- Torah and Law in “Paradise Lost,”
The epic project that includes the poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained marks the last occasion in Europe when the most ambitious literary form sought stability in theology rather than in philosophy. The philosophical poem, a minor form before the Enlightenment, became after Milton the general idea of what a great long poem should be. One thinks of Faust, naturally enough, where the triumph of philosophy over theology is enacted, of Coleridge’s youthful plans for a philosophical epic, and of Wordsworth’s qualified achievement of it in The Prelude. Hegel said that art, having been supplanted by philosophy as the discourse of truth, must be for us a thing of the past. A less striking but perhaps more accurate statement would be that the art that once sought stability in the knowledge of God now seeks it in the impersonal knowledge of truth. The Milton who, before Paradise Lost, composed for his own use a theological treatise in which every point made is anchored in scripture, belongs to an earlier age. Yet there are in him clear indications of what is to come. No poet before Milton is so preoccupied with metaphysical questions, with the ultimate nature of being and the causative principles governing creation.
It is the theological Milton with which Jason P. Rosenblatt is concerned in this fine study of Paradise Lost, a study that is more controversial than is suggested by its title or by its eirenic scholarly tone. The book is an attack on what its author regards as the Pauline bias of Milton studies in the tradition of A. S. P. Woodhouse and Arthur Barker. It is a bias, persisting even in Miltonists who are unconcerned with theological questions, against Hebraism in general and the “Old Law” in particular, the system of law referred to as Torah. Expressed in positive terms, Rosenblatt’s aim is to show how Milton’s prose tracts of 1643–1645 (the tracts on divorce) are “the principal doctrinal matrix of the middle books of Paradise Lost” (p. ix), that is, of the books in which human beings are shown in the state of innocence, giving us a utopian model [End Page 546] of what we should strive for in our own lives. But the Hebraic ethos of Eden gives way in the later books of the epic, after the Fall, to a Pauline perspective where the Law is an evil that stands in the way of our freedom. Whereas Pauline theology condemns the Hebrew Law as a law of bondage, Torah, like the Tao, is a means to live freely in accord with the law of one’s nature. Such law is felt not as a restraint but as a path. Rosenblatt suggests that Paradise Lost is not the unified, orthodox Christian vision Woodhouse claimed it to be but a work that undergoes radical ideological change after the Fall, reenacting the historical change brought about by Christianity itself.
In the 1640s Milton embarked on an arduous program of Hebraic studies, spurred on by his desire to recuperate the one Mosaic law Christ explicitly overturned: that permitting divorce for causes other than fornication, a word that, as Milton’s Satan says of another, bears no single sense. After the exaggerated assessments, earlier this century, of Milton’s Hebrew erudition an over-correction set in, asserting that because Milton resorted to secondary sources, reference works, and translations his Hebrew learning was shallow. But Milton never pretended to be a Hebrew or an Aramaic scholar. He knew the languages and used them to learn more, as he used and acknowledged the work of great scholars like Selden; and for an amateur his attainments were truly remarkable. Miltonists will value this book for its balanced, expert reassessment of the poet’s Hebrew learning. And it will be especially appreciated by Miltonists for the new insight it brings to the importance of the divorce tracts of the 1640s for the representation of human innocence in Paradise Lost.
For most readers the book will be of interest as...