Monday, November 11, 2013

Milton: Classical Philosophers vs. Christ...or Lacking an angle

Shorter post, I am still trying to pick a research topic. Slow I know, but I also know the consequences of picking a hasty, malformed one and that is positively torture!

One thing I've really been interested in the whole time is Milton's classical allusions. I might be more excited about them because I've recently taken a class where we have read from a lot of what Milton references so I actually get some of the allusions!

That is where I've gotten a wee bit stuck because what do I argue beyond the obvious? Yep, Milton uses classical allusions. A lot. In nearly every single one of his works. Huge, broad, ugly paper.
But then, I finished reading Paradise Regained and this passage through me for a loop.

[Satan long blurb going on and on about ancient and classical philosophers...]

To whom our Savior sagely thus replied.
"Think not but that I know these things, or think
I know them not; not therefore am I short
Of knowing what I ought: he who receives
Light from above, from the fountain of light,
No other doctrine needs, though granted true;
But these are false, or little else but dreams,
Conjectures, fancies, built on nothing firm.
The first and wisest of them all professed
To know this only, that he nothing knew;
the next to fabling fell and smooth conceits,
A third sort doubted all things, though plain sense...
For all his tedious talk is but vain boast, 
Or subtle shifts conviction to evade.
Alas what can they teach, and not mislead;
Ignorant of themselves, of God much more,
And how the world began, and how man fell
Degraded by himself, on grace depending?"
(IV.287-296, 307-312)

(it goes on for a bit more along the same vein.)
Within the context of the Christ and Satan discussion this makes some sort of sense to me. But when you think about Milton saying it, what does that mean? If there is anyone who loves classical philosophers and connections it is Milton. To say these are "false or little else but dreams" seems to be cutting down/undermining all that Milton has previously written about.
Still working on it...any thoughts?


  1. I think this is a really fascinating topic. You could look at how Milton may have criticized classical works in his previous writings, if he has. And if he hasn't, you could see what some of his works may imply about classical literature or see how history may have affected Milton to say this. I think this is a good thing to explore because it seems to contradictory to Milton's views on classical literature and philosophy.

  2. Yes, a great passage for pinpointing a true paradox in Milton's values. This, as I've explained, can be seen in the tradition of Christian humanism. You might go back to the writings of Erasmus of Rotterdam on the value of the ancients, or back further to St. Augustine, or even to Jerome and Tertullian. This is not new ground (the conflict). A source: Edmund Campion, "Defences of classical learning in St. Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana and Erasmus's Antibarbari" History of European Ideas 4.4 (1983): 467-471

  3. I don't know if this will help you hone your topic any more or less, but there is a man, a biblical scholar named Joseph Atwill, who is arguing that the whole idea of Christ as a peaceful being was a way to reduce government resistance during the Roman Empire. That classical scholars created this narrative. How would knowing this affect Milton's Satan as a protagonist? Just something to think about. I realize it's anti-religious, but I really do think it's a fascinating premise.