The Grammar of Ethics in "Paradise Lost"
Minas, Steven Aaron
A current divide exists in Milton criticism between those who view "Paradise Lost" as an indeterminate work composed of irresolvable choices and aporias (contradictions), and those who view the poem as a singular work of moral certainty. I propose that a way beyond the two opposed interpretive positions lies in what I call the poem's "grammar of ethics," a set of generative rules underlying the ethical claims of the poem. The argument that I make for a grammar of ethics relies for its conceptual framework on the early linguistic work of Noam Chomsky, whose theory of generative grammar provides a helpful analogy to understanding the complex way in which "Paradise Lost's" moral and narrative structure works. Just as the innate rules and principles of generative grammar allow humans to create an infinite number of sentences out of limited means, I contend that an innate moral grammar underlies "Paradise Lost's" narrative structure, which allows the reader to generate her own ethical position. In addition to Chomsky's work, I draw on recent scholarship in moral cognition to make the connection between language and morals.After establishing the scope of the grammar of ethics and its grammatical rules, I illustrate how the moral grammar functions in the poem. I specifically look at Milton's treatment of two key concepts in "Paradise Lost," despair and heroism, and provide close readings of both concepts. In doing so, I distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical responses to the poem while suggesting ways that the reader generates innumerable ethical readings that move beyond the current polarization in Milton Studies.
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