Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Good Communicated: Milton's Drama of the Fall and the Law of Charity

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Good Communicated: Milton's Drama of the Fall and the Law of Charity

Article excerpt


The article offers a suggested cause for Milton's representation of the Fall in Book IX of Paradise Lost as Eve and Adam's transgression of the law of charity, that is, the love of God, self, and neighbour. The law of charity constitutes the essence of the divine prohibition not to eat from the forbidden tree and the kernel of the Ten Commandments and Gospel teaching, and forms the basis for Milton's concept of natural law. Milton's drama of the Fall uses a variety of literary devices to announce the restoration of humanity through the Son, Milton's 'one greater Man'.

Love God, and love your neighbour. Watch and pray. Do as ye would be done unto. O dark instructions; ev'n as dark as day! Who can these Gordian knots undo?


In Paradise Lost Michael explains that, on the cross,

The Law of God exact [Jesus] shall fulfill Both by obedience and by love, though love Alone fulfill the Law.

(XII. 402-04) (2)


Just what Milton means by this point of doctrine is made clear in his neoscholastic theological treatise De doctrina Christiana. In the treatise's consideration of the process of redemption, Christ 'fulfilled the law by his most perfect love of God and his neighbour until, obedient to his Father in all things, he sought death for the sake of his brethren' (CE, XV. 316). The treatise further subdivides charity towards one's neighbour into two familiar categories as it 'EMBRACES THE UNIVERSAL DUTY OF LOVE BOTH TOWARDS ONESELF AND TOWARDS ONE'S NEIGHBOUR' (CE, XVII. 196). In Of Civil Power (1659) Milton confirmed the universal applicability of this doctrine of charity: 'our whole practical dutie in religion is contained in charitie, or the love of God and our neighbour, no way to be forc'd, yet the fulfilling of the whole law; that is to say, our whole practise in religion' (CPW, VII. 256). In the synoptic Gospels Christ teaches that these two loves, first the love of God and second the love of oneself and of one's neighbour, comprise the heart of the Torah (Matthew 22. 34-40; Mark 12. 28-34; Luke 10. 25-28), and elsewhere Jesus more radically recommends love of one's enemy (Matthew 5. 43-48)De doctrina Christiana, as was typical for orthodox Reformed dogma, interprets the Mosaic Law as a forerunner of the Gospels, as a means to, in Michael's words, discovering but not removing 'natural pravitie' (XII. 285-306). Only Christ's redemption, Michael teaches, will be able to abolish sin so that humanity may thereby 'finde | Justification towards God' (XII. 295-96). Thus' Even under the law, though more obscurely, both a redeemer and the necessity for redemption is perceived. [...] Under the gospel, more openly, both a redeemer and the truth of the redemption is perceived' (CE, XVI. 98, 100). De doctrina Christiana chronicles the gradual disclosure of the redemptive promise throughout biblical history, first darkly portended before the giving of the Mosaic Law, then dimly veiled within the Law, and finally brightly revealed in Christ. But although 'the whole Mosaic law is abolished by the gospel' (CE, XVI. 140), the heart of the Law's instruction still endures:

It may be evinced, first from all of these scriptural authorities, next from the accompanying arguments, that the whole Mosaic law is abolished by the Gospel. And yet, by this abolition of the law, the law (that is, the sum of the law) is not in fact really abrogated, but its goal is attained in that love of God and one's neighbour, which is born out of faith through the spirit. On this basis, Christ truly championed the law, Matt. 5: 17. (CE, XVI. 140)

Therefore the sum of the law [which], as I said before, [is] without doubt the love of God and neighbour, should by no means be considered abolished. (CE, XVI. 142)

Christian tradition interpreted the two tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments as a bodying forth of this principle. …

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