From Eternity to Here (II)

Numerous examples could be adduced to illustrate this tendency among 17th century thinkers. Another one would be that of the English poet, John Milton, whose poem Paradise Lost illustrates this tendency perfectly.  In Bk. VI when the angel Raphael comes down to earth to warn Adam and Eve about Satan’s plans to corrupt them, Milton describes heaven like this:

All night the dreadless Angel unpursu’d
Through Heav’ns wide Champain held his way, till Morn,
Wak’t by the circling Hours, with rosie band
Unbarr’d the gates of  Light. There is a Cave
Within the Mount of God, fast by his Throne,
Where light and darkness in perpetual round
Lodge and dislodge by turns, which makes through Heav’n
Grateful vicissitude, like Day and Night;
Light issues forth, and at the other dore
Obsequious darkness enters, till her houre
To veile the Heav’n, though darkness there might well
Seem twilight here; and now went forth the Morn
Such as in highest Heav’n, array’d in Gold
Empyreal, from before her vanisht Night,
Shot through with Orient beams.  (Bk VI, ll.1-15.)

What deserves our attention here is that Milton depicts heaven as having night and day, morning and evening.  This is not so unusual, of course;  it is a poem, and one could argue that Milton was employing the theory of “accomodation” in his poem, using metaphorical language to describe things divine, and therefore did not intend such language be taken literally.  But it must be remembered that Milton is not Dante, and he writes after the great medieval practice of allegory has come under attack, and like all seventeenth century literature, showed a tendency toward the literal in its language that, under the influence of early modern natural philosophy, began to emphasize representational accuracy. More to the point, there is evidence that Milton did in fact think there duration and therefore time in heaven.  In his work “Reason of Church Government” (1642), Milton says that

The state of the blessed in Paradise, though never so perfect, is not therefore left without discipline, whose golden surveying reed marks out and measures every quarter and circuit of new Jerusalem. Yet is it not to be conceiv’d that those eternall effluences of sanctity and love in the
glorified Saints should by this meanes be confin’d and cloy’d with repetition of that which is prescrib’d, but that our happiness may orbe itselfe into a thousand vagrancies of glory and delight, and with a kinde of eccentricall equation be as it were an invariable Planet of Joy and felicity, how much lesse can we believe that God would leave his fraile
and feeble, though not lesse beloved Church here below to the perpetuall stumble of conjecture and disturbance in this our dark voyage without the card and compasse of discipline.

For Milton, as for Hobbes, there simply is no eternal stillness, no still point in time or outside of it, free from the flux of time.  In fact, Milton seems to make a virtue out of it:  instead of a meaningless flux of time, it is rather a “thousand vagaries of glory and delight,” that informs his notion of heaven in this passage.  

What I am describing here may sound like a mere intellectual quibble, the inconsequential twists and turns of debate among intellectuals, but it is actually indicative of a much wider trend in the 17th century.  This idea of eternity is of course in many ways a religious one, and one would be correct in linking it ultimately to the process of secularization in Western European society, but it is not quite that simple, however.  There are many other strands that one could look at in European history that help to explain how this came about—cultural, intellectual, religious changes, as well as the political upheavals of the seventeenth century.  This is obvious.  But the relationship between the waning influence of Christian religion in public life, the declining importance of it in terms of the personal lives especially of elites in Western Europe (since they set the trends, after all) and the fact that, as Orwell hinted at in his review of Eliot’s poem, for many “eternity” is no longer a felt reality is not nearly as clear.  This is not only because, as I have come to believe in trying to study the secularization of the West historically that many of the causes normally proposed for it (industrialization, religious wars, industrialization, growth of democracy, etc.) are really not related in any meaningful way.  (For example, the claim, which I don’t really hear advanced too much anymore but which was once more widespread, that Protestantism brought about democracy is, to be polite, less than indubitable).  The other reason is that, in the rush to prolcaim the death of God, those most self-conscious agents of secular beliefs never really seem to come out and proclaim the death of eternity along with Him.   

This is why I found Orwell’s critique of Eliot so interesting, since he hints at it but does not spell out what the implications of there being no God and no personal immortality have on the idea of eternity.  Can an atheist, in fact, believe in eternity, since in the West at least this idea has always been bound up with the idea of God? (In Buddhism and other non-Western religions this problem would not really apply of course).  This is the question I would like to pursue at my next opportunity. 

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~ by Alypius on April 21, 2008.

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