- Kant and Milton
Kant thinks poetry is the greatest of all the arts, and that Milton is one of the greatest poets. Sanford Budick, a professor of English from Hebrew University, investigates the Miltonic echoes in Kant’s work in this very thorough, dense, and deliberate study. Budick argues that Milton’s poetic form, especially his use of successive images, informs some of the most crucial and complex passages in Kant’s ethical and aesthetic theory.
Budick concedes that it may seem strange to blur the line between poetry and philosophy, but he also underlines the fact that “in Kant’s world poetry and philosophy had not yet experienced the virtual divorce that characterizes our own age” (119). Budick contends that the deep affinity between Kant and Milton has gone largely unremarked thanks, in [End Page 503] part, to this divorce, as well as literary protectionism on the part of German interpreters who downplayed Anglophilic strains in their culture, and the constellation of German Miltonism in particular.
In Kant’s day, Budick notes, Milton was more beloved than Shakespeare. A number of translations of his works were available and oft-discussed by Kant’s German contemporaries, many of whom Budick considers here, in order to illuminate some of the debates Kant was engaged in while he was developing his aesthetic and ethical ideas.
The title is not just alphabetically correct; this is a meticulous reading of Kant first and foremost. Budick is insistent that there are a number of important passages where Kant’s philosophy resonates with Milton’s poetry. For example, in chapter 3, Budick weaves together Milton’s Sonnet XIX (“When I consider how my light is spent”) and Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, discovering striking similarities between the two.
Budick also examines the isomorphism between the blind poet’s transition to an inner vision and the sacrifice of the sensible, and intimation of the supersensible, in the Kantian sublime.
In chapter 5, Budick reads the Critique of Practical Reason alongside excerpts from Milton’s Samson Agonistes, as both feature the exemplary figure of the honest person in extremis. Samson’s choice—suicide or life in bondage—mirrors the struggles of previous Biblical exemplars, as well as Kant’s struggle to formulate freedom, and the subject’s struggle to ascend to autonomy from the welter of heteronomy.
Readers who approach this book from Team Milton instead of Team Kant may find it a hard slog. This is certainly not a criticism; rather, it is an occupational hazard of any close reading of the way Kant negotiates the transition from the aesthetic to the ethical, and Budick is a very exacting close reader indeed
Succession is the central term that ties this work together, as Budick contends that Kant and Milton are both engaged in a procedure of succession. Budick writes, “Succession alone entails the transfer from the heteronomous to the autonomous, and from the sensible to the supersensible, as well as the transformation of exemplification into exemplarity, so that a leap to the universal becomes possible” (302).
Budick methodically combs through Paradise Lost, the Second and Third Critiques, Kant’s letters and lectures, and the work of Kant’s contemporaries in order to build his case. Budick’s project reminds me of John Zammito’s The Genesis of the Critique of Judgment, insofar as it too is a text of urtexts, a painstaking reconstruction of the debates and influences that helped shape Kant’s work, tracing his German and British sources, hostile and salutary, provocative and inspirational. For example, Budick gives a detailed account of clashes between Kant and Herder, whom Budick describes as the closest thing Kant had to a nemesis. While the scraps between Kant and Herder are well documented in Kant scholarship, it is interesting to see how Milton is a point of contention for them, and how each casts the other as a kind of Satanic figure.
Herder’s hasty conflations of literature and philosophy irritate Kant, but in a way that Budick contends is ultimately productive and valuable...