Against the Law
Stanley Fish's explanation of how Milton works.
Aug 20, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 46 • By JASON P. ROSENBLATT
This turns Milton’s great epic into one more seventeenth-century tract on the relations of law and gospel. Although Fish’s rhetoric is bold and often dazzling, one wonders if his rejection of the great epic as an independent entity would have been received so eagerly by Milton scholars in 1967 if Woodhouse and Barker had not prepared the way. In How Milton Works, Fish extends and complicates his argument, as when he declares, about the problem of authorship, "It is the letter (of the law, of aesthetics, of prayer, of right action) from which Milton...wishes to drive us, yet it is only by means of the letter that living and writing can proceed." The damned seem able to do nothing right, while the elect of God can do no wrong—and this is a "component of Milton’s antinomianism, his reserving to the godly (self- or internally identified) the privilege of breaking laws others...are obliged to keep," justified by the purity of one’s intention, which cannot be evaluated by external criteria.
Fish is often completely persuasive about individual passages. How Milton Works applies his antinomian readings brilliantly and outrageously to Milton’s prose works, in particular the Areopagitica and The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Yeats once said that out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric; out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry. Perhaps this is the reason that Fish, a professor of rhetoric at Berkeley early in his career, is more successful in his relentless analyses of Milton’s rhetorical prose than he is with Milton’s poetry, whose ambiguities can never be exactly regulated even by the poet’s own moral intention. (Two critics who actually understand poetry’s rich ambiguity are Frank Kermode, whose elegant essay "Adam Unparadised" points out the difference between doctrine and poetry in Milton, and William Empson, whose Milton’s God argues that Paradise Lost is great because of its moral confusions.)
In a splendidly wrongheaded essay on the Areopagitica, generally read as an argument for a free press, Fish claims that books for Milton are "a thing indifferent." His Milton is virtually an obscurantist who holds that no book, not even the Bible, can teach a fool, while "whatever we make available to a wise man will not be essential to his wisdom." Indeed, the Bible itself is an example of an external form, and "truth is not the property of any external form, even of a form that proclaims the truth."
There are individual sentences in Milton’s tract that do seem to support Fish’s reading. When Fish encounters a passage that doesn’t—such as the famous encomium to books, which proclaims that to kill a book is to slay "an immortality rather than a life"—he peremptorily declares it "unMiltonic." Yet in the Areopagitica books are of capital importance. Milton adapts and extends the Reformation’s argument that abolishes distinctions between clergy and laity, and he insists on the right of all people to search the scriptures. Indeed, he widens the freedom to read the Bible to include the freedom to read any text. Quite Miltonically, he defines "the true warfaring Christian" as one who "can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain." For us, in 2001, it seems impossible to know "the utmost that vice promises to her followers" and at the same time to abstain. But for Milton the power of culture, and particularly of books, to convey experience would have made explanation unnecessary. It is he, after all, who defines poetry as "simple, sensuous, and passionate." And who better understands the attractions of evil, Milton or a flat-eyed serial killer?
In his zeal to oppose the true doctrine of the inner light to "the false authority of some external and imposed rule," even that of the gospel, Fish misquotes a famous passage from the Areopagitica. Where Milton writes, "Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on," Fish reads, "truth ‘indeed came once into her divine Master.’" Truth, in Milton’s actual quotation, is an external entity separate from Christ her Master. If, as Milton has it, "a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life," then the New Testament is the good book that contains the essence of Christ, the master-spirit whose lifeblood was spilled on the Cross and whom Joseph of Arimathea entombed with myrrh and aloes.