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How Milton Works
by stanley fish
harvard university press, 616 pages, $35.

Stanley Fish zooms across the firmament of American higher education like Flash Gordon’s rocketship. Currently the Academic Dean at the University of Illinois in Chicago (where he cops an annual salary approaching a quarter of a million dollars, making him the highest paid dean in the country), he began his career as a scholar of seventeenth-century English literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He then went on to teach at Johns Hopkins before becoming chairman of the English Department at Duke University, where he pretty much single-handedly transformed a staid and tweedy department of old-fashioned litterateurs into a teeming, buzzing hotbed of trendy, avant-garde professors touting the very latest in Marxist, Queer, feminist, and deconstructionist criticism.

The rocket fuel, so to speak, that launched this Piscine spaceship into orbit was his second book, Surprised by Sin (1967), an astonishing work of Milton interpretation, especially coming from so young a scholar. Prior to this book, most Miltonists had divided themselves into two camps: those who believed that Milton was sincere in his Roundhead and Puritan convictions and wrote only to edify his readers, and those who believed that, at least in Paradise Lost, he was (in William Blake’s famous phrase) “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” According to this latter view—which in the wake of Romanticism became the received wisdom—Milton’s portrait of Satan was too seductive, too fascinating, in a word too Romantic, and his portrait of God too monochromatic and totalitarian, too frightening and repellent, for the reader to take at face value Milton’s surface Christian convictions.

Couched in such terms, the debate obviously could go nowhere. Not only are these two theses antithetical, they also depend on evidence that the other side must by the nature of its position rule out of court. Thus the Milton-Is-Sincere school accepts the surface of the text and then uses that surface meaning to prove its case; while the Milton-as-Closet-Satanist position by definition has to deny the validity of the surface meaning as probative. Stanley Fish’s great accomplishment in Surprised by Sin was to find value in both points of view while moving the debate away from a sterile either/or alternative by showing how both sides could be right but in ways neither side could suspect from within its own narrow framework. According to his thesis, the reader is supposed to feel drawn to Satan, for from Adam and Eve we have all inherited an inclination to find Satan’s sin attractive. Not to feel drawn to the figure of Lucifer means that one is not feeling the tug of original sin, an impossibility in Milton’s theology. But by reading the epic while feeling the undertow of Satan’s mesmerizing defiance of God, the reader also ends up reenacting the Fall, including the chastening experience of finding out, after the fact, how dreary and disappointing evil can be.

So productive of insights did Surprised by Sin prove to be that it generated a whole new mode of literary criticism in its wake, the so-called reader-response school. Until Fish’s book remarkably few literary critics concentrated any attention on the reader, only on the text as a self-contained, supposedly self-explanatory object. Indeed to regard the text as anything other than a “well-wrought urn” was often anathematized as the “affective fallacy,” almost as if it were a heresy to notice that readers react emotionally to what they read. One important manual for budding literary critics, for example, W. K. Wimsatt’s The Verbal Icon, almost sounds like a theological tract for seminarians (as even its title implies); and so it issues its dire warnings in predictably magisterial tones:

The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does). . . . It begins by trying to derive the standards of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome is that the poem itself . . . tends to disappear.

It probably goes without saying that the indictment of “impressionism and relativism” is precisely the charge leveled against reader-response criticism by more conservative English professors. Nor did it help matters that, after the publication of Surprised by Sin, things seemed only to get worse. For in its wake, other similarly subjective—not to say anarchic—schools of literary criticism soon flourished, such as deconstruction, post-structuralism, Queer Theory, all of this culminating in the attacks on the canon that became the great student cause of the early 1990s (with Milton as its chief victim). But if Milton was sincere in his Christian beliefs (and surely he was), and if he really felt called to give witness to his Puritan beliefs (as surely he did), then he must have wanted to provoke in his readers a response so powerful that it would transform their lives; and Fish cannot have been amiss to point that out.

Nor can it be denied that different readers understand different things by the same words, that they bring different experiences to a text and will thus inevitably hear the text say different things. English idiom speaks of different “readings” of a text, meaning different interpretations; and surely that idiom cannot be accidental. We interpret differently because we read differently. As the renowned critic Northrop Frye once put it: “It has been said of Boehme [the early Lutheran pantheist and mystic] that his books are like a picnic to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning. The remark may been intended as a sneer at Boehme, but it is an exact description of all works of literary art without exception.”

Such a concession, however, still leaves us with a question: Are then all interpretations created equal, or can the text still adjudicate between competing readings? Probably most literary critics, at least those who ply their trade in our nation’s elite universities, would opt for the former view. One need only consider the response of the critical community to E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation (1967), a much (and often unjustly) attacked book that dared to defend objectivity in interpretation in the climate of 1960s radicalism. As Hirsch rightly pointed out, skepticism about herme­neutics undercuts the claim of any humanistic discipline to provide genuine knowledge, however provisional. Moreover, for Hirsch the ever-receding goal of a consensus interpretation must not be ruled out simply because words are often ambiguous and conclusions therefore uncertain. “Certainty is not the same thing as validity,” he says, “and knowledge of ambiguity is not necessarily ambiguous knowledge.”

It might come as a surprise to readers who know the work of Stanley Fish only by his reputation among conservative literary critics, but every sentence in his new book How Milton Works validates—indeed depends on—Hirsch’s principles of interpretation. First of all, whereas deconstructionists like to proclaim “the death of the author,” both Hirsch and Fish place the court of last appeal in the author’s intention, and not in the reader’s response (hence the title of this volume, which tells us that Fish’s interest lies in how Milton, and not the reader, works). Unlike Paul Ricoeur or Hans-Georg Gadamer, who hold that a text takes on a life of its own as soon as it leaves the author’s pen (so that it is perfectly possible, in fact something to be expected, that later readers will understand a text better than the author himself), both Hirsch and Fish hold that the author’s intention always trumps. For example, if interpretation rages in the scholarly community over an ambiguous text and someone accidentally comes across a postcard from the author to his spinster aunt describing his own view of the matter, then that postcard must, for Hirsch, win out over competing interpretations. Similarly for Fish, if Milton considers Paradise Regained his most important work, far transcending Paradise Lost in artistic power and theological cogency (and such Milton did believe), then the critic must oblige the author and interpret the latter in terms of the former, no matter what the opinion of critics from Samuel Johnson on down might say to the contrary.

Absolutely crucial to Fish’s interpretation of Milton’s work is a document discovered among Milton’s papers in the nineteenth century called De Doctrina Christiana, basically a tract arguing on behalf of a number of heresies, especially these three openly avowed heterodoxies: that the Son was not coeternal with the Father, that the soul dies and is only later resurrected with the body, and that God created the world not out of nothing but out of the divine substance (interestingly enough, Isaac Newton’s Christology was similarly Arian).

Needless to say, given Milton’s semi-canonical status as an interpreter of the Fall, such explicitly professed heterodoxy makes many critics uncomfortable, and so they insist that this document cannot have come from his pen. Fish disagrees, rightly in my view. But my point here is that he argues on exactly the same principles as would a biblical scholar who sets out to prove that two anonymous works come from the same author. Imagine if you will that the New Testament book we know today as the Acts of the Apostles had never made it into the canon and had disappeared from history until a copy of it was discovered in Egypt in the last century. Many, perhaps most, New Testament scholars would immediately and forthrightly argue for its coming from the same pen as did Luke’s Gospel, as indeed they do today. And so Fish argues for the Miltonic authorship of Christian Doctrine, and on the basis of the same principles used by historical critics.

Moreover, throughout this book Fish takes issue with various literary critics over their interpretations of Milton: he quotes them, he summarizes their views, he surveys the literature—and then he disagrees by appealing to the text.

So, then, with whom does he take issue? That’s easy to answer: liberals. If Surprised by Sin refuted the Romantic misreading of Paradise Lost as a closet apologia for Satan, How Milton Works can be seen as a refutation of the liberal view of Milton as the bitter enemy of royal censorship and ringing advocate of free speech and nondogmatic Christianity:

Some years ago, a very literate professor of law with more than a casual interest in the First Amendment confessed himself surprised when I reminded him that in the Areopagitica Milton excludes Catholics and some others from his plea for general toleration. He hadn’t remembered it that way and had always thought of Milton as an exemplary spokesman for free speech and free expression. . . . This [liberal misunderstanding] is especially true in the modern day, when the Areopagitica has become a basic text supporting the ethics of disinterested inquiry, and Milton the revolutionary has become a man with the ability [in the words of one liberal critic] “to look at social issues without using the glasses of sectarian theology, which is very rare in this passionate time.”

If that view were not bizarre enough, Fish quotes another liberal who holds that Milton is not only the apostle of unrestrained freedom but is also “above all, a Humanist—the greatest representative in England of that movement which had abandoned the dogmatism of the Middle Ages and was seeking for a natural or empirical basis for its beliefs.”

Now anyone who has rightly read but two pages of Milton’s prose knows that these views are not just wrong but utterly antithetical to everything he stood for. In fact, the Areopagitica specifically advocates that the government keep “a vigilant eye how books demean themselves,” and it goes on to urge the authorities “thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on [their authors] as malefactors.” In other words, reader-response criticism might be all very well, but if Milton’s readers are liberal, one can be sure that for Fish they will likely be misreading Milton.

Of course, not all liberal critics are as blind to the plain meaning of Milton’s texts as those quoted above. Some liberals, however blinkered their own views, cannot help but recognize Milton’s Puritanism or his debt to medieval angelology. Yet because they remain attached to his antiroyalist politics and appreciate his polemic against prior restraint and government licensing of the printing presses, they posit a nonexistent conflict between the poet’s republican politics and his “repressive” theology. A critic by the name of Herman Rapaport, for example, holds that Milton was “committed to the republicanism of Rome and to ideals of freedom and liberty . . . but [his] mind also harbored a darker fascination with a dictatorial takeover, with what amounts to another absolutism much bleaker and more calculating than the foppery of Charles I.” Freedom of the press, yes; Cromwell and Puritanism, no.

But this dichotomy, too, is wrong, utterly wrong. As Fish rightly sees, “There are not two landscapes but only one in Milton’s poetry, and not two values but only one in his thought.” C. S. Lewis would agree; as he put it in his A Preface to Paradise Lost, trying to disentangle Milton’s poetry from his theology is like asking us to study Hamlet after the revenge code has been removed. The Romantic misunderstanding of Milton begins and ends here, by dispensing with or ignoring Milton’s God. Indeed, for Fish, the Romantic interpretation depends on removing God from Milton’s thought:

It is only if the first principle of Milton’s thought”that God is God and not one of a number of contending forces—is denied or forgotten that his poetry can be seen as conflicted or tragic or inconclusive or polysemous or paradoxical, words that name literary qualities most of us have been taught to admire. They are not, I will argue, qualities Milton admires; and while their absence in his work might properly be a reason for declining to read it, it should not be a reason for rewriting it in the name of values he everywhere rejects when they are offered as alternatives to the single but complex life—faith, obedience, chastity of mind and deed—he everywhere celebrates.

But what makes Fish’s book unique in this regard is not just the way he clearly wants to distance himself from the main implications of his own reader-response criticism: that the reader decides the meaning of a text, even to the point that the text quite disappears (the title of one of Fish’s later books in fact plaintively asked, Is There a Text in This Class?). Not only is there a text in his class (and a canonical one to boot), but, even more startlingly, any advocacy of un­governed, free-for-all interpretation using the excuse of reader-response criticism now comes with Satanic pedigree:

It is the gap between representation and the reality represented that provides space [for] equivocation, doubleness, and insincerity. . . . Words [after Satan’s Fall] display the false freedom of irresponsibility—the freedom that comes with not being tethered to anything but the emptiness within, a freedom that is initially exhilarating because within its license you can go on forever just making it up, pretending, counterfeiting. But that is all you can do; and the more frantically you do it, the more fictions you proliferate, the greater the distance between you and what is real and true.

If St. Augustine were to come back from the grave and survey the world of literary criticism today, he could not have done better than Fish does here. Augustine’s treatises on lying often strike modern readers as too absurdly demanding and unrealistic. But these objections do not take sufficient account of Augustine’s view, shared by Milton, that the dynamics of defiant rebellion undergird and motivate the free play of plural meanings in a monist world. Nor is it enough for the critic to appeal to words that are undoubtedly ambiguous and then leave it up to the reader to decide which meaning to adopt. As we have seen, words often are ambiguous; and readers will at that juncture have to decide which meaning to adopt, a decision that will affect the “feel” and interpretation of the rest of the poem. But that still does not gainsay Milton’s and Fish’s wider point that Satan is always, in Milton’s phrase, “scoffing in ambiguous words.” All of Satan’s speeches to his minions in Book I or to Eve in Book IX draw on the resources of equivocation. Without polysemy, Satan could get nowhere.

“Scoffing in ambiguous words” (VI, 586)—saying one thing and meaning another or several others—is at once an ability the devils have and a mode of performance to which they are doomed. The consequence of unmooring oneself from deity is that one loses the point of reference in relation to which entities can be stably defined.

Jean-Paul Sartre once famously said that “hell is other people.” For Milton that should be amended to “hell is other equivocators,” or, as he puts it, hell is

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. (PL, II 622-625)

No wonder, then, given such passages as these, that Fish has gained avid fans among such post-liberal Christians as the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George (who once famously said that Catholic liberalism is an exhausted project), or the Methodist theologian at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas. For inside this astonishingly insightful book can be found a remarkably coherent critique of liberal Enlightenment modernity and her stepchildren, the discordant voices of the postmodern cacophony. And as becomes clear from Fish’s book, the two eras, modernity and postmodernity, go together as parent and child and share the same pathos, because of the way a once hegemonic civilization of rationality and abstract principle almost inevitably yielded its achievements over to postmodern incoherence. For once modernity severed the knowing subject from the object to be known and made the knower the manipulator of the known object, a further divorce in our postmodern times became inevitable: that between language and world. And for Fish that declension from Descartes to Derrida describes nothing so much as the sin of Satan:

Sin is the state of being a signifier without a signified, an agency with no inborn direction, a secondary thing no longer connected with that which would give it meaning, an entity severed from the ground of its being and therefore wholly empty. Its only recourse (one mired in self-delusion) is to forget what it doesn’t have . . . and to pretend to be the originator of its own stability. This is done exactly as the rebels do it when they make their peace with Sin, now “familiar grown” (II, 761). That is, they get used to her—which is easy, since what they are getting used to is their own condition, the condition of being unattached to anything but themselves.

At this point, the reader (performing his own do-it-yourself reader-response criticism, perhaps?) must be wondering just what is going on here. If a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, has Fish been “mugged by Satan,” so to speak, and gone theocon? Has he abjured his past flirtations with the “impressionism and relativism” so roundly anathematized by earlier critics? Has reader-response criticism gone out the window? Or has he perhaps converted to Christianity? Has he maybe even become a Puritan divine seeking to convert his readers to his new-found theological monism?

Well, in a word: No. One must first recall that Stanley Fish likes to come across as a contrarian. For example, he prefers USA Today to the New York Times, likes shopping malls and soap operas, celebrates consumerism, and remains serenely unawed by the culture of Europe, which in his amusing references sounds suspiciously like a quainter, continent-wide version of Euro Disney, a kind of cultural zoo of medieval castles and yodeling goatherds where Mozart and Beethoven are kept artificially alive in their state-funded cages while the general population goes on its merry way lapping up the latest imports from Hollywood and New York.

Nor does he spare the rod when flogging American academics. He once wrote an amusing essay called “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos” that poked fun at the fondness of academics for purchasing ugly cars and dowdy clothing as a badge of authenticity. As he so wickedly puts it: “The reason that academics want and need their complaints is that it is important to them to feel oppressed, for in the psychic economy of the academy, oppression is the sign of virtue.” But all of this is couched in prose clearly meant to be impish and not bitter, written with a twinkle in the eye, from a man who likes to tweak the powerful, not antagonize them. In fact, given his colorful ways and contrarian opinions (not to mention his stratospheric salary), the Chronicle of Higher Education covers his career much the way People magazine covers the marriages of Julia Roberts, a kind of academic version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

But a deeper reason than mere contrariness motivates Fish’s literary criticism; and to read his earlier work in the light of his latest Milton book points to a feature of his thought too little noted in the past. Fish’s own tolerance during his chairmanship at Duke for the cacophony that literary criticism has become, indeed his encouragement of it, does not contradict his exegesis of Milton; rather, that exegesis confirms it. This is because for Milton discordance is the inevitable byproduct of original sin, which is why in the Areopagitica he can, with perfect consistency, take a dim view of the pernicious effects in his day of unbridled free speech and yet argue against prior restraint by the government. Once Adam and Eve have been expelled from Eden, and the human race spreads over the globe, a Babel of voices now clamor (literally) for attention; and discernment, at least when done by a hard-and-fast rule or algorithm, becomes impossible, as Fish has so shrewdly seen in his exegesis of the Miltonian Fall:

If the act of disobedience is a breaking away from the center, one result of disobedience is that the center is no longer easily identifiable, for the link between it and the disobeying actor is precisely what has been removed by what he or she has done. In the prelapsarian condition . . . a link with the center was provided physically by the interdicted tree: refrain from eating from it and the link is maintained; eat of it and the link is broken. . . . This clarity . . . stands in marked (or, rather, unmarked) contrast to the postlapsarian condition, which is burdened by two related difficulties: the true path is no longer so conveniently illuminated by a single focused context, and the vision of those who would rediscover it is irremediably darkened, so that a person’s conviction that he is on it and that others (his enemies?) are not can never be supported by independent evidence and can always become a matter of doubt.

At this point the classical Protestant pessimism about the effects of original sin shows its influence on Milton. And it leads him to the classic problem of the Protestant soul: if one is justified only by faith, how is one to know if that faith is real or merely a subjective rush of feeling that will soon vanish as “the flower withereth and the grass fadeth”? Unfortunately, by the nature of the case no evidence can adjudicate the question, because, as we have seen, faith always trumps evidence, indeed even creates it. This pathos is perhaps the source of Fish’s lifelong fascination with Milton, and certainly accounts for some of his most eloquent passages, such as this one:

How can you know that what is presented as an act of faith (I do not say this, Christ does; not me, but my master in me) is not the hubris of someone who wants to have both the first and the last word and only pretends (the pretense may fool him) to defer to the word of another? How can you know whether what is being performed here is the triumphant assertion of the poetic will or the surrender of that will (and its pretensions) to the will of God? . . . There are no answers to these questions. Answers would be available only if the world’s surfaces directed one (everyone; that’s what public verification requires) to its true meaning, and it is precisely Milton’s contention, as we have seen again and again, that the true meaning can be discerned only by the heart and mind already informed by it, and that therefore neither you nor anyone listening to you can be certain of the source (prideful or faithful) from which your utterances issue.

Admittedly, Milton at first held out the possibility of clear vision in the regenerate. In his intensely antiprelatical tracts written before 1645, Milton speaks of a world in which the truth embodied in a sacred text is known by one group, the Puritans, and rejected by another, the defenders of episcopal prelacy, who clearly are possessed by a false spirit—if not by the Devil, then at least by their own carnal imaginations. As for those who don’t see the perspicuity of Scripture shining through the obvious literal meaning of the sacred text, they are too obviously doomed anyway, which is why Milton ends his tracts not with a plea for tolerance but with prayers of execration against the parties opposing him.

But then came his divorce. And as Dr. Johnson dryly noted, “being one of those who could easily find arguments to justify inclination,” Milton published in 1644 The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, which in a remarkable interpretative sleight of hand managed to interpret away all of the scriptural prohibitions of divorce, a feat of legerdemain “so strenuous,” says Fish, “that even the word ‘manipulation’ is too mild to describe it.” For what Milton had to do was to show that when Christ says that a man can divorce his wife only for reasons of adultery, “he means that a man can put away his wife for any reason he likes.”

It has often been noted that an earlier Protestant reverence for the Bible was later transformed into an equally Protestant disintegration of the Bible at the hands of the “higher critics” in nineteenth-century Germany, with the bibliolatry of the first three centuries of the Reformation transmogrifying into the biblical iconoclasm of the last two centuries. But the whole history of Protestant attitudes toward the Bible can actually be seen taking place in the course of Milton’s own life. For before his divorce, he defined the regenerate soul as the one that has gained direct access to God’s will as that will was attested in the text of Scripture. But after 1645 what was long so clear and available to him in the sacred writings now causes difficulties. And in his response to this dilemma he shows in his own soul the pathos of the liberal Protestant. As Fish puts it, everything now seems different in Milton’s world:

Fallibility of vision is [now] predicated of everyone, not simply of the unregenerate. Consequently there is no one for whom the meaning of Scripture is perspicuous, and interpretation, rather than being forbidden as an unnecessary supplement to a self-declaring word, is enjoined. . . . Choice is no longer a single moment of commitment which is clung to with all one’s might; rather, choice must be made again and again in circumstances that demand ever new calculations and recalculations and bring ever new opportunities to go wrong, “to wander . . . forlorn” (PL VII, 20).

In that regard Fish is perhaps more of a Miltonist than he himself realizes. For in his descriptions of Milton’s world, Fish ends up giving, perhaps unconsciously, a portrait of how he likes to run a department or university, a manifesto that almost reads like a contemporary version of the Areopagitica:

The politics that follows from this vision is one of tolerance and the welcoming of diversity, not because, as in some liberal traditions, tolerance and diversity are valued for their own sake, but because, given the dimness of our individual perceptions, one cannot be sure which of the paths we are urged to go down is the right one.

In other words, no insight, whether generated in the worshiping life of the churches or in the research life of university professors, can be automatically dismissed; for in the words of Milton’s own manifesto attacking government oversight of the press, “If it come to prohibiting, there is not ought more likely to be prohibited than truth itself; whose first appearance to your eyes, bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors.” Milton’s defense of a free press, then, is not merely tactical. Fish rightly calls it epistemological, meaning that one must always be alert to the possibilities excluded by the limits of one’s present understanding:

No situation wears its meaning on its face, and thus every moment brings both the obligation to do the right thing and the risk that is attendant upon imperfect knowledge. The world, in short, is a place where the one thing needful (truth, God) is already known, yet access to it is always veiled. Action is enjoined, and one cannot hold back, but the grounds of action are always shifting and challengeable. From the vantage point of eternity all is settled and in place, but in the temporal crucible of human life one experiences only provisionality and the continual hazarding of being. Crisis awaits us at every juncture even though, in the last (which is also the first) analysis, crisis will always be recuperated by a God who effortlessly transubstantiates evil into “more good” (PL VII, 616), taking back into himself what he had originally produced.

Milton’s epistemology as described here strikes a remarkably Pascalian note, and perhaps it is significant that Milton’s life (1608-1674) overlaps at both ends Pascal’s much shorter life (1623-1662). Consider how at one point in the Pensées Pascal gets to the heart of the believer’s central epistemological dilemma: “The metaphysical proofs of God are so far removed from man’s reasoning, and so complicated, that they have little force. When they do help some people, it is only at the moment when they see the demonstration. An hour later they are afraid of having made a mistake.” Milton would agree. And perhaps the greatest merit of Fish’s How Milton Works emerges when the reader finally comes to see how Pascalian, indeed how modern, Milton really is. “Milton works from the inside out,” Fish says. “In the world as he conceives it to be, truth and certainty are achieved not by moving from evidence gathered in discrete bits to general conclusions, but by putting in place general conclusions in the light of which evidence will then appear. Rather than confirming or disconfirming belief, the external landscape, in all of its detail, will be a function of belief.”

Not only does this passage accurately describe Milton’s theological epistemology, but it also describes the situation as it has to be for all believers, for no other framework could make Satan’s sin possible in the first place. After all, God does not overwhelm Lucifer with “evidence” of his error. Lucifer’s very name (“Light-bearer”) already indicates that the Archfiend had all the “evidence” and “light of reason” that he needed. In other words, Satan’s sin comes with (to borrow some Kantian terminology) a “transcendental” prerequisite, that is, a condition that must first obtain for a possibility to become actual. And that precondition, which is also the governing principle of all of Fish’s writings about the Culture Wars, must be that interpretation always precedes evidence. Not only that, but interpretation’s priority over evidence begins in heaven, and creates the possibility for hell too:

If you regard the world as God’s book before you ever take a particular look at it, any look you take will reveal, even as it generates, traces of His presence. If, on the other hand, the reality and omnipotence of God is not a basic premise of your consciousness, nothing you see will point to it and no amount of evidence will add up to it. You will miss it entirely, as Mammon does when all he can see in the soil and minerals of hell is material for a home-improvement project, one that will make up for the loss of heaven:
Nor will we want skill or art, from whence to raise Magnificence; and what can Heaven show more? (II, 272-273)
He’s not kidding; he really means it. As far as he can see (a colloquialism I take very seriously), there is nothing more to see than what the phenomena of his art and skill will be able to produce; and those phenomena will bring heaven back to him because he never knew what it was in the first place.

The same, of course, must also hold true of the Serpent’s temptation of Eve. Satan must now insinuate a new interpretation of God into the mind of Eve. The command not to eat of the Tree, which was first taken for granted as reasonable (even if not to her in any obvious way), must now be seen as stemming from a jealous God. And once that idea has been implanted in her soul, the poison of a false interpretation can be counted on to do its work. It has perhaps not been sufficiently noticed until Fish’s book that the first temptation in Eden is a temptation of interpretation, or as he puts it: “One way of thinking of the Fall is as a competition between two teachers of reading.”

Nor can any human on earth escape the burden, the hazard, of conceiving God aright, which remains a true wager because evidence does not lead to God; on the contrary, evidence only becomes such subsequent to the act of faith, as Fish rightly says: “In the absence of any formal mechanism by which to adjudicate interpretive alternatives we are all in the same endless game, reading an inside which, rather than being confirmed by an outside, generates it.”

With this interpretive scheme in mind, Fish can now proceed to his other point, really the converse of his thesis that Milton always works from the inside out. Fish now points out how Milton shows that every temptation takes the form, not just of distorting right interpretation, but also of working from the outside in. In other words, one distorts the truth by working from the outside, gathering evidence like a good Baconian empiricist and, only after patiently assembling the research data, coming to a prejudice-free conclusion. If wide is the road and broad the path that leads to perdition, then for Milton that road goes by the name of Empiricism. In a truly brilliant display of exegetical skill, Fish notes how at each step along the way, the Fall into sin—by Satan, by Mammon, by Eve, and then by Adam—was first prepared by the empirical temptation:

Whenever a character in Milton’s poetry seeks to avoid coming to terms with his or her creaturehood in order to claim a measure (however small) of independence, he or she will have recourse to empirical reasoning. Thus Satan says to Eve, “look on me” (IX, 687), inviting her to substitute the observation of physical processes (in this case illusory) for the first principles she is pledged to maintain. Eve, in her turn, makes literal the substitution when she offers its logic (along with apple) to Adam: “On my experience . . . freely taste” (988). Mammon performs the first physicalist reduction, designed specifically to exclude any recognition of deity and spirit, when he resolves to build a new heaven from the raw materials of hell, a resolution that makes sense to him because his conception of heaven is so relentlessly material: “what can Heaven show more?” (II, 273). Satan shows him the way when with even more audacity he offers cannon and shot as devices for making the rebels equal, perhaps superior, to God. Adam flirts with the same impiety when he demands an account of heavenly movements that would satisfy the criteria of an efficiency expert.

In the last sentence Fish is referring to the scene in Book VIII where the angel Raphael is instructing Adam in astronomy. Although Milton had made a personal visit to Galileo during the latter’s house-arrest and for obvious reasons deplored the verdict of the Inquisition against Galileo’s heliocentrism, debate in the seventeenth century was still raging among astronomers as to which system was right, the Copernican or the Ptolemaic. Raphael refuses Adam’s request for a verdict between the two world systems, and nearly all the commentators have shown how this passage reflects the date of the poem’s composition: because Milton could not decide, neither does Raphael. But Fish notices something more crucial at work here. For Raphael replies not by providing an empirical survey of the heavens and then showing how different “models” can fit the data more or less well. Rather, he suggests that if Adam ground his perceptions in a firm faith in God, everything else will fall into place:

For the Heaven’s wide Circuit, let it speak The Maker’s high Magnificence, who built So spacious, and his Line stretched out so far, That Man may know he dwells not in his own; An Edifice too large for him to fill. (VIII, 100-104)

Interestingly enough, John Henry Newman takes the same tack in his sermon “Mysteries in Religion,” one of the Parochial and Plain Sermons devoted to Christ’s ascension into heaven. At the outset of the sermon Newman asks the questions likely already to have occurred to his congregation: Where did Christ go? Beyond the stars? Did he traverse the infinity of space? When Newman became a cardinal he famously said that his whole life was spent fighting the liberal attitude toward religion. Now it is of the essence of liberalism to appeal to publicly available evidence, and thus the liberal attitude toward the questions that Newman asks in his sermon is to distinguish in the manner of Rudolf Bultmann the mythological imagery of the ascension from the known realities of the objective world. But this Newman resolutely will not do. Much like Raphael to Adam, or Fish to his readers, Newman insists that God comes first, and God determines the evidence for the ascension in just this manner:

When we have deduced what we deduce by our reason and from study of visible nature, and then read what we read in His inspired word, and find the two apparently discordant, this is the feeling I think we ought to have on our minds—not an impatience to do what is beyond our powers, to weigh evidence, sum up, balance, decide, and reconcile, to arbitrate between the two voices of God—but a sense of the utter nothingness of worms such as we are; of our plain and absolute incapacity to contemplate things as they really are; a perception of our emptiness, before the great Vision of God. . . . Thus while we use the language of science, without jealousy, for scientific purposes, we may confine it to these; and repel and reprove its upholders, should they attempt to exalt it and to “stretch it beyond its measure.” In its own limited round it has its use, nay, may be made to fill a higher ministry, and stand as a proselyte under the shadow of the temple; but it must not dare profane the inner courts, in which the ladder of Angels is fixed forever, reaching even to the Throne of God, and “Jesus standing on the right hand of God.”

Not for nothing, then, did Newman conclude his Apologia Pro Vita Sua with a stinging list of liberalism’s errors, which to the liberal mind-set is bound to seem “dogmatic,” “closed-minded,” “narrow,” and “rigid”—all terms of abuse in the liberal catalogue of their version of the seven deadly sins. But for Milton, Newman, and (for the most part) Fish too, these are the inevitable virtues of the committed mind. For this reason, Fish is also able to provide an account of the connection between liberalism and empiricism that takes on the same tone as Newman’s list of liberalism’s errors in the Apologia (a list that is actually much harsher than the Syllabus Errorum of Pope Pius IX). Certainly, the conflict between Christianity and liberalism seems irreconcilable in the formulation of all three men, but perhaps especially in Fish’s account, precisely because it is by far the mildest in formulation of the three:

Liberals believe that facts (of history, justice, science) are independent of the knower, and that it is the knower’s obligation to approach the task of knowing with as few preconceptions as possible so that the understanding he finally achieves is impersonal rather than a reflection of his antecedently held views and preferences; one must come to any situation calling for a decision (about what to think or what to say or what to do) with an open mind, a mind prepared to jettison its most cherished convictions should the evidence tell against them. Liberals believe that evidence lies about in the world waiting to be gathered and then arranged in patterns it itself suggests. Liberals believe that if we are sufficiently careful in our gathering of evidence (careful, that is, to keep ourselves and our desires out of the process) the truth will finally emerge in a form everyone (whose mind is open) will acknowledge. Liberals believe that when the truth is to be determined, the meaning (political, moral, legal) of an action, the previous history of the actor—whether he has in the past been a good or bad man—is largely irrelevant and that we should look only to the shape of the present circumstances when assessing him. And because liberals believe in all of the above, they believe in the efficacy of procedures—scientific, parliamentary, judicial—designed to protect us from the overhasty judgments we make when we allow our commitments and allegiances to blind us. Liberals believe that the most important of these procedures is the machinery of rationality, of those laws of logic attached to no agenda or vision, but sufficiently general in their scope as to provide a normative perspective from the vantage point of which any agenda or vision can be assessed and, if necessary, corrected. Liberals believe that communication and persuasion take place (or should take place) in the context of that rationality and that it is possible to bring anyone—except, perhaps, the mentally impaired—to a clear understanding, so long as he or she is willing to set aside or bracket all biases and preconceptions.

By now it should be clear how impossible that worldview and epistemology becomes when dealing with the decision for or against God, for service to God or in service to Satan. The entire account of the Fall of the angels points to that conclusion: that the decision for or against God starts with an interpretation of God and then all the evidence of the outside world is marshaled to support that conclusion.

[Milton] believes that all the evidence is in and that it points to a single conclusion—we must discern the will of God and do it—that should form the basis of our thought and action in any and all situations. He believes that there is a great divide between those who have reached that conclusion and those who have reached some other; and that communication between the two groups is impossible, because their respective members start from diametrically opposed positions of belief (or nonbelief) and see with different eyes and hear with different ears.

One should perhaps stress here that Fish is not arguing that Milton is an idealist, in the sense of someone who believes that “thinking makes it so” and that un­ happy situations can be simply wished away by the cheap expedient of declaring them otherwise. Nor is Fish claiming that Milton thinks that these primal options take place without consequences, which themselves have indicative value. Quite the opposite: nothing could be more fateful, more fraught with consequences for later life. But because these decisions are world-constituting, they end up taking on a life of their own:

In the act of conceiving of God (an act made necessary by His removal of “His way from human sense”) we conceive, bring into being, put into place, a landscape in which actions are labeled “possible,” “desirable,” mandatory,” “unthinkable,” and so on; and each time one of those actions is taken or avoided or not seen as a possibility, that landscape becomes ever firmer in its configurations and ever more resistant to a basic alteration. Our conceivings, even though they are grounded in nothing—in no brute empirical datum—produce grounds that one cannot simply wish away, if only because it is against their now-in-place background that wishes (or any other mental actions) could themselves be conceived. Our conceivings, in short, have consequences.

All well and good, but perhaps Fish does not sufficiently notice this point. No doubt he is correct that initial decisions have later consequences, so that past sins bring with them a certain momentum. But precisely because decisions carry such fateful consequences later, these subsequent effects can be put to use in what the Western ascetical literature calls discernment. Consider the case of Satan himself in the course of Paradise Lost. As C. S. Lewis puts it, his declension in the first nine books goes like this: “From hero to general, from general to politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake”such is the progress of Satan.”

In many eerie ways, this echoes the devolution of Adolf Hitler, although he began as a politician, then became his own amateur general (and a stubborn, unteachable one, and therefore a bad one); and then, pretty much skipping the whole serpent phase, he ended up as a spent, pathetic, vegetarian toad. But for the longest time, he held the German nation mesmerized. And that is the key. It would of course be both vulgar and unfair to ascribe to Romanticism the “blame” for this weird hypnotic power that Hitler had; but the fact remains that the self-evident and openly expressed malevolence of the man, which he made no effort to hide in Mein Kampf, did not seem in any way ugly to the masses who followed him. In fact, it was part of his appeal.

But when we who live now in the next century look back on the career of Nazism, surely it can be our office to see the results and make judgments accordingly. But in many ways, we deprive ourselves of any basis for doing so by continuing to find Satan mesmerizing in the first two books of Paradise Lost. As Lewis sardonically notes, “The poet did not foresee that his work would one day meet the disarming simplicity of critics who take for gospel things said by the father of falsehood in public speeches to his troops.” As nearly all critics would agree, the attractiveness that Satan displays in the first two books partly stems from the impact of Romanticism; but as Fish already noted in his first Milton book, the human condition will always find Satan attractive, at least until he can capture the soul, for that susceptibility to the devil’s charms is part of the legacy of original sin. As the French Jewish mystic Simone Weil says so well: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied, full of charm, while imaginary good is tiresome and flat. Real evil, however, is dreary, monotonous, barren. But real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”

If How Milton Works has any flaw (besides a certain repetitiousness that comes from the fact that the middle of the book is composed of journal articles previously published), it is a failure to take account of Weil’s insight. Life catches up with everyone, and Milton’s corollary to that fundamental law of nature might be: “Sin catches up with everyone.” In fact, the whole purpose of the discernment of spirits coincides with Milton’s purpose in writing Paradise Lost: as Fish has rightly seen (and he was the first to do so), Milton wants us to live through the consequences of sin in our imaginative reenactment of salvation history (no wonder he felt that Paradise Regained was the capstone of his work) in order to keep us from the more dire lessons that life imparts. Such, too, was the purpose of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola: to get the exercitant (not the “reader,” for the Exercises are meant to be genuine, strenuous “exercises”) to live through and thus to see through the enticement of evil by testing the spirits in the manner laid out by Ignatius:

1) In the case of those who go from one mortal sin to another, the enemy is ordinarily accustomed to propose apparent pleasures. He fills their imagination with sensual delights and gratifications, the more readily to keep them in their vices and increase the number of their sins. With such persons the good spirit uses a method which is the reverse of the above. Making use of the light of reason, he will rouse the sting of conscience and fill them with remorse.
2) In the case of those who go on earnestly striving to cleanse their souls from sin and who seek to rise in the service of God our Lord to greater perfection, the method pursued is the opposite of that mentioned in the first rule. Then it is characteristic of the evil spirit to harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul. Thus he seeks to prevent the soul from advancing. It is characteristic of the good spirit, however, to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This he does by making all easy, by removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good.

This passage not only has direct bearing on Fish’s brilliant reader-response thesis, but also helps explain why, in a sense, the Romantics have a point about Milton belonging to the Devil’s party without quite realizing it; for according to St. Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits quoted above, that also holds true for everyone. But the Romantics then miss the point of their legitimate insight when they claim that Milton would have been content to let that sympathy work its effects outside of the economy of salvation. As Lewis says with his usual lapidary flair: “It is therefore right to say that Milton has put much of himself into Satan; but it is unwarrantable to conclude that he was pleased with that part of himself or expected us to be pleased. Because he was, like the rest of us, damnable, it does not follow that he was, like Satan, damned.”

Readers of this journal know that the editors offered the hospitality of their pages to Stanley Fish, where many of the views outlined above were set forth by the author in essay form, to which Richard John Neuhaus then replied (FT, February 1996). What strikes me on rereading that exchange is how much their debate hinged on a proper interpretation of Milton, with Fish insisting on the same views now developed at fuller length in How Milton Works, and Neuhaus insisting that Milton would agree with his own assertion that “one’s decision for a ‘first premise’ is a reasoned decision.” And later in his reply, Father Neuhaus sounds remarkably Miltonian when he says that “Christianity does propose a unified conception of life, but that unified conception of life comprehends and makes possible the pluralistic character of life as we experience it,” which among other things neatly summarizes the argument of Milton’s Areopagitica.

But aside from these assertions, I wonder if another possibility might be entertained: that Fish is (largely) right in his exegesis of Milton’s poetry and prose, but that Neuhaus is also largely right in his defense of a Christian liberalism (in the sense of participating in the liberal conversation with a good conscience), but only because in certain key respects Milton is wrong. In asserting this I am partly alluding to key flaws in Milton’s personality, not to make an ad hominem attack so much as to point out how those flaws then influence (to its detriment) Milton’s theology. In this I am relying on a key passage in Dr. Johnson’s essay on Milton in his Lives of the Poets, where he links Milton’s politics and Puritan contempt for bishops with a notably intolerant personality:

Milton’s republicanism was, I am afraid, founded in an envious hatred of greatness, and a sullen desire of independence; in petulance impatient of control, and pride disdainful of superiority. He hated monarchs in the state and prelates in the church; for he hated all whom he was required to obey. It is to be suspected that his predominant desire was to destroy rather than establish, and that he felt not so much the love of liberty as a repugnance to authority. It has been observed that they who most loudly clamor for liberty do not most liberally grant it. What we know of Milton’s character in domestic relations is that he was severe and arbitrary. His family consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings. That his own daughters might not break the ranks, he suffered them to be depressed by a mean and penurious education. He thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.

It should therefore cause no surprise in the reader to learn that Milton was perfectly able and willing to contravene the plain sense of Scripture in his divorce tracts when it suited him, for his doctrine of the Inner Light, coupled with his skeptical theological epistemology, would naturally lead him to rely on his own judgment alone. Thus, after roundly condemning the episcopal polity of the Established Church, he then later found himself roundly condemned for his divorce tracts by fellow Puritans, which in turn led to the inevitable outcome that he belonged to a church of one, himself. Again, Dr. Johnson has understood, perhaps better than anyone else, the astigmatism entailed by this ecclesiastical solipsism:

To be of no church is dangerous. Religion, of which the rewards are distant and which is animated only by faith and hope, will glide by degrees out of mind unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example. Milton, who appears to have had full conviction of the truth of Christianity, and to have regarded the Holy Scriptures with the profoundest veneration, to have been untainted by an heretical peculiarity of opinion [Johnson of course wrote this before Milton’s heretical manu­scripts were discovered], and to have lived in a confirmed belief of the immediate and occasional agency of Providence, yet grew old without any visible worship. In the distribution of his hours, there was no hour of prayer, either solitary or with his household; omitting public prayers, he omitted all. Of this omission the reason has been sought, upon a supposition which ought never to be made, that men live with their own approbation and justify their conduct to themselves.

In other words, Milton’s deficient ecclesiology leads to precisely the kind of faith in God that will strike Fish, rightly, as being so terrifyingly unmoored by any evidence or reasonability. The literal meaning of “self-righteous” refers to people who, in Dr. Johnson’s terms, “justify their conduct to themselves.” Although the term usually also connotes an unpleasantly arrogant person, one may still legitimately call Milton literally “self-righteous” without making any reference to flaws in his character (though no doubt Johnson is correct in seeing some sort of link between the two, especially in Milton’s relations with his wives and daughters). In fact, the pathos of the Protestant appeal to faith alone need not be accompanied by any defect of personality at all. I do not in any way dispute Fish’s assertion that Milton always works from the inside out and thereby regards all empiricism as Satanic infidelity. But that precisely is Milton’s flaw, and it is a flaw that can be seen to crop up in Protestant theology down through the ages, including in one so orthodox as Karl Barth. Consider this passage from his Commentary on Romans:

There is no fragment or epoch of history that can be pronounced divine. The whole history of the Church and of all religion takes place in this world. What is called the “history of our salvation” is not an event in the midst of other events, but is nothing less than the krisis of all history. There are no saints in the midst of a company of sinners; for where men have claimed to be saints, they are thereby marked as not-saints. Their criticism and invective and indictment of the world inevitably place them—unless they be themselves the object—within the course of this world and betray that they too are of it. Their indictment springs not from their capacity to help but from their own distress; it is of this world; it is a talking about life, not life itself; its illumination is artificial; it marks no rising of the sun nor breaking of the dawn. This is as true of Paul, the prophet and apostle of the Kingdom of God, and of Jeremiah, as it is of Luther, Kierkegaard, and Blumhardt! It applies both to St. Francis, who far surpassed Jesus in “love,” childlikeness, and austerity, and to the distinctive sanctity of Tolstoy. Everything human swims with the stream either with vehement protest or with easy accommodation, even when it appears to hover about it or to engage in conflict with it. Christ is not one of the righteous. Since power belongs only to God, it is the tragic story of every man of God that he has to contend for the right of God by placing himself in the wrong.

Here once more, we find a passage from a Protestant who has long been taken to be the very antithesis of the liberal Protestant (and from the book that was written to be the death knell of liberal Protestantism), providing the same theological monism and skeptical epistemology that Milton first adumbrated and which led, at least in Milton’s case, to the very liberal attitudes he had once so actively deplored. Of course, in Barth’s case, the contradictions so openly embraced in Romans eventually yielded to the more robust consistency of the aptly named Church Dogmatics. But even there the issue of what constitutes the Church and how one becomes a member of it remained unresolved. I suppose as a Catholic, I would be bound to say that, and Professor Fish would probably take that concession to be one more indication of a “primal decision” determining how the evidence will be used, indeed what constitutes evidence at all. I am willing to grant the point, but would like to note that one may also take the complete marginalization of Barth’s theology in the contemporary Protestant world as at least an indication that his ecclesiology was defective. Like John Henry Newman trying to speak for the High Church Anglicans in Tract 90 and being repudiated by the very people he was trying to support, Barth wanted to speak for churches that eventually grew deaf to his pealing of the Barthian bell.

But just as no one should dismiss Barth in his entirety on that account, so too with Milton—which brings us once more to the considerable merits of Stanley Fish’s book. For he has alerted us, as no other critic has done since Lewis, that Milton is above all a theologian, indeed a theologian the reading of whom prods us to a decision, a decision that could not be more basic. As Dr. Johnson said in wondrous prose: “We all, indeed, feel the effects of Adam’s disobedience; we all sin like Adam, and like him must all bewail our offenses; we have restless and insidious enemies in the fallen angels, and in the blessed sprits we have guardians and friends; in the redemption of mankind we hope to be included: in the description of heaven and hell we are surely interested, as we are all to reside hereafter either in the regions of horror or of bliss.”

Unfortunately, as Johnson also noted, these truths can become so habitual (or in our civilization so unfamiliar) that the artist scarcely knows how to make them newly vivid so that the reader can genuinely reenact their drama: “Being therefore not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in the mind; what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise.” But, he says,

known truths . . . may take a different appearance, and be conveyed to the mind by a new train of intermediate images. This Milton has undertaken and performed with pregnancy and vigor of mind peculiar to himself. Whoever considers [the sparse basic materials] which the Scriptures afforded him will wonder by what energetic operation he expanded them to such extent and ramified them to so much variety, restrained as he was by religious reverence from licentiousness of fiction.

But Milton managed it. And by giving us the most remarkable works of Milton interpretation in our generation, Stanley Fish has done the same. 

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department of Regis University in Denver, Colorado, and has just translated Josef Pieper's The Concept of Sin (St. Augustine's Press).