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Milton's Neo-Platonic angel?

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 2004   by Clay Daniel

Milton's Raphael and Adam participate in "a dialogue of love whose generic models are Plato's Symposium and several Neoplatonic versions and imitations of it--by [Marsilio] Ficino, Leone Ebreo, and especially [Baldassare] Castiglione." Readers generally agree that "Raphael is the strict Neoplatonist (like [Cardinal Pietro] Bembo in [Castiglione's] The [Book of the] Courtier)." (1) The Neo-Platonic angel, alarmed when Adam extols Eve's flesh, (over-)administers Neo-Platonic correction. This correction echoes Cardinal Bembo's discourse on sacred and profane love in the fourth book of The Courtier, especially its emphasis on "the Neoplatonic theory of the ladder of love." (2)

This standard reading has several problems. First, whatever Neo-Platonism's influence on Milton, the ladder of love is not central to Milton's thinking and would not seem to merit divine endorsement, especially at this critical moment of the poem. (3) Though sometimes alluding to wings, chains, ascent, and celestial cupids, only in Paradise Lost does Milton explicitly write about this scala. Even in Milton's most seemingly Neo-Platonic work, his A Mask, this concept appears ambiguously (lines 458-62)--if it appears at all. And there Milton focuses on "converse with heav'nly habitants" who communicate "in clear dream and solemn vision." This irrational, religious emphasis is heightened by biblical phrasing: such "converse" changes "the unpolluted temple of the mind, / And turns it by degrees to the soul's essence, / Till all be made immortal." The precise nature of this essence or this transformation remains unclear. Whatever heavenward ascent occurs--and none is specified--would seem to be effected primarily not by Platonic philosophy but by heavenly grace--whose homely stooping, like the Son's descent, ironically questions the Neo-Platonic notions of love and ascent. (4)

We should also remember that Milton was soon to write that classical philosophy was "little else but dreams, / Conjectures, fancies, built on nothing firm" (Paradise Regained, 4.291-2). Plato is singled out as one who "to fabling fell and smooth conceits" (4.295). Neo-Platonism and Christianity achieved a remarkable synthesis, but there were also tensions and inconsistencies. (5) Milton often stresses this friction. Jesus in Paradise Regained, citing the importance of grace (4.312), would seem to question Neo-Platonism's compatibility with Christianity, implying that it is "delusion / Far worse" that entangles people in "false resemblance" (4.319-20). In Paradise Lost itself, Milton suggests that this Neo-Platonic process, even if possible in Eden, is inadequate in a fallen world, where the righteous survive, not evolve. (6) In books 11 and 12, Michael reveals more about how the righteous will be acted upon than how they should act. Conspicuously absent are the catalogs of vice and virtue of Spenser's moral handbook, The Faerie Queene. Milton transforms an errant knight who conquers into one just man who survives. For this man, and all who are saved, the long way to Heaven is through the alleys and lanes of Christian morality rather than via the superhighways of (Neo-)Platonism. And arriving (or awaking), one finds not a country of Platonic--or "empty" (Paradise Regained, 4.321)--clouds, but "New Heav'n and Earth" created from a single "conflagrant mass" of a dissolved "Satan with his perverted World" (Paradise Lost, 3.335, 12.548, 547). These apocalyptic (and monistic) transformations (also evident in the original plan [7.150-61]) question the Neo-Platonic ladder, as does an eschatology that included mortalism.

Finally, we should be careful about labeling Raphael a Neo-Platonist because of the indeterminate nature of Renaissance Neo-Platonism, "[t]hat seething mass of confused thinking." (7) Petrarchism was one of the traditions most often to be found lurking in Neo-Platonism's "soft haze of idealism and mysticism": during the Renaissance, "there does not seem to have been as clear a distinction between Petrarchan and Platonic love as now exists in the mind of a modern scholar." (8) The representation of "the step-by-step ascent of the lover's desire from the merely physical beauty of an individual body to the purely intellectual and divine beauty of God" was "often mingled with Petrarchan motifs." (9) It is difficult to determine to what extent Milton opposed or fused Platonism, classical Neo-Platonism, medieval Neo-Platonism, Pico della Mirandola's Neo-Platonism, Ficino's Christian synthesis of Neo-Platonism, Bembo's reaction to Ficino, Castiglione's construction of Bembo, Spenser's complex Neo-Platonism (or complex lack of it), and Francesco Petrarch's vast accretions. But Milton probably would have been sensitive to Neo-Platonism's identification with Petrarchism. And most readers recognize in Adam's marital love for Eve a Puritan's emphatic rejection of Petrarchism, especially within the context of court culture. (10)

Why then does Raphael appear to (over-)administer Neo-Platonic correction? Raphael is elusive, subtle, devastating to the careful and perfect man--and to the careful and imperfect reader whose own mind might be clouded by readings of Neo-Platonic works, such as court masques. (11) Raphael cloaks his divine probe as after-dinner conversation, "as friend with friend" (5.229), though it hardly could be characterized as an amiable errand to ensure that Adam would be unable to "pretend" (5.244) an excuse for a crime that would disorder the universe. (12) Raphael, as Satan with Eve, inveigles Adam into thinking that it is Adam who "injoin'st" (5.563) him to discourse on the purpose of his appearance, a discourse that is laced with dangerous knowledge. Raphael later tells Adam, when contemplating the stars, "Heav'n is for thee too high / To know what passes there; be lowly wise" (8.172-3). (13) Here Raphael enticingly (though carefully, and as a question) characterizes his imminent narrative as "The secrets of another World, perhaps / Not lawful to reveal" (5.569-70).


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