is quite a lot of debate going on about where our reason comes from and moral relativism.  Maybe it’s a bit of a leap to go from taking about a couple of lines from Paradise Lost to talking about moral relativism, but I think that there is a connection worth making.  In the above quote, Milton is certainly espousing the idea that there is there is absolute morality and that morality comes from a divine source (God).  What intrigues me is the fact that Milton places the qualifying word "right" in front of "reason."  Does this mean that all other reasonings are simply wrong, or are there lesser forms of reason?  This got me thinking about claims about moral relativism--namely that truth and morals are relative, and that there is no overarching moral absolute (Of course, that position depends upon everyone following the moral absolute that there is no absolute morality).  What I noticed is that Milton makes no other qualifier on what makes this the "right" reason other than the fact that it comes from God.  Now before I get any concerned comments, don't get me wrong:  I agree with Milton that the greatest Truth and greatest moral way comes by following God.  Moral relativists (and, yes, I would group Milton's Satan with that bunch) tend to look at a claim like that and say that it is not a good enough reason for following God ("X is right/wrong because God said so").  I think what is often missing is the understanding that God, as any parent does, wants what is best for His children and therefore tries to guide us to what will bring the greatest happiness and prosperity in life.

Just a few thoughts on the subject I felt like sharing.

Below is a link to one perspective on moral relativism (from a more secular point of view):


  1. "Of course, that position depends upon everyone following the moral absolute that there is no absolute morality."
    My head almost exploded on that one.
    I don't think it's much of a leap to be talking about this. Satan and his followers got cast down into hell because they fought against the law that was designed by God. They were immoral according to *His* standards (and yes, His standards are a pretty big deal...) but I think talking about this is extremely relative to Paradise Lost.

  2. I hadn't thought of looking at moral relativism in relation to Paradise Lost, but it makes sense. Especially with Satan and his followers because they're all about moral relativism. They argue what is right according to their own ideas and not God's, and for them, there is no moral absolute. It's really interesting.