Infelix Culpa: Milton's Son of God and the Incarnation as a Fall in Paradise Lost

By Graves, Neil D. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Infelix Culpa: Milton's Son of God and the Incarnation as a Fall in Paradise Lost


Graves, Neil D., Philological Quarterly


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Infelix Culpa: Milton's Son of God and the Incarnation as a Fall in Paradise Lost
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.