- Kant and Milton
This book might be a great idea. One wonders why no one before has thought to do a comparative study of Milton and Kant, especially when Milton—or rather the idea of Milton—seems to be behind much of what Kant has to say in the Third Critique, The Critique of Judgment, and elsewhere (for example, in the Anthropology) about poetic genius, and the sublime. Poetical art is the sensuous representation of "something lying beyond the bounds of experience" ["etwas über die Erfahrungsgrenze hinaus liegenden"]. In poetry, the imagination uses sensuous experience to create a world more unified than our ordinary experience can ever be.
That certainly is Miltonic. Milton shows us heaven, hell, and eternity (things Kant actually names as "poetic"), which lie beyond our experience; you feel yourself in Heaven and you feel yourself in Hell—and you feel yourself on earth, a very different, satisfying earth. But Kant also says the imagination imitates reason by extending toward the infinite. As Sanford Budick reminds us, citing J. H. Tisch, "sublime" and "Miltonic" had become practically interchangeable in Germany in the later eighteenth century, when English aesthetic thought was at its highpoint of influence there (18). Byron is repeating a longstanding commonplace when he says that the word "Miltonic" now means "sublime." It was Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, who gave the fullest development of the idea of the sublime, a concept known to Milton through Longinus's Peri Hypsous. The sublime was the recurring theme of eighteenth-century aesthetics before Kant.
Kant's aesthetics is not the only reason to compare him with Milton. The central problem of Kant's philosophy is the securing of real human freedom and moral uprightness ("pure reason") while abandoning the false freedom of dogmatic metaphysics, and the pseudomorals and pseudoaesthetics that follow from such dogmatism. (Like all great philosophers, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, Kant is easy to summarize but exceedingly demanding at the level of reading.) Freedom and Reason are central to Milton's poetry and they are central to Kant. Moreover, Milton sees freedom as related to moral choice—to be truly free is to choose what is right—and Kant's categorical imperative—act as if your action were what you would will as a universal law—is a philosophical refinement of this idea. Milton himself would accept the categorical imperative, once he had freed himself of his regressive attachment to dogmatic trust in the Bible. But, of course, he didn't. Milton was not a man of the Enlightenment like Kant, who was the genius of Enlightenment.
Let us go a little farther before reining in this somewhat naively comparative line of thought, in which differences like the Bible don't count. It seems to me the broad subjects of Kant's three critiques—the critique of pure reason, the critique of moral judgment, and the critique of aesthetic judgments—give us the main points of concern in Milton's epics, and in the same order of development. What is human reason and what are its limits? How is moral judgment performed in relation to reason? And how do judgments of taste—aesthetic judgments—reflect back upon reason and morals, unifying them, even as they extend beyond the boundaries of experience?
These three questions align with the important moments in Milton's epics. First, in Paradise Lost, Adam and Raphael discuss the limits and the powers [End Page 315] of reason. They do so in the one passage of Milton of which Kant has some faint awareness, though it is inaccurate, as we shall see, and evidently at second hand. Second, the tragic separation of moral judgment from reason is the subject of Book Nine of Paradise Lost. Third, Christ's victory over Satan, in Paradise Regained, is accomplished by superior aesthetic judgment. It is a judgment of taste, prepared for by (of all things) a comparison of the merits of Pindar on the one hand (to name only one of the Greek lyric poets alluded to) and of the Hebrew Psalms on the other...