October 2, 2010

John Milton’s first (and most infamous) tract on divorce turns on the question of individual interpretation and its relation to the exegetical tradition. The two biblical passages that Milton takes up (the Mosaic allowance for divorce in Deuteronomy and Christ’s strict revision of this law in the Gospel of Matthew) appear quite straightforward, and yet Milton’s own traumatic experience of marriage propels him to stage a bold, new exegesis against the “canonical ignorance” that privileges the false “countenance” of custom.

In his essay "The Intelligible Flame," James Turner calls Milton's divorce tracts “authentically ugly” (both because of Milton’s selfish, idiosyncratic argument and Milton's unflattering rejection of sex as a degrading act of pollution), but they are at the very least compelling, if not for the earnestness of Milton’s individual agenda, then at least for the interesting approach Milton takes to Scripture and interpretation. First, Milton condemns literalist interpreters of Scripture and counts them among the “textuists” or Pharisees which Christ opposed. Such reductive approaches violate the “rule of charity” (Milton calls this “the interpretor and guide of our faith,” which resists “resting in the mere element of the text”), a source of liberty that Milton consistently invokes throughout.

What is worthwhile about Milton’s reading of Scripture -- however problematic it may be -- is that he recognizes how literalist interpretations fail to account for context. It does make a difference that Christ is talking to the Pharisees when he addresses the “tempting” question of divorce, and it certainly makes a difference in what may be one of the more striking (if not hilarious) moments of this tract: Milton smugly tells the literalists that, if his approach to interpretation does not persuade them, “let some one or other entreat him but to read on in the same 19 of Matth[ew], till he come to that place that says, ‘some make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’. . . And if then he please to make use of Origen’s knife he may well do well to be his own carver.” Milton makes this reference because Origen is said to have castrated himself in accordance with this passage from Matthew. If only Origen had been granted the liberal interpretor's "key of charity" he might have spared himself a whole world of pain.

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