Friday, December 03, 2010

Tales told by Socrates and Raphael

As has been mentioned before, Verity's notes to Paradise Lost, some of which are available online, are quite sensible and useful. His notes to Books 5 and 6 can be accessed here.

Of the Father's 16-line decree that begins on line 600 announcing the Son, his rule, his power of mediating the Father's glory, word and will, the editor wisely begs off, saying, "upon the particular theological bearing of this passage it would, I think, be out of place to comment," confining his note to scriptural sources, of which there are several.

Rather than look at the theology (we did, somewhat, in our last session, finding it more subtle, cryptic and complex than its austere brevity lets on), I want to suggest that the shape of Raphael's story might offer some interesting parallels and contrasts with Plato's cave allegory, which Socrates tells in Republic 7. The reasons for the comparison should become clear.

In the Republic, Socrates describes the human condition as essentially benighted. We are bound, like prisoners, fixed in the darkness, compelled to look at shadows of stage props. The props are behind us, between our backs and the fire that projects their images on the cave wall.

The story tells how one of these turns his neck and sees the two-dimensional props, and immediately understands that he's been seeing something of less substance than these. He's then dragged out of the cave into the bright light of day, where he is at first blinded, then gradually becomes accustomed to the sun's illuminating actual things. Socrates assures us that if this fellow were to return to tell his fellow cave dwellers what he saw, they would take him for a madman. But the shape of the story is clear: it's a journey through space, a paradigm of the eye and of light. It moves from darkness and servitude to light and freedom, from illusion to truth, from a kind of dreamworld to a stable, clear and serene upper world where one can contemplate things as they really are. So far, Plato's tale can be said to correspond to the pervasive solar imagery of dawn in Book 5 -- a process of gradual illumination.

If we turn to the story Raphael tells Adam and Eve, we find an parallel ascent, from Nature, the garden, the flower that turns to the sun, upward along a dynamic scale of being which follows the sublimation being described by the Angel as all things are consumed, transformed and refined. At a certain point, prompted by Adam's questions, Raphael has to pause and make clear that he is about to speak of warring spirits and high matter beyond the reach of human experience:

how shall I relate
To human sense th' invisible exploits [ 565 ]
Of warring Spirits; how without remorse
The ruin of so many glorious once
And perfet while they stood; how last unfould
The secrets of another World, perhaps
Not lawful to reveal? yet for thy good [ 570 ]
This is dispenc't,

He is, then, going to speak in allegory, in figure -- we must be wary of taking what is said too literally, it will require interpreting:

and what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By lik'ning spiritual to corporal forms,
As may express them best, though what if Earth
Be but the shaddow of Heav'n, and things therein [ 575 ]
Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

One might be tempted here to find a suggestion of Platonism -- the spiritual world is to the physical world as Plato's Forms are to the shadowy figures on the walls of the cave.

But the story Raphael goes on to tell is anything but a journey that ends in gradual, eye-opening enlightenment. Instead we are carried back in time to a prime moment before our world was made. And we hear, rather than see, an act of power. God decrees the rule of his Son, and almost instantaneously Satan conceives malice, revolts, and launches the cataclysm of Book 6. Instead of a tranquil contemplative conclusion, Raphael's tale rises to a moment of perfect order; at God's Word, heavenly order shatters.

Raphael's story is but a beginning -- an enigmatic opening of a story still unfolding. He will go on to speak of Satan's rout and fall, which brings us back to the opening of Book 1. But is this a purely cyclical structure? With the creation in Book 7, another chapter begins; it will encompass another fall, then all of human history, then look beyond history.

The shape of Milton's story strongly diverges from Plato's. Where the cave dweller begins in dark servitude and ascends to brilliant plenitude, the tale of the angel and the poet begins in sweetness and light, and falls into disorder and harsh history. In Plato, knowledge, gained by toil and struggle, is the goal and liberating end of education; for Adam and Eve, knowledge will neither be the goal, nor the means of leaving or repairing the fallen world. Still, the Greek world's highest literary form was tragedy, where the culture of Milton and Dante finds its fullest expression in the comic.

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