Judging God

Teaching Milton this semester, I think I made a couple of connections that must be obvious, but that I'd never quite seen before (or maybe I had: these days I'm finding the obvious striking again, which I don't know whether that's a good or a bad thing).

Anyhow, in the Invocation to Book 1 of Paradise Lost Milton announces his intention to "justify the ways of God to men." This is a famous ambiguity, and much depends on how you parse this, on what you regard as the direct object of "justify": justify the-ways-of-God-to-men? That is: "justify not all of his ways but at least how he treats us, which is all we really have a right to demand should be just"? Or is it: justify (to men) the-ways-of God?

I think he wanted the ambiguity (type 4, fellow Empsonians!), not as paradox but as the combination of both ideas into one: to justify how God treats us is to justify his ways to the only beings in the universe who both require an argument justifying them (it's not intuitively obvious that they're just) and who are capable of judging his ways. The very fact that we are capable of judging his ways means that the way he's treated us is, on the surface, very odd. We have the moral standing to judge him, and yet look what he's done to us!

So this shakes out: 1) We humans have the moral standing to judge all his ways (so that Milton will justify, to men, the ways of God). 2) The most peculiar of those ways are his ways to us (so that Milton will justify, to anyone with the moral standing to judge God, the ways that he has treated us).

Samson (I am of those who think it later than Paradise Lost, but it hardly matters) - Samson seems to confirm that it's both. Milton has the Chorus claim that:

Just are the ways of God,
And justifiable to men.

Of course the primary meaning is that we judge God, but the context here - no Satan, no Abdiel, no consideration except our own fate - means that what is justifiable to us are his ways to us.

Now, the obvious thing I didn't see is that in the symmetrical invocation to Book 1, the invocation to Book 7, Milton returns to this issue.

(There are four invocations in Paradise Lost, to Books 1, 3, 7, and 9. Since Book 7 declares itself a new start, the start of the second half of the poem which will take place on Earth, which is the right place for love of course, the symmetry is: invocations to the first and third books of each half of Paradise Lost. [I wish to note, yet more parenthetically, that I think there's a failed Invocation in Book 4 - "O for that warning voice" from heaven which if only it were heard on Earth would have saved, haply, Adam and Eve - that failed invocation, that failure of adequate communication from Heaven to Earth, would then correspond to the instantaneous departure of the angels from Earth at the beginning of its mirror image in Book 10.])

The Invocation to Book 7 returns to the issue because it ends with Milton seeking a "fit audience...though few." And what I didn't see was that what this audience would be fit to do is judge the ways of God (and judge Milton's judgment or justification of the ways of God).

Focussing on human judgment of God allows us to fit the Son's great response to God in Book 3 into this category. His general attitude towards God is to rephrase what God has said with subtle changes of emphasis that temper the meaning of God's more brutal intentions. He does this by combining paraphrase and praise for the paraphrased formulation - call it parapraise? - most notably in his very first speech:

O Father, gracious was that word which clos'd
Thy sovran sentence, that Man should find grace;
For which both Heav'n and Earth shall high extoll
Thy praises, with th' innumerable sound
Of Hymns and sacred Songs, wherewith thy Throne
Encompass'd shall resound thee ever blest.
For should Man finally be lost, should Man
Thy creature late so lov'd, thy youngest Son
Fall circumvented thus by fraud, though joynd
With his own folly? that be from thee farr,
That farr be from thee, Father, who art Judg
Of all things made, and judgest onely right.
Or shall the Adversarie thus obtain
His end, and frustrate thine, shall he fulfill
His malice, and thy goodness bring to naught,
Or proud return though to his heavier doom,
Yet with revenge accomplish't and to Hell
Draw after him the whole Race of mankind,
By him corrupted? or wilt thou thy self
Abolish thy Creation, and unmake,
For him, what for thy glorie thou hast made?
So should thy goodness and thy greatness both
Be questiond and blaspheam'd without defence.

So he is praising God's judgment by rearticulating that judgment, recasting what God is judging right. He judges God's judgment and assures him that if God's judgment were any different he would have no defense against the accusations of those who questioned his greatness and his goodness.

The point is that the humanity of the Son, as Milton is conceiving humanity, comes out in his very first speech: he judges the ways of God and embodies his commitment, and Milton's, to the human capacity to judge those ways. This despite the fact that God denies that fallen humans are capable of judging him (Luther had explicitly said that he looks bad according to our lights, but that this proves our lights are darkened, in his Doctrine of Glory, and this is the C.S. Lewis view of PL too). True, the Son's not fallen, so his judgment's not corrupt but that's the point: his stainless judgment is that fallen humans would be accurate in judging God harshly were he not to give us grace.

So in some possible world even if humans were not offered grace we would be capable of judging God. I don't deny that there may be a virtuous circle here: God would have no defense against our accurate questions and castigations if he had not given us the accuracy that allowed us to ask these questions to begin with. So our very capacity to ask pointed question is the answer which justifies him. That makes Milton a little like George Herbert, but that's okay: not a bug but a feature.

But it raises another question. Just to be clear, what we've been looking at now are nested judgments: the Son judges God's judgment and judges that humans will not be capable of justly judging God's judgment as evil or low. Milton judges God's judgment, and the Son's as well, and hopes that his readers, at least those he judges fit, though few, will judge that God's judgment is just.

The question it raises, then, is one of human judgment. Let's stipulate that Eve's is just plain wrong. But Adam has been tested by God once before. He asks for company, and God affects surprise: he's alone; why should Adam need a partner? Adam replies that he's not like God, and can't abide his own loneliness. So he accurately judges the difference between them, and God replies that he's done well: he's passed a test and now God will create Eve and they'll give each other company, friendship, and love.

Well, Eve falls, and Adam once more must exercise judgment. Here is the first time that he has ever deliberated in silence: "Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length / First to himself he inward silence broke." (It's not only that he talked to himself first before speaking to her; this is the first time that any human in the universe has hidden his thoughts from another.) What he decides, of course, is to fall with Eve. What this is, of course, is the right decision. His human judgment, and ours (pace Luther and Lewis), is that he should fall. And everything in the poem promotes human judgment.

This is a through-line in Milton, both explicitly in the prose (Areopagitica of course, but passim) and in the poetry: the Lady's judgment in Comus, human judgment in PL, the Son's human judgment in PR, and Samson's corrigible and corrected judgment in SA. In all these cases, the act of committed judging marks a moral advance in the human who is judging: "And perhaps that is the doom which Adam fell into if knowing good and evil; that is to say of knowing good by evil"; which means that it's because we've fallen into the knowledge of good and evil, because we're human, that we are able to judge God. God's judgment, the loyal angels', and Satan's (if we are to think of him as exercising judgment) is intuitive and immediate, not discursive. But humans in Milton, when they are called upon to judge, first have to think, first to themselves must inward silence break. And thinking leads to depth: to a sense of human depth.

For Adam that sense of human depth is a sense of the depth not only of himself but of another, of Eve. A second unfallen Eve, indistinguishable from the first, would allow him to continue his experience of unfallen life. But the real Eve is another person, another mind. She is not only for-him (cf. my last post); she is in-herself. Other minds: well that means for one thing understanding others as judges too, understanding that they judge and that they judge by thinking (such thinking and judging are what all the post-lapsarian conversation between Adam and Even will be about).

So we can judge God's ways just only because we can see, finally, that we are entitled to think. Just as long as we do think, yes. It's the capacity and act of thinking which is, for Milton, the great glory of being human. Of thinking about others' thoughts, about other minds.

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