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"Boundless the Deep": Milton, Pascal, and the Theology of Relative Space

From: ELH
Volume 63, Number 1, Spring 1996
pp. 45-78 | 10.1353/elh.1996.0006

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ELH 63.1 (1996) 45-78

Despite the attempts of literary and intellectual historians like Christopher Hill, Dennis Danielson, and Stephen Fallon to reground Milton's thought in the currents of contemporary rather than "universal" history-of-ideas, many of the evaluations set forth by the older, Hegelianizing school of thought remain firmly in place. Notable among these is the conception that the poetic brilliance of Milton's epic achievement is undermined by the twin flaws of intellectual conservatism and mediocrity so often cited by Arthur Lovejoy and his followers. From this perspective, simply to concur with Hill and his followers that Milton's natural philosophy and rational theology form a kind of via media amidst the contemporary extremes of legalism and antinomianism, spiritualism and materialism, or Calvinism and Arminianism, hardly exonerates him of these accusations. In discourses where originality remains a dominant criterion of merit, following the middle course may testify to the balance but scarcely to the synthetic brilliance or profundity of a poetic oeuvre. Yet in Milton's case as in that of his continental contemporary, Blaise Pascal, this profundity is obscured not by a true lack of originality, but by our as yet uncorrected misunderstanding of the contemporary scientific milieu. Even when freed from Lovejoy's anachronistic polarization of empirical and theological epistemologies, many intellectual historians still continue to confuse the attitudes of dissident Reformed theologians like Milton and Pascal with the anti-scientific biases of their Counter-Reformation counterparts. This confusion becomes particularly inexcusable given that Richard Jones's pioneering work long ago demonstrated the virtual identity of the methods, aims, and ideology of the empiricists with those of the purportedly "other-worldly" Reformers. Further, like the English Puritans, French Jansenists like Pascal regarded freedom of thought and discussion as a means of "widening the limits of acquired truth, together with the faith that such expansion was possible." In essence, this expansion not only meant overturning the traditional "authority of the ancients," but replacing it with a standard of "clear proofs and demonstrations" that would both pragmatically and humanely contribute to the "public good."

Although in post-Restoration England this common empirico-religious cause would later splinter into opposing political and religious ideologies, the seventeenth century never witnessed anything like the divorce between science and spirit that marked the Newtonian revolution fully underway only in the eighteenth century. In the far from stable climate of the previous century, the new science continued to afford the promise of ever-expanding intellectual horizons calculated to appeal to a wide variety of revolutionary thinkers, and confining to none. Among these Milton and Pascal must be included on any number of well-documented grounds. One of Milton's earliest prose works was in fact commissioned by an early proponent of the Royal Society, a visionary if not himself a profound thinker who not only promoted the general agenda of Bacon's Advancement of Learning, but who particularly wanted to see it applied to more progressive forms of education. Hence at Samuel Hartlib's request the young Milton would publicly condemn "the Scholastick grosness of barbarous ages" that presumed to value "meere words" above more useful things. As opposed to mere "Grammar and Sophistry," his treatise Of Education thus urges that students be given an empirical education preparing them to read "any compendious method of naturall Philosophy" (CP, 2:374-79, 390), and to further this purpose included an enormously expanded component of mathematical instruction. Milton's failure to depart from this ambitious agenda is signalled by the epic education afforded both "Grand Parents" of the human race in Paradise Lost. In addition to the moral education they will need to repel Satan's incursions, Adam and Eve are offered a broadly humanistic and empirical curriculum designed to acquaint them with their physical universe. In the prelapsarian world this includes an astonishing range of lectures on subjects ranging from horticulture and astronomy to gastronomy, and in postlapsarian Eden, an interdisciplinary program ranging from history and theology to politics and hermeneutics. Thus despite the obtuse objections to these "digressions" posed by early critics like Johnson and late ones like Lovejoy, material that occupies over half of Paradise Lost can scarcely be...

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