Milton’s Socratic Rationalism

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The title of this study, Milton’s Socratic Rationalism, identifies a distinct mode of deliberative inquiry that is by design, as I will argue, an objective in the plan of Paradise Lost. The poet became acquainted with this mode of discourse – as few[1] at present are in the Socratic writings of Xenophon and Plato during an extended period of private study after his formal studies at Cambridge had ended.[2] In An Apology Against a Pamphlet (CPW 1.891, italics in text) Milton recalled that “riper yeares, and ceaseless round of study and reading led me to the shady spaces of philosophy, but chiefly to the divine volumes of Plato, and his equall Xenophon.”[3]

Socratic Rationalism would appear to broadly characterize an approach made familiar in the conversations Plato poetically represented Socrates to have with various individuals in the dialogues. The present use of the term is certainly inclusive of such exempla, but pays particular attention to Xenophon’s less well-known if more circumspect and surely more austere report. Differences in these portraits of Socratic conversation invite considered interest. Xenophon concurs with the Platonic portrait of Socrates that represents him “constantly conversing about human things as he considered . . .” (περὶ τῶν ἀνθρωπείων ἀεὶ δ διελέγετο σκοπῶν . . .  [Mem. 1.1.16]) those ‘what is’ (τί ἐστι . . . ) questions that fill the dialogues, yet Xenophon appears to not permit us to observe his Socrates so engaged.[4] Xenophon also tells us that Socrates “did not approach everyone in the same way” (οὐ τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον ἐπὶ πάντας ᾔει  [Mem. 4.1.3] yet, unlike Plato, we are not allowed to overhear his talk with those of extraordinary gifts such as an Alcibiades. Instead, the Memorabilia chiefly records Xenophon’s recollections of Socrates giving other young men sound moral advise. Only in the fourth book are we shown what might be called Socratic’s didactic method, but practiced on a young acolyte of Socrates, Euthydemus, who believes that wisdom consists in collecting the sayings of esteemed poets and sophists (Mem. 4.2.1ff.).

Commentary on Paradise Lost also has been generally disappointed, save that of C.S. Lewis perhaps, with the domestic tableau of the two now embellished with the talk  Milton imagined they would have. Yet even Lewis had to concede that, “In considering his (i.e., Adam’s) relations with Eve we must remind ourselves of the greatness of these personages” (119)[5]. The conversations of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost appear to have shared with Xenophon’s portrait of Socrates a neglect born of indifference to the mundane attire of its considerable charms–in the former case, a spectacle of two remarkably intelligent individuals conversing with each other in their complete innocence in wonder of what they each are; who is that other, alike yet different from their self; what is this place, and whence, and by whom and how.

These objects for inquiry are suggested by the poet’s additions to the bare particulars of the Scriptural story in pursuit of his explicit subject in Paradise Lost, “Man’s Disobedience and the Fruit” (1.1).[6] The poet among other expansions[7] includes five conversations between Adam and Eve – four before and one after the Fall – within an extended scope for the Biblical narrative of several additional days. In Genesis Adam and Eve say not a word to each other before, at, or even after the fatal events of that day they were created and then fell. Adam talked with God, and Eve with the snake, but they did not converse with each other. The only thing Adam says to Eve is this name he gives her after they are judged (Gen. 3:20). With the addition of the conversations of these two to Paradise Lost, however, Milton now places an implicit anthropology in Scripture’s account of the events in Paradise in counterpoise to the most evident sense of “Let us make man in our own image, according to our likeness”(Gen. 1:26): rational discourse.

This plan of counterpoise as well begins to reveal a Socratic pedigree in its recognition of distinct audiences to whom these alternatives might appeal. Milton’s expansions upon the Scriptural narrative must surely cultivate generally accepted opinions of these events if the poem hopes to “justify the ways of God to men“(1.26, italics added). But Milton’s report of their overheard conversations must also render in a plausible fashion the unique circumstances of their nascent consciousness and intelligence. They both begin, “much wondering where/ And what I was, whence thither brought, and how” (4.451­452, cf. 8.270­271), in full possession of their rational faculties though without that reservoir of experience and consequent opinions that for all their descendants populates, so-to-speak, the infancy, childhood and adolescence of their growth as rational beings. Adam and Eve are innocents, and are without any awareness of accepted notions – not to mention fallen ones – of the matters they in wonder ask of themselves and eventually each other. Their pristine experience, unclouded by authoritative opinion of any sort is available to be examined since it is described by their own undiminished rational faculties. To view such beings with wonder, to listen to their talk as they make sense of themselves and each other without resort to a knowledge of good and evil – that inheritance from the Fall – even the general audience of the poem might assume would seem an attainment of a “fit audience . . . though few” (7.31)

At present it is worth noting that the peculiar circumstances of these conversations of Adam and Eve and the particular discernment required of both in several essential respects also resembles conversations which Xenophon said Socrates had with certain interlocutors “whose souls were naturally well disposed towards virtue.”  “Socrates took as a sign, ” Xenophon reports, “of such good natures those who were quick to understand what they put their mind to, and could remember what they had learned, and (among other things, they were those) . . . who desired to learn anything at all by which it was possible to deal with men and human things in a fine manner” (Memorabilia 4.1.2). These very qualities will be active in “Eve’s First Words” to Adam (Chapter three) and Adam’s account of Eve’s dream of the forbidden tree in “Becoming Dear” (Chapter five).

In Genesis Adam and Eve after a fashion briefly converse with their Creator; they speak and understand speech, both declarative and interrogatory. Milton expands upon[8] this rational nature they share with their Creator. In Paradise Lost Eve and Adam both begin by their own account, “much wondering where\ And what I was, whence thither brought, and how” (4.451-452, cf. 8.270-271). The few days of their life together before the Fall will punctuated by conversation with each other marking the discovery and growth of a rational nature in each other. They find themselves and their “other self” in a “self /Before me” (see 8.450 & 495­496). These discoveries and still others animate their conversation in Paradise. A passing remark in the introductory chapter of Milton’s Artis Logicae states the obvious. Citing a comment of Socrates in Plato’s 1st Alcibiades, Milton remarks, idem vult esse τό διαλέγεσθαι, quod ratione uti. (“he was of the view that ‘to converse’ was the same as to use reason” [WJM 11.20]).

Milton as early as the divorce tracts had argued that “a fit and matchable conversation” was not only “essential to the prime scope of marriage” in the ordinary sense but provided a glimpse, at least, of “that serene and blissful condition it was in at the beginning” (CPW 2.239 & 240). Thus, his poetic expansions in Paradise Lost upon the tight­lipped particulars of Genesis not only reveal his sense of, “And God created the human in his image\ in the image of God He created him,\ male and female He created him” (Gen 1:27)[9], but now revise the terms of inquiry into the explicit subject of the poem.

Socratic Rationalism and the Problem of Audience

No audience of the poem need be told that “Man’s Disobedience and the Fruit” refers to an event of dire consequence – with redemption but a distant prospect. They know the story all too well. But to identify a “serene and blissful condition” that would be lost along with those charms of Adam and Eve reasoning their way – first, to their own marital accord (Books 4 & 5); then to show that accord interrupted by an angel (Books. 5 through 8); then fractured thereafter by a quarrel; and thereafter violated in the solitude of their own choices (Book. 9); and finally, perhaps restored by the grace or graces bestowed upon them by their Creator (Book.10)––all this would enable one to measure both what they had learned they had, and then apparently lost, and then perhaps, what they regained or retained­­and what still might obtain to us to some degree. The means of measurement would be deduced from principles they discover in their own talk. To that talk – as this study endeavors to show – Milton grants a unique status in the poem: it is not conversation narrative persona imagines, but rather, that which he overhears. Thereby these conversations take the pose of a mere report rather than a poet’s invention.

The audience that reads Paradise Lost is aware of moral certainties, the “generally accepted opinions,” τὰ ἔνδοξα[10] as Aristotle called them, about goods lost and evils done and got that surround the poem, the sacred text and the multitudinous interpretations of both. Adam and Eve had no such awareness before the Fall. By the Fall they obtained such an awareness.[11] Thus their talk before and after can make possible an examination of our talk – rife as it is with such certainties. One can examine these opinions. This according to Aristotle is the office of dialectic (Top. 100a25­101b4). To do so neither defers to these generally accepted opinions­­as if one, though fallen, possesses a knowledge of good and evil as a moral truth – nor simply casts them aside – as if one’s own notions, or those borrowed from some poet, can replace “what seems good to everyone, or most people for the most part, or what the wise, either all of them or most of them or those especially renowned and respected think is true.”[12] This mode of inquiry this study calls Socratic rationalism. Some account must given of the name.

Socratic rationalism is imitated in the poetic compositions of some of his students and contemporaries. Plato wrote dialogues; Xenophon intimated[13] Socrates’ distinct mode of address to his close associates among his other acquaintances in the fourth book of the Memorabilia; and Aristophanes parodied Socrates’ public and private instruction in The Clouds. Still later Aristotle described a means of inquiry when he explained how rhetoric is a counterpart (ἀντίστροφος [Rhet. 1354a1]) of dialectic. He also gave notice to the grounds of kinship and difference among his treatises on logical, dialectical and rhetorical syllogisms and the art of poetry. All as disciplines are expressive of our rational nature and all, Aristotle implied, make distinct demands upon and are suited to the peculiar needs of various audiences.

In the absence of a logical demonstration from self­evident principles some are inclined to reason with a degree of caution from and about “generally accepted opinions” (τὰ ἔνδοξα). Yet others are persuaded by what only at first seems a generally accepted opinion and thus, others will see a need to distinguish a rhetorical syllogism from a dialectical one. For others still, it will suffice to be merely persuaded of what requires no further scrutiny. And poetry, indifferent to these considerations, possesses powers to persuade without resort to syllogism. All these modes are rational but they answer to different needs of different audiences.[14] Xenophon, once again, merely observed of Socrates’ relations with his associates that,”he did not approach everyone in the same way” (οὐ τὸν αὐτὸν δὲ τρόπον ἐπὶ πάντας ᾔει . . . [Mem.4.1.2]).

Xenophon also recalled (Mem. 4.6.15) that Socrates was wont to cite Homer’s Odysseus as an example of attending[15] to these differences in an audience: “Homer gave credit to Odysseus for being an unerring orator since that very man was quite adept at carrying out his speeches by means of the things that seem good to men (διὰ τῶν δοκούντων τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ἄγειν τοὺς λόγους). Given the great variety of – ofttimes contradictory – “things that seem good to men,” Xenophon seems to have learned from Socrates a way speaking about Socrates’ way of speaking which muted to some degree the sense of a discriminate address to his audience. “By far of all those I have known,” Xenophon adds, “he above all tried to achieve agreement among those who were listening to him.” This study will suggest that Milton in Paradise Lost is engaged in this Socratic project. He speaks to a diverse audience but endeavors to preserve a ground of agreement for all in an articulate respect for generally accepted opinion.

 An Excursus on the “Difficulties” in the Criticism

That Milton in Paradise Lost was also aware of the difficulties of a divided audience and had resorted to a Socratic mode of address emerges from the preliminary matters concerned with audience that first appear in the third printing of the first edition of 1667. Subsequent additions and corrections culminate in the two verse appreciations of A.M. and S.B.M.D. added to the second edition of 1674. All these perhaps otherwise plausible addenda concern audience. The printer pleads that some concession be made to a supposed popular incomprehension; he asks that the poet provide an argument. The poet grants the request albeit with some pique. He adds further unsolicited comments on the “The Verse,” and goes on to describe what he will soon call his “fit audience . . . though few”(7.31): they will not “vulgar readers”, but familiar with the verse “of Homer in Greek , and of Virgil in Latin,” they will esteem “an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming.” A distinct difference between these audiences first presents itself in two distinct ways to understand these remarks on rhyme.  Finally the two poems, one in Latin elegaics and another of rhymed couplets in English, offer­­ – in one, notes of enthusiastic praise, and in the other, mixed with lingering doubts–their dubious credentials to be enrolled in the desired audience for the poem.  “Chapter One: Preliminaries,” in short, examines these matters as ironic commentary on the poem’s present and possible reception.

Paradise Lost is and has always been seen as a “difficult” poem. Jonathan Richardson (1734) had described the stresses imposed upon a certain kind of reader:

“. . . a Reader of Milton must be Always upon Duty; he is Surrounded with Sense, it rises in every Line, every Word is to the Purpose.  There are no Lazy Intervals, All has been Consider’d, and Demands, and Merits Observation. Even in the Best Writers you Sometimes find Words and Sentences which hang on so Loosely you may Blow ’em off; Milton’s are all Substance and Weight; Fewer would not have Serv’d the Turn, and More would have been Superfluous. His Silence has the Same Effect, not only that he leaves Work for the Imagination when he has Entertain’d it, and Furnish’d it with Noble Materials ; but he Expresses himself So Concisely, Employs Words So Sparingly, that whoever will Possess His Ideas must Dig for them, and Oftentimes pretty far below the Surface. If This is call’d Obscurity let it be remembred ’tis Such a One as is Complaisant to the Reader, not Mistrusting his Ability, Care, Diligence, or the Candidness of his Temper;  . . . if a Good Writer is not Understood ’tis because his Reader is Unacquainted with, or Incapable of the Subject, or will not Submit to do the Duty of a Reader, which is to Attend Carefully to what he Reads (cxliv-cxlv).”[16]

Nevertheless there was early on a consensus of sorts in behalf of Addison’s “great Moral”  of Paradise Lost – “that Obedience to the will of God makes men happy, and that Disobedience makes them miserable” (Spectator #369). The demands on a reader aside, it was not hard to get the basic point. Milton, we may think, would have been pleased with both appreciations.

About 75 years ago, however, a critical consensus of sorts in behalf of Addison’s “great Moral” of Paradise Lost began to disintegrate. An awareness was growing of so-called “difficulties” of the poem and of the poet. Charles Williams (1937), however, in speaking of “The New Milton” was optimistic that certain adjustments in the basic sense of the man himself and in the critical appreciation of the works he produced were “likely soon to justify Milton’s ways to us much more than we have hitherto realized” (19). Herein Williams deftly echoed both Milton’s declared subject and the Aristotelian standard by which all great poetry – and fine criticism no less – are to represent the poet’s success: “Ah, this is that !”[17]

C. S. Lewis (1942) then thought it necessary to remind the audience of the poem just what sort of thing they were reading. As he put it–playfully predicting the strands of appreciation and misapprehesion to come – “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is” (1). Lewis could see where things were headed. If cathedrals were not for “entertaining tourists” nor corkscrews for opening potted meats, Lewis nevertheless knew that Milton’s poem did provide occasion for his figured examples to perform their actual functions in the poem. Charles Williams had brought him into the nave of a cathedral (see Dedication, v-vi), but Lewis also saw racks of modern intoxicants waiting to be opened.

J. A. Waldock (1947), however, was dismissive of Lewis and, in his own way, of difficulties in Milton’s poem: “Only grasp what Milton is driving at, [Lewis] seems to say, and the battle is over; only understand what Milton meant and you will see that there are no real difficulties at all.” No, there were problems, Waldock thought, but “[i]t was possible . . . to overrate very much Milton’s awareness of the peculiar difficulties of his theme”(17). Waldock was attracted to this barely plausible excuse to explain a peculiar fact of narrative progress. With his daring choice of subject Milton “was bound . . . to discover the rigidities and awkwardnesses of his subject.”. Some would have come as a surprise–the subject had traps and pitfalls that Milton, for various reasons easy to understand, could not have been foreseen; it was only to be expected that from time to time he would come to the edge of one of these, and seeing it, would veer sharply away. The traces of such veerings are . . . perceptible in the poem (25).

Milton had been drawn to a grand theme in Genesis wherein “God does not show to advantage” (18). His choice of  the epic form required of him to add embarrasing motives to make acceptable if not attractive characters for whom the spare details of the Biblical narrative had observed a respectful silence. Then there were the intricacies of the Scriptural traditions, and varieties of interpretation. In the end, Waldock thought, that Milton:

“. . . [a]s his work progressed, . . . came on problems that he had not expected to encounter. It is of great interest in reading Paradise Lost to note that here, or here, a sudden difficulty has checked Milton slightly––that here, or here, a faint uneasiness shows itself. And yet we may take it for granted, I suppose, that Milton never to the end became aware of the real nature of the gravest of the narrative problems he had been grappling with” (21).

In one sense Waldock was right;  The objects of great interest,  problems of Milton’s subject and difficulties in the narrative could not be ignored. Waldock however did not interrogate his own aesthetic judgment that found defects which it might have been arranged as rhetorical directives.

For William Empson (1961), however, difficulties were not defects to be explained or excused, but the reason why, for him at least, the poem was good. He had the good sense to examine what these so-called ‘defects’ point to; their prevalence in the poem could not be accidental. He would also praise C. S. Lewis for bringing some clarity to the motives of foes no less than admirers of the poem. Aesthetic judgments pro and con were, Empson thought, a pose to mask “various theologies and world-views” (9).  Lewis showed the way: “Many of those who say they dislike Milton’s God only mean they dislike God.” (Preface, 130). Borrowing then the title for his own book from this remark, Empson seemed to parade his own confession. As he mischieviously observed, “‘Dislike’ is is a question-begging term here. I think the traditional God of Christianity very wicked, and I have done so since I was in school, where nearly all my little playmates thought the same” (10). What opinion he personally held about God was beside the point; it was the questions that intrigued him. As he went on to explain:

“. . . to worship a wicked God is morally bad for a man, so that he ought to be free to question whether his God is wicked. Such an approach does make Milton himself appear in a better light. He is struggling to make his God appear less wicked, as he tells us at the start (1.25), and does succeed in making him noticeably less wicked than the traditional Christian one; though, after all his efforts, owing to his loyality to the sacred text and the penetration with which he makes its story real to us, his modern critics still feel, in a puzzled way, that there is something badly wrong about it all. That this searching goes on in Paradise Lost, I submit, is the chief source of its fascination and poignancy; and to realize that it is going on makes the poem feel much better at many points, indeed clears up most of the objections to it. I thus tend to accept the details of the interpretation which various recent critics have used to prove the poem bad, and then try to show that they make it good (11). In almost casual terms Empson was raising the question, quid sit deus?, that stands bestride the boundary between the way of faith and a way of philosophic inquiry.”

Anne Ferry (1963) soon pointed a way to discuss these “difficulties” that turned attention to their role in the poem. These were not unfortunate oversights or worse “traps and pitfalls,” or even pleasing correctives to a doctrinaire subject in a poet’s performance, but the utterance of a character “as deliberate an invention as the other characters in the poem and as essential to its meaning.” Ferry had followed Lewis’s advice to attend to “what a thing is.” Milton’s choice of the epic required a narrative voice by convention[18]. In Paradise Lost she thought its scope was comprehensive:

“everything which is not actually said by this narrator––the speeches of the characters to themselves or to one another – is reported and interpreted by him[19], and therefore only when we have determined who is speaking in the narrative, descriptive, and discursive passages, and to whom, can we evaluate the mood and meaning of the poem” (20, emphasis added).

Ferry stressed a complexity in the task. Narrative persona’s task was to account not just for the ways of God but his own ways and those of his audience and in fact all men. “We, the readers” Ferry observed, “are immediately included in the events of the narrative with the first line of the poem, because its subject is ‘Man’s First Disobedience’ . . .” (22). At the same time the poem and its narrative persona Ferry thought supplied ample testimony “that as human beings we need divine inspiration because our minds cannot transcend the limits of our creaturely nature, and as heirs of Adam, we are fallen, bereft, miserable, and mortal.” (23) Thus, narrative persona ” is . . . not only one of ‘us’ because he shares ‘our woe’; he is also apart from us, instructing us in his role as the poet” (24).

Attractive as her proposal might be to account for the difficulty of shifting perspectives in the poem, Ferry did not explain why this deliberately invented narrator, nevertheless, should not be identified with John Milton.[20] If he was distinct, then the author’s design for the poem as a whole would begin to become visible with an account of that persona that explained its close resemblances to John Milton, Englishman – his blindness;  a public persona already familiar from the prose tracts; and one immersed in the political, theological, philosophic controversies of his day­­ – as well as the peculiar difficulties that persona’s own performance instanced or produced in his characters. Why was this vehicle required?

Ferry had come close to raising the right question – what is the place of narrative persona in the account of the ways of God to men? – but her labors, however, were soon to be eclipsed by a study which proposed an entirely different locus of interest for the poems’s notorious “crises of interpretation.” Setting aside the intricacies of plot, character, narrative strategy and the like, Stanley Fish (1967, 2nd ed. 1997) in Surprised by Sin offered to describe a fit response of the poem’s audience to these crises. All the crises had the same shape and purpose. They were intended to be unsettle the audience. It did not take long for his thesis to gain wide notice and nearly as wide if oft grudging acceptance.

By his own account in the preface to the 2nd edition Fish’s aims originally had been modest. Faced with a long-standing quarrel among critical camps that “accused one another of various heresies and congealed orthodoxies, each side claiming that the other was not really reading the poem but skewing it to fit a preconceived idea,” Fish offered to heal the rift:

“By shifting the field where coherence was to be found from the words on the page to the experience they provoked, I was able to reconcile the two camps under the aegis of a single thesis; Paradise Lost is a poem about how its readers came to be the way they are; its method, ‘not so much a teaching but intangling’ is to provoke in its readers wayward, fallen responses which are then corrected by one of several authoritative voices (the narrator, God, Raphael, Michael, the Son). In this way, I argued, the reader is brought to a better understanding of his sinful nature and is encouraged to participate in his own reformation” (“Preface,”2nd ed., x).

In confining interpretative interest to “fallen reponses” of an audience of readers, Surprised by Sin tacitly assumed the scope of Paradise Lost was coincident with that of Genesis, though the former was replete with expansions upon the narrative of the latter. Both taught the way of faith. For a sequence of entanglement, surprise and conditioned impulse to reform that came to view in these additions Fish had offered the penitential practices and handbooks of Milton’s Protestant contemporaries as precedent.[21] That something quite different – which in this study goes by the name of  Socratic Rationalism­­ – is at work in dialectical counterpoise to Scripture will rest in a sense on the same material evidence though possessed of a more inclusive pedigree in “generally accepted opinion,” τὰ ἔνδοξα . Nevertheless, the wide-spread deference to the approach of Surprised By Sin to Paradise Lost and to “reader-response criticism” – which Fish celebrated in his preface to the second edition of 1997 requires explanation.

Fish’s account of his resolution for the rift in the critical discussion of the poem had deftly avoided the source of disagreement: contending proposals for authorial intent.[22] In broad terms, was Milton of the devil’s party or God’s? Instead, Fish would confine himself to the “words on the page”[23] and “the experience they provoked.” Relieved of the difficult task of discerning what words this author used in what particular sense to create what particular effect he wished in conveying what matter in the poem with which he was concerned, etc., Fish nonetheless had to say they, the words, did give rise to some experience. But where was that to be found, but in a climate of generally accepted opinion of his own description: an audience of Christian sensibilities, attachments, and practices that would become unsettled by the poetic admixture of an epic tradition. Only now did Fish re-introduce authorial intent but now constrained to cultivate the tensions that might arise among these “generally accepted opinions” as he delimited and defined them. Herein the intellectual pedigree of “reader response” in historicism becomes visible. Under the Hegelian principle that “every man is a child of his own times” the audience of reader response and the poet, Milton – who out of self-interest surely needs must attend to that audience –[24], are both creatures of their own time. How then will Fish and the host of his sometimes reluctant admirers explain the post-modern doubt of authorial intent that impels him to abandon any project for his poetic endeavors save cultivating their present wavering beliefs which he as well shares. There is, after all, ample evidence that both the poet and his contemporaries did not have such doubts.[25]

Socratic rationalism and the theory of reader response criticism begin in a sense with the same material, the difficulties the poem presents in a resort to τὰ ἔνδοξα, generally accepted opinions. No less do the prisoners in Socrates’ allegory the Cave begin to engage in conversation about the shadows they behold, those dim shadow reproductions cast by the unseen artifacts of equally unseen makers. In spite of these deficits the prisoners talk about what they behold. Their talk is not of an intent of the makers of the artifacts; their talk is of the realities of their experience. Understandably, nevertheless, they fall into disagreements – it is very dark in this place­ – about what they are are seeing. Fish would argue that Milton, himself one of those prisoners, obtained authority to resolve those disputes because his talk authorized his own and their own pious beliefs.[26] After all he was a prisoner too. What is not allowed in this resolution of conflicting opinions is Milton’s interest in cultivating a different audience, a “fit audience,” an audience that, when faced with these disagreements – those “difficulties” that some began to encounter in the poem – ask “What is . . .?” questions.[27]

Any author who attends to the audience that he has as well as an audience that he wants – for Milton, his desire to “fit audience find, though few” (7.31) – is rhetorical and political. Milton in his comments in the Verse will speak of the exemplary practice of “learned ancients in poetry and all good oratory” who would not be “vulgar readers” of his poem. As Chapter one: Preliminaries will show, that preference for an audience which Milton did endeavor to cultivate is specific to the praise which Xenophon once (Mem. 4.6.15) bestowed upon his teacher, Socrates. In short Milton attended to an audience that was neither oppressed by the post-modern doubts of Fish’s contemporaries, nor exclusively concerned to gratify or assuage pious orthodoxies awakened among of his own contemporaries[28] – though Milton obviously could not ignore the latter’s sympathies.  Rather, he desired to address an audience of excellent natures (see Mem. 4.1.2), few to be sure, with which he might raise fundamental questions which only are apprehended in counterpoise.

Surprised by Sin in its advocacy for the way of faith anathematizes another way – a way which this study gives the name of rational inquiry. These two ways challenge the claims of each other in their address to the same question, “how ought one to live?” One way to interpret Milton’s Paradise Lost assumes that the poem teaches what Genesis teaches – that human kind though created free needs a guide for living other than those powers it has been given to think for itself. This teaching would exclude a ‘philosophic’ inquiry, especially of the sort that investigates “What is . . . ?” questions.

The way of faith asserts its belief in a way, “obedience to the sole Command” which is beyond inquiry by another way, or so it would seem. It believes in that knowledge of good and evil is revealed in the Bible as the word of God. But the way of faith cannot – and does not have a need to – prove that the way of inquiry is false, if only because such a proof would refute the very essense of the subject of the proof. Faith names conviction when there is no proof. On the other hand, the way of inquiry cannot invalidate the claim of faith to know good and evil, since it acknowledges no grounds – let alone that which inquiry would accept–of proof save its source in revelation. Nevertheless, inquiry can argue–as these remarks begin to do – the truth of an irreducible dyad of ways presented by means of a unitary but not univocal voice that speaks of and to both.

This unitary but not univocal voice belongs to the narrative persona who gives voice to the “generally accepted opinions” that shape the poem as Anne Ferry had argued that it would. But the narrative expansions of Genesis devised, imagined, and managed by this persona[29] naturally will respond to the oft inchoate stresses of those dominant opinions about the story no less than about the poetic form, and even the poet himself. Milton had a public persona, the outlines of which are sketched in the poem. Everyone knows how the story goes, but wishes it would have been otherwise – if there just had been a “warning voice” the judgment of God would not seem so harsh. So, the narrator supplies one. An epic needs a magnificent hero but Satan’s heroism has to be exposed as pose. The totality of these stresses are managed by narrative persona in service to the ends of rhetorical persuasion – his interests are, afterall, the same as those of the printer, as Chapter one will show – and this will give rise to those so-called “difficulties” Waldock thought would have surprized the poet. In a sense it a plausible surmise – about the narrative persona.

These difficulties, however, in fact are arranged by the poet, John Milton, not his persona, to invite a dialectical scrutiny of these generally accepted opinions. The aim would be to discover what truth or falsity resides in these opinions about the poem’s subject. In Ovid’s tale of Narcissus, for example, that young boy is very definition of vanity, but did Milton mean to suggest that Eve was as well at the pool? Empson said such “difficulties” were what for him made the poem good. I am inclined to think Milton expected there might be a few other who did as well. In short, narrative persona speaks to and for the audience of men; Milton, to the “fit audience . . . though few.” Paradise Lost speaks to both audiences with one voice, in a way that Augustine thought that even Scripture did.[30]

Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

A different view of the Genesis narrative of the Fall becomes visible in the opening chapters (1.1 & 1.2) of Maimonides’ Doctor Perplexorum (The Guide for the Perplexed ) – which Milton knew[31] in the Latin translation of Johannis Buxtorf (Basel, 1629) of a Hebrew translation of the Arabic text – when Maimonides recalls an objection raised by “a certain wise and learned man” (vir quidam sapiens & eruditus)[32].

Maimonides has begun the Guide with a discussion of the equivocal terms, “image and likeness” (imago & similitudo). His immediate object is to correct a false impression about the meaning of these terms which would lead to a grave error in understanding what God is. If men were to think, as many do, that “image and likeness” refer to “the form or shape of some thing” (Formam alicuius rei)(1), then, when the Scriptures says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen.1:26) they are likely to think that God too is corporeal, having a body, face and hands, that form and figure that men have. Rather, as he explains, the term imago, “is applied in reference to a form in nature, in reference to that actuality through which a thing exists, and is what it is.” (usurpatur de Forma Naturali, h[oc]. e[st]. de re, per quam res extsitit, & est quod est).   In man it is “that in virtute of which the intellectual apprehension shows itself in man ” (cuius virtute in homine existit Apprehensio Intellectiva) (2). This, Maimonides adds, is “similiar to the intellect of the Creator since it too depends upon no instrument or limb of some body”[33](3).

In the following chapter Maimonides recalls the objection of “a certain wise and learned man” made once made many years before. But prior to addressing that objection Maimonides first discusses another equivocal term in the Hebrew Scriptures: Elohim. The term he says is appropriate to (competere) either “to God, or Angels or judges as governing authorities over provinces” (Deo, Angelis, & judicibus provinciarum gubernatoribus). The need for this etymological clarification is not immediately obvious.

Returning to the objection, Maimonides recalls, this “wise and learned man,” begins from the premise that “by the simple sense of Scripture, the primary intention in the creation of man was that he be similar to the rest of the animals – without knowledge or intellect, not knowing how to distinguish between good and evil.” Why then, he wonders, would the “punishment for disobedience have granted to that very being the perfection of that which he formerly lacked, namely the intellect?” (poena inobedientae eius perfectionem ipsi dederit, qua antea carebat, nempe Intellectum). He is thinking of Satan’s temptation of Eve: “for so–i.e., if you eat–you shall be just as Elohim[34] knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5), and also, of what they now have become, according to God, after the Fall: “Behold they have become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen.3:22, cf. P. L. 9.107-1073).

Maimonides answers the objection by clarifying what is meant by intellect. The objector assumed that the knowledge of good and evil is a perfection of the intellect; Maimonides argues, however, “intellect” refers to that which he was given at creation. The nature of that gift was made clear by the bestowal of commandments since they were not given to animals (brutis), he argues, “since they lack intellect and reason” (intellectu ac ratione carentibus).

Then Maimonides describes this faculty of intellect:

“Per Intellectum ( . . . ) potest homo discernere inter verum & falsum, & hic inditus fuit ipsi ad perfectionem & absolutionem eius. Turpe vero, sive deforme, & Pulchrum, dicuntur de rebus manifestis in sensum incurrentibus, non vero de intellectualibus. Nam non dicimus, quod coeli sunt rotundi, pulchrum est: vel Turpe est, quod Terra est extensa, sed praedicatur de illis Verum vel Falsum. Et sic de rei alicuius certitudine vel incertitudine dicitur in Lingua nostra Veritas & Falsitas: de re vero pulchra vel deformi, Bonum vel Malum, & per Intellectum dignoscit homo verum a falso in rebus intellegibilibus. Quando autem homo adhuc extitit in integritate & perfectione sua, mentis imprimis & Intellectus, cuius respectu dictum est de eo, Et minorem fecisti eum paululum ab Angelis: tum nulla plane erat in eo facultas utendi sensibilibus, vel ea apprehendendi.”[35]

“Through the intellect ( . . . ) man can distinguish between true and false, and this was imparted to him alone for his perfection and consummation. The shameful or ugly and the beautiful, however, are said of obvious facts when they impinge upon sensation [i.e. “that are generally accepted as known”], but surely not of matters entertained by the intellect. We do not say that the heavens are round is beautiful, or it is shameful that the earth is wide, but the truth and falsity are asserted of those things. Thus, in our language truth or falsity is said in relation to the certainty or uncertainty of something; of something beautiful or shameful, good or evil; and through the intellect man distinguishes the true from the false in intelligible things. When man, moreover, was in a state of innocence and his own perfection, it was said in his regard that “you have made him a little less that the angels (translating, Elohim)”(Ps. 8:6). At that time there was clearly no faculty of making use of “generally accepted opinions,” or having any grasp of those things” (Doctor Perplexorum, 4-5).

These two chapters of the Guide offer a glimpse into events before the Fall of which Genesis had little to say, and Milton has quite a lot. Critical comment on Paradise Lost has consistently viewed these events as derived from that teaching of a “simple sense of Scripture” – as the wise and learned objector in Maimonides would have it – about good and evil. Milton’s additions to the Genesis narrative, therefore, either are combed for hints of a disobedience to come, or, as in Surprised by Sin, the speech and deeds of Adam and Eve are seen to provoke an audience’s own sense of shame: those two were innocent once; we who try to imagine what they were like obviously are not.

This study, however, begins from a simple fact that grounds the initial conversations of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. From their very first moments they endeavor to discern the true from the false in their judgments about themselves and that place in which they find themselves. Eve awakes, “much wond’ring where/ And what I was, whence thither brought and how” (4.451-452). Her first “unexperienc’t thought” will be “to look into the clear/ Smooth Lake, that seem’d another Sky” (4.457-459, italics added). Adam wakes, and immediately turns his “wondering Eyes” . . . / And gaz’d awhile the ample Sky” (8.257-258). He looks about himself, seeing the place and then, the  “Creatures that liv’d, and mov’d, and walk’d, or flew”(8.264), and thereupon discovers his own powers of locomotion: “Myself I then perus’d, and Limb by Limb/ Survey’d, and sometimes went, and sometimes ran/ With supple joints . . .” (8.267-269). But he too in his wonder has questions: “But who I was, or where, or from what cause/ Knew not” (8.270-271). He asks his surroundings and the living creatures, “tell/ Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here?” (8.277). These questions in their charming naïveté occupy the thoughts and conversation of these two during the brief span of days they dwell in Paradise. On them they exercise their powers of inquiry in conversation that they come to learn they have.

Scripture also offers its own authoritative address to these questions which we as descendants of Adam and Eve no less are wont to ask. And Paradise Lost only appears to second that endeavor. To post-lapsarian meditations akin to Eve’s “much wond’ring where/ And what I was, whence thither brought and how,” it replies, “Man’s disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought death into the world, and all our woe”(1.1-3). This study suggests that Milton’s additions of conversation to the Scriptural portrait of Adam and Eve offer a different mode of address to these questions: Socratic rationalism. Both modes taken together instance a “great Argument” (1.24).

The discussion to follow will frequently resort to translation and close commentary of sources in the Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions. Milton to a degree seldom granted in the criticism anticipates a “fit audience . . . though few” that is acquainted with his sources in their original languages.  Word play, diction, puns, and at times, even the studied arrangements of word order only possible in an inflected language are borrowed, reinvented or allusively recalled. Moreover, his command of the languages coupled with years of private study argue caution in historicist appeals to ‘schools of thought’ and modes of religious thought and practice current in his own time. Cambridge Platonism and Neo-Platonic readings of Augustine are two obvious temptations. An “ancient art of writing” that employs differential address to the problem of audience respects prevalent opinion as the material of dialectical scrutiny not as its interpretation. A test case central to this study is contemptuous dismissal, as already noted above, in the criticism of the past 80 years of Milton’s appreciation for Xenophon’s testimony on Socrates.

To compensate for the demands of close commentary some remarks on the overarching structure and course of the argument may be of use.  Chapter one offers, as noted above, an account of the preliminaries to Paradise Lost found in The Printer to the Reader; The Verse & the two verse appreciations as an introduction to the problems of audience. In The Verse Milton points to the example of “certain learned Ancients in both Poetry and all good Oratory”. This appeal is reminiscent of Xenophon’s praise in Memorabilia 4.6.15 of Socrates skill in gaining the agreement of his auditors. Xenophon then added that Socrates himself was wont to observe that Homer held up the example of Odysseus as a faultless orator because he conducted his discourse by means of those matters that seem good to men.

Subsequent chapters generally follows narrative sequence – though with recourse to an implied chronology of prior events in Paradise. Adam and Eve converse for the first time several days after the day of their creation. What has happened prior to this day they talk informs how they speak and what they say about “that day” they first met. There are three profound moments of discovery in their understanding of themselves and each other during the conversation of these days. In “Eve’s First Words” (chapter three) Eve, aware for several days of Adam’s growing doubts about her (see 4.446-447), tells Adam of the revolution in her thinking about herself and him when he seized her hand “that day” (4.449) they first met. A voice, as she gazed unwittingly at a “fair creature” appearing in the limpid waters of a pool, had told her in terms she could barely if at all understand what she was looking at. That voice then assured her that he would lead her rather to someone who would be hers “inseparably.” But when she followed that voice and found a creature “less fair,/ Less winning soft” she had turned back to the pool, only to be deterred by Adam’s earnest grasp of her hand. Several days later her first words reveal to him how much she has learned from that event.

In Chapter four: “Interlude,” Adam, as yet hardly able to understand what Eve has said about herself let alone him, but sensing now since she is talking she might be that one he requested of the Divine Presense (8.416-426), is eager to renew those marital relations  he first enjoyed the day they met. Eve, however, is eager to talk. Their endeavor to do so as they walk, hand in hand to the bower, adumbrates the potential topics for their talk they will never enjoy.

In “Becoming Dear” (chapter five), on the following morning Adam will experience his own revolution in his thinking when Eve’s report of her dream of the forbidden tree reveals to Adam his recent dream induced confusions about Paradise and her. A voice in her dream had summoned her to the forbidden tree and she feared she could not but have eaten of its fruit. Adam now reassures her. His success in assuaging her distress at first seems due to a praeternatural grasp of a psychology of dreams. But Adam on the day he was created also experienced two dreams of his own in an encounter with a “Presense Divine” (see esp. 8.292ff & 8.452ff). In talking with Eve he puts these two dreams together with the other one in his thinking.  This deed––συλλογίζεσθαι, “to put together in reasoning”––in Aristotle is a method of inquiry that distinguishes the true from the false by means of a dialectical syllogism (see Topica 100a1-3). Adam had been pleased when Eve began to talk to him the day before, but now he finally sees before him what his Creator had promised: “Thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self,/ Thy wish, exactly to thy heart’s desire” (8.450-451).

Chapter six:”No more of Talk” (9.1) examines the moment at which these two could really have begun to talk, but are prevented by a visit from an angel. Just at the moment that each is now aware of their “other self,” Raphael arrives, and after a brief salutation to Eve, ignores her and talks with Adam. Eve eventually loses interest in their talk when Adam once again–as in “the Interlude,” ventures into cosmology, and thus Eve goes to tend her flowers. Neither Adam nor Raphael note her departure. She will return late to their talk, and overhear a parting admonition of the angel. The morning following,  Adam and Eve quarrel, separate and fall. As William Empson had surmised––on different evidence though not hostile to thesis of this study–”Adam and Eve would not have fallen unless God had sent Raphael to talk to them, supposedly to strengthen their resistance to temptation”(147). These matters raise the question of the poet’s design for the poem.



[1] Leo Strauss, Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse 83, in the introduction to his interpretation of the Oeconomicus speaks to, “a powerful prejudice which emerged in the course of the nineteenth century and is today firmly established. According to that prejudice Xenophon is so so simple mind and narrow-minded or philistine that he cannot have grasped the core or depth of Socrates’ thought.” For examples of this prejudice in the recent past in Milton studies, see Lewis, 7; Samuel, 29-30, concluding, “Xenophon is often merely a emphatic line drawn under Plato.”; and Hughes, 694n32 where, “and his equal . . .” means “contemporary.” Milton’s near contemporaries, however, clearly thought otherwise. See, for example, Bacon’s praise Xenophon as both a philosopher and historian in the Advancement of Learning, 163-164 & 180; and Sidney’s sense of Xenophon’s reputation in both regards, in The Defense of Poesy , 218 & 222, and in the Letters, #8 “To My well-beloved Friend Mr. Edward Denny” & #10 “To Robert Sidney,” his brother,  in The Major Works, ed. K. Duncan-Jones.

[2] See Appendix A,  “A Brief Chronology of the Life of John Milton”

[3] In the immediate context the remark, to be sure, was intended to certify Milton’s interest in chastity in matters of love by implying his close study of Symposium and Phaedrus of Plato as a reply to a charge of moral turpitude during those years after Cambridge by his opponent in the pamphlet to which the Apology responds. But there is further evidence from this period which indicates Milton’s careful study of both authors during this period, which will be examined in detail in “an excursus” of Chapter six.

[4] He does report such a conversation his sometime associate, Alibiades, had with his guardian, Pericles (Mem. 1.2.40ff.).

[5] Lewis seems here already to have begun to draw sketches for those “ceremonial” personages of his Perelandra.

[6] Citations to the poetry of Milton are to the 2nd editions (1997) of  Fowler, Milton: Paradise Lost and Milton:The Complete Shorter Poems; to the prose works in English unless otherwise noted, to the Complete Works of John Milton, hereafter CPW; to the prose in Latin, unless otherwise noted, to The Works of John Milton, hereafter, WJM. All translations from the Latin and Greek of Milton and of texts of the Classical and Patristic traditions, unless otherwise noted, are the author’s own.

[7] These elements – Books 1 & 2, the colloquies in Hell; Book 3, the discourse of the Father and the Son in prospect of Satan’s advance upon the created world and Eden; Book 5.5.385 ff through Book 8, The discourses of Raphael with Adam, and, finally, Book 11.100 through Book 12; the commission and embassy of Michael – are, poetically speaking, the proprieties of Milton’s narrative persona, as distinct from the conversations of Adam and Eve which are “overheard” (see especially the The Argument of Book,[Fowler, 214] and 4.400ff.).

[8] On occasion Milton may appear to abjure such expansions as a mode of Scriptural interpretation. In The Ready and Easy Way, for example, he asserts – and as Hughes noted (895n110), in accord with the Westminister Confession of 1647 (“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself; . . .”) “that the whole protestant church allows no supreme judge or rule in matters of religion but the scripture – and these to be interpreted by scripture themselves, which necessarily infers liberty of conscience –” and then adds, ” [that] I have heretofore proved at large in another treatise.” (CPW ???, italics added). The weight of an instititutional sanction aside, the principle is clearly a premise for Milton’s defense of the liberty of conscience, though at what hazard becomes clear in that other treatise to which he refers. In A Treatise of Civil Power In Ecclesiastical Causes as his initial principle in defining “the matters of religion” he avers,

First, it cannot be denied, being the main foundation of our protestant religion, that we of these ages, having no other divine rule or authority from without us, warrantable to one another as a common ground, but the holy scripture, and no other within us but the illumination of the Holy Spirit, so interpreting that scripture as warrantable only to ourselves, and to such whose consciences we can so persuade, can have no other ground in matters of religion but only from the scriptures. And these being not possible to be understood without divine illumination, which no man can know at all times to be in himself, much less to be at any time for certain in any other, it follows clearly that no man or body of men in these times can be infallible judges or determiners in matters of religion to any other men’s consciences but their own.

Here a defense of a liberty of conscience leans not upon an institutional consensus but on the mystery of the illumination of the Spirit. Thus, as for the expansions upon the scriptural authority in  Paradise Lost, one must consider what credence can be granted to the invocations of the Spirit (1.1-26; 3.1-55; 7.1-39; and possibly 9.5-24)––a question that A.M.’s “On Paradise Lost” (see esp. 5-22) surely raised in the front matters of the poem. It should be noted, moreover, that the states of soul described in the italicized passages above each anticipate the fundamental premise, the first, of Paradise Regain’d (see 1.8-17 & 206-214), and the second, of Samson Agonistes (see 23-67 in re Judges 16:20)––a matter relevant to their combined publication in 1671.

[9] Citations to the Pentatuch are from the translation of Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 19 & see, 18, his note to Gen. 1:26 on the term ‘adam as the generic term for ‘the human.’

[10] See, for example Nic. Eth. 1145b5

[11] See 9.1071-1072 7 10.84-85 concert with Gen. 3:22-23, confirming in fact what the serpent, 3:5 had told Eve.

[12] See Aristotle, Topica 100b21-23 in description of “generally accepted opinions,” τὰ ἔνδοξα, the object of inquiry in Aristotle’s account of the art of dialectic.

[13]As noted above Xenophon does not represent conversations of Socrates with those close associates of an excellent nature (see Mem. 4.1.2), but he does provide a glimpse of such a nature and conversation in his report of of his own apprehension of his talk with Euthydemus (Mem.4.1-6).

[14] On the political significance of the conjunction of these disciplines in Aristotle, see P. Rahe on Averroes (in his chapter, “The Liberation of Captive Minds” in Against Throne and Altar (139-174), and in particular, (157-162). The same distinctions in audience and degrees of discernment in the kindred arts are also noted in Thucydides, Historia, 1.20-21.

[15] Socrates seems to have had in mind the political uses of such a skill – as for example in Odusseus’ restoration of the order in the assembly of the Iliad (2.188-335). He first individually addresses the kings in a far different spirit than the commons and then speaks to all in one speech which gains the assent of all. The political utility, afterall, of this mode of address would subsequently become a familiar feature in the theory of the classical republic. See Rahe, Against Throne and Altar, esp. “Part II: Revolutionary Aristoteleanism” (101-174).

[16] Jonathan Richardson Explantory Notes and Remarks on Milton’s Paradise Lost (1734), cxliv-cxlv. (26 April 2014, 11:10am CDT)

[17] See De Arte Poetica 1448b15-17: διὰ γὰρ τοῦτο χαίρουσι τὰς εἰκόνας ὁρῶντες, ὅτι  συμβαίνει θεωροῦντες μανθάνειν καὶ συλλογίζεσθαι τί ἕκαστον, οἷον ὅτι οὗτος ἐκεῖνος· (“For this reason, then, those who look at likenesses are delighted, namely that happens as they gaze in wonder, they happen to learn and put together in reasoning what each thing is, as for example, that this one is that one.)

[18] Ferry cites (21) the conventional demands conventionally fulfilled in the poetic forms of Nativity Ode, and Lycidas and adds Sonnet XII, though far more striking and unconventional voices might noted also in Sonnet XI as well as in Sonnet XII, and, also would resolve the semi-comical perplexities of Sonnet VIII. Parodic representations of the poet’s public persona is common characteristic of the speakers of these three sonnets and, perhaps, might be entertained also in Sonnet IX if, “Therefore be sure/ Thou, . . .” (11-12) is an ambiguous imperative of both stern spiritual reminder and of awkward public praise.

[19] There are two notable exceptions to this claim which will prove central to the argument of this study, the two overheard conversations of Adam and Eve (4.411-504 & 4.610-688). Their conversation the following morning to some degree also preserves this interpretational reserve (5.17-128). Cf. 9.199-384.

[20] Robert McMahon made this very point in his The Two Poets of Paradise Lost [1998]: “Although she calls the Bard a narrator, she treats him as a consistent authorial consciousness. In her view, he has already made up his mind about everything in the poem, and he does not change his mind as he narrates it. In this regard Ferry’s narrator proves much like Milton the author . . .” (6). McMahon would hang his distinction between poet and narrative voice on a thesis of orality in composition: the poet is making it up as he goes along, and, more to the point, he only finds his way out of ‘difficulties’ in the concluding books (XI & XII). Thus Milton was someone different because he wanted his poem to include telling a story about this Bard’s development as a poet. McMahon had probably been thinking of the note of caution Lewis had originally sounded in his Preface : “Even the poet, when he appears in the first person within his own poem, is not to be taken as the private individual John Milton. If he were that, he would be an irrelevance. He also becomes an image – the image of the Blind Bard – and we are told nothing that does not help that archetypical pattern”(59).

[21] See especially his discussion of “The  Good Temptation” in in the initial chapter of Surprised By Sin (38-56)  at the conclusion of which the notion of a “fit audience. . . though few” is treated as distinction without a difference in the notion of a reader’s response.

[22] “If we transfer the emphasis from Milton’s interests and intentions which are available to us only at a distance, to our responses which are available directly, the disparity between  intention and execution  becomes a disparity between reader expectation and reading experience; and the resulting ‘pressures’ can be seen as part of an intelligible pattern”(3).

[23] The metonymic substitution of “words on the page” as a name for the author’s composition already announces the critical ‘slight of hand’ that will be employed.

[24] How far Milton was from cultivating such an audience becomes clear in his discussion of rhyme in (See, “some doubtful matter in the Verse”) in Chapter one: Preliminaries).

[25] Fish, of course, would read “[to] assert Eternal Providence \ And justify the ways of God to men” (1.25-26), if not as an intent, surely as an anticipated outcome of his cultivation of his readership, but if the “fit audience . . . though few” is not identical with that readership, as Fish assumes it is (see Dowling, xxx), then how will he explain this divided address? Consider, moreover, the printer’s request for an Argument and the two verse appreciations of S.B. M.D. & A.M., for the discussion of which, see, once again, “Chapter one: Preliminaries.”

[26] Fish himself aspired to and gained the same authority to adjudicate the dispute among the warring camps on Paradise Lost.

[27] Thomas Pangle in his “Introduction” to Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, 3, offers a concise account of those ‘Socratic’ questions in Plato and Xenophon: “our most promising inlet into the classes that constitute reality is through the opinions held among men, and above all through the most serious, trusted, authoritative opinions of the various societies. These opinions, considering the experiences and the evidence they point to, almost always make a great deal of sense; but they contain important ambiguities, obscurities, and contradictions––most important of all, they contradict one another. The path toward the truth about the natural species of things begins from the warring opinions and their confrontation, and  proceeds in the direction of needed resolutions to which the confrontations point.

[28] See especially Paul Dowling’s revealing account of a diversity of opinion among these contemporaries, in his chapter, “Introduction, ‘Historicizing Milton'” of Polite Wisdom (xvii-xxxi). This study to some degree differs from Dowling’s account in an emphasis on the compositional strategy adumbrated in the Socratic writings of Xenophon.

[29]The comments added by the “poet” in response to his printer’s original request for an “Argument,” discussed in “Chapter one: Preliminaries” are a parody of this process.

[30] See Confessiones 6.5.7-8

[31] See The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce  CPW 2.257.

[32] It is not at first clear whether this description names an advanced student of the Scriptures or of philosophy. The premise of his objection, however, would seem at first blush to suggest the former: “It seems from the simple sense of the Scripture that primary intention in the creation of man was that he would be similar to the rest of the animals, without intellect or thought, not knowing how to distinguish betwen good and evil.” (Videtur ex simlici sensu Scripturae, Intentionem primam in Hominis creatione fuisse, ut esset similis reliquis animantibus, sine Intellctu & cogitatione, nesciens discernere inter bonum & malum [4]). But the question remains, with what intent does “the wise and learned man” question the meaning of “made in our own image”, which in turn queries the capacities of intellect granted at the Creation.

[33] This claim, clearly in concert with Maimonides’ intent to refute the notion of the corporeality of God in order to affirm His true unity, seems an intentional overstatement. The fundamental issue in man’s possession of an intellectual apprehension is its relation to the evidence of perception. Be that as it may in Maimonides, in Milton’s dramatization of these matters in Paradise Lost in the conversations of Adam and Eve – not in the Raphael discourse­­ – the perceptual faculties of touch and sight will seen to be indispensible.

[34] It is worth noting that just prior to his addressing the objection of the vir sapiens & eruditus , Maimonides notes that Elohim is an equivocal term, referring “to God, to the angels, and to judges as governors of provinces” (Deo, angelis, & judicibus provinciarum gubernatoribus [ Doctor, 3]). The third referent, of course, would remove the objection in that the knowledge would no longer be a perfection of God or the Angels, though it would still be useful as an instrument of rule among humankind. “Generally accepted opinions,” i.e., “the knowledge of good and evil”, therefore are best understood in their political necessity as “those things that seem good to men” (τὰ εὖ δοκοῦντα).

[35] In a note to the English translation of Maimonides’ Arabic text  of the Guide, Shlomo Pines (24n7) observes that the Arabic term  al-mashhurat translates the Greek term τὰ ἔνδοξα, i.e., “the words generally accepted as known”. Buxtorf’s Latin apparently uses sensibilis, -e (rare and post Aug., according to Lewis & Short) in light of the derivative sense of sensus, -us m, as “the common feelings of humanity, the moral sense.”


This excerpt is from Milton’s Socratic Rationalism: The Conversations of Adam and Even in Paradise Lost (Lexington Books, 2017) with our review of the book here.

David Oliver Davies

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David Oliver Davies is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Dallas. He is author of Milton's Socratic Rationalism: The Conversation of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost (Lexington Books, 2017).