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Sustenance as Sin

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Down the Rabbit Hole of Research that is Milton’s Paradise Lost


    In her article “‘For Knowledge is as Food:’ Digesting Gluttony and Temperance in Paradise Lost,” Emily Speller examines Milton’s bountiful food metaphors to show how they color the primary events, and intents, of the poem. Within the intricate and nuanced bounds of religious and cultural interpretations of sin and virtue, she uncovers Milton’s portrayal of gluttony as the vehicle of man’s original disobedience and explores how such a portrayal strengthens the poet’s persistent encouragement of temperance (Speller 1). Such an examination, she says, can help us to understand Milton’s professed objective of “[justifying] the wayes of God to men” (Milton 1.26), as well as the importance of Reason in guiding human beings towards the most ethical and temperate existence accessible to them after their Fall from grace (Speller 17).


    Speller portrays gluttony as a central concept in Paradise Lost that Milton’s characters both modify and are modified by. Milton, she explains, uses gluttonous and digestive metaphors to besmirch the “infernal and sinful” (Speller 2) figures in the poem when he describes Satan and his followers in terms evocative of vomit, flatulence, and defecation (Speller 2). This fosters within Milton’s reader a repulsion towards to the inhabitants of Hell, which sentiment Milton extends to entangle Adam and Eve as well when he fashions parallels between the actions—especially those involving the eating of fruit—of the demons and our ‘first parents’ (Speller 3-4). In addition, however, to borrowing from gluttony’s undesirable attributes to rub abhorrence off onto his characters, Milton also does the inverse and uses his characters, especially those whose unpopularity is pre-established, to lend infernal cachet to the concept of gluttony (Speller 4). Speller notes particularly that, in a topos common to Medieval and Early Modern writers, Milton personifies gluttony in the character of Death. She explains that “[b]y giving the formidable shape of Death a ‘Rav’nous Maw,’ Milton depicts not only the terror of death as a product of sin, but also what he believes to be the insidiousness of gluttony” (4). Speller’s apt demonstration here of Milton’s vilification of gluttony, combined with her argument for Adam and Eve’s association with gluttony via comparison with the devils, allows Speller to proceed plausibly to her cardinal claim, namely that the Fall from Grace in Paradise Lost is itself achieved through gluttony (5).


    This is essentially an assertion that in Milton’s understanding, humankind arrived at its current state through an act as sensually seditious as it was spiritually so. Speller sets about, through methodical, logical rhetoric that is punctuated by frequent allusions to preceding scholars, proving this claim, and draws evidence for Milton’s belief in the primacy of gluttony from a few of Milton’s own prose works, harvesting from his Commonplace Book the statement that gluttony is intolerable in part “because our first parent sank into it” (Speller 5). Speller proceeds to catalogue the literary history of gluttony as original sin, quoting religious authorities from Augustine to Aquinas as well as Medieval and Early Modern poets on the theme (Speller 5, 7, 10). She conjectures that in representing Adam and Eve’s transgression as gluttonous Milton may have taken a cue from these predecessors: being “familiar with the Church Fathers, Dante, Chaucer and Spenser” (7), she argues, Milton was undeniably aware of the literary tradition this portrayal comprised, and he can reasonably be seen as supplying it “further development in Paradise Lost” (7). 


    When it comes to definitively locating the particulars of gluttony within Milton’s narration of the Fall in Book Nine, Speller makes use of a diverse host of sources, fashioning from their texts a framework of definitions and distinctions within which she weaves her comparisons and harmonizes centuries of ethical thought to the key of one penetrating poem. With a keen understanding of the nuanced process of and preceding our ‘first parents’ ’ transgression in Paradise Lost, Speller extracts from her sources recondite features of gluttony that each reflect specific aspects of that process. Intriguingly, the source Speller most frequently draws on in this endeavor does not once mention Paradise Lost. The article “Gluttony,” by William Ian Miller, treats it’s namesake theme rather through a social lens, inspecting the inordinate scorn many cultures reserve for gluttony and the way in which it’s historical legacy “as an honored member of a select group of capital sins” (Miller 93) excuses this scorn, allowing us to view obesity, ugliness, and ill-health with antipathy and even reproach (93). For it is Miller who provides most of the historical data on gluttony’s classification which Speller benefits from in her article: Miller relates that as early as the fourth century gluttony was listed at the head of eight deadly sins, and that this arrangement can be found replicated in writings as recent as the thirteenth century, although following the reorganization by Gregory the Great in the sixth century most accounts list pride and avarice first (Miller 93-95). Miller relates that Thomas Aquinas considered gluttony to be a capital sin on the grounds that gluttony has the potential to generate other sins, such as lust and pride, an allegation that Speller shows us is indeed realized by Milton in Paradise Lost when, after their transgression, Adam and Eve’s “desires for food and sex are exacerbated, made increasingly inordinate” (Speller 9). This correlation between Aquinas’ definition and Milton’s verse demonstrates that the Fall in Paradise Lost can be identified as an act of gluttony by the consequences immediately following it. 


    It is also from Miller that Emily Speller draws the notion that gluttony conscribes more than “the primary meaning of consuming to excess” (Speller 6). On the contrary, Miller tells us that “[f]ollowing distinctions made by Gregory the Great in the sixth century, writings on vices and virtues well into the fifteenth century understood gluttony to have five main branches: eating too soon, too much, too avidly, too richly (in the sense of expensively), and too daintily” (99). Miller explains that this taxonomy of Gregory’s is an elaboration on an ecclesiastic tradition of viewing gluttony as comprised of quantitive excesses (such as eating “too much”), and qualitative excesses (such as eating “too daintily”) (Miller 103). The first, Miller writes, can be characterized as “vulgar masculine” (105), and the second “vulgar feminine; one low-class, the other pretentiously claiming for itself the superiority of expertise and highness, but often taking on the style of an unintended parody of highness” (105-6). Speller grafts this passage meticulously onto our understanding of the Fall in Paradise Lost when she asserts that Milton’s Eve commits both types of gluttony: initially she eats discriminately, when “[i]n an ‘unintended parody of highness,’ she first chooses to act beyond her human limits” (Speller 10) and partake of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then she eats indiscriminately, when by Milton’s account she doesn’t hesitate “to iterate / Her former trespass” (Milton 9.1005-6) and partake again alongside Adam (Speller 10). As Speller points out, this “second helping of sin goes beyond the satiety she experienced earlier, complicating an already criminal act” (9). In thus dissecting the sequence of distinct acts that comprise this most vital scene of Milton’s epic, Speller illustrates another scheme by which man’s transgression in Paradise Lost may be understood as gluttonous. These vivid items of evidence that Miller provides, both that of gluttony’s alleged generation of further deadly sins and that of gluttony as a qualitative as well as quantitative excess, comprise the essence of Speller’s case for the gluttonousness of Milton’s version of Fall, demonstrating that a text written in another discipline and with an entirely distinct purpose, if thorough and well presented, may prove an essential source even to the most specialized of unrelated arguments. 


    Another source Speller mentions in her text is one that illuminates gluttony’s counterpart quality of temperance. True to her titular purpose of “Digesting Gluttony and Temperance in Paradise Lost,” Speller turns her focus to Milton’s cynosure of moderation after having established his condemnation of gluttony via its part in the ruin of humanity. Joshua Scodel is author of Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature, a book that treats of the popular, philosophical, and controversial concept of the middle ground. His introductory chapter summarizes English writers’ fixation on this Aristotelian juxtaposition of excess and deficiency, and describes Milton as writing Paradise Lost in a time when excess was widely exalted in Cavalier symposiastic verse (Scodel 11-16). On the contrary Milton, Scodel writes, glorified self-restraint and a moderate lifestyle, partly as moral advice to his fellow men and partly as censure of his Royalist contemporaries (Scodel 16). 


    Speller seizes on Scodel’s brief characterization of Miltonic Paradise and proves immensely resourceful in spinning it into corroboration for one of the points she strives to make about Milton’s use of temperance. “Milton,” Scodel writes, “presents unfallen Adam and Eve as models of a partially recoverable ideal” (17).  Speller uses this quote initially to demonstrate the idealized nature of Adam and Eve’s prelapsarian life, and it leads her into a discussion of the various manifestations of temperance in Milton’s text. She revisits it later in her text, however, with an eye to its connotations for the future: as Speller asserts, “[t]he final books of Paradise Lost are especially important because they take place in a postlapsarian world and can thereby advise the reader in the management his own fallen condition” (Speller 11). The potential for the ‘partial recovery’ of Miltonic Paradise, she argues, lies in the Archangel Michael’s advice to Adam to infuse all his actions with virtue, charity, and temperance, a passage that Speller argues “illustrate[s] the hope that Adam through moral striving may find a ‘partially recoverable,’ felicitous internal balance no longer possible outside the self, due to the changed nature of a world fallen askew” (Speller 14-15). Speller identifies additional evidence for the recoverability of Paradise in the fact that Milton himself believed that an appropriate amount of pleasure was good and even necessary to human life, as long as it was of course accompanied by temperance, an opinion for which Speller found evidence in Paradise Lost’s “Dinner Party” scene, when Raphael and the mortal couple exalt in God’s delicious bounty and yet only eat “until they had suffic’t, / Not burd’n’d nature” (Milton 5.451-52), as well as in a paragraph of Milton’s Areopagitica in which “pleasures are defended when, ‘rightly temper’d,’ they form ‘the very ingredients of vertu’” (Speller 8.) The corroboration of these passages from two separate Miltonic texts, Speller argues, “suggests that Scodel is correct in assuming that Milton believes the Edenic ideal is ‘partially recoverable’” (Speller 8), a suggestion which would in turn imply the validity of Speller’s assertion that the last two books of Paradise Lost are chiefly a guide to how postlapsarian man should best conduct himself.


    Viewing Paradise Lost, as Speller does, through its digestive imagery, clarifies the ethical and practical values expressed by the poem. To my mind, gluttony’s position as primary evil and temperance’s as ultimate good reveal the thoroughly Puritan nucleus of milton’s worldview, showing his work to be informed by intolerance of ritual and excess, and by the all-permeating Puritan tenet of “everything in moderation” ( Speller’s analysis of Paradise Lost reveals another pillar of Miltonic nomos: his ascription to monism, or the belief that “there is a single origin or destination for all the elements or beings within a system” (Speller 15, OED). If all things come from and return to god, one must assume that the evils of the world must somehow each evolve to serve an ultimately noble purpose. With this conviction in mind, one might reasonably regard Milton’s depiction of Paradise as ‘partially recoverable’ as an attempt to reconcile God’s omnipotence with the existence evil. The final two books of Paradise Lost, then, beyond being readable as advice to “the reader in the management his own fallen condition” (Speller 11), may perhaps be interpreted as the poet’s amendment to the tragic consummation of God’s expressed foresight of man’s Fall in Paradise Lost. After all, Satan’s penetration of Eden, temptation of Eve, and the entry of Death and Sin into the world were all permitted by Milton’s God, a fact which is held to be primarily justified in the prospect of the Eschaton (Milton 10.623-37, Speller 4). But Milton may intend to further remediate the evil of man’s intellectual and physical engorging—of the triumph of inordinacy and ‘parodied highness’—by extending, via Michael, the prospect of the “felicitous internal balance” that Speller describes (15). Perhaps it is in this, Michael’s intimation, that we can see Milton truly fulfilling his endeavor to “justifie the wayes of God to men” (1.26), via dialogue and scenes of his own devising rather than the mere honoring of a centuries-old religious theory like that of the Eschaton. Perhaps it is in this, the promise of renewed opportunity for feats of temperance over gluttony, that we can find a degree of redemption in the postlapsarian world.


Works Cited:

Aquinas, Thomas. “Summa Theologica.”, Benziger Bros. ed, 1947.    Accessed 19         March 2017. “The Puritan Beliefs.”        site15/bobs/puritanbeliefpage11.htm. Accessed 21 March 2017.

Miller, William Ian. “Gluttony.” Representations, no. 60, 1997, pp. 92–112.,        Accessed 14 March 2017.

Oxford English Dictionary. “Monism,” entry 2.        Entry/121244?redirectedFrom=monism#eid. Accessed 21 March 2017.

Scodel, Joshua. Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature. Princeton         University Press, 2002.

Speller, Emily E. “‘For Knowledge Is As Food’: Digesting Gluttony and Temperance in         Paradise Lost.” Early English Studies, vol. 2,            fulltext/speller2.html. Accessed 14 March 2017.