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  • Body Out of Spirit:Medical Science and the Creation of Living Soul in Paradise Lost
  • Charlotte Nicholls

"It is not any more incredible that a bodily force should be able to issue from a spiritual substance, than that something spiritual should be able to arise from a body."

John Milton, De doctrina Christiana

In his defense of matter in De doctrina Christiana, Milton makes the curious assertion that body can emerge out of spirit; he states that it did so at the point of Creation, and he comments drily, "that is what we trust will happen to our own bodies at the resurrection."1 This statement directly contradicts the orthodox Aristotelian theory of cause, which holds that any new form can be initiated only by the action of another form upon suitably receptive matter, a view that has often been attributed to Milton. This essay will argue, in contrast, that the emergence of body out of spirit, theorized in De doctrina Christiana and represented in the earliest parts of the Creation sequence of Paradise Lost, has no analogue as precise as that of the medical model of conception researched and developed by physicians of the early scientific revolution in a radical, experimental revision of Aristotelian medical theory. [End Page 119]

Careful attention to the earliest parts of the Creation sequences in Paradise Lost reveals that it is the interaction of the Holy Spirit and originary matter that initiates the formation of the world, and that this interaction is presented in an extraordinarily biological way. Before the event of the first divine fiat, Raphael describes how the spirit of God touches the newly calmed circle of Chaos:

Matter unformed and void: darkness profoundCovered the abyss: but on the watery calmHis brooding wings the spirit of God outspread,And vital virtue infused, and vital warmthThroughout the fluid mass, but downward purgedThe black tartareous cold infernal dregsAdverse to life: then founded, then conglobedLike things to like, the rest to several placeDisparted, and between spun out the air,And earth self-balanced on her centre hung.2

This is the moment in Paradise Lost in which body (morphologically organized material being) emerges from the fluid embrace of spirit and matter. This passage echoes and elaborates the narrator's opening invocation to the Holy Spirit in book 1 in which the Spirit "Dovelike satst brooding on the vast abyss / And mad'st it pregnant" (PL 1.21–22). Just as contemporary medical evidence disrupted the tidy, algebraic Aristotelian theories of cause with evidence of the unformed, messy bodily fluids of conception and earliest fetal life, so this sequence disrupts the clean lines of ontological dualism with an infusing, purging, spinning mixture of spirit and matter that will become the "warm / Prolific humour" that "Fermented the great mother to conceive" (PL 7.279–81).

Critics who insist upon a version of Milton's natural philosophy that is conventionally dualist in terms of Aristotelian causality and the categories of form and matter have much to ignore in this early stage of Creation. Twentieth century voices such as William B. Hunter have insisted that Milton's Aristotelianism complies with the dualist organization in which the "power of matter" is almost an oxymoron, for this "power" is pure potentiality, the passive part [End Page 120] of a system whereby "the formal element represents the activity or actuality of each entity; the material element is passive, with a characteristic capacity for being formed."3 Noël Sugimura claims that "Aristotelian logic prompted [Milton] to admit the existence of a nonmaterial aspect to his philosophy."4 These critics either precede or contest the significant body of critical work that has investigated in depth the shape and implications of Milton's animist materialism. This essay seeks to explore and develop the proposition made by John Rogers that the language of conception that characterizes Milton's Creation is much more than a rich seam of metaphor. It is, rather, part of a natural philosophy influenced by a radical strain of vitalism that emerged from the theory and practice of two scientists, William Harvey and Francis Glisson, whose medical research respectively implied and theorized vital matter.5...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-796X
Print ISSN
0076-8820
Pages
pp. 119-153
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-05
Open Access
No
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