Milton’s Socratic Rationalism: The Conversations of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. David Oliver Davies. Lanham, Lexington Books, 2017.
In a time where many literary critics think that the “author is dead,” or, if he is living at all, a mere function of his social context, David Oliver Davies’ new book, Milton’s Socratic Rationalism, is a breath of fresh air. Davies boldly proclaims that we have something to learn from John Milton, for, he argues, Milton is one of those rare and outstanding human beings whose quest for truth led him to an inner freedom that allowed him to see the human situation as it is. For anyone who hopes to understand Milton’s thought as a whole, as well as Paradise Lost in particular, this book is indispensable.
One of the distinctive accomplishments of the book is its excellent account of how to read Paradise Lost as Milton wished for it to be read. By teaching us how to read Milton at the outset, Davies gives readers their own tools with which to encounter Milton for themselves. That is, Davies does not wish for us, his readers, to blindly follow his reading, but, rather, to journey with him into the poem with our eyes open, able to dispute with him should we disagree. In this way, Davies shows his great respect for his readers. To begin with, he offers the simple, but never to be forgotten, suggestion that Milton’s overall teaching may diverge with explicit statements that his narrative persona makes (17-18).[i] That is, Milton, as author, may have a different teaching than his narrator. Davies suspects that the narrative persona may be more conventional and less radical than Milton himself, which leads us to Davies’ next hermeneutic suggestion. He makes the argument that Milton writes esoterically, or that he intentionally addresses multiple audiences at once (xii, xv, 1, 138).
Thankfully, Davies does not brazenly assume this claim, but points out how it emerges in Milton’s opening statement about why his poem does not rhyme. Therein, Milton suggests that this lack of rhyme may seem a defect to “vulgar readers.” By suggesting that he has vulgar readers, Milton implies that he has ideal readers (6). Davies bolsters his case by offering an account of the character of rhyming; namely, that we experience “delight” from “recognizing a familiar type” when a word sounds similar to what came before (13). Davies links our delight with rhymes to our desire to see the world through our commonly held opinions — that is, we delight when new ideas sound similar to the ideas we already have (18). In other words, our wish to liken the unfamiliar to the familiar — making the unfamiliar “rhyme” — may prevent us coming to understand the essential differences between them. Davies suspects that Milton’s readers will expect the poem to merely repeat to them whatever they already think they understand about Genesis: “At worst, an audience of “men” would assume that the poet was simply giving somewhat new clothes to an old story that had a familiar moral” and that this prevents them from seeing Milton’s account of the “great argument” between the life of unassisted reason and loving faith in God (xxii, 138). According to Davies, it is the inquiry into, and understanding of, this argument that forms the core of Socratic rationalism.
Paradise Lost is a lengthy epic poem that serves to dramatize, or give an extended account of, a relatively short portion of Genesis. Davies makes the persuasive argument that we ought to pay careful attention to Milton’s most significant departures from the Biblical creation story. The most obvious departures for Davies are the many conversations between Adam and Eve. Because these are the greatest deviations or additions that Milton inserts in his poem, Davies suggests that it is in these passages we are mostly likely to see Milton’s authorial intention disclosed. Through these conversations, Adam and Eve come to recognize the “fatal error of self-sufficiency,” and that they will “find and know their happiness in each other in this work called providence” (64, 123).
However, both Adam and Eve lose sight of what they thought they knew about happiness and each other (131). This comes to light in Book Five of the poem when Eve has a bad dream about a winged being and then Raphael comes down to speak to Adam. On one hand, the dream asks Eve to think of future happiness beyond what she has now, and on the other, Raphael too has Adam imagine a greater happiness that might be his at some point the future if he is obedient (133). Davies makes the remarkable suggestion that Adam and Eve realize that they had already attained some degree of happiness prior to their realization that only obedience could grant them happiness (139). On this fascinating interpretation of Milton’s presentation, then, it appears that Adam and Eve come to wonder if their happiness might be fulfilled through their own power rather than through obedience to God. Davies argues, then, that Milton, suspecting most readers would take for granted that he is merely vindicating the Biblical teaching about obedience, in fact, is teaching his readers about the tension between reason and revelation.
As we have seen so far, Davies is an outstanding guide through the labyrinth of Milton’s difficult poem. One wonders though, if Davies could have said more about precisely what Socratic rationalism is. Near the beginning of the book, he argues that at the heart of Socratic rationalism is the awareness that “faith cannot — and does not have a need to — prove that the way of inquiry is false” and that “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” (xxii). From this, Davies concludes that inquiry can show us “the truth of an irreducible dyad of ways presented” by the narrative persona (xxii; consider also 139). He indicates that faith and inquiry are incommensurable, and that they have no means at their disposal to do away with the other. In this way, Davies offers a compelling formulation that makes clear that there is no possible synthesis between unassisted reason and faith. One lives a very different life if he thinks God exists than if he does not. But, even if Davies is right that no synthesis is possible, does it follow that neither side is able to refute the other?
Throughout his book, Davies convincingly argues that Milton drew extensively on lessons he learned from a number of ancient texts; the two Socratic texts that Davies thinks we have to examine with special care in order to understand Milton are Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Plato’s Alcibiades I (esp. 15-23 and 46-52). In his interpretations of these Socratic writings, Davies argues that Socrates attempts to lead his interlocutors, Euthydemus and Alcibiades, beyond commonly accepted opinions, and while both make some progress, each in their own way has to fall back upon commonly accepted opinions. Perhaps Davies could have said a word about what moved Socrates have these conversations in the first place, or why he turned away from natural science and toward the human things, if he wanted to give a fuller account of Socratic rationalism.[ii] In so doing, Davies could have allowed Socrates himself to show how philosophy’s own possibility is challenged by a miracle working God or gods. Furthermore, in Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Socrates claims that his own of life is best—indicating that he may have found a way to circumvent the impasse between reason and revelation that Davies formulates so clearly.[iii]
Now, of course, to this, Davies might object, and argue that even if one thinks that the “great argument” can be settled, he is incorrect. If that is the case, Davies’ readers might have wished for him to offer lengthier reflections on the conflict. He might have remarked on how human life ought to be lived once awareness of the tension between reason and revelation comes to light. Is there a way to avoid an arbitrary decision between these alternatives? Or are human beings who wish to be rational compelled to live in some kind of half-way house between full obedience and free insight? And on the basis of Davies’ careful reading of Milton, might we suspect that Milton himself has chosen the life of reason? That is, it does not exactly appear to be an act piety to teach careful readers that they ought to consider the life of unassisted reason as a possible alternative. Inasmuch as Davies senses the gravity of his inquiry, perhaps he has chosen to let his readers make up their own minds. Having walked with us up to this point, Davies leaves us to our “solitary way.”[iv]
[i] All in text citations refer to David Oliver Davies, Milton’s Socratic Rationalism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017).
[ii] Plato, Phaedo 96a-102a.
[iii] Plato, Apology 38a.
[iv] John Milton, Paradise Lost (London: Penguin Classics, 2000) 12.649.
An excerpt of the book is available here.