English 620: Milton's Gods 

Dr. Michael Bryson
Sierra Tower 832

When we talk about knowing God, it must be understood in terms of man’s limited powers of comprehension.  God, as he really is, is far beyond man’s imagination, let alone his understanding--John Milton, De Doctrina Christiana  

Course Description
Who or what is God? How can God be represented, much less justified (as Milton famously claims he will do), in poetry? Does God “exist” in any recognizable sense at all? This course will explore the God(s) imagined and presented in Milton’s three final poetic works, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. Along the way, we will explore one of the basic tensions of Western theology—the tension between the God with qualities and the God without qualities, the “Gods” of positive and negative theologies—as a way of understanding what Milton may have been up to. Paradise Lost, for example, though it has often been read as if it expressed a confidently positive theology, can also be seen as a constantly shifting poetic ground, one where negation, not affirmation, is both the prime moving energy for—and the interpretive principle that makes sense of—the conflicts between confidence and doubt that so often threaten to rend Milton’s great epic. In other words, Milton’s “God” isn’t—and never was or could have been—intended to be an absolutely accurate representation of God. (And that may be part of why Milton’s Satan is so much fun…)

The reading will include, of course, Milton, as well as selected works by Plato, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Nicholas of Cusa, with additional selections from contemporary critics.

Each student will do 3 assignments. 

1) A presentation/summary of an article, or book chapter relevant to the work of this course (Milton and God, Milton and Plato, Milton and Neoplatonism, etc.). The summary--though not the article or chapter itself--should be printed and distributed to the class the day it is to be presented. These will start week 3, and continue through week 12 (for about an average of 2 presentations per week). Excellent sources for journal articles include JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org/), Project Muse (http://muse.jhu.edu/), and Academic Search Elite (http://library.csun.edu/restricted/ebsase.scr). These databases must be accessed from the CSUN campus, or from off-campus with your activated library card bar code ID and last name.

2) A conference length paper (maximum of 10 pages), to be distributed
to the rest of the class in advance, and presented in-class during weeks 13-15.

3) A longer, article-length paper (15-20 pages), based on the conference-length paper.

Weekly Preview
Week 1--(8/28) Introductions
Week 2--(9/4) The Traditional Milton and the Emerging Milton--Shawcross, "The Life of Milton"  (from The Cambridge Companion to Milton, first ed. 1989, 1-19); also excerpts from Herman, Destabilizing Milton, and Bryson, The Atheist Milton
Week 3--(9/11) Plato, Republic (Allegory of the Cave) Book 7, Symposium, Baldwin, "Plato and the Neoplatonists," from Platonism and the English Imagination, 3-18
Week 4--(9/18) Plato, Phaedrus, Timaeus
Week 5--(9/25) Neo-Platonism--Plotinus, Enneads--Fifth Ennead, First Tractate ("The Three Initial Hypostases"), First Ennead, SIxth Tractate ("On Beauty")
Week 6--(10/2) Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology; Lieb, The Visionary Mode, 234-49
Week 7--(10/19) Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance (Book 1)
Week 8--(10/16) Paradise Lost 1-4; Plotinus,
First Ennead, Eighth Tractate ("On the Nature and Source of Evil"); Baldwin, "Platonic ascents and descents in Milton," from Platonism and the English Imagination, 151-162
Week 9--(10/23) Paradise Lost 5-8
Week 10--(10/30) Paradise Lost 9-12
Week 11--(11/6) Paradise Regained
Week 12--(11/13) Samson Agonistes; Carey, "A Work in Praise of Terrorism?" Times Literary Supplement (London), 9/6/2002, 15-16
The course will culminate in a series of conference-style symposiums: 
Week 13--(11/20) Research Presentations (5-6 papers of no more than 20 minutes reading length--8-10 pages, distributed in advance to the rest of the class)
Week 14--(11/27) Research Presentations (5-6 papers of no more than 20 minutes reading length--8-10 pages, distributed in advance to the rest of the class)
Week 15--(12/4) Research Presentations ((5-6 papers of no more than 20 minutes reading length--8-10 pages, distributed in advance to the rest of the class)

Reading List
(All readings will be available either at the Campus Bookstore or will be distributed by the instructor.)  

  1. Milton--The Major Works, (April 2003), Oxford University Press; ISBN: 0140433635 
  2. Pseudo-Dionysius--The Complete Works, Paulist Press (August 1, 1987); ISBN: 0809128381
  3. Nicholas of Cusa--Selected Spiritual Writings, Paulist Press (April 1, 1997); ISBN: 0809136988
  4. Various other readings provided by instructor

Note on Web Resources
The best overall web resource for Milton is Thomas Luxon's Milton Reading Room, at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/. See especially his links to other web resources at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/links/index.shtml, and to print scholarship (selected books and journal articles that have appeared from 1987-20
11) at <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/bibliography/a-b/index.shtml>