Milton and the Death of Man: Humanism on Trial in Paradise Lost

Milton and the Death of Man: Humanism on Trial in Paradise Lost

Milton and the Death of Man: Humanism on Trial in Paradise Lost

Milton and the Death of Man: Humanism on Trial in Paradise Lost

Synopsis

The core of Milton and the Death of Man is a detailed study of the implicit courtroom narrative (in defense of God) at the heart of Paradise Lost. Separate sections are devoted to the legal and religious background of the notion of a narrative defense of God, the history of the free will concept underlying the defense, the way theories of the origin of the universe bear on the defense, and the question of justice and mercy as they affect both Tempters and Temptees. The study is designed to bring out conceptual issues central to the poem and to the intellectual life of the Renaissance as well as our own culture.

Excerpt

Given a self-imposed assignment of defending the Judge of the Universe against impeachment on the charge of grossly abusing the power of his office, Milton could have done worse than follow the recipe in a standard Roman textbook for advocates: a plea stands or falls with the advocate’s narrative that starts it off, where the facts of the case are set out, and the court is given an idea of what’s at stake. The narrative will make points that counter opposing counsel’s arguments: facts about the client’s past life, reasons why innocence wasn’t enough to spare him his current ordeal, and reasons why the charge against him isn’t to be believed in the first place. In short, the advocate’s narrative is simply the proof drawn out, and the proof is the clincher that goes with it.

It isn’t cynical, Quintilian goes on, to require that points made via the advocate’s narrative not only be the truth but resemble it. Before a human judge, the truth wins out only if it beats the lie at the lie’s own game. Milton’s allegorical version of this commonplace makes credible storytelling a matter of cosmetics:

For Truth, I know not how, hath this unhappiness fatal to her, ere she
can come to the trial and inspection of the Understanding; being to pass
through many little wards and limits of the several affections and de
sires, she cannot shift it, but must put on such colors and attire as those
pathetic handmaids of the soul please to lead her in to their queen [viz.,
the Understanding]. And if she find so much favor with them, they let
her pass in her own likeness; if not, they bring her in to the Presence
habited and colored like a notorious falsehood. And contrary, when any
falsehood comes that way, if they like the errand she brings, they are so
artful to counterfeit the very shape and visage of Truth that the Under
standing not being able to discern the fucus which these enchantresses
with such cunning have laid upon the feature sometimes of Truth, some
times of Falsehood interchangeably, sentences for the most part one for
the other at the first blush, according to the subtle imposture of these

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