As God is My Judge: Milton's Epic and the Law.
Milton's Paradise Lost is saturated with the assumptions, procedures, and terms of early modern English law, which was in several fundamental ways different from and even alien to the law as it is currently understood. The seventeenth century, and particularly its middle decades, saw a shift from late medieval and early modern assumptions about the law to those that seem self-evident today. In The Legal Epic: Paradise Lost and the Early Modern Law, Alison Chapman restores the legal context of Milton's epic in a work of scholarship and interpretation both compulsively readable (and of how many works of literary scholarship can one say that?) and profoundly transformative of the way in which we read one of the most important texts in English language literature.
Drawing on an extensive array of scholarship in the history of English law, Chapman lucidly demonstrates key differences between early modern and more recent assumptions about law. The early moderns viewed law "as inextricably tied to other disciplines and as a normative system that pointed outside itself to God" (35). Human law was seen not only as deriving its legitimacy from divine law, a position that goes back at least as far as Aquinas, but as patterned in its norms and procedures on divine law. Our fundamentally different view of law as self-standing and self-authorizing began to emerge in the seventeenth century and reached full expression in the eighteenth. "In effect," Chapman writes, "the law became less an arrow pointing away from itself to God (in the same manner that the natural world or the Bible could be seen as signs that merely directed the viewer toward a higher truth) and more a quasi-sacred thing" (249). It became, that is, its own source and warrant of authority. Chapman demonstrates that Milton is committed to the older, and to us alien, understanding of the law.
Chapman's foil, a legal scholar and arguably the most prominent Milton scholar of the past half-century, Stanley Fish, stresses the isolation of law from other disciplines, claiming, in words Chapman quotes from Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, "Law is not philosophy" (38). Chapman demonstrates that for Milton law is both philosophy and theology. While Edward Coke, the prominent jurist and author of the foundational Institutes of the Lawes of England, pointed to the central importance of tradition and custom, Milton insisted that the legitimacy of laws is based not on precedent but on reasonableness or accordance with Natural Law, for which lex inusta non est lex, an unjust law is no law. Following from the views that legitimate laws are founded on divine law and that they are to be judged on their reasonableness, natural law proponents thought of laws in much the same way we think of scientific laws: they are not made but discovered. Good laws were viewed as "new discoveries--or perhaps new applications--of rational principles that existed since the creation" (61).
Given Milton's sharp attacks on blind adherence to custom in Of Reformation, Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Areopagitica, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, and elsewhere (he opens Tetrachordon decrying the "tyranny of error and ill custom"), it is not altogether surprising to be told of Milton's devaluing of custom and promotion of reason as the foundation of good law. But few students of Milton will have been aware of the extent of Milton's legal experience and knowledge or the degree to which that experience and knowledge inform his epic. Chapman reminds us that Milton was surrounded by family members versed in the law. As a scrivener, Milton's father was involved in work that today would be performed by, among others, estate agents, trustees, and solicitors (16-17). Milton's younger brother, Christopher, rose through the legal ranks, eventually serving as justice of the Common Pleas. His brother-in-law, Richard Powell, was an important figure in the Inner Temple. His daughter Anne was married successively to two lawyers, Edward Phillips and Thomas Agar. Milton's network of friends also contained many lawyers. Milton, Chapman amply demonstrates, read widely and deeply in the law, used legal analogies and arguments in his prose works, and had extensive firsthand experience in legal actions. In all of this, Chapman shows, Milton was a person of his time, which was characterized by a high degree of legal literacy, a fact paradoxically dependent on the degree to which so much of what is in our time handled by lawyers (especially in criminal as opposed to civil law) was handled by laypersons.
Legal considerations frame the epic, which begins with the stated ambition of "justify[ing] the ways of God to men" and which looks for a "fit audience though few." "Audience," Chapman notes, had not yet in Milton's time taken on its modern meaning but referred most often to a judicial hearing. As readers are addressed as a jury in Milton's antiprelatical and divorce tracts and in Areopagitica, so readers in Paradise Lost compose a jury hearing a justification of God. And the case, Chapman demonstrates, is cast in legal terms.
To take one example, Chapman throws new light on the old debate about the moral high ground in the opposition of Milton's God the Father and Satan. She demonstrates that the opposition is not between the person of God and the person of Satan, but between Satan and reasonable laws, which obtain before the fall. Milton's Heaven, like prelapsarian Eden, is ordered by reasonable law. In line with a seventeenth-century reinterpretation of treason as opposition to the body of laws rather than opposition to the person of the monarch, Milton's God does not punish Satan out of personal pique or offended dignity but in order to uphold a system of reasonable laws. The older view of treason as threatening the safety of the monarch would not have allowed the execution of the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud, Charles I's allies and agents, much less Charles I himself, all actions that Milton vigorously supported. For Milton, Chapman shows, treason, like tyranny, is defined not as an attack on the sovereign but disregard for the law and common good: "Whereas Charles cared more for personal treasons than impersonal ones, Milton's God does the opposite" (80). Legal language clusters around the narration of Satan's opposition to God, as it does when Satan, in response to the judicial scales set forth by God to prevent battle with Gabriel at the end of Book 4, "fled / Murmuring" (4.1014-15); one significant meaning of murmur, we learn, was "to cast aspersion on a judge or on a legal ruling" (94).
In a marvelous chapter on "The Arch-Felon," we follow Satan along an arc of ascending criminality, from misdemeanor to felony to the most egregious of felonies, murder. Chapman shows that Milton's portrayal of Satan's career both reflects the rise--and influences the future course--of the newly popular genre of criminal biography. Without Paradise Lost, we would not have Fielding's Jonathan Wild or Defoe's Moll Flanders.
Chapman does fall prey to the trap familiar in thesis-driven books: extending beyond plausibility the presence of the subject of study. The chapter on "The Sole Propriety of Adam and Eve" asks us to think of the marriage of Adam and Eve in terms of laws of ownership and use. Edenic marriage, according to the celebrated "Wedding Hymn" in Paradise Lost, is the "sole propriety, / In Paradise of all things common else" (4.751-52). While Chapman has excellent things to say about the reciprocity of Edenic marriage, the articulation of the argument through legal thinking on property seems to me labored. The OED's citation of Peter Heylyn's 1652 Cosmographie, "The people . . . live like beasts, without propriety so much as in their wives or children," seems to catch Milton's meaning here. All else in Eden is common, but the intercourse, both physical and social, of a wedded couple is exclusive. When Adam speaks of a "bond of nature" that ties him to Eve (9.956), Chapman hears a problematic assertion that "he and Nature have entered into a legal 'bond,'" a claim that by implication "erases the Son's agency in granting him a partner (145). This seems forced, as does the claim that when Milton calls the pair's sexual intercourse after the fall the "seal" of their "mutual guilt" (9.1043), he refers to the impression of a signet ring on a legal document (the OED lists the earliest date of use of the word in this sense as 1782 [n.2, 1.h]). The following chapter, "Acts of Possession," also overplays its hand in its claims that Satan's temptation of Eve and its success draw in their wake legal thinking on property and contract law. Chapman sees significance in Satan's use of the singular "your" in tempting Eve in Book 9 as opposed Adam's plural "our" in describing their shared life in Eden in Book 4, but "your" is plural as well as singular, and all of Satan's cited uses of "your" (9.694, 702, 706, 727, 731) can be construed as referring either to Eve alone, to Adam and Eve together, or even to human beings generally. Also questionable is Chapman's subsequent claim that the word "thing" in Book 9 should be read in light of the term's legal use as indicative of possession and that its appearance more often in Book 9 than in any other book should alert us to the illuminating relevance of contract law at this point in the epic. While the word does appear more times (16) in Book 9 than in any other, Book 9 is the longest book in the epic; if one measures by the frequency of the term per line, Book 9 ranks fourth in the appearance of "thing" or "things"; the word appears almost as often in Book 7 (13 times), the book of Creation, and in Book 8 (14 times), each book little more than half the length of Book 9.
The Legal Epic recovers brilliantly, however, in the final two body chapters, on the Son's judgment of Adam and Eve and on their successful and Satan's unsuccessful pardon. Having read Chapman, it is hard to imagine teaching the judgment scene as one has done in the past. In sending the Son to judge Adam, Eve, and the serpen, the Father acts in the manner of the King or Lord Keeper sending assize judges on their circuits. The Son, as Chapman demonstrates, precisely follows assize court procedure in calling, arraigning, and judging Adam and Eve. Chapman's Son, who asks Adam if he has eaten of the forbidden tree despite knowing the answer, is teaching human judges how to proceed in their roles, a reading she persuasively supports by citing a contemporary legal treatise to precisely the same effect (195). Assize courts, Chapman argues, appeal to Milton for being decentralized, a legal model Milton endorses in the Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. Chapman brilliantly dissects the legal underpinnings of Adam's bad faith attempt to shift blame to Eve. This chapter, like the following one on Satan's violations and Adam and Eve's adherence to the unwritten conventions of legal pardons, is a tour de force of scholarship and interpretation.
Chapman is to be applauded and admired for giving Milton's readers an indispensable new context for reading Milton's Paradise Lost. As with the best scholarship, the book will send readers back to the text with heightened admiration and increased comprehension. This lucid, gracefully written, and compelling book is indispensable reading for anyone who wants to grasp the achievement of Milton's epic.
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|Title Annotation:||The Legal Epic: "Paradise Lost" and the Early Modern Law|
|Author:||Fallon, Stephen M.|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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