Milton, Thomas Hobbes, and the Political Problem of Chaos
This article explores the political ramifications of chaos in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Through a close reading of Milton’s creation account, it argues that the narrative constraints of epic force the poet into assigning more persistence and antagonism to the prima materia than his theology or politics would like. It further argues that Milton’s poetic Chaos makes him an uneasy ally of Thomas Hobbes and Hobbes’s de facto political philosophy. The article demonstrates how, in order to resolve this political problem, Milton folds the anarchic material of Chaos into Adam and Eve, transforming its anarchic will into their free will.
As the “one first matter all” in Milton’s cosmos, chaos raises troubling theological questions about the nature of God’s creation and divine models for human politics.1 Over the past thirty years or so we have seen an increased interest in chaos as realm, figure, and allegory in Paradise Lost. Seminal texts such as Regina Schwartz’s “Milton’s Hostile Chaos” and John Peter Rumrich’s Matter of Glory utilize Milton’s chaos to examine everything from the poet’s epistemology to his Christian anthropology.2 This article reads chaos in Paradise Lost as a troubling presence for Milton’s political thought and will argue two points: first, that Milton’s handling of chaos in Paradise Lost makes him an unwilling de factoist, an uneasy companion of Thomas Hobbes; and second, that in order to resolve this political dilemma, Milton transforms the chaotic, anarchic material of the universe into Adam’s and Eve’s free will, making them incubators of the force that threatens God’s de facto political power.
In his De Doctrina Christiana, Milton gives his clearest exposition on chaos and unequivocally argues for chaos’s benevolence: “this original matter,” is “not an evil thing, nor to be thought of as worthless,” because even though it was initially “confused and disordered,” it was eventually reined in by God who “made it ordered and beautiful.”3 De Doctrina has come under attack for being a bit disorganized itself. C. A. Patrides notably calls it “an abortive venture into theology,” highlighting the text’s scattershot nature.4 It appears Milton’s attitudes on all manner of topics evolved over time, therefore the beliefs expressed in De Doctrina need not necessarily agree with those dramatized in Paradise [End Page 133] Lost.5 As Phillip J. Donnelly writes, “The relation between [Paradise Lost and De Doctrina] is not one of direct correspondence.”6 More to the point of this article, John Rogers explains the significant political difference between Milton’s attitude toward chaos in De Doctrina and Paradise Lost, writing that Paradise Lost’s chaos differs from De Doctrina’s because the two texts have different purposes, the epic serving political, not theological, ends.7 In The Matter of Revolution, Rogers focuses on chaos in Paradise Lost, drawing our attention to the “portion of the deep for which the process of spiritualization simply did not take: ‘The black tartareous cold Infernal dregs.’”8 These tartareous remains help reveal the political nature of Milton’s epic because, according to Rogers, they have “established themselves as permanent and untransformable members of the body politic,” a tacky residue that pollutes any polis with its omnipresence.9 N. K. Sugimura explains the dangers of this troubling endurance, arguing that Milton’s attachment to an eternal chaos, which sustains certain “disturbingly darker entities,” destabilizes the poem’s theodicy, purportedly its entire purpose.10 Reading Paradise Lost as a poetic interpretation of the genesis of human politics, we can consider these “disturbingly darker entities,” which remain after chaos has been converted to creation, as the seeds of anarchic discord sown into the soil of an otherwise ordered world. David Quint’s Inside “Paradise Lost” argues, along with Rumrich, that chaos is less Manichean than Rogers would have it and that chaos “may be more morally and politically neutral than Rogers suggests.”11 Quint also considers the tartareous leftovers, so important for Rogers, to be merely the materials God uses to construct the eternal confines of Hell.12 In this case, I disagree with Quint and align myself with Rogers and Sugimura. The material of chaos poses a perennial threat to creation, and we should consider the political ramifications of this disorderly material.
Indeed, it seems the prima materia of Milton’s universe has become a useful tool for hammering out elements of Milton’s politics. Rachel Trubowitz uses this tool to read “Milton’s depiction of Chaos in relationship with the vacuist-plenist debate in England,” in order to gain “new insights into the intersections between the poet’s religious and political convictions and his views of the New Science.”13 The specifics of Trubowitz’s work—her focus on the vacuist-plenist debate—raise another significant aspect of Milton’s politics: his complicated relationship with Hobbes.14
John Aubrey famously tells us of their relationship, via Milton’s widow, who “assures [Aubrey] that Mr. T. Hobbs was not one [End Page 134] of [Milton’s] acquaintance, that her husband did not like him at all … Their Interests and Tenets did run counter to each other.”15 In other words, as Lawrence F. Rhu succinctly writes, “Hobbes was Milton’s worst nightmare.”16 At the root of their antagonism, I would argue, lies a fundamental disagreement about the origin of political power and therefore the ultimate source of political legitimacy. For Hobbes, political legitimacy comes from material dominance. Prior to civilization, in Hobbes’s metaphorical “State of Nature,” “men have no pleasure,” he writes in Leviathan, “but on the contrary a great deal of grief, in keeping company where there is no power able to over-awe them all.”17 We know that in this state man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”18 There are many aspects of Hobbes’s political theory that must go unexplored in this paper, but most germane to the present discussion is Hobbes’s underlying de factoism. That is, when we read Hobbes carefully, we find a political philosophy that disregards legal, divine, and hereditary rights for political legitimacy. These de jure justifications for political power are anathema to Hobbes, who holds that laws, justice, and even morality all appear ex post facto of the sovereign power strong enough to overpower humanity’s original, anarchic state. For Hobbes, political power is based neither on eternal morality nor divine justice. Instead, the sovereign power establishes itself, and only then do morality and justice emerge. Hobbes explains, “For these words of good, evil, and contemptible are ever used with relation to the person that useth them, there being nothing simply and absolutely so, nor any common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves, but from the person of the man (where there is no commonwealth), or (in a commonwealth) from the person that representeth it … and make his sentence the rule thereof.”19 In this amoral state of nature, perpetual war rages, and “[t]o this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice.”20 It is only after power establishes justice that morality emerges. Only after the important moment, “when a covenant is made,” do we understand that “to break it is unjust.”21
Even Hobbes’s social contract, which many use to argue for the consensual nature of his political philosophy, fails without physical power to enforce it. As Hobbes writes, the social contract “of men is by covenant only, which is artificial; and therefore, it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required (besides covenant) [End Page 135] to make their agreement constant and lasting, which is a common power to keep them in awe.”22 This de facto political philosophy extends even to God, whom Hobbes calls “king of all the earth by his power.”23 Therefore, at its most basic level, Hobbes’s political philosophy is a de facto political philosophy.24
Milton’s political philosophy, on the other hand, appears to differ in an important way. In Of Reformation, Milton writes, “let not humain quillets keep back divine authority. Tis not the common Law, nor the civil, but piety, and justice, that are our foundresses; they stoop not, neither change colour for Aristocracy, democracy, or Monarchy, nor yet at all interrupt their just courses.”25 So while Milton abhors the divine right of kings, he does hold that political power comes from God, whom he calls “Eternal Justice” in Paradise Lost (1.70). Even tyrannical rulers, such as Nimrod, rule by God’s decree: “God in Judgement just / Subjects [mankind] from without to violent Lords,” Michael explains to Adam, “Tyrannie must be, / Though to the Tyrant thereby no excuse” (12.92–3 and 12.95–6). Milton’s republicanism, based in Christian liberty, stems from divine justice and is therefore de jure, righteous, and sanctioned by God. The fundamental difference between their political philosophies have led scholars such as Don M. Wolfe to the general conclusion that “[a]mong seventeenth-century thinkers, no two critics offer more diverse or contradictory interpretations of root social issues than John Milton and Thomas Hobbes.”26 I would like to suggest that through a careful reading of chaos in Paradise Lost, we discover that Milton and Hobbes have more in common than Wolfe—and even Milton—would like.
When Milton begins to flesh out the biblical account of creation he must elaborate on verses from Genesis and make explicit some details only implied in the source material. As Milton confronts these narrative challenges, he must make theological concessions to his epic cosmology. Principle among these concessions is the primacy of chaos in Paradise Lost, which, in turn, develops into its persistence and antagonism.27 When he crafts his creation epic, “Milton is thrust back again and again to the Beginning,” Schwartz writes, “[a]nd for all its disturbing implications, the chaos he finds there is far more hostile than he would ever acknowledge in prose.”28 Chaos, the “Anarch old,” chief in the pantheon of anarchy, presides over misrule and disorder in Milton’s poetic cosmos and, I would argue, serves as the most problematic antagonist to God’s ordered creation (2.988).29
Chaos is the essential, indestructible anarchic will of the universe, the ineluctable problem Milton faces as he transforms [End Page 136] Genesis’s hexamerous account of creation into his own epic narrative. The most important question of precreation therefore becomes what God used to create the universe. This question shapes the poem’s understanding of the created world. If we read Paradise Lost as an epic of political philosophy, then it shapes the poem’s political order since it reveals a persistent and underlying foundation of chaos, not order, for the world.
Narrative requirements have forced Milton into granting chaos a higher degree of omnipresence and maliciousness than his theological works suggest. Echoing Genesis 1:1, Milton writes in the first book of his epic, “In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth / Rose out of Chaos” (1.9–10). Milton later calls Night “eldest of things,” and reveals that chaotic night has some kind of cosmic precedent (2.962). Chaotic night is primeval and primordial. If we read Paradise Lost as an allegory of political prehis-tory, à la Leviathan, then we can see how Milton’s version echoes Hobbes’s creation account of civilization in that both begin in amoral anarchy.
Along with its preeminent existence, another of Chaos’s troubling qualities is its violent resistance to God’s will. As Milton describes Chaos’s response to creation, he describes a scene of impetuous, indefatigable hostility: “Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wilde,” it rises,
Up from the bottom turn’d by furious windesAnd surging waves, as Mountains to assaultHeav’ns highth, and with the Center mix the Pole.(7.212–5)
Milton’s Chaos is not submissive or passive. It does not go quietly into the good dawn of creation. Though only briefly mentioned in Genesis, the initial act of creation garners a substantial amount of attention in Paradise Lost. Uriel describes the act of creation as God’s physical might overpowering the unruly matter of Chaos. “I saw when at his Word the formless Mass,” Uriel tells the disguised Satan:
This worlds material mould, came to a heap:Confusion heard his voice, and wilde uproarStood rul’d, stood vast infinitude confin’d;Till at his second bidding darkness fled,Light shon, and order from disorder sprung.(3.708–13) [End Page 137]
Uriel’s account has a few important implications. First, Uriel tells Satan that creation is a structure of material matter. The material already exists and has potentially existed forever since it is the “first matter.” Second, this description gives us important insight into the procedure of creation. Uriel says, “order from disorder sprung,” revealing the primacy of disorder. Hobbes gives disorder the same primacy, going so far as to say, “[t]he unformed matter of the world was a god, by the name of Chaos,” and builds his entire political philosophy on the primacy of anarchy.30 Uriel goes into greater detail about the nature of this construction, telling Adam,
The cumbrous Elements, Earth, Flood, Aire, Fire,And this Ethereal quintessence of Heav’nFlew upward, spirited with various forms.(3.715–7)
These elements may have flown upward, but they will need a sustaining power to keep aloft. Creation will require maintenance, which is, of course, why Adam and Eve must tend the Garden of Eden. Nature’s inclination is to transgress order, even in Eden. This is one perspective of creation that will be fleshed out in Raphael’s account to Adam and Eve in book 7. In the next book, Raphael explains that he was on guard duty during creation to keep evil out of the process,
To see that none thence issu’d forth a spie,Or enemie, while God was in his work,Least hee incenst at such eruption bold,Destruction with Creation might have mixt.(8.233–6)
What Raphael fails to understand is that “Destruction” is inherent in the matter of creation. Destruction with creation is necessarily mixed. As the Holy Spirit speaks creation into being, Chaos does not passively accept the alteration to its being. The moment is described, however briefly, as one of fierce antagonism and conflict.
We get a more detailed look at Chaos in book 2 when Satan traverses the disorderly realm and parlays with the personified disorder. When Satan firsts meets Chaos, the anarch is sitting atop a symbol of political power. We read how Satan approaches “the Throne / Of Chaos, and his dark Pavilion spread / Wide on the wasteful Deep” (2.959–61). In fact, throughout book 2, Milton [End Page 138] depicts allegorical Chaos as a defeated sovereign power. Over this void and over these elements, “Chaos Umpire sits, / And by decision more imbroiles the fray / By which he Reigns” (2.907–9). Throughout, Milton emphasizes the defeat of Chaos as a political defeat, depicting its shrinking dominion and din in terms of conquest at the hands of a physically superior power, as he does when describing how the light of creation,
Shoots farr into the bosom of dim NightA glimmering dawn; here Nature first beginsHer fardest verge, and Chaos to retireAs from her outmost works a brok’n foeWith tumult less and with less hostile din.(2.1036–40)
Earlier, in book 1, Milton explains how Satan’s army sends up a rallying cry, “A shout that tore Hells Concave, and beyond / Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night” (1.542–3). Milton’s Chaos reigns over a crumbling kingdom. Like an exhausted ruler presiding over the demise of his land, Chaos can do nothing against the creative, conquering power of God. The material matter of Chaos seems to diminish but, as we will see, Chaos is much too obdurate to be destroyed. Milton suggests that Chaos is a foe beaten back but not extinguished.
Chaos’s indestructability means it poses a constant threat to creation. Ethereal matter, like that which makes up the angels, is hard to destroy. When Satan’s battle wounds are described, we learn that celestial beings “Cannot but by annihilating die” (6.347). Surely, the chaotic material that makes up those angelic beings must be more adamantine. Explaining the influence of Henry More’s The Immortality of the Soul (1659) on Milton’s epic, Marjorie H. Nicolson notes how “More comments, too, on a fact that Milton uses without comment: ‘No forced thing can last long,’ [More] says, and therefore an evil spirit cannot long retain a borrowed shape.”31 Nicolson uses More’s axiom to investigate Satan’s many shapes in Eden, but when we think of creation as a sort of “forced thing,” that is, chaos forced into creation, then More’s point reveals the tension that permeates creation, the tension of a coiled spring, ready to return to its natural state. Only, in the case of Paradise Lost, the natural state of creation is not rest but anarchy. Indeed, the postcreation remnants of chaos, “the loud misrule / Of Chaos,” must be kept far away from the created universe, “least fierce extreames / Contiguous might distemper [End Page 139] the whole frame” (7.271–3). When comparing Milton’s chaos to classical creation myths such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A. B. Chambers remarks how “Milton’s chaos, unlike others, continues to exist, in part, even after the creation.”32 Not as easily theologically subdued as Satan, Chaos’s primacy and persistence pose significant challenges to Milton’s politics.
Ultimately, Chaos represents anarchy, social upheaval, and political disorder. It is the anarchic will on a cosmic level, the mythological beast of anarchy for Christian creation, as Milton writes it. It is also the material of creation and, as is often the case with disorder, intimately bound up with water. Its aquatic quality has important associations with anarchy and creation. In fact, when we look at other creation myths, we see the significance of Chaos’s marine nature. Let us briefly look at what Rumrich calls “the ultimate mythological source of Milton’s martial representation of chaos” to see how another story of creation significantly mirrors Milton’s in its handling of precreation chaos.33
The Babylonian creation myth, commonly known as the Enūma Eliš (ca. 1600 BCE), describes the rise of the god Marduk from his role as a subordinate deity to the premier position in his pantheon. In this myth, the water of chaos, deified in the goddess Tiamat, torments the gods with her incessant disorder. The distraught deities turn to Marduk, most physically powerful of the gods, to subdue her, and he agrees to intervene on one condition: “If I should become your avenger, / If I should bind Tiāmat and preserve you,” he offers,
Convene an assembly, and proclaim for me anexalted destiny. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And let me, with my utterance, decree destiniesinstead of you. Whatever I instigate must not be changed.34
The gods agree, and when Marduk captures Tiamat, who has taken the form of a dragon, in his net, “He split[s] her into two like a dried fish: / One half of her he set[s] up and stretche[s] out as the heavens,” the other half he sets up as the earth.35 The gods hold up their end of the covenant and, we read, “grant[ ] him the right to exercise kingship over the gods, / They confirm[ ] him as lord of the gods of heaven and netherworld.”36
Scholars have come to appreciate the profound influence of ancient Babylonian literature on the postexilic covenant community. [End Page 140] Israelite scribes of the late sixth century BCE borrowed much from their former captives, so we can look to the Enūma Eliš for insight into the conflicts between chaos and creation found in Judeo-Christian scripture. When we do, a few points come to light. First, the Enūma Eliš features a mythical, aquatic beast to represent chaos, one that Job would call “Leviathan” and that Hobbes would use as his commonwealth’s namesake.37 Second, like Hobbes’s theory of government, the myth features a leader who emerges because he can physically overawe the beast of disorder and compel obedience from others. Though Marduk forces his peers to elect him sovereign, he does so on the merits of his ability to physically control anarchy. Marduk’s physical dominance is the ballast of a steady realm, not his righteousness, heritage, or legal claim. Even though Hobbes could not have possibly used this myth to support his de facto theory of government, it is Hobbesian because Marduk is a prime, poetic example of Hobbes’s sovereign leader. Marduk owes his authority to his physical ability to command disorder, but he only holds that power as long as he can provide safety for his fellow gods.
Others have noted the political implications of this Babylonian myth. In Creation and the Persistence of Evil, Jon D. Levenson observes that in the Enūma Eliš “the supremacy of Marduk is not seen as primordial, self-evident, and self-sufficient.”38 Levenson uses the creation myth to illustrate how supreme deities earn their authority through conquest. Levenson describes Marduk’s authority as one earned through dominance and continually maintained. Read in this light, both the Babylonian and Hebrew accounts of creation sound more like Hobbes’s theory, a theory that ultimately argues for the physical, but not necessarily moral, superiority of the sovereign. When we read Leviathan as the “aquatic chaos-monster,” the creature that God never vanquishes but merely subdues, then we see how “[t]he concern of the creation theology is not creatio ex nihilo,” according to Levenson, “but the establishment of a benevolent and life-sustaining order, founded upon the demonstrated authority of the God who is triumphant over all rivals.”39 In other words, life-creating power does not give God supreme, divine authority. Wrangling chaos into order does. However, as Levenson deftly observes, “primordial chaos … does not disappear, but rather is transformed during the act of creation.”40
Significantly, the psalms also give God sovereignty because of his ability to physically control the turbulent sea and compel the obedience of its sea beasts. In Psalm 74 we read, “O God, my [End Page 141] King from of old, / who brings deliverance throughout the land; / it was You who drove back the sea with Your might”; note that the psalmist does not credit God with creating the sea, only stabilizing the entity through God’s “might” (Ps. 74:12–3). The psalm continues, “it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan,” emphasizing that God’s power to subdue the chaotic monster grants his kingship (Ps. 74:14). The material of the world, in the Enūma Eliš, Genesis 1, Psalm 74, and Milton’s creation, differ in degree but not in kind from the chaos out of which it emerges, and in all these it is the power to quell chaos, not de jure considerations, that bestows authority.
It is hard to overstate the significance of this premier struggle between chaos and the cosmos. In Remembering and Repeating, Schwartz considers the primary and continued battle between creation and chaos as the most important conflict of the epic.41 Like the Enūma Eliš, the struggle between order and chaos is perpetual, and Schwartz reads “the unstable visage of the Anarch, Chaos,” as one that “may well pose a greater threat in Milton’s moral universe than the Satanic one of a definite willed disobedience.”42 I want to remove Schwartz’s qualification and agree superlatively that chaos, and its eventual incarnation in mankind’s free will, threatens creation more than Satan ever could. Schwartz considers each aberration from God’s order, from the murder of Abel to the hubris of Babel, as a surge of chaotic potential.43 Schwartz insists on an eternal struggle similar to the Babylonian text. My reading takes this perpetual struggle as a Hobbesian model for political society. So too does Rumrich, who explains, “For Hobbes rebellion against the sovereign returns society to a state of chaotic violence. In a moment worthy of Marduk he maintains that the ‘natural punishment’ for such rebellion is ‘slaughter.’”44 Rumrich casually mentions the Hobbesian implications of Marduk’s de factoism for Milton’s chaos. I want to stress the significance of these implications.
My reading of the Babylonian cosmology argues that Marduk is a de facto political authority, as is Hobbes’s Leviathan, and as is Milton’s God in the case of Paradise Lost. Others have noted the chaotic connection between Hobbes and Milton but reached slightly different conclusions. Writing of the “violent collisions of the warring elements” described by Milton, Rogers concludes they “evoke nothing so much as the atomized structure of the originary Hobbesian polity, the state of the war of every man against every man.”45 While he begins with the parallel that I have also stressed, Rogers eventually works toward distinguishing authority [End Page 142] in Milton from Hobbes. “Milton’s chaos, like Hobbes’s, functions to demonstrate the importance of the assertion of a sovereign authority,” Rogers writes, “[b]ut the nature of this sovereign intervention differs tremendously for the two writers, and it is through his remarkable representation of Creation that Milton is able most fully to correct Hobbes’s political premise.”46 Rogers explains that Hobbes’s social chaos is corrected with “direct and ongoing intervention of a powerful sovereign,” while Milton’s chaos is subsumed, ordered “through a single, nonrepeatable act of divine infusion.”47 However, what would happen if we read creation not as this “single, nonrepeatable act of divine infusion” but as a continual, ongoing containment of chaos? If creation is not one complete chaos-subduing moment, but rather a divinely sustained action, then what is the effect on Milton’s cosmos?
We see a powerful instance of chaos’s persistence even in prelapsarian Eden. Adam and Eve’s daily orison reveals an interesting version of the once-chaotic elements of material life. Adam and Eve sing praises to God for the stars “that move / In mystic Dance,” and praise God “who out of Darkness call’d up Light” (5.177–9). They continue,
Aire, and ye Elements the eldest birthOf Natures Womb, that in quaternion runPerpetual Circle, multiform; and mixAnd nourish all things, let your ceasless changeVarie to our great Maker still new praise.(5.180–4)
The material of creation, the chaotic matter, has seemingly been made tame. The elements that previously “In mutinie had from her Axle torn / The stedfast Earth,” now dance in “ceasless change,” to the metronome of order (2.926–7). Rather than cacophony, creation moves in measured polyrhythm. God has corralled these elements into creation, but everything we have seen up to this point and everything we will hereafter read about the chaotic elements of creation all characterize the matter of the universe as hostile, violent, wild, and unruly. Even Adam and Eve’s prayer here illustrates that the components of creation are neither stagnant nor static. Therefore, instead of reading this prayer as a straightforward song of praise, we could see it as a prayer of divine request. Even though the natural world should adhere to God’s creative order, its nature to consistently vary slightly seems to trouble Adam and Eve. They acknowledge the dark source of [End Page 143] the material that surrounds and runs through them, and they admit that it is a mystery to them. They do, however, understand that the matter of life moves and vibrates with powerful energy, “multiform; and mix” (5.182). I would argue, then, that this prayer—a prayer that is to the material of creation—is a request for mutable nature to stay in line with God’s will, to “Varie to our great Maker still new praise,” as they say (5.184). As Levenson argues, “the confinement of chaos rather than its elimination is the essence of creation.”48 Chaos has been ordered, even reformed, but not fundamentally transformed. It cannot be destroyed, only temporarily contained.
At its core, therefore, in its “utter darkness,” Milton’s method of cosmic creation has much in common with Hobbes’s description of political creation (1.72). On Milton’s Earth, as described in Paradise Lost, the perpetual threat of anarchy hangs over society, just as it does in Hobbes’s model of political genesis. In both accounts, morality and justice are postcreation entities. The political world is neither built on a foundation of righteous rule nor divine order, since disorder and anarchy are its constituent parts. Any order that exists, therefore, is an imposed order, and can be considered virtuous only in its ability to control (and maintain) the order it imposes. This, of course, is Hobbes’s explanation for how civilizations arise. For all their differences and personal quibbles, little attention is given to the similarities between Milton and Hobbes. In Paradise Lost, God’s power over chaos sounds remarkably, and for Milton, disturbingly, Hobbesian.
Milton’s material monism endows the chaotic ur-stuff of creation with permanency. Chaos is the true antagonist of Paradise Lost, and though it changes shape, it does not disappear from creation. If Chaos is the archetype of the anarchic will, then its opposition to God leads us to conclude that God is a de facto power, the de facto power, of Paradise Lost. Chaos’s presence reminds readers of this fact, and Milton must now do something with Chaos. So how does Milton solve the problem of chaos? What becomes of this premier, antagonistic, and persistent material?
When we remember that all creation is made up of the same materials, and that these “Ancestors of Nature” came from “Eternal Anarchie,” that is “endless Warrs” and “confusion,” then we begin to see the inevitability of humanity’s fall (2.895–7). Since they are made from the same matter as chaos, Adam and Eve necessarily contain anarchy. It is a foundational aspect of their being, an aspect Milton ingeniously uses to help solve the problem of chaos. [End Page 144]
Milton’s ingenuity finds expression in his poetic diction. Two specific examples will help illustrate how he turns the anarchy of chaos into the disorder of free will. Taking the only two instances of “Umpire” in all of Milton’s poetry as a starting point, I would like to suggest that Chaos, rather than ceasing to exist at creation, is internalized and incarnated into Adam and Eve as their consciences. For as “Chaos Umpire sits,” so too does God bestow humans with “[his] Umpire Conscience” as a “guide” for our free will (2.907 and 3.194–5). According to Roy Flannagan, who represents the standard interpretation of the usage, Milton’s use of “umpire” in these instances is “ironic, because Chaos is not a good umpire.”49 However, I would argue that the associations between chaos and conscience are much more important and complex. In another linguistic parallel, Eve and Chaos are both referred to as “wombs.” Chaos is called “The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave”; the “Elements [of] eldest birth” are said to issue “Of Natures Womb”; and Raphael greets Eve, “Haile Mother of Mankind, whose fruitful Womb / Shall fill the World more numerous with thy Sons,” sons, who we should remember, will cause all sorts of trouble, from Cain’s murder of Abel to everyone outside of Noah’s immediate family (2.910, 5.180–1, and 5.388–9). In other words, if the dormant anarchy of chaos is to revivify itself in the world, it will come through mankind. Rogers calls this “possibility of a chaotic resurgence” an “expression [of] Milton’s fear, perhaps not so unsound, of an ever-encroaching political chaos,” which, I say again, sounds positively Hobbesian.50
We see this internalization of chaos in Adam and Eve’s mental state after the Fall, when the two arise in a groggy, postcoital fog, “destitute and bare / Of all thir vertue: silent, and in face / Confounded long they sate” (9.1062–4). Now their external countenance reflects their inner state of confusion. Having followed the anarchic impulse of their free will, they suffer the consequences of turmoil. The poet continues, “worse within / Began to rise, high Passions, Anger, Hate, / Mistrust, Suspicion, Discord, and shook sore / Thir inward State of Mind” (9.1122–5). These extreme emotions, which have been unearthed from the constitutive material of their bodies, have usurped the order that previously ruled their “State of Mind.” Previously, the political state of Eden, like the state of their mind, had been a “calm Region,”
And full of Peace, now tost and turbulent:For Understanding rul’d not, and the WillHeard not her lore, both in subjection now [End Page 145] To sensual Appetite, who from beneatheUsurping over sovran Reason claimdSuperior sway.(9.1125–31)
Milton’s extended metaphor of the Fall as usurpation should be read as symbolic of political disorder, specifically, an echo of Hobbes’s claim that “there is no such thing as perpetual tranquillity of mind … because life itself is but motion.”51 Repeatedly, the poet reminds us of the political state and its destruction. This is the incarnation of Chaos’s anarchic will. If the God-incarnate-Christ is a second Adam, then Chaos-incarnate-Adam-and-Eve is a second Chaos, who represents the political fear of anarchy or a “return to the confusion of a disunited multitude,” as Hobbes writes.52 In other words, just as Hobbes turns moral problems into political problems, Milton turns political problems into moral ones.
In his narrative of the Fall, Milton internalizes chaos as free will and makes anarchic wills of us all. And though Milton’s De Doctrina attests that the Holy Spirit occupies the faithful, like Adam and Eve, I would argue that the Holy Spirit in Paradise Lost, as it is associated with right reason or conscience, is compromised in the chaotic material of humankind. Also, as I have suggested, Milton’s De Doctrina, a prose tract, has the luxury of making theological assertions without the complications of narrative. When Milton turns to the same phenomenon of internalization in his epic, he gives us another dimension of what lies at the heart of Christian liberty. At the heart of Milton’s Christian liberty, at least in his epic of the Fall, beats the irregular heart of Chaos.53
Along with others, I think we should consider Paradise Lost as a poem in conversation with Hobbes.54 When we do, we discover fascinating parallels between two political philosophers whose prose works are often read in conflict with one another.55 “The deepest issue between Hobbes and Milton,” according to Wolfe, is “their contradictory estimate of man’s capacity for subordinating his fears, his hatreds, his hunger and warmth, to an enlightened concern for virtuous action and the welfare of his fellow-men.”56 As we have seen, the inability to subordinate this destructive, interpersonal force leads to chaos and anarchy. For Milton, when we align our free will with God’s Providence, we subordinate the threat of both personal and political chaos. Hobbes has less faith in our individual ability to keep those fears at bay. For him, a strong sovereign who holds up their end of the social contract and compels us to honor our end maintains the peace. Hobbes’s [End Page 146] image of the perfect sovereign looks more and more like Milton’s God. The only problem with that, for Milton, is that Hobbes’s ideal sovereign is a de facto authority figure. Of course, not everyone agrees with my Hobbesian reading of Milton’s God. C. S. Lewis, for instance, famously argues, “Many of those who say they dislike Milton’s God only mean that they dislike God: infinite sovereignty de jure, combined with infinite power de facto, and love which, by its very nature, includes wrath also.”57 My reading argues with Lewis’s depiction of Milton’s God as one with “infinite sovereignty de jure.” Instead, Milton, despite his polemical desires, must give his epic a God with de facto sovereignty over creation, a creation that continually teeters on the brink of cosmic chaos.
For Hobbes, society begins in chaos, and political order only stabilizes when power emerges. The power justifies itself, regardless of its provenance. Milton, in contrast, argues for the divine source of political power, but when he attempts to write the great English epic with the book of Genesis as his source material he faces new political challenges, narrative obstacles, and theological dilemmas. All three of these frustrations combine in Milton’s Chaos. Thus, the problem of chaos becomes Milton’s most insurmountable issue because of the poem’s political agenda, epic genre, and its religious subject matter. According to Leopold Damrosch, theology “discourage[s] narrative expansion,” and in De Doctrina Milton responds to the kinds of questions that arise when readers try to piece together narrative from Genesis.58 “Anyone who asks what God did before the creation of the world is a fool,” Milton concludes, “and anyone who answers him is not much wiser.”59 Milton’s theological prose can elide narrative considerations, but his epic cannot. Epic simply requires more narrative cohesion. Instead of brusque dismissal, Milton must find adequate explanations for otherwise glossed-over inconsistencies.60 Most pressing for an epic of creation is the material of creation. Milton must assign chaos a dangerously prominent place in his creation account, and his epic narrative of creation forces Milton into a corner where he cannot present God as a de jure authority. Instead, he reaches Hobbes’s conclusion: only power justifies power.
William Dean Clement is an instructor of English at the University of Memphis. His research focuses on the intersection of early modern political philosophy, imaginative literature, and biblical exegesis.
1. Milton, Paradise Lost, in The Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), pp. 296–710, 491, book 5, line 472. Subsequent references to Paradise Lost are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by book and line number. These four particular words have led to some of the most robust debates surrounding the epic. See Stephen M. Fallon, Milton among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991); D. Bentley Hart, “Matter, Monism, and Narrative: An Essay on the Metaphysics of ‘Paradise Lost,’” MiltonQ 30, 1 (March 1996): 16–27; and Phillip J. Donnelly, “‘Matter’ versus Body: The Character of Milton’s Monism,” MiltonQ 33, 3 (October 1999): 79–85. Like many others, Fallon points to Raphael’s “one first matter” speech to Adam as “[t]he central proof text for the materiality of angels in Paradise Lost, and one that makes explicit the monist basis of that materiality” (Milton among the Philosophers, p. 141). Fallon’s Milton is a material monist, which leads him to associate Thomas Hobbes and Milton in their shared antithesis to Cartesian dualism. Similarly, Hart defines Milton’s monism as “the oneness of the primary matter underlying the diversity of all its secondary” (p. 22). Donnelly argues that Fallon and Hart fail “to distinguish between ‘first matter’ and corporeal matter,” a distinction between materia and corpus that, according to Donnelly, Milton draws (p. 79). Donnelly resolves the problem of chaos by distinguishing between these entities. Materia is original creation, the “one first matter all,” that Raphael references, while corpus is the mutable, corruptible substance that allows sin to enter creation. Donnelly argues for a sort of dual materialism, which allows him to conclude that “the mutability of all individuated beings then accounts for corruptibility by distinguishing existents from the incorruptible matter that emanates from God” (p. 80). Donnelly’s emphasis on precise terminology helps clarify Milton’s theological approach to the uneasy dualism that emerges when we linger too long on Chaos, but when we go back to the poem, the difference between materia and corpus is less distinct. Donnelly admits as much, and I want to exploit what he calls “the ambiguity that Milton exploits throughout the poem,” and “the biblicist subtlety of Milton’s poetic theodicy,” to open the poem up to different interpretations (p. 81).
2. See Regina Schwartz, “Milton’s Hostile Chaos: ‘… and the Sea Was No More,’” ELH 52, 2 (Summer 1985): 337–74; and John Peter Rumrich, Matter of Glory: A New Preface to “Paradise Lost” (Pittsburgh PA: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1987). See pp. 61–9 for Rumrich’s discussion of “God and Chaos.”
3. Milton, “From On Christian Doctrine,” in Riverside Milton, pp. 1156–201, 1177.
4. C. A. Patrides, “Paradise Lost and the Language of Theology,” in Language and Style in Milton: A Symposium in Honor of the Tercentenary of “Paradise Lost,” ed. Ronald David Emma and John T. Shawcross (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1967), pp. 102–19, 108.
5. For instance, according to Fallon in The Milton Encyclopedia, “Milton employed the term ‘Arminian’ in a pejorative sense in Areopagitica (1645), but over time he was won over to Arminius. When he mentions Arminius again, in Of True Religion (1673), his tone is at least neutral, if not positive” (“Arminianism,” in The Milton Encyclopedia, ed. Thomas N. Corns [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2012], p. 19). For more on how depictions of chaos differ between Paradise Lost and De Doctrina Christiana, see John Leonard, “Milton, Lucretius, and ‘the Void Profound of Unessential Night,’” in Living Texts: Interpreting Milton, ed. Kristin A. Pruitt and Charles W. Durham (Selinsgrove PA: Susquehanna Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 198–217.
6. Donnelly, p. 81.
7. See John Rogers, The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1996), p. 141.
8. Rogers, p. 134.
9. Rogers, p. 142.
10. N. K. Sugimura, “Matter of Glorious Trial”: Spiritual and Material Substance in “Paradise Lost” (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009), p. 234.
11. David Quint, Inside “Paradise Lost”: Reading the Designs of Milton’s Epic (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2014), p. 258n14. See Rumrich, “Milton’s God and the Matter of Chaos,” PMLA 110, 5 (October 1995): 1035–46.
12. See Quint, p. 258n14.
13. Rachel Trubowitz, “‘Nor Vacuous the Space’: Milton’s Chaos and the Vacuist-Plenist Controversy,” in A New Companion to Milton, ed. Corns (Chichester UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), pp. 460–74, 473.
14. For the definitive work on the vacuist-plenist debate that raged in the seventeenth century, see Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2011).
15. John Aubrey, Brief Lives, Chiefly of Contemporaries, Set Down by John Aubrey, between the Years 1669 & 1696, vol. 2, ed. Andrew Clark (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898), p. 72.
16. Lawrence F. Rhu, “Paradise Lost and Traditional Exegesis,” in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel, ed. Hindy Najman and Judith H. Newman (Leiden NL: Brill, 2004), pp. 485–512, 512.
17. Hobbes, Leviathan with Selected Variants from the Latin edition of 1668, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 1994), p. 75.
18. Hobbes, p. 76.
19. Hobbes, pp. 28–9.
20. Hobbes, p. 78.
21. Hobbes, p. 89.
22. Hobbes, p. 109.
23. Hobbes, p. 71.
24. My reading of Hobbes is not without controversy. In fact, Quentin Skinner himself has since changed his interpretation of Hobbes’s political philosophy, retracting his earlier claims regarding Hobbes’s de factoism. See Skinner, “Thomas Hobbes on the Proper Signification of Liberty: The Prothero Lecture,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 40 (1990): 121–51. For a full examination of Skinner’s evolving interpretation of Hobbes, see Michael Goodhart, “Theory in Practice: Quentin Skinner’s Hobbes, Reconsidered,” Review of Politics 62, 3 (Summer 2000): 531–61. See also A. P. Martinich, who writes that Hobbes “is not a de facto theorist,” since, “[f]or Hobbes, a government, in addition to having the power to enforce its will, must have the consent of the people” (Thomas Hobbes [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997], p. 15).
25. Milton, Of Reformation, in Riverside Milton, pp. 873–901, 898.
26. Don M. Wolfe, “Milton and Hobbes: A Contrast in Social Temper,” SP 41, 3 (July 1944): 410–26, 410.
27. Milton’s view of the universe—his monism or dualism—is at the root of this issue. Rumrich explains, “It is possible … to take account of the allegorical character Chaos and narrative facts concerning chaos without resorting to the claim that Milton in his poetry contradicts fundamental principles of his monistic theology” (“Milton’s God,” p. 1038). The tension in this monist conflict gives rise to readings such as Schwartz’s, which seeks to understand “Milton’s uncompromising monism” in light of his narrative project (“Milton’s Hostile Chaos,” p. 338).
28. Schwartz, “Milton’s Hostile Chaos,” p. 339.
29. Milton’s use of the word “anarch” is the first recorded in English (See “Anarch,” in The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973]).
30. Hobbes, p. 67.
31. Marjorie H. Nicolson, “The Spirit World of Milton and More,” SP 22, 4 (October 1925): 433–52, 438.
32. A. B. Chambers, “Chaos in Paradise Lost,” JHI 24, 1 (January–March 1963): 55–84, 83.
33. Rumrich, “Milton’s God,” p. 1039.
34. W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), p. 73, tablet 2, lines 156–61.
35. Lambert, p. 95, tablet 4, lines 137–8.
36. Lambert, p. 117, tablet 6, lines 99–100.
37. See Job 40 and 41 for the parallels between Leviathan and Tiamat, and YHWH and Marduk. For instance, to impress upon Job his divine might, YHWH rhetorically asks that since “There is no one so fierce as to rouse [Leviathan]; / Who then can stand up to Me?” (The Jewish Study Bible, 2d edn., ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014], Job 41:2; all subsequent references to the Bible are to this edition). YHWH then contextualizes his might over Leviathan with other gods. “Divine beings are in dread,” he boasts, “as [Leviathan] rears up; / As he crashes down, they cringe” (Job 41:17). Hobbes’s choice to title his work Leviathan leaves scholars puzzled. In Hobbes’s scheme, the Leviathan is the well-ordered, peaceful, ideal political state, whereas in Judeo-Christian theology the Leviathan is a terrible creature of chaos. According to Johan Tralau, “Hobbes would want to conjure up an image of the state and the sovereign as a terrifying, indeterminate mythological creature: the sovereign is supposed to be different, he is supposed to be other, and he is supposed to be a source of fear” (“Leviathan, the Beast of Myth: Medusa, Dionysos, and the Riddle of Hobbes’s Sovereign Monster,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” ed. Patricia Springborg [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007], pp. 61–81, 74). Seemingly, Hobbes wants us to associate “the great power of his governor” with the monster, whom God calls “King of the Proud” (Hobbes, p. 210).
38. Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 132.
39. Levenson, pp. 48 and 47.
40. Levenson, p. 122.
41. See Schwartz, Remembering and Repeating: Biblical Creation in “Paradise Lost” (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), p. 7. Schwartz uses the “fundamental opposition, between creation and chaos” as her “paradigm for other distinctions” in the epic, all in an effort to blur those distinctions “in the face of the continual struggle between oppositions” (p. 7).
42. Schwartz, Remembering and Repeating, p. 18.
43. See Schwartz, Remembering and Repeating, p. 38.
44. Rumrich, “Milton’s God,” p. 1040.
45. Rogers, p. 131.
46. Rogers, p. 132.
47. Rogers, p. 132.
48. Levenson, p. 17.
49. Flannagan, p. 407n229.
50. Rogers, p. 142.
51. Hobbes, p. 34.
52. Hobbes, p. 111. This incarnation tracks with the typological reading of Genesis favored by Milton and other Christian interpreters of the Hebrew Bible.
53. Harinder Singh Marjara writes, “The truth of the Bible, according to Milton, needs to be interpreted in the light of the ‘internal’ scripture of the Holy Spirit, which is ‘written in the hearts of believers,’ and ‘the Spirit which is given to us is a more certain guide than Scripture’” (Contemplation of Created Things: Science in “Paradise Lost” [Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992], pp. 10–1).
54. Graham Hammill, following Christopher Warren, locates echoes of Hobbes in Milton’s Paradise Regained, writing that in the subsequent epic “Milton takes up a Hobbesian ‘vocabulary’ to develop a ‘poetics of the state of nature.’ He portrays the wilderness in which Jesus roams as an analogue of the state of nature produced by God withdrawing his protection and ‘expos[ing]’ Jesus to Satan’s ‘subtlety’ (PR 1.142, 144)” (The Mosaic Constitution: Political Theology and Imagination from Machiavelli to Milton [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012], pp. 270–1).
55. For instance, regarding book 2 of Of Reformation Barbara K. Lewalski writes, “Milton develops a striking body-state analogy directly opposed to that conveyed by the frontispiece in Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). The commonwealth, Milton declares, ought to be ‘as one huge Christian personage, one mighty growth, and stature of an honest man, as big, and compact in vertue as in body,’ but modern politicians seek only ‘how to keep up the floting carcas of a crazie, and diseased Monarchy’” (The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography [Oxford: Blackwell, 2002], p. 143).
56. Wolfe, p. 422.
57. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to “Paradise Lost” (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), p. 130.
58. Leopold Damrosch Jr., God’s Plot and Man’s Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 74.
59. Milton, “From On Christian Doctrine,” p. 1174.
60. Since light is the first creation, according to Genesis, and since the war in Heaven is fought before creation, Milton must find a way to explain the illumination of the angels’ conflict. “There is a Cave,” Raphael tells Adam,
Within the Mount of God, fast by his Throne,Where light and darkness in perpetual roundLodge and dislodge by turns, which makes through Heav’nGrateful vicissitude, like Day and Night.(Paradise Lost, 6.4–8)