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Reviews221 Milton among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England, by Stephen M. Fallon; 264 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, $34.50. In Milton among tLĀ· Philosophers Stephen Fallon reminds us that Milton lived and wrote in a "turbulent philosophical climate" during a period when "reality was up for grabs, and the monism of Milton and others was not a quaint and curious fringe opinion, but a contender for the minds of future Englishmen." Fallon's exploration of these old debates may strike some readers of Milton's poetry as unnecessary. Milton is a poet, not a philosopher. But for those who stay with it, Milton among the Philosophers offers valuable insights to Milton's prose and poetry, and especially to Paradise Lost. The early chapters focus on the central seventeenth-century concern with the mind-body problem. Beginning with detailed discussions of Descartes, Hobbes, and Gassendi, Fallon proceeds to an examination of the Cambridge Platonists, especially Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, and shows how Milton's monism differs essentially from the dualism of More and Cudworth, and how his animist materialism diverges from mechanists like Descartes and Hobbes. By carefully distinguishing among various seventeenth-century positions on the relative status of body and soul, or matter and spirit, describing the turf battles among mechanists, dualists, nominalists, materialists, and monists, Fallon demonstrates how Milton's own somewhat peculiar ontology fits into the contemporary philosophical context. Along the way, he points to similarities between Milton's animist materialism and "the brilliant and quirky thought of Anne Conway, a student of Henry More who diverged radically from her teacher." Conway serves as a stand-in for Milton, who unfortunately remained "silent about the relationship between his monism and the systems of contemporary philosophers." This attempt to find parallels in Milton's writing to some of Conway's more explicit challenges to contemporary philosophers may be the least convincing part of Fallon's argument, but it casts light on an otherwise neglected figure who perhaps deserves to be better known by Miltonists as well as historians of philosophy. The payoff, especially for readers of Paradise Lost, comes in the last four chapters. In Chapter Five Fallon takes on Samuel Johnson's accusation that Milton has been careless and inconsistent in his epic, "has unhappily perplexed his poetry with his philosophy," especially in his treatment of his "infernal and celestial powers" which are "sometimes pure spirit and sometimes animated body."Joining close reading and knowledge gained from discussions in previous chapters, Fallon demonstrates convincingly that Milton's ontology is consistent throughout the epic, that his angels are, in fact, never "pure spirit," and that Johnson, misled by his own assumptions and those of his age, has misread Milton's poem. While other Renaissance poets may confuse matter and spirit 222Philosophy and Literature in their descriptions of angels, Milton very definitely does not, for to do so would ruin his poem, and would be to employ a poetic "lie" in order to point to an abstract truth. In Chapter Six Fallon further demonstrates that the allegorical figures Sin and Death are not mere personifications, but represent Milton's poetic embodiment of metaphysical evil: a complete absence of good and thus of substance . In mathematical terms "they function as negative numbers in a universe created with positives only." Understanding Milton's ontological assumptions, which closely follow Augustine's, helps us appreciate "Milton's genius" in reserving "allegory, the reality of whose characters was more than suspect, for these nonbeings." Chapter Seven then reveals Milton's treatment of Satan and his descent to be consistent with the poem's monist epistemology. While Satan attempts to divorce a superior "self" from his fallen body, proclaiming "The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" (PL 1.254-55), Milton undercuts Satan's debased Cartesian dualism by demonstrating the continuity between the fallen Satanic mind and his gross body, his "proper shape," which keeps reasserting itself as his "own likeness." On the other hand, "Satan's determinism is cast in Hobbesian terms." Fallon notes that "Satan enters the poem as 'leviathan,' " a possible allusion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 221-222
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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