Tertullian's Pandora and John Milton's the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce

By Butler, George F. | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Tertullian's Pandora and John Milton's the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce


Butler, George F., Christianity and Literature


John Milton alludes to the classical myth of Pandora several times in his writings. His earliest reference is in his third prolusion, "On the Harmony of the Spheres," which he wrote while a student at Christ's College, Cambridge, between 1625 and 1632. "The fact that we are unable to hear this harmony," says Milton, "seems certainly to be due to the presumption of that thief Prometheus, which brought so many evils upon men" (CPW 1:238-39). Though Milton does not mention Pandora by name, her eventual role in the Fall is implicit in his remarks (CPW 1:239n15). His first explicit allusion to Pandora is in his fourth prolusion, "In the Destruction of any Substance there can be no Resolution into First Matter," which he begins by saying: "This is not the place in which to enquire too nicely whether Error escaped from Pandora's box, or from the depths of the Styx, or lastly whether he is to be accounted one of the sons of Earth who conspired against the gods" (CPW 1:249). Milton makes his final reference to Pandora in Paradise Lost (1667 and 1674), where he compares the unfallen Eve to the character from classical myth. Eve is

   [...] more adorn'd,
   More lovely than Pandora, whom the Gods
   Endow'd with all thir gifts, and O too like
   In sad event. (4.713-16)

Between his Cambridge years and Paradise Lost, Milton mentions Pandora in the 1644 second edition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In that greatly expanded version of the 1643 first edition, he alludes to Pandora to illuminate the Fall and to absolve God of responsibility for creating sin:

   Yet considering the perfection wherin man was created, and might
   have stood, no decree necessitating his free will, but subsequent
   though not in time yet in order to causes which were in his owne
   power, they [the Jesuits and Arminians] might, methinks be
   perswaded to absolve both God and us. Whenas the doctrine of Plato
   and Chrysippus with their followers the Academics and the Stoics,
   who knew not what a consummat and most adorned Pandora was bestow'd
   upon Adam to be the nurse and guide of his arbitrary happinesse and
   perseverance, I mean his native innocence and perfection, which
   might have kept him from being our true Epimetheus, and though they
   taught of vertue and vice to be both the gift of divine destiny,
   they could yet find reasons not invalid, to justifie the counsels
   of God and Fate from the insulsity of mortall tongues: That mans
   own freewill self corrupted is the adequat and sufficient cause of
   his disobedience besides [i.e., other than] Fate; as Homer also
   wanted not [i.e., did not fail] to expresse both in his Iliad and
   Odyssei. (CPW 2:293-94)

The above passage has yielded conflicting interpretations. Milton alludes to "a consummat and most adorned Pandora" given to Adam, and some critics have read his words as a reference to Eve. Such a reading, in turn, makes Milton seem more charitable toward women in his divorce tract. Others, however, have challenged the interpretation that Eve was given to Adam "to be the nurse and guide of his arbitrary happinesse and perseverance," and also that she "might have kept him from being our true Epimetheus." So, too, Eve had been condemned in patristic writings, thus making her an unlikely moral guardian. While Milton's allusion to Pandora in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce has generated debate, the meaning of the passage becomes clearer in light of the writings of the Church Father Tertullian, with whose works Milton was well acquainted. Tertullian denounces Eve and associates her with Pandora, but he also treats Pandora as a rhetorical figure denoting the perfect combination of all good gifts.

The myth of Pandora originated with Hesiod, who says in the Theogony (c. 720 B.C.) that at Zeus' command Hephaestus made her to avenge Prometheus' theft of fire. Athena adorned her, and Hephaestus crowned her.

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