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Inquiries regarding the nature and acquisition of knowledge, coupled with the monumental question of whether human beings are capable of accruing knowledge–the philosophical study of epistemology–has roots buried in antiquity: Genesis, to be exact. Great thinkers of the Western tradition have both accepted and rejected components of Old Testament lore; Platonic and Aristotelian philosophers have indeed battled for centuries over the way in which reality is understood. Following Aristotle’s teachings, the empiricists and Enlightenment thinkers regarded the processing of sense and experiential data as the surest way to unlock truth. Plato’s adherents, however, figures such as Immanuel Kant, deemed the human intellect a leaky and misguiding faculty, not quite efficient in comprehending truth. John Milton and Margaret Cavendish, the reigning theological epistemologists of the 17th century, pondered the nature of divine reality, the role of human rationality in understanding God’s master plan, and the means by which that plan is (and should be) grasped by the human race.
Both Milton and Cavendish have declared in their works, Paradise Lost and The Blazing World, that reason as a means to arrive at ultimate truth is insufficient; in the end, faith is the only tool with which human beings acquire proper knowledge. After an initial reading of The Blazing World, one would assume Cavendish ranked reason above faith, parting ways with Milton; the Empress in the tale is nearly obsessed with scientific inquiry. Upon close analysis of the text, however, it becomes evident that Cavendish’s message is complementary to Milton’s. This is not to say that either Milton or Cavendish were pure theologians in their world view, placing no value on science or logic; rather, both found a measure of importance in the findings of contemporary science and consequently instilled in their literary protagonists curiosity about the laws of the universe.
It was just such cosmic curiosity that plagued thinking individuals of the Renaissance period. As Europe slowly developed a flavor for scientific inquiry, well guarded theological dogmas were threatened; the mid 1600s was indeed a time of questioning long established religious and political doctrines. While grappling with the emerging debate of reason versus faith, Milton and Cavendish offered philosophical fictions heralding the supremacy of the latter. Characters in the authors’ works discover that reason, untempered by belief in divine truth, is dangerous.
Cavendish’s Empress of the Blazing World, for example, is a tyrannical ruler who demands that her subjects uncover the secrets of the natural world.
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In Cavendish’s lexicon, ‘natural rational discourse’ includes those innocent musings inspired in people with faith in divine truth and an awareness of reason’s limitations: the rational faculty of humans is not perfect, for “nature herself cannot boast of any perfection, but God himself” (162). In arriving at conclusions about the universe through syllogistic means, the Empress remarks, “as for improbable truth, I know not what your meaning is; for truth is more than improbability” (162). In other words, reason is quite incapable of arriving at truth in its entirety; faith is needed to possess an all-encompassing knowledge of truth.
Cavendish’s notion of the insufficiency of reason is addressed by critic Neil Ankers of Liverpool John Moores University: “For Cavendish, nature is a single, ‘united,’ entity separable into degrees of matter [. . . it] is governed by a vitalist element akin to a directing and organizing agent which cannot be reduced to a scientific law, or mechanical principle” (311). That is, God’s master plan is irreducible, more than a technical mystery logic can solve. Reason is able to grasp constituent parts of divine order, but not the core; that is faith’s task.
This is just what the immaterial spirits of the Blazing World disclose to the Empress as she inquires about the means by which Cabbalas are written. The spirits inform the Empress that “[Cabbala] is a work which requires a good wit, and a strong faith, but not natural reason; for though natural reason is most persuasive, yet faith is the chief that is required in Cabbalists” (167). The Empress desires to know whether there is “not divine reason, as well as there is natural?” In response, the spirits inform the lady that divine faith does exist, and there is no such thing as divine reason: “You mortals are so puzzled about this divine faith, and natural reason, that you do not know well how to distinguish them, but confound them both” (Cavendish 167). It seems that mortal beings have a tendency to forget that reason, a natural endowment and singular gift from God, does not hold the same divine status as faith, the necessary prerequisite for an understanding of heavenly truth.
Milton’s Paradise Lost teems with wise angelic figures who act as mentors to mortals much in the same way the immaterial spirits guide the Empress. Archangel Michael, for example, arrives to school the fallen Adam in the nature of his crime and its inevitable consequences. He discusses the purpose of reason and its connection to the liberty acquired through faith in heaven: “true liberty [. . .] always with right reason dwells / Twinned [. . .] Reason in man obscured , or not obeyed / Immediately inordinate desires / And upstart passions catch the government / From reason, and to servitude reduce / Man till then free” (Milton 12. 83-90). In Michael’s angelic view, reason is a fundamental component of human life; it lives symbiotically with freedom. An irrational man will allow desire to squash valid concerns, in effect losing grasp of reality.
Yet, in Milton’s (as well as Cavendish’s) assessment, proper reason is that co-joined with belief in the sanctity of God’s plan. In and of itself, the human intellect is not capable of grasping divine truth, and has a tendency to wander toward fancy: for example, the universal appeal of syllogistic logic. There is a seductive quality to fancy, an allure in which humans must beware.
The protagonist pair of Paradise Lost exchange concerns over the deft antics of fancy when Eve confesses having a whimsical nightmare. Adam states, “in the soul / Are many lesser faculties that serve / Reason as chief; among these fancy next / Her office holds [. . .] she forms imaginations, aery shapes, / Which reason joining or disjoining, frames / All what we affirm or what deny, and call / Our knowledge or opinion” (5. 100-108). Adam explains to Eve that fancy often imitates reason, leading people to believe harmful inaccuracies. He then comforts his troubled mate with discourse about free will: “Evil into the mind of god or man / May come and go, so unapproved, and leave / No spot of blame behind: which gives me hope / That what in sleep thou didst abhor to dream, / Waking thou never wilt consent to do” (5. 117-21). Fanciful notions in and of themselves are not harmful, so long as they are subjugated to morality. A person who tempers whimsical desire with ethical behavior will not upset heaven or give God reason to condemn.
Cavendish agrees with this sentiment when she states in her forward to The Blazing World, “philosophers [. . .] many times embrace falshoods for truths [. . .] the error proceeds from the different motions of reason [. . .] for though some may come nearer the mark than others, which makes their opinions seem more probable and rational than others; yet as long as they swerve from this only truth, they are in the wrong” (123). She discusses an only truth, a divine reality, thus sharing Milton’s premise; the authors who seemed so different upon a surface level reading express shockingly similar philosophies.
This shared philosophy is evident through the musings of Cavendish’s protagonist. When the Empress of the Blazing World is concerned for the welfare of her subjects; it is because she worries that they will “desert the divine truth, following their own fancies” (163). This one divine truth cannot, in the Empress’ opinion, be comprehended through foolish logic; she chastises her court intellects for attempting such endeavors.
A wrangling with the validity of logic in light of theological truth characterized the writings of Milton and Cavendish as both were heavily influenced by the discoveries of science and technology in their day. The shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican view of the solar system was in play, and Milton’s struggle with the physical cosmic order and God’s master plan is evident in Paradise Lost. He was open to the idea of other universes and worlds (which was a radical view at the time), yet, according to Milton scholar Marjorie Nicolson, he was “still too bound by reverence for the Scriptures to read into the [scenes of Creation] some of the profound ideas which the new concept of space was bringing to men’s minds” (102). There was a danger, for Milton, in delving too deeply into the secrets of divine order.
The residents of Eden are cautioned against unrestrained curiosity prior to the fall. The angel Raphael warns Adam about unyielding inquiry into the workings of the universe: “Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid, / Leave them to God above, him serve and fear [. . .] heaven is too high / To know what passes there; be lowly wise: / Think only what concerns thee and thy being [. . .]” (8. 168-174). While fascinated with the telescope and the wonders of space and stellar order, Milton ultimately deemed a quest for vital cosmic power as “inconsistent with his own theological premises” (Nicolson 107). A scientific thinker and curious man, Milton was nevertheless a faithful Puritan.
Cavendish’s chemist worm-men of the Blazing World echo Raphael’s sentiment as they explain to the Empress the futility of quests for divine knowledge about the workings of nature: “it is vain to look for primary ingredients, or constitutive principles of natural bodies, since there is no more but one universal principle of nature” (Cavendish 154). The idea that there is a solitary truth to which the faithful alone are privy–a faith which leads human beings to the transcendental unity of God’s master plan–continually recurs throughout The Blazing World, thus confirming the epistemological similarity to Paradise Lost.
Another example includes the following: after choosing to write a Cabbala, the Empress determines to learn the nature of mortal souls. Questioning the immaterial spirits about the soul’s place after death, the Empress is met with the following advice: “Your savior Christ [. . .] has informed you, that there is Heaven and Hell [. . .] wherefore it is too great a presumption for you mortals to enquire after it; if you do but strive to get into Heaven, it is enough, though you do not know where or what it is, for it is beyond your knowledge and understanding” (Cavendish 174-75). The Empress later requests that the immaterial beings forgive her presumptuous curiosity. They reply, “Natural desire for knowledge [. . .] is not blameable, so you do not go beyond what your natural reason can comprehend” (Cavendish 179). Once again, the wise spirits make it clear that curiosity in itself is not detrimental, merely natural. A danger arises when mortals tend toward desire for divine secrets.
Cavendish and Milton infused their protagonists (Adam and the Empress) with a healthy curiosity about the intricacies of the cosmos. The wise angelic figures (Raphael and the immaterial beings) warn against curiosity run amuck, preaching temperance as an imperative virtue and mandate of God. As human beings are naturally endowed with reason, it is not criminal to utilize it; rational behavior is what in fact distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Reasonable scientific discovery checked by faith in divine order makes for the ideal society.
Cavendish discloses in her work that the ideal society is not a perfect utopia such as that found in the Blazing World. This disclosure occurs in the scene when the Empress is brought to the Duchess’ world. The Empress observes dissonance among humans, multiple factions and adversarial parties. While not pleased with earthly disharmony, she is yet not totally satisfied with her utopian society of Blazing World, either: “Although it is a peaceable and obedient world,” she informs the Duchess, “yet that government thereof is rather a trouble, than a pleasure; for order cannot be without industry, contrivance and direction” (Cavendish 190). Could the Empress share Adam’s eventual sentiment that perfection is not preferable to imperfection coupled with complete knowledge of pure love? And that true peace and harmony cannot exist for beings without knowledge of their opposites? Does Paradise exist eternally for those who blend worldly reason with temperance and faith?
The Duchess circuitously answers that question: “I perceive that the greatest happiness in all worlds consist in moderation” (Cavendish 190-1). It is not external utopia that creates bliss in human hearts, nor endless inquiry and scientific mischief. Reverence for life by way of constructive endeavor encourages God’s satisfaction as well as that of mortal beings.
Milton thoroughly concurs with this theory and conveys such through heavenly discourse in Paradise Lost. The archangel Michael, for example, offers Adam visual hints of the postlapsarian world that is to be and advice about the proper way to exist in that world: “Nor love thy life, nor hate; but what thou liv’st / Live well” (11. 553-4). Life is a gift from God; it must be respected and sanctified. That God also introduced death into the human experience is a signal that life must not be unreasonably coveted.
The didactic lesson displayed most prominently in Paradise Lost and The Blazing World involves this notion: one psychological extreme–self absorption and desire for divine knowledge–will result in a damaging life perspective by way of erroneous reliance on fallible reason. This obviously occurred in the case of Milton’s Satan; did he not continually rationalize amoral behavior? Its opposite–perfection and absolute conformity, personal and societal utopia–is just as bad, in fact unnatural, for mortals who thrive on variety. In God’s flawless plan, humans would not experience perfect peace without exposure to its opposite, discord.
In the postlapsarian world of Paradise Lost, discord is rampant; humans often become guilty of misusing power and forgetting their place in relation to God’s mandate. Milton’s personal political sentiments–directly resulting from a firm belief in the sanctity of God’s will for humankind–are expressed within Adam’s speech upon observing the future condition of fallen humanity: “[God] gave us only over beast, fish, foul / Dominion absolute; that right we hold / By his donation; but man over men / He made not lord; such title to himself / Reserving, human left from human free” (12. 68-71). The raging civil strife that occurred during Milton’s life, a shift from entrenched Monarchy to rudimentary Commonwealth in England, had its effects on the poet, and he was a strong believer in removing royals who usurped power.
According to Milton biographer Isabel Rivers, the author’s political philosophy was such that “the ruler derives his power from the people by contract, and they have the right to revoke power if it is abused” (311). A dissenting Puritan, John Milton noticed that absolute power in the hands of any one person led to religious intolerance and a cultural situation that worked against “religious freedom to the individual conscience” (Rivers 312). Above all else, the message in Paradise Lost involves the use of free will, as granted humanity by God, in order that people may choose the right path guided by reason with faith as the ultimate overseer.
While sharing a sentiment about the limitations of reason over faith, Cavendish did not share Milton’s political premises. The Duchess of Newcastle was an Anglican royalist at the time of the Civil War and this attitude is highly detectable in her fiction. In ‘The Second Part Of The Description Of The New Blazing World,’ Cavendish’s Empress takes on an almost King James role in that she determines to wield absolute, quasi-divine power over all who oppose the King of her native land; in fact, she pledges to “burn and sink all those ships that would not pay [her former King] tribute” (Cavendish 212). The Empress’ attitude amplifies Cavendish’s own royalist background; perhaps the Duchess of Newcastle desired to wield absolute power herself.
John Milton favored a commonwealth, a political atmosphere that encouraged individual freedom of choice (especially in regard to religion); Cavendish supported a monarchical structure, even infusing her fictitious characters with desire for divine strength. The Empress of the Blazing World is especially guilty of such power lust; to such a degree, in fact, that the false show of mystic power and cosmic capability became just as valid as actual omnipotence. According to Cavendish critic Tanya Wood; “the Empress does not gain her power through God’s sanction, but through representation and the judicious use of force” (287). The proper affect was achieved, however, as the admirers of Cavendish’s tyrannical Empress “believed her to be some celestial creature, or rather an uncreated goddess, and they all had a desire to worship her” (Cavendish 215). The entrenched royalists with whom Cavendish shared lineage were much in favor of rule by divine right; it was commonly believed that rulers rose to power as if by the will of God himself.
At the same time, however, Cavendish is aware of the foolishness of such a mentality. Her autobiographical counselors of the Blazing World, the immaterial spirits, preach judicious temperance upon learning of the Empress’ lust for political domination: “conquerors seldom enjoy their conquest, for they being more feared than loved, most commonly come to an untimely end” (Cavendish 185). In an almost eerie way, the Duchess, eager to rule her own world, resembles Milton’s Satan at this juncture: “I had rather die in the adventure of noble achievements, than live in obscure and sluggish security; since by the one, I may live in glorious fame, and by the other I am buried in oblivion [. . .] the shortest lived fame lasts longer than the longest life of man” (Cavendish 185). By the Duchess’ mentality, life is meaningless without fame and glory; even infamy is preferable to worldly invisibility. The spirits succeed in conveying the danger of such motives, however, and she eventually abandons thoughts of worldly conquest.
At the outset of Paradise Lost, Satan rebelled against Heaven while possessing a mind set similar to that of the Duchess: “At first I thought that liberty and heav’n / To heavenly souls had been all one; but now / I see that most through sloth had rather serve [. . .]” (Milton 6. 164-66). Abdiel in turn admonishes Satan for his blasphemous words: “This is servitude, / To serve th’ unwise, or him who hath rebelled / Against his worthier [. . .] Thyself not free, but to thyself enthralled” (6. 178-181). Milton ultimately conveys through his angels the message that life with and of God is a liberated life; self service reduces one to bondage. This is highly similar to the message offered by Cavendish’s immaterial spirits.
In the end, Cavendish wanted to acquire power over herself through her writing, not others; that is, she wished to develop the ability to appreciate life on the terms God set forth for a woman in the 1600s, simultaneously enjoying herself through the creation of fanciful tales; The Blazing World is one such tale. In response to the Duchess’ question, “can any mortal be a creator?” the immaterial spirits reply, “What need you to venture life, reputation and tranquility, to conquer a gross material world? [. . .] by creating a world within yourself, you may [. . .] make what you please, and alter it when you please” (Cavendish 186). With faith in God and his ability to judge righteously, Cavendish abandoned prim societal standards and constructed her own version of the proper woman.
Both Milton and Cavendish ultimately place Paradise within a personal, internal world–not in Eden or the Blazing World. Cavendish’s Paradise was within her mind, a real and vibrant landscape where ambiguity did not exist and faith was the code of honor. Milton placed Paradise within right acts and the sanctity of free will: “only add / Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith, / Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love . . . then wilt thou not be loathe / To leave [Eden], but shalt possess / A paradise within thee, happier far” (12. 581-87). Faith in God’s perfect plan–the inevitable Paradise within–is that which Cavendish and Milton wish to instill in their readers.
While on the surface it seems that Milton and Cavendish came from two very different political and theological schools, they indeed shared a common conclusion about the imperfect realm human beings currently occupy: neither an Eden nor Blazing World, this Earth does have the capacity to sustain billions of utopias. By looking within, and keeping faith in God close at hand, Paradise becomes a personal and eternally accessible part of each human’s life. It is not reason, according to Milton and Cavendish, which leads a person to discover the Paradise within, but rather faith, pure and simple.
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Cavendish, Margaret. “The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World.” The Blazing World and Other Writings. Ed. Kate Lilley. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1992. 119-225.
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Nicolson, Marjorie. “Milton and the Telescope.” Science and Imagination. Archon Books, 1976. 80-109.
Rivers, Isabel. “Political and Religious Issues in the Time of Milton.” Paradise Lost; A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1993. 307-313.
Wood, Tanya Caroline. “The Fall and Rise of Absolutism: Margaret Cavendish’s Manipulation of Masque Conventions in ‘The Claspe: Fantasmes Masque’ and The Blazing World.” In-between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism. Volume 9 [1&2] 2000: 287-299.