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.