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Liberal studies head rethinks Milton

Ashley Charnley | Monday, November 12, 2007

Relying on characters and themes in John Milton’s writings, Notre Dame professor Stephen Fallon argued Saturday that Milton was not the religious writer history has dubbed him.

As part of the Snite Museum’s Saturday Scholar Series, Fallon, the chairperson of liberal studies at Notre Dame, said Milton did not become a religious writer until the end of his writing career.

“My argument is counterintuitive,” Fallon said. “I am going to argue that Milton, widely considered a great religious writer, is in an important sense, not a religious writer at all.”

Fallon combined his knowledge of Milton’s literature and life to argue that, although Milton explored theology in his writing, he did not write religiously.

Milton, a Puritan in the 17th century, is most known for his work “Paradise Lost.” He, however, also wrote poems, sonnets, other prose and an autobiography. His work focused strongly on religious topics. Fallon said Milton believed he wrote “divinely inspired truth, and he believed he could surpass Homer and Virgil because his epic would be true.”

Fallon admits that his idea that Milton is not a religious writer has gotten some varying reactions.

“Some say, ‘There goes another anti-religious university professor, trying to recruit a great author to his cause.’ Or, from the other side, ‘There goes a [Notre Dame] professor sniping at Milton for being anti-Catholic and unorthodox,'” Fallon said.

However, Fallon argues that his criteria come from information available in Milton’s autobiography and the characters in Milton’s poetry that resemble the author.

“I am interested in whether Milton is religious as he writes, and the answer there, I think, is no,” Fallon said.

He went on to discuss Milton’s own views on sin. Fallon said Milton believed that he was sinless. He believed that his works were divinely true.

Milton’s self-proclaimed lack of sin came into question when his first marriage fell apart. He then made the claim that divorce is justifiable in the Bible.

“His story is impossible, so it begins to disintegrate when it is met with real life,” Fallon said. “He uses the Gospel to authorize divorce. Milton believes that someone can ‘mutiny against God’ and exit a marriage,” Fallon said.

After his writings on marriage and divorce, Milton’s writing about himself began to change, Fallon said. Characters that resemble him in his works began to accept their sinfulness in a way Milton himself never would. In one of his works, the character that is modeled most after him is Satan, Fallon said. The story claims that Satan was cast out of Heaven because of his pride. Although Milton never admitted to his own pride – or denied his perfection – he did question these qualities in his characters.

Fallon noted the maturity of Milton’s characters in admitting their own sins, further asserting the maturity Milton himself did not have.

“By the end of his career, I am tempted to say, Milton was at last, in spite of himself, becoming a religious writer,” Fallon said.