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  • “Matter” versus Body: The Character of Milton’s Monism
  • Phillip J. Donnelly

Milton’s materialism has recently found broader critical currency, especially since the success of Stephen Fallon’s Milton among the Philosophers. Fallon’s work has done much to shape a new consensus regarding how Milton’s position engages seventeenth-century debates over materialism and determinism, especially as they were formulated by the Cambridge Platonists and Thomas Hobbes (Fallon 97; cf. Rogers 11). Distinguishing Milton’s monism from both the mechanist materialism of Hobbes and the dualism of the Cambridge Platonists, Fallon insists that Milton viewed “life” (physical and mental) as neither “the sum of mechanical motions,” nor the function of an “incorporeal substance,” but as the operation of “corporeal spirits” (117). The concept of “corporeal spirit” is a function of Fallon’s equation of “matter” with “body,” in that he construes Milton’s notion of “first matter” as necessarily sensible. Ultimately, because Fallon argues that Milton’s position is closer to the materialism of Thomas Hobbes than to the alleged dualism of Henry More (127–28), he invites the elision of differences between Milton’s position and later secular versions of materialism. 1 Such a consequence may not be Fallon’s intention but follows directly from treating “matter” (materia) and “body” (corpus) as synonymous.

Recently, in the pages of this journal, D. Bentley Hart has offered a more nuanced account of Milton’s materialism, which begins with a greater awareness of the wide range of uses to which the term materia prima may be put (16). Hart aptly points out that none of the available monist precedents (whether stoic or neoplatonic) really fits with Milton’s account. In addition, Hart observes that although Milton never “attributes corporeity to God,” God “is not finally ‘wholly other’ than matter” (21). Although there is an implicit difference at this one point in Hart’s argument between corpus and materia, that difference is never made explicit, and elsewhere in the essay Hart uses “corporeity” interchangeably with “material” (22). Hart’s objectives are quite different from Fallon’s, but both accounts create difficulty for themselves by generally equating “matter” with “body.” Despite Hart’s claim that “the full scope of Milton’s heterodoxy has rarely been appreciated” (16), Milton’s position is still more resistant to the usual critical categories than even Hart allows.

Because Fallon’s work has had broader influence, the present analysis will attend specifically to his interpretation in order to demonstrate that an accurate account of Milton’s position must allow for the distinction between “first matter” and “body” (sensible reality). By looking specifically at how Fallon interprets key passages from De Doctrina Christiana 2 and Paradise Lost to support his view of Milton’s materialism, we can see that the failure to distinguish between “first matter” and corporeal matter has far-reaching implications for the reading of Milton’s prose and poetry: it introduces conceptual incoherences not present in Milton’s texts and obscures the genuine subtlety of Milton’s poetic presentation of materialism.

In order to support his account of the unusual character of Milton’s materialism (which he then seeks also to discern in Paradise Lost), Fallon cites the following passage from Milton’s De Doctrina:

The idea that the spirit of man is separate from his body, so that it may exist somewhere in isolation, complete and intelligent, is nowhere to be found in scripture, and is plainly at odds with nature and reason.

(CPW 6: 319)

Fallon uses this passage to argue that although Milton distinguishes between body and soul, Milton never admits “the incorporality of the soul nor the separability of body and soul” (100). But this is to connect two points that have no necessary relation. Milton clearly does maintain that a human being consists of a rational sentient body whose “soul” is simply the form of that body, but to link that claim with the “corporeality of the soul” is Fallon’s own work. Milton (as we shall later see) does maintain that, in a qualified sense, all forms consist of “matter,” but that does not necessitate that forms are corporeal (sensible) unless the equation between matter and body is already...