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Milton and Monotheism

By Abraham Stoll

Publication Year: 2009

Although monotheism is at least as old as the Hebrew Bible, in the seventeenth century it received particular attention among philosophers and rational theologians. Within the writings of such figures as John Selden, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and Henry More, and amid emerging Socinian and deist thought, official religion in England was increasingly defined according to the notion of a single God. In this compelling study—illuminating reading for literary scholars and religious scholars alike—Abraham Stoll examines Milton’s poetry in the context of these debates swirling around polytheism and monotheism.

While writing Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes with a keen awareness of monotheism, Milton is faced with serious issues for his narratives. From the classical, polytheistic conventions of the Greek epic tradition, Milton inherits divine councils, invocations, and a cosmic scope; but he is also attempting to represent a God who is omniscient and omnipotent, who resists images and personality, and who thus cannot fit the minimal requirements of plot. Negotiating these problems, Milton’s monotheistic narratives must question the Trinity, depict polytheistic gods, and ultimately challenge the notion of revelation itself. Yet monotheism also describes how Milton pulls back from the extremes of rational religion to maintain the revealed God of the Bible, forging a unique version of Christianity.

As Stoll points out, poetry and theology are too often understood separately, which is especially damaging for the study of Milton, whose poems are retellings of biblical stories. Milton and Monotheism demonstrates the profound differences between doctrinal discourse and narrative poetry and how neither is, individually, able to fully represent Milton’s monotheism—or, as Stoll says, “a God of flickering subjectivity.”

Milton and Monotheism is an extraordinary achievement, one that offers a fascinating and brilliantly illuminating account of how theology demands narrative and how narrative stands in tension with theology. Beautifully written, compellingly argued, Stoll’s work offers new insights into crucial matters of theodicy, doctrine, and representation in Milton’s poetry.” — Jeffrey Shoulson, University of Miami

Published by: Duquesne University Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii

Citations and Abbreviations

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pp. ix-x

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p. xi

This book has been supported by several faculty research grants from the University of San Diego. The Folger Shakespeare Library and the Huntington Library have contributed fellowships, and their collections. I thank those institutions, as well as Firestone...

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pp. 1-23

Paradise Lost is about the angelic rebellion and the Fall from Eden. But both of these, Milton’s language implies, are part of a struggle between polytheism and monotheism. Waking up in hell, Satan depicts his revolt as an immortal battle between...

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ONE Polytheism and “truest Poesie”

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pp. 25-72

As the action in Paradise Lost begins, the only physical detail present is that of Satan’s eyes: “round he throws his baleful eyes” to view “No light, but rather darkness visible” (PL 1.56, 63). These eyes construct a being who is present and observing but disembodied, like the nearly immaterial hell around...

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TWO Occult Monotheism and the Abstract Godhead: The Discourse of Monotheism

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pp. 73-100

When Milton weaves De diis Syris into the fabric of Paradise Lost, he is aligning his poetry with a watershed text in the discourse of monotheism. John Selden’s De diis is a source of material, as well as an example in methodology, for a number of seventeenth century texts that give a central place to the...

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THREE God and Genesis 18 in Paradise Lost

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pp. 101-142

Milton’s readers have long had problems with God’s personality. Some have considered God, in Irene Samuel’s words, “a wooden bore.” Others, in a contrary position, have accused him of tyranny and viciousness. Pope’s famous couplet portrays both of these qualities: “In Quibbles, Angel and Archangel join,...

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FOUR The War in Heaven and Deism

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pp. 143-182

Theophany is at the heart of the narrative problems of monotheism. But while the godhead is the epicenter, shocks of narrative instability are also felt in the appearance of angels, as Genesis 18 demonstrates. The visitors on Mamre flicker, shift, and contradict their own presence, and, as with the problem of...

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FIVE Socinianism and Deism: The Discourse of Monotheism

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pp. 183-215

The last chapter described the war in heaven’s “deist potential” — qualities that attracted a reception as deist, but are better described in terms of monotheism. Milton’s monotheism could be read as deism because the seventeenth century discourse of monotheism itself cuts a path through the early stages...

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SIX The Son after the Trinity

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pp. 216-263

Adam’s book 8 encounter with God was interpreted in chapter 3 as a main expression of monotheism in Paradise Lost. God’s question, “What think’st thou then of me, and this my state, / . . . Who am alone / From all eternity” (PL 8.403–06) both asserts an utterly monotheistic godhead and challenges Adam to...

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SEVEN Revelation and Samson’s Sense of Heaven’s Desertion

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pp. 264-308

In the preface to book 5 of De doctrina Christiana, Milton insists that in contemporary debates the Trinity is defended without the support of divine revelation: “Of course, if my opponents could show that the doctrine they defend was revealed to them by a voice from heaven, he would be an impious wretch...

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Afterword: Monotheism, the Sublime, and Allegory

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pp. 309-319

In place of a conclusion, this short, speculative essay frames my argument by moving later in time, to the eighteenth century reception, and earlier in time, to Edmund Spenser. By taking a broader view, drawing back from a close historical and theoretical focus, I hope to weave Milton’s monotheism into larger literary...


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pp. 320-366


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pp. 367-377

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705125
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704104

Page Count: 388
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 794700838
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Milton and Monotheism

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Subject Headings

  • Milton, John, -- 1608-1674 -- Religion
  • Monotheism in literature.
  • Milton, John, 1608-1674. Paradise lost.
  • Milton, John, 1608-1674. Samson Agonistes.
  • Religion and poetry.
  • Thomas, R. S. ǂq (Ronald Stuart), ǂd 1913-2000 ǂx Religion.
  • Christianity and literature -- Great Britain -- History -- 17th century.
  • Religion and literature -- Great Britain -- History -- 17th century.
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