Academic journal article
By Graves, Neil D.
Philological Quarterly , Vol. 81, No. 2
In a sermon written fifty years before the publication of Milton's Paradise Lost, John Donne ruminates that "I must not ask why God took this way to incarnate his Son." (1) Despite the centrality of the concept of the Incarnation in Christian doctrine, it is perhaps not surprising that such a theory raises numerous problematic questions for most Christian thinkers. The OED defines the Incarnation of God in Christ as the "investiture or embodiment in flesh; assumption of, or existence in, a bodily form," and any explanation of the translation of the divine form into the human body is essentially speculative. Indeed, the history of Christian doctrine is testament to this as virtually every patristic, scholastic and Renaissance religious thinker struggled to explain what Milton called "the greatest mystery of our religion" (CPW 6:420). (2) Yet what was for most theologians the greatest act of divine love, the ultimate manifestation of God's redemptive power, is for others a mystery of far darker and more sinister implications. Sometimes such negative speculation is merely an inadvertent questioning of God's status, such as the statement quoted in the OED under "incarnate" from Bishop Hall's Contemplations upon the New Testament, "That God should be incarnate of a virgin was an abasement of His maiestie." More interesting is the only entry pertaining to divine incarnation listed in the OED that details the meaning of "to degrade from spiritual nature, despiritualize," and this comes from Book 9 of Paradise Lost.
Critics have become increasingly aware of Milton's heretical Christian theology. For centuries regarded by most as the preeminent English poet of Christian orthodoxy Milton's name is now almost synonymous with Arianism, and his thinking on mortalism, polygamy, material monism, and creatio ex Deo cosmogony are well documented. However, critics have not explored the problems into which Milton embroils himself as he expounds the Incarnation towards the end of his writing career. What seems like the simple affirmation of Christian orthodoxy in On the Morning of Christ's Nativity has certainly become by the writing of the great epics deeply troubling, and Milton himself is very aware of this. In the middle of God the Father's elaborate exposition to the Son of his gift of salvation in Book 3 of Paradise Lost he takes time out from his Miltonic grand style of powerful, bombastic and complexly layered verse to interject a brief, almost anomalous, two line refutation: "Nor shalt thou by descending to assume / Man's nature, lessen or degrade thine own" (303-4). It is my contention that Milton here uncomfortably confronts the conclusions of his own idiosyncratic ontological philosophy. The narrative of Paradise Lost documents two philosophical shifts within the ontological and epistemological scale of being, and prophesies a third that is finally explored in the narrative of Paradise Regained. These philosophical shifts are "falls," and the fall of Satan and the fall of Adam and Eve are easily comprehended in the Miltonic context of both material and ethical debasement. The third "fall" is the Incarnation of the Son of God. I will argue that philosophically the ontological change in the person of the Son is not dissimilar to those demonstrated in Satan and conceptualized in mankind, and that it is therefore possible, and indeed inescapable as Milton himself found, to appraise the Incarnation theologically in the light of these other two "falls."
The idea of the Incarnation as a form of ontological degradation is not unique to Milton, but the implications for the Incarnation being a "fall" within a material monistic hierarchy of being are revealing. In Milton's metaphysical Weltanschauung, essence is determined by ethics. Working within what Michel Foucault would call in Les Mots et les choses the "resemblance" episteme current before the Age of Reason, Milton's poetics is uniformly consistent in representing formal composition as a consequence of moral behavior. …