Cambridge Platonism in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Materialism, Evil, and The Christian Cabbalah

James Bryson

      Scholars of early modern Platonism have long recognized that a Platonic caste of mind might just as easily express itself poetically as through philosophical argument, and indeed that poetry and philosophy will yield to and include one another depending on the spiritual requirements of the task at hand. For the Platonist, poetry and philosophy have a common business because both are engaged in the art of interpretation, whether it be divinization, psychology, natural philosophy, or the reading of a sacred text. In this post, I will be talking to you about a version of this Platonizing tradition in seventeenth century England, called the Christian Cabbalah as it expressed itself in Milton’s (1608-1674) Paradise Lost, which has been rightly dubbed a poetic counterpoint to the philosophical theology of the Cambridge Platonists, especially to the Caballistic Platonism of Henry More (1614-1687). Milton likely knew More personally and he almost certainly would have watched his career unfold with great interest given how closely their theological, philosophical, literary interests would have been allied.  In the most substantial recent treatment of Milton’s philosophical context, however, Stephen Fallon argues that Milton was not a Platonist, since he rejected the metaphysics of transcendence championed by the Platonic tradition in favour of an ‘animist materialism’, and he downplays Milton’s interest in the tradition of Christian Cabbalism because of its association with the Platonizing writings of Jacob Boehme, More among other Platonizing writers. Interestingly, Fallon argues that Milton’s worldview is much closer to More’s pupil Anne Conway (1631-1679) who is traditionally considered  a member of the Cambridge Platonist group, and who, ironically, went further down the Cabbalistic road as it was practised in Jewish communites at the time than did More towards a metaphysical monism that her teacher could not accept and from which path he urged her to turn back.

      Fallon’s excellent study has brought about a kind of consensus regarding Milton’s materialism – even Milton’s wikipedia page at the time of posting cites it! Fallon argues that the poet held a uniquely heretical position, making God and angels part of a materialistic continuum that rejected creatio ex nilhilo in favour of a creatio ex deo, in response to the challenge posed by Hobbesian materialism, a position which may be briefly summarized as follows: that since all is matter in motion, free will is an illusion because all choices we make take their origins from the physical causes that precede them.  

As is the case for his Cambridge Platonist counterparts, free will is the most important priority of Milton’s anthropology; man like the rebel angels, ‘was sufficient to have stood but free to fall’.  Milton must also explain the possibility of evil, which provides the backdrop for human freedom, without making God its author.  Rather than positing a realm of spirit as his Platonist counterparts do, so-called ‘spiritual’ creatures are in fact, according to Fallon, the most corporeal creatures of all in Milton’s universe, for which reason they are also the most substantial and the most free. Milton explains evil away by appealing to the Augustinian formula that it is a mere a privation of being so inherently it is nothing and certainly no substantial part of the world God made.  Conversely, the more evil a body is, the less substantial it becomes, and literally the more distant from God it is. Hell is at the outer-reaches of the Miltonian cosmos. This is materialistic narrative of Paradise Lost, according to Fallon, an elaborate allegory developed to argue that mind or spirit is an emergent property of body, what philosophers have come to call ‘animist materialism’.

      In what follows, pace Fallon, I will briefly sketch how in Paradise LostMilton incorporates the metaphysical and ethical vision of Henry More, and conclude with a word about the deep spiritual significance of the Christian Cabbalah for these philosopher poets.

Milton’s Materialism?

      If Milton is indeed a materialist, Fallon is surely right to distance him from More who stakes his entire theistic worldview on the transcendence of the spiritual realm which contains matter and in which the material participates. More makes clear the stakes: 

That saying is no less true in Politicks ‘No Bishop, no King,’ than this in Metaphysicks, ‘No Spirit, No God.’

Inspired by the genius of Cartesian dualism, More posits a twofold universe of his own, defining spirit as a penetrable substance, extended in space, but, as a rule, impossible to divide (‘indiscerpible’ – in Morean nomenclature), whereas bodies made up of matter are impenetrable but divisible, the upshot being that spirits belong properly to the divine intellectual realm, but may inhabit a body, whereas material bodies must stay put, so to speak, depending as they do for their integrity on the form given to them by spirits descended from the intellectual realm.

      To explain the commerce between the spiritual and material worlds, More follows the Florentine Platonist Marsilio Ficino’s (1433-1499) lead by electing to adopt a theory of soul vehicles, as the later Neoplatonists like Iamblichus do, rather than Plotinus’ teaching on the undescended soul, the doctrine, as More puts it, that the soul is ‘joined with God and nothing else, nakedly logged in his arms’. More posits three such vehicles: aetherial, aerial, and terrestial souls, which compose a ‘triple vital congruity of soul’ in us. The passage to the spiritual life is open to us, but not immediately available. Angels, however, have aetherial vehicles which means they can move about and pass between the material and terrestial worlds by an act of will, a freedom that our souls do not enjoy. Milton’s angels possess the same essential spiritual qualities More outlines. First, the angels are ‘penetrable’, yet indivisible. I quote the archangel Raphael’s response to Adam’s query about how ‘heavenly spirits’ express their love; is it by their looks only, or can they touch one another?

Raphael smiles and responds as follows:

Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy’st

(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy

In eminence, and obstacle find none

Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars:

Easier than air with air, if spirits embrace,

Total they mix, union of pure with pure

Desiring; nor restrained conveyance need

As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul.

(Bk VIII, 622-629)

Spiritual creatures in Milton’s universe are also importantly transcendent; the activities of heaven are invisible to Adam’s eyes.  When Adam asks about the war in heaven, Raphael is clear that spiritual warfare and counsel is not further than he can see simply because it happened too far away or before he was created, the constraints that would belong to a material being bound strictly by space and time. Instead, Raphael explains, that the affairs of heaven are beyond what it is possible for embodied creatures to know directly. Adam needs to hear a story to be reminded of what happened.

High matter thou enjoin’st me, O prime of men,

Sad task and hard, for how shall I relate

To human sense the invisible exploits

Of warring spirits; how without remorse

The ruin of so many glorious once

And perfect while they stood; how last unfold

The secrets of another world, perhaps

Not lawful to reveal? Yet for thy good

This is dispensed, and what surmounts the reach 

of human sense, I shall delineate so, 

By likening spiritual to corporal forms, 

As may express them best, though what if earth

Be but the shadow of heaven, and things therein

Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?

(V, 563-576)

There is much to be said about such a dense and beautiful passage, but I would like to emphasize the moral imperative connected to the knowledge Raphael is compelled to convey to Adam by analogy, a knowledge set beyond his ordinary capacities – certainly not anything like a knowing that he could acquire by accretion. Instead, Raphael speaks of a knowledge set at a distance too far to travel and and at a time past remembering. Of Adam’s limits and the necessity that he transcend them, more below as it relates to the problem of evil.

Evil v. Right Reason

Adam enjoys three substantial conversations with the Raphael before he and Eve are banished from Eden by God in the person of his Son and escorted off the premises by the archangel Michael at the epic’s conclusion.  The pretext for these conversations on Adam’s side is sheer wonder and the related desire to know more about the origins of creation in order to deepen the gratitude that animates his life of prayer. But Adam also desires to know the nature of evil, a hope that God himself has for him so that Adam is left without excuse in the face of inevitable temptation. Indeed, God makes doubly sure to warn Adam about Satan’s entry into the garden. 

William Blake famously judged that Milton was of the devil’s part without knowing it, so sympathetic he believed his portrayal of Satan’s fall to be. One can accept Blake’s aesthetic-cum-psychological criticism without taking seriously its theological implications.  Milton was no atheist. Does this not go without saying? Perhaps not, since to our modern ears atheism has something to do with belief or disbelief in the existence of God, whereas for Milton atheism was not a matter of belief but rather consisted in the promotion of evil.

Although Fallon is not wrong to point out that Milton follows Augustine’s Plotinian understanding of evil as the privation of good (privatio boni), Milton takes evil much more seriously than such an easy metaphysical formula might suggest. Satan does not doubt God’s existence; he wants to undo his work – to uncreate what God has made. Nor is this straightforward nihilism.  Evil is parasitic, so it ultimately requires goodness to do its work, the work of perversion. Milton’s Satan wants to remake the world in his own image, so he targets the creatures God made to replace him, in order to strike the ultimate blow against God himself.  Satan does not want to make it so that God does not exist – he wants him to suffer. The Devil wages spiritual warfare. The logic of the privatio boniis not a slow decline into non-existence, but a power play.  The atheist is not an unbeliever, but a rebellious warrior.

Again, Milton’s spiritual vision and account of evil makes sense at an ethical level when we remember what goodness consists in the Platonic vision to which he ascribes. More argues that good things are loveable things and rightly oriented they should both desire and be desirable – good things, including God himself, have a kind of magnetic energy – what they send out into the world at once draws things back. Satan’s putative victory would be to turn this is essentially loving cosmos on its head, by making both God and man appear unloveable; staying with the magnetic metaphor, Satan wants to make the attractive seem repulsive. Psychologically this manifests itself in a melancholy hopelessness, which Milton illustrates dramatically when Adam and Eve contemplate suicide, a point at which the only gratitude they feel is that they do not have children. A childless and suicidal world is surely everything that the diabolical mind could hope for, a mind whose ambition is to ‘make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’ (BK 1,  255).

Milton adopts the same terminology and logic that More uses to describe this level of ‘deep despair’.  The ‘melancholic soul’ does not see the world as loveable because he has lost the use of his ‘Right Reason’.  In More’s ethics, Right Reason, is oriented by what he calls the Boniform faculty which is the divine-like aspect of the soul, located at a kind of spiritual centre, metaphorically referred to as the heart and technically as the will above but working in concert with the intellect; indeed, perhaps it is the intellect’s highest point. In a word, the Boniform faculty is what makes us love and loveable – the ‘divine spark’ in the soul. Our rational mind is disoriented if it loses touch with the Boniform faculty. The proper function of the Boniform faculty is to make the soul devout, and it serves as the source of the soul’s happiness because it takes pleasure in the good it knows and rightly orders what it loves. Cut off from this divine faculty, the soul becomes irrational and governed by its passionate appetites, resulting in the despairing melancholy of the death-wish, and in the wholesale psychological disintegration that follows from banishing love from the world.

Milton highlights the disappearance of love from the very countenances of the fallen human pair:

Love was not in their looks, either to God

Or to each other, but apparent guilt,

And shame, and perturbation, and despair, 

Anger, and obstinancy, and hate, and guile.

(Bk X, 111-114)

Under such conditions, God’s love becomes wrath. According to at least one tradition of the Cabbalah as expressed in the theosophical writings of Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), it was the divine wrath itself that created evil.  

The Christian Cabbalah

In Paradise Lostand in More’s early ‘Christian Platonical’ poems, as he called them, poetic imagery is not merely ornamental, since it both preserves the distance between what embodied rational creatures know discursively and intellectual intuition, and at the same time acts as a cathartic bridge laid across this apparent gap between reason and intuition at the level of the spiritual imagination. In addition to adopting virtually identical metaphysical and ethical standpoints, both writers found the Cabbalistic tradition deeply attractive, for a number of reasons but in large part because it allowed them to address fundamental questions about the origins and character of the natural world. Perhaps even more important than this, however – although by no means in clear distinction from their interest in the origin and operations of the natural world – the Cabbalah allowed them to reflect on the origins of evil and on the meaning and doings of his incestuous children, as Milton describes them, sin and death. As the Hebrew word signifies, the Cabbalah was a ‘tradition’ of scriptural interpretation that placed special emphasis on the creation of the world and the fall and banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

More is clear that scripture generally should be read at at least three levels which he calls the literal, philosophical, and moral cabbalahs respectively.  Reading scripture generally is a perilous undertaking in More’s view, because wrongheaded interpretations breed ‘many hundred thousand atheists’;  he is particularly concerned with the attendant dangers of allowing the literal sense of scripture to obscure its deepest and highest meaning, which is its ‘moral’ or ‘mystical’ sense. Strict literalists insist on the most ‘vulgar’ meaning of the text, intended to accommodate ‘children and Idiots’, and use it as a weapon against those who would defend its spiritual and eternal truth. Truth, wherever it may be found, may be recruited to lay bare the spiritual truths available but hidden in the Book of Genesis.  More puts it this way, ‘there is various Intertexture of Theosophical and PhilosophicalTruths, many Physical and Metaphysical Theorems hinted to us ever and anon…especially in these Three first Chapters of Genesis.’  But these truths, More explains, must be conveyed in the form of a ‘story’, which is why he thinks Moses employed ‘types’ and ‘allegories’, just as ‘our saviour speaks in parables’. Borrowing an image from the alchemical literature of the period, More thinks that these literary devices are best used as tools to mine the gold buried in the rock of the text. 

Milton applies the dynamic hermeneutical method More saw as the genius of the Caballistic tradition.  Milton’s epic is filled with Cabbalistic imagery interpreted through a Platonic lens, and he follows More’s vision of the ideal way of interpreting the ‘story of Creation’ by attempting to uncover truths of natural philosophy and ethics through the reanimation of the letter, what a modern literary critic might think of as an attempt to occupy the pscyhological space of his characters, or what a Platonic theologian would regards as the depiction of an unrepeatable history which is eternally true. More explains that the concision of scripture itself invites and indeed demands interpretation; the dead letter calls for the pious reanimation that poets like Milton offer.

            I conclude this post with a brief word about human and divine passion, a central theme of the Christian Cabbalah in early modern England. Milton provocatively describes the spiritual geography of hell as follows:

[The Devils] thus roving on

In confused march forlorn, the adventurous bands

With shuddering horror pale, and eyes aghast

Viewed first their lamentable lot, and found

No rest: through many a dark and dreary vale

They passed, and many a region dolorous, 

O’er many a frozen, many a fiery alp,

Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death,

A universe of death, which God by curse

Created evil, for evil only good,

Where all life dies, death lives and nature breeds,

Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,

Abominable, inutterable, and worse

Than fables yet have feigned, or fear conceived,

Gorgons and hydras, and chimeras dire.

(BK II, 614-628)

Lest we become lost in the vivid literal truth, I would suggest – as I think Milton would too – that such passages are best understood in light of other passages in the poem, like this justly reknown Satanic soliloquy:

Farewell, happy fields

Where joy forever dwells: hail horrors, hail

Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell

Receive thy new possessor: one who brings

A mind not to be changed, and it itself

Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. 

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less than he

Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least

We shall be free; the almighty hath not built 

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice

To reign is worth ambition though in hell:

Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.

(BK I, 249-263) 

Satan of course apes God’s immutability here; no movement or conversion is possible for his frozen will.  Milton like More sees evil as a condition of mental stasis and psychological disorder, rooted in passion unbridled, what was called ‘enthusiasm’ in the language of the period. However, true to Platonic form, neither poet nor philosopher thought that the passions should be ‘martryed’, but rather Milton and More argued that they should be harnassed, in order that the soul make ready for its ascent heavenward.  This is connected to More’s adherence to the later Neoplatonic theory of the soul vehicle, and the related idea that our originally divine or ‘angelic’ souls have fully descended into these material bodies.  The devil’s corrupting enterprise begins, according to More and Milton, by targeting the potentially volatile passions of the human soul.  The embodied life matters because we are more than material bodies and the spiritual body is affected by the character of the body it occupies; Milton’s serpent plays on this truth, which is why he launches his attack on our bodily appetites to access the spiritual – so that they drive us on like his, endlessly without any promise of rest save in the destructive work of uncreation.

This is the perversion of what More calls the ‘full sabbatism’ of the soul, the peaceful rest of the soul, allegorized in the garden and on the seventh day of creation when God takes his rest. By contrast, when the soul enjoys what More calls the ‘height of vertue’, ‘she playes with ease within her own pure and undisturbed Light, [ and then] she is most lovely and aimiable’. The devil’s work by contrast is work without end; restlessness rules him even as he believes himself sovereign.  The destiny of the loving soul who achieves the purification promised by the heavenly life of the mind is to be at play.  These are the comfortable worlds the archangel Michael offers to Adam as he prepares to escort him out of the Garden:

And all the riches of this world enjoyed’st,

And all the rule, one empire; only add

Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith,

Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love,

By name to come called Charity, the soul

Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath

To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess 

A paradise within thee, happier far.

(BK XII, 580-587)


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