Milton and The Law

The Fall of Man by Goltzius. Eve is shown eating from the Tree of Knowledge
The Fall of Man by Goltzius. Eve is shown eating from the Tree of Knowledge

“My claim is that if we read Paradise Lost on the lookout for its moments of incertitude and divine impenetrability, we can miss the ways in which law helps to create rational order and stability.”

This quote from author Alison Chapman, Professor of English at the University of Alabama, sets the stage for this new look at Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the hands on Milton, Chapman writes, law is simply a form of applied philosophy.

He excoriates modern scholars who conflate 17th century equity, common law and canon law under the heading “early modern law.” Chapman says that such “uncritical consolidation is as problematic as would be a comparable mingling of Quakers, Puritans and Church of England stalwarts under the label ‘Protestants’.”

The concept of property is central to Paradise Lost, but its true meaning has not been appreciated in modern times. Property, or, as Milton often uses the word, propriety, “was outward-looking and inherently communal. Milton seems intent on recovering this earlier idea of property as a set of rights and attributes, an idea that was still dimly visible in his own day.”

What does this mean for Paradise Lost? There is a crucial passage that says Adam has sole propriety in Eve. Chapman explains this “does not mean that Eve is herself a piece of property. Instead he means that one of the attributes (or ‘proprieties’) of Eve is Adam’s marital rights in her – and vice versa.”

Applying ideas from property law, Chapman shows that for Milton in the early modern period, “law could still be regarded as one expression of God’s will for humanity.” The fall distorts what is normally held to be property relationships. “Milton suggests that a major consequence of the fall is that Adam’s legal rights in Eve increase and Eve’s legal rights in Adam dwindle, and the two lose their mirrored legal rights in each other.”

Chapman gives us an understanding of the word “bond” that he modestly claims “provides us with a different perspective on Adam’s fallen thinking.” In explaining to Eve why he has chosen to sin with her, Adam uses the phrase “bond of nature.” In using this phrase, Chapman says, “Adam implies not only that he has a natural tie to Eve but that he and Nature have entered into a legal ‘bond.’ “

Crucially, the author discerns that “this image strategically erases the Son’s agency. Whereas earlier Adam asked the Son to grant him ‘collateral love,’ now he imagines that his receipt of Eve was a purely private transaction between himself and Nature.”

The insights the author provides are numerous and eye-opening. On the subject of the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge, Chapman writes “Milton shows that the fall happens in part because, under Satan’s coaching, Adam and Eve apply contractual thinking to a prohibition that was instead the nonnegotiable cornerstone of God’s positive law.” At the heart of the issue is the move Milton makes when he refers to the tree as “interdicted” by God. While scholars till now have thought of this as merely a prohibition, Chapman leads us to understand “an interdict was a decree in Roman law typically used to ban private persons from taking actions related to possession.”

After more than 300 years of study, it is amazing that previous scholars have missed (or dismissed) the plethora of legal road signs (some with blinking lights, to make sure they could not be ignored) in Paradise Lost. My own research into Paradise Lost (published in the journal Renaissance and Reformation in 2016) shows how equally obvious indicators from the realm of astronomy have also been totally misunderstood for centuries. This book substantially transforms our understanding of the greatest prose work in English literature.

I found a few typos. The text should read: “exactly the same way” pg. 84; pg. 148: “as part of a new legal system”; pg. 203: “into a room”. The index needed more work; for example, the Bye Plot of 1603 (mentioned on pg. 231) is not included.

The Legal Epic: Paradise Lost and Early Modern Law (291 pages) is $40 from University of Chicago Press.

About Cliff 79 Articles
Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, and a research associate at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He is a founding member of Sun News, and managing editor of Sun News Austin. (The photo at left shows Sun News editor-in-chief Dave Moskowitz)

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