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The humanism of Paradise Lost Reid, David Stuart

Abstract

Problem: If humanism is the study of man through letters, the humanism of Paradise Lost should be a matter of the poem's study of man, its criticism of life. But it is not clear how a poem whose action turns on a divine rather than moral imperative can afford a criticism of life. Approach; To place the problem in a context of discussion, I 1) examine how neoclassical humanism developed as a study of man and how it accommodated the Christian study of the will; 2) compare The Lusiad, Jerusalem Delivered, Paradise Lost, and Absalom and Achitophel as expressions of neoclassical humanism. Conclusions; 1) Neoclassical humanism was based on eloquence. For neoclassical 3tudia humanitatis and poetics, literature is the didactic application of moral ideas to life. Epic is the institutional form. The Lusiad, Jerusalem Delivered, Paradise Lost and Absalom unfold in universal schemes of moral images. But Paradise Lost goes beyond ideal imitation. Answering to Aristotle's idea of imitation, its action unfolds as an analysis of volition. 2) Although based on eloquence, neoclassical humanism developed a serious criticism of life. Out of the rhetorical notion of the commonplace developed a method reading and making observations, at work in Montaigne's Essays and Pope's Moral Essays. Out of the notion of eloquence as discourse fitted to human concerns urbanity developed, a sense of what humans are like. A literary culture capable of making critical discriminations developed from an uncritically classicising one. The fine adjustment of Dryden's eloquence to the actual conditions of authority and civilisation contrasts with the simpler ideal discriminations of Camoens' or Tasso's. In Paradise Lost Milton tries to realize an ideal of human conversation. 3) The notion of eloquence as discourse fitted to human concerns implied a critique of discourse and learning that had no hearing on human concerns, notably of speculative science and the scholastic curriculum. Milton's treatment of forbidden knowledge belongs to this humanist critique of vain learning. With this critique went a view, featured in the invocations of Paradise Lost, of the creaturely condition of man in his middle state. The actions of Paradise Lost and Absalom turn on the loss and restoration of finite oreatureliness, whereas those of The Lusiad and Jerusalem Delivered featuring an earlier, less critical, humanism, are directed to the divinisation of man. 4) In many of their moral and civilizing concerns Christianity and neoclassical humanism overlap. Protestantism particularly might agree with humanism on the importance of textual studies and human creatureliness. The Christian study of the will, however, remained inaccessible to humanist interpretation. Yet while Milton's Christian Doctrine falls short of Paul's or Luther's insights into the free and bound will, the analysis of volition in Paradise Lost works out some of these insights as an imitation of a human action. In this interpretation of the Christian study of the will Paradise Lost both makes its most valuable criticism of life and goes beyond the usual neoclassical humanist study of man. 5) Summary: In its concern with the creaturely limits of human learning and the middle state, Paradise Lost belongs to a stage of humanism realised more characteristically by Montaigne and the Augustan humanists. But Milton's study of the will is exceptional in neoclassical humanism in both its penetration into how Christian ideas apply to life and its literary form of imitation. Yet it is here we can most fully talk of Milton's criticism of life and so of the humanism of Paradise Lost.

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