“What is Faith, Love, Vertue unassaid”: Some Literary Answers to Our Ever-Present Evils


Immediately after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Milton list on the Internet was filled with e-mails questioning how God—both a Christian God and a Hebraic God—could allow such destructive and vindictive action against human life to occur; how any other God—how Allah—could reward such inhumanity, could seek continuation of mass murder; how any “sacred war” of such form and proportions could be justified by even the most zealous. The immediate upshot was a questioning of the existence of God, with interpretation of the Bible that revealed ignorance of it and its composition—not only of the New Testament theme of love and grace, but the Old Testament explanations of life's beginnings and developments; and no thought was given to Messiah, Savior, the Christ. In the more than six years since then, the people of this country, including many on the Milton list, have espoused a vehement Christian position, with continued misreading of the Bible, if it is read at all rather than just cited by a kind of name-dropping.

Milton was almost totally missing from these Milton-L messages back in 2001. But my reaction was shock that students, scholars involved in the study of John Milton, were so uninformed about so much that exists in his writings, so much that is the background to his thought and his own wrestling with such issues and his conclusions—or if you wish, his resolutions of those issues. The believers in Christ and in Messiah on the list seemed to have become nonbelievers—a not dissimilar result to that of some decades ago in Jewish communities confronting the Holocaust: how could any God have allowed any Hitler to arise and do what he did, one single megalomaniac misleading so many, many people. Perhaps some of the present readers have run across the book entitled, Where was God on September 11? A Scientist Asks a Ground Zero Pastor; the minister's answer is that God is imperfect, only “semi-competent.”

These remarks are not an argument for any position in this ever-present problem of life: evil, war, and scandal. I am not making a pitch for a religious position and belief in some omnipotent deity or for accusations against some deity or for rejection of all belief and faith. I am not offering psychological and sociological or economic analyses of “why.” My point is that these matters that have been concerning us so strongly in the last five or six years are matters that have long been treated by various authors from various angles of vision and with various conclusions, and that such treatments are worthy of attention.

Within a little time, the Milton-List did turn to Milton, but now it was to parallel the destruction that Samson brought upon the Philistines:

    with burst of thunder

Upon the heads of all who sate beneath,

Lords, Ladies, Captains, Councellors, or Priests,

Thir choice nobility and flower, not only

Of this but each Philistian City round

Met from all parts to solemnize this Feast.

[. . .] The vulgar only scap'd who stood without.

(Samson Agonistes 1651-56, 1659)1

and thus to equate the hijackers with Samson himself, who “inevitably / Pull'd down the same destruction on himself” (1657-58).2 Holy War had somehow become, well, not acceptable but understandable, and what emerged was a show of faith, and yet at the same time, a show of a kind of innocence and imperception, and a forgetting of purported principles to achieve some supposedly higher goal. The result of all these lucubrations for many Miltonists on the Web, it seemed, if I read tone correctly, was a tarnishing of Milton, a placement of him amid those for whom destruction through cause was right, and an avoidance of what seem to be his messages in Areopagitica, in Paradise Lost, in Samson Agonistes, but most importantly, I think, in Paradise Regain'd. Our current times have brought an onslaught of terror and scandal and crisis all together in one fell swoop, and we can easily be overwhelmed. The questions pertinent to these ever-present evils have been “answered” (well, that's not the right word, perhaps “allayed”? perhaps “invalidated”?) in literature by faith, though it may be, as one knows, but a chimera, or by no answer, a mere void, a black hole, the nihilism of the nineteenth century continued. I think of Archibald MacLeish's little poem, for one expression of this vacuum that many feel and that he envisioned as “The End of the World”:

And there, there overhead, there, there, hung over

Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,

There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,

There with vast wings across the canceled skies,

There in the sudden blackness the black pall

Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.

Opposed, with strong faith and strong awareness of the black pall that war brings, Kenneth Patchen wrote (in “The Stars Go to Sleep Peacefully”):

O the soul of the world is dead [. . .]

Truth rots in a bloody ditch;

And love is impaled on a million bayonets.

But great God! the stars go to sleep so peacefully.

And in a different poem, “How Silent are the Things of Heaven,” also resultant from the second World War, the imagery is expanded:

God, how silent are Thy fair children

That they never

Scream in fear

Or kill their sweet kind

In Thy name

As we do

And have forever done

O how silent are all heavenly things

And joyous in Thy white country

That they never howl

Like beasts in a bloody wood

As we do

And have done O Thou

Would go mad in the noise of this grave

He brought together new poems, like the first cited here, and previously published ones, like the last, in a collection entitled, so meaningfully, An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air. Patchen's1944 novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight is built on the search for and a wayfaring pilgrimage amid war's no-man's-land to find Roivas, who will be found in Galen. We do not need to ponder very long who this is or where he is to be found: it is the Savior, though the letters are given in reverse, who will be found in the complexity and anagrammatic confusion of Angel, for the way to the Savior lies in knowing that “There is no darkness anywhere. There are only sick little men who have turned away from the light” (313). Albion (a name implying light) has recognized before what Milton, in a way, had presented in a different language and circumstances: “What horror can be greater than an army of monstrous dogs—led by a human intelligence” (17).

One of course need not be a pacifist as Patchen was to recognize and be appalled by the viciousness of humankind to humankind, or on narrower and personal levels, by the egocentricism of the “me-generation,” the self-gratifying people who think not at all of any Other. Scandal, white-collar or criminally aggressive, points so often to self as its base. As much as we might think that the 1970s “Do your own thing” slogan is an answer to controls and power, too often doing your own thing interferes with someone else's doing his own thing. There is a “Satanism,” as Walker Percy called it, that can take over whether it is depraved sexuality or embezzlement to advance oneself into realms of material success or envy of the incarnate condition. “Bestialism” pervades as the Lucifer syndrome comes to dominate, as Percy manifested in Love in the Ruins and Lancelot, among other novels. The New Fall that Dr. Tom More recognizes (he has already passed through the Paradise Estates) can be countered only by escaping from Monsignior Schliefkopf's office by unscrewing the screws holding the grill of the air-conditioner with the “proper bronze sword” of the “somewhat prissy bronze archangel” Michael. This “two-handed engine,” as Milton called it in Lycidas, this “brandished sword of God” that before Adam and Eve “blazed” as they leave their earthly Paradise, will be wielded by God's agent against the followers of Lucifer, come Judgment Day.

But in the meantime, the wayfarer in life, like More, must become a warfarer and employ that metaphoric sword as needs be to overcome “ordeal.” We should not simply await epiphany as The Thanatos Syndrome recounts—the victory of Eros over Thanatos, which The Second Coming paints comes only with a denial of accusations toward God and His ways toward men (we remember Milton's line, PL 1.26), and an acceptance of Eternal Providence (and now we should be remembering that it is Providence that Milton hopes to “assert” in his epic, and that it is Providence that accompanies Adam and Eve as they descend to the subjected plain). Even the “sleeping heads” of the church (the meaning of “Schliefkopf”) are seen as just as much Luciferian as Satan himself, the escape lying within some metaphoric action of that sword that will smite once and smite no more, and again we remember Lycidas. A major factor in the sexual scandals that have beset the Catholic church has been startlingly foreboded.

The concept of a holy war in Milton is discussed most importantly by Michael Lieb in Poetics of the Holy (246-312). Here he reviews commentators' demonstration that “the concept of war as a sacral event is indebted” to “the Bible more than any other work.” Milton found holy wars delineated by “the original saints of God doing battle against the Dragon” (247): the Bible had provided the “profound impact upon the attitudes toward war that emerge in Milton's own time and that manifested itself both in theory and in practice during his career as polemicist and poet.” What Milton discerns is “That Jerusalem must be conquered not through earthly but through spiritual means. The conquest involves a warfare that is waged in the soul of man and that is consummated in the Second Coming” (311).

In the seventeenth-century Christian Soldier's Penny Bible. Shewing from the Holy Scriptures, the Soldier's Duty and Encouragement, the tenth admonition is: “The Christian Soldier should love his Enemies; yet hate and destroy them as Enemies of God and his Country.” In the 1645 Souldiers Catechisme, the question “Is it lawfull for Christians to be Souldiers?” is answered positively: “Yea doubtless: we have Arguments enough to warrant it” and “God cals himself a Man of Warre, and Lord of Hosts.” The chief aim in the war against Charles I includes “the pulling down of Babylon,”“The advancement of Christs Kingdom,” and “the bringing to justice the enemies of our Church and State.”3

In contrast is Milton's plea to Sir Thomas Fairfax that the nobler task is to free “Truth, and Right from Violence,” and to clear Public Faith “from the shamefull brand / Of Public Fraud.”“For what can Warrs but endless warr still breed.” It is the brief epic, Paradise Regain'd, that carries the message that Milton offers fully and unambiguously. Like Adam at the point of decision to eat or not to eat of the forbidden fruit, and the need of faith in God, Jesus is faced with a dilemma in the third temptation on the pinnacle of the temple of Jerusalem. Satan challenges him (citing Ps. 91.11-12): “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee [omitting ‘in all thy ways’]: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.” If Jesus casts himself off to put God to the test, he has, of course, discredited God and his word; if he stands, he is sure to fall. But faith in God, here clearly assayed, while showing love and virtue, causes Jesus to rejoin: “also it is written, / Tempt not the Lord thy God.” He said and stood, and “Satan smitten with amazement fell.” His is not the aggressive answer for “bringing to justice the enemies of our Church.”

The temptation in the wilderness which is the basis for Milton's brief epic provides him with a clear case of challenging one's virtue, love, and faith in Truth and Right. In Areopagitica, Milton warned that humankind must exercise virtue by sallying forth against its adversary (the Hebraic meaning of the name Satan): “he that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true [wayfaring] warfaring Christian” (CPW 2: 514-15). Is the original printing “wayfaring”—and we should remember the omission of “in all his ways” that Satan excises in the brief epic—the one Milton wanted, or are the written changes from “y” to “r” in various copies of the pamphlet really by Milton himself or indeed the text he had written, altered in the printing house? The brief epic certainly points to “way” rather than “war.” The poem pictures confrontation with the adversary, rejects a mere excremental whiteness (see Areopagitica[CPW 3: 516] and this recalls to us Herman Melville's image of resistance in Moby-Dick), alludes to the dust and heat of life as seen in such as famine, war, and death (temptations one, two, and three), and in particular, presents a Jesus who can distinguish between the true and the false, the right and the wrong. And perhaps it is that word from Areopagitica that is most important: “distinguish.” In life, so much must be distinguished within potential action of beliefs, of following authority, of use of one's time and money and energy, and of war. We face issues every day that challenge our actions and our thoughts. In Paradise Regain'd, many readers have seen the presentation of Jesus as an exemplar, one to be imitated (as in the age-old “Imitation of Christ,” such as Thomas à Kempis saw to achieve a detachment from the world and union with God), but that is not the meaningful message here. “Patience” and “temperance” are both actions, and once they become a part of the inner self and distinguishing is exercised, one is capable of decisive action without forethought, without weighing the issue. The message of Paradise Regain'd is that we should inculcate the qualities that the man Jesus exhibits so that we automatically react in praiseworthy fashion. The adversary is defeated by the internalization of Michael's counsel in Paradise Lost, and by that internalization being made thus available for action. We must change in the inner person, Milton is admonishing, and what must be done is change people, not institutions—a tremendous task. It is also the burden of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, not simply to change the government institution. We must “amend our lives,” as he counseled in Of True Religion. The individual independence of worth, a spiritual inner being, is what Milton foresees as the answer to so many problems in our world. One's essence is the only thing that is going to guide action when there is no precedent to follow, not imitation, not prohibition, not law. As the Son advocates:

Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules

Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more a King;

Which every wise and vertuous man attains:

And who attains not, ill aspire to rule

Cities of men, or head-strong Multitudes,

Subject himself to Anarchy within,

Or lawless passions in him which he serves.

(PR 2.466-72)

Eve's important question in the longer epic is pertinent: “And what is Faith, Love, Vertue unassaid / Alone, without exterior help sustaind?” (PL 9.335-36). That word “unassaid” is of major importance, I contend, in Milton's thinking. Literary questions and answers to the question of faith in our time do advance “nothing, nothing at all,” or blind faith in what one wants to believe as counter to such nihilistic thinking. Such answers consider a godhead who may act in time or for whom one acts in life, or it may be a humanistic world presented, divorced from all religious relationships, a world of charitable people aiding as best they can the less fortunate, the oppressed, with benevolence toward all. Yet perhaps a sense of the religious emerges even here, even without ostensible spiritual affinities. In Milton's thought it is humankind joining with God to achieve. “But the good news is always there, just around the corner, chalked up on the wall of a deserted house: ∼‘GOD IS LOVE!’” So Henry Miller observed in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. He had been talking of the formerly beautiful apartment-hotel in Chicago's south side called The Mecca, but then decrepit disrepair, the haunt of druggies and prostitution, and all kinds of localized terror and scandal and personal crisis set in. “I am sure,” he continues,

that when the citizens of Chicago read these lines they will get up en masse and make a pilgrimage to that house. It is easy to find because it stands in the middle of a vacant lot on the south Side. You climb down a manhole in La Salle Street and just let yourself drift with the sewer water. You can't miss it because it's written in white chalk in letters ten feet high. All you need to do when you find it is to shake yourself like a sewer-rat and dust yourself off. God will do the rest.

We cannot miss the irony, the incisive criticism, can we?

Well, as perhaps some readers know, the Illinois Institute of Technology, its buildings designed by Miës Van der Rohe, now stands on that site. And as Gwendolyn Brooks counsels,

Sit where the light corrupts your face.

Miës Van der Rohe retires from grace.

And the fair fables fall.

She details in “In the Mecca” the fall of that place of once “marvelous rest,” and the rape and murder of little Pepita, “whose little stomach fought the world.” She reminds us that “One reason cats are happier than people / is that they have no Newspapers”(5, 31, 11). Do we need Young Goodman Brown's encounter with the Black Mass in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story to know how evil can come out of good?

The past has long debated the biblical Samson's death, particularly whether it can be called suicide or not: He “called unto the LORD, and said, O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judg. 16.28). For Manoa and the Chorus in Milton's dramatic poem this has become “revenge”(1591, 1712, 1660), a subtle change from a simple retribution to a strident, more personal action. Samson then pleads, following upon “only this once,” (Judg. 16.28) “Let me die with the Philistines” (Judg. 16.30). Manoa, upon learning of his death “By his own hand,” immediately reacts: “Self-violence?” (1584), but the Chorus denies suicide: he “now ly'st victorious / Among thy slain self-kill'd / Not willingly, but tangl'd in the fold / Of dire necessity” (1663-66). Which is it? unintended death through an act of avengement, or an expected and even desired death in an act of revenge—a suicide, particularly one intending the deaths of one's enemies—a suicide bomber? What must be acknowledged in attempting to come to evaluation of the dramatic poem—and thus, by transference, of Milton himself—is that Milton always looked to the Scriptures as the Word of God. In this case, what is required is presenting a Samson who “only this once” called upon God for avengement and who asked to “die with the Philistines.” But Milton goes beyond the narrative when we give weight to the imagery and symbolization. Samson is viewed as an “ev'ning Dragon,”but immediately in rejection of this epithet as an “Eagle” and most significantly as the “Phoenix.” The emblems of the Christ as an Eagle and as the Phoenix point us to a resurrection for Samson, whose “fame survives,” and for all those who will become “great deliverers” of themselves and for their world. The rejection of the temptations of Samson by Manoa, Dalila, and Harapha has been the prime presentation of the poem, with Samson delivering himself from ego, from self-action rather than action with God. Is jihad condoned? Advised? Or is Milton not, in his assaying of faith and love and virtue, arguing that we should “amend our lives” first, just as Samson should have before he came to his imprisoned state? Is not Milton's position that, like the Eagle or the Phoenix, not like the Dragon, which is repulsed through battles by the saints (see Lieb, Poetics) and here by the Chorus, Samson should have emulated the qualities of the Son which the dramatic poem's volume companion Paradise Regain'd demonstrates?

What indeed can be the literary answers for faith in our time when we are surrounded by terror and scandal and all forms of injustice? “The enemy faints not, nor faileth, / And as things have been they remain.” Yet we all persist in our own little and big ways, and though our hopes for morality and life may be, as the poet says, “dupes,” those “fears may be liars” by the same token. With Arthur Hugh Clough many can counter: “Say not the struggle naught availeth,” and some will rely on the daylight of the east, like that boy on the hill in Black Orpheus bringing the sun up, up, up over the hill, and they will see metaphor, if not personification, in that slowly rising sun. “But,” with Clough, we may also recognize that “westward, look, the land is bright.”4


  • 1

    Quotations of Milton's poetry are from my edition, while those from his prose are from the Yale edition (cited in the text as CPW).

  • 2

    A number of significant and informed articles and media reactions to John Carey's article on Samson Agonistes have appeared. Among them are Forsyth; Guttenplan; Lowenstein; Lieb; Fish; Mohamed, “Confronting” and “Reading,”Wittreich, Herman, and Mohamed; Rudrum, Wittreich, Why225-26n2 and 17 (for citations of dicussions in the media), and Wood.

  • 3

    See Fallon24-43 and 56-136. Compare the quotations from Samson Agonistes with these citations.

  • 4

    Quotations in this paragraph are from Clough's“Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth” in Carr.