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date: 19 March 2019

Milton and Matter

Abstract and Keywords

This article explores Milton’s thinking about matter in Paradise Lost and reassesses the applicability of terms such as “materialism” and “vitalism” to Milton’s poetic. While Milton’s ostensible “monist materialism,” or belief that all substance is reducible to matter, has become a critical commonplace, this essay suggests that matter in Milton is not simply construed in terms of natural philosophy but is described in distinctly metaphysical terms and that the vitalist elements that invite one to read matter as a self-animating substance should not occlude the verse’s strong sense of final causation and divinus concursus (or divine concurrence, in which God cooperates in efficient causation, or the actions of created things). The poetry thus returns both final and efficient causation to God. By thinking about matter in terms of Milton’s intellectual heritage, this article emphasizes how the “Renaissance Aristotelianisms” Milton encountered helped to shape his thinking and how his poetry richly plays on the resulting paradoxes and discontinuities.

Keywords: matter, Milton, vitalism, materialism, monist, animist, final causation, divinus concursus, Renaissance Aristotelianisms

When Marvell “beheld the Poet blind, yet bold, / In slender book his vast design unfold / Messiah crowned, God’s reconciled decree, / Rebelling angels, the forbidden tree, / Heaven, hell, earth, chaos, All” (lines 1–4), he drew attention first to Milton’s treatment of the Fall before compressing—in one beautifully condensed line—the very nature of creation itself: “heaven, hell, earth, chaos, all” (line 4; italics mine).1 If creation lies at the heart of Paradise Lost, as Marvell suggests, then the matter that makes that “all” possible becomes central to the epic.2 But what is this matter? And how do we know what Milton thinks about it?

Passages that provide clues include Raphael’s speech about “first matter” (or prime matter) in book 5 (lines 469–500), Uriel’s account of creation to Satan in book 3 (lines 708–721), and Raphael’s version of the beginning of creation, here told to Adam, in book 7 (lines 218–242). Interspersed throughout the epic are also thorny passages on Chaos and Night, which present interpretative difficulties for those who would argue, as Milton does in De doctrina christiana, that “original matter is not to be thought of as an evil or worthless thing, but as a good thing, a seed bank [seminarium] of every subsequent good.”3 Critics are in general agreement, however, that the most comprehensive expression of Milton’s thinking about matter and its role in creation is Raphael’s speech in book 5 of Paradise Lost. Focusing on this speech (V.469–500), prominent studies on Milton have positioned his poetry in terms of contemporary seventeenth-century materialism—specifically, “animist materialism,” or “vitalism,” according to which everything that exists is alive, “composed of one living corporeal substance.”4 Insofar as matter is said to be the one substance in Milton’s cosmos, the ontology of Paradise Lost becomes monist and Milton a “monist materialist.” Other studies have challenged this reading by tracing moments when nonmaterial substances seem to flare into existence, or when literary and exegetical devices complicate readings so that the materializing tendencies of the verse are not as straightforward as they may seem.5

The primary concern of this essay is not to argue whether Milton is or is not a monist materialist. Rather, it seeks to emphasize the limitations implicit in such labels. Since the language of conjunctions—”Milton and matter”—has collapsed into one of definitions—”Milton is materialist”; “Milton is monist”—this essay seeks to encourage readings of the epic that retain a more heuristic approach: to privilege the combinatory and exploratory “and” over the categorical “is.”

This essay is therefore placed at the intersection of literature, philosophy, and history. Recent critics of Milton have alternately placed his intellectual inheritance among prominent thinkers in seventeenth-century history of philosophy (Hobbes; Spinoza) and, also, more neglected figures in the history of science (Glisson; van Helmont).6 But little work has been done to reposition Milton’s eclectic thinking about matter in relation to the strands of scholastic Aristotelian thought he himself encountered at Cambridge and that pervaded even the “new philosophy” until the early eighteenth century. To trace how Milton draws on these early modern (scholastic) discussions of matter and the “confusing richness” of the Aristotelian hylomorphic vocabulary (in which things are analyzed according to “matter” [hulē yle] and form [morphē ]”) is to examine the productive friction they generate in his verse—a friction that is not resolved into one particular coherent system of thought but instead reveals, through the movements of the poetry, the knotty yet supple character of thinking itself.7 By rereading key passages in the epic where Milton attempts to depict matter, particularly the unformed “first matter,” or prima materia, current assumptions might be made strange again. What gradually emerges is an alternative picture of the poem’s metaphysic, which is determined neither by materialism nor vitalism but rather by the poetic exploration of philosophic problems and paradoxes that Christian theology renders even more complex. The result is that the intellectually over-categorical reading of Milton no longer seems compatible with the complexity and mixture that constitutes the artistic invention of Paradise Lost.

This is largely because Milton’s poetry on first matter and the creation is—to adopt what Matthew Arnold said of the “language of the Bible”—“fluid, passing, and literary, not rigid, fixed, and scientific”.8 The language of materialism, which today refers to how all things can be explained in terms of matter without any reference to an immaterial principle, belongs to the second category. The ominous suffix—the telltale “-ism”—in “materialism” hardens into doctrine: once matter is the only existing substance, everything else is, simpliciter, treated as material. In the early modern period, the only English thinker audacious enough to go this far was Thomas Hobbes, whose universe denied the existence of incorporeal substance and made all matter passive and inert. But matter in Milton—as the ascription of the “animist materialism” to Milton’s metaphysic suggests—is more “fluid and passing.” The difficulty is that this natural dynamism, conveyed so powerfully through Raphael’s account of matter and the poem’s various depictions of creation, becomes strangely sapped once we begin speaking of how matter in the poem adheres to, and is an expression of, vitalist materialism. When the poem is read as a transcription of a preexisting philosophic system, the philosophical speculation that energizes the epic is vastly diminished, as is the verse’s ability to explore opposing or conflicting ideas. To speak about “Milton’s materialism” or “Milton’s vitalism” is to obscure the way these philosophic doctrines have distinctive characteristics, inflected by their historical periods, which are all too often subtended by certain (often unstated) assumptions.9 Yet, as soon as Milton’s exploration of matter is carefully distinguished from these doctrines, various philosophical and theological implications spring to life, enriching and, simultaneously, complicating understandings of matter and creation in Paradise Lost.

I. “Matter” versus “Materialism”

To understand better what Milton means by the term “matter” in Paradise Lost, let us turn to the locus classicus for any discussion of Milton’s ontology—Raphael’s speech to Adam in book 5:

  • O Adam, one Almighty is, from whom
  • All things proceed, and up to him return,
  • If not depraved from good, created all
  • Such to perfection, one first matter all,
  • Endued with various forms, various degrees
  • Of substance, and in things that live, of life;
  • But more refined, more spirituous, and pure,
  • As nearer to him placed or nearer tending
  • Each in their several active spheres assigned,
  • Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
  • Proportioned to each kind. So from the root
  • Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
  • More airy, last the bright consummate flow’r
  • Spirits odorous breathes: flow’rs and their fruit
  • Man’s nourishment, by gradual scale sublimed
  • To vital spirits aspire, to animal,
  • To intellectual, give both life and sense,
  • Fancy and understanding, whence the soul
  • Reason receives, and reason is her being,
  • Discursive, or intuitive; discursive
  • Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours,
  • Differing but in degree, of kind the same.

PL V.469–49010

This passage has long been read as proof that “Milton’s materialist monism treats spirit and matter as manifestations, differing in degree and not qualitatively, of the one corporeal substance. Milton’s spirit does not coexist with alien matter; it contains matter.”11 This account, which collapses matter and the corporeal, is problematic, though, because being located is a necessary and sufficient condition for something to be corporeal but not for its being material.12 In addition, the claim that spirit and matter are on a sort of sliding continuum with no qualitative difference is also not so absolute: Raphael’s line, “Differing but in degree, of kind the same” (IV.490), refers only to the subtle differences between angelic reasoning (mostly intuitive) and man’s (mostly discursive), the implication being that the “degree” of intellection they exhibit differentiates the two species (viz. angels and men).

By contrast, the “one first matter all” (V.472) and the progression of differentiation Raphael proceeds to outline—where this first matter is enformed, or “Endued with various forms, various degrees / Of substance, and in things that live, of life” (V.473–474)—speaks to how all matter is stratified in a way that admits differences in kind (V.479), where “kind” refers to the genus (viz. plants, animals, men, angels, etc). The phrase, “various degrees / Of substance” (V.474–575), indicates an ontological ranking, where enformed matter is placed in different grades—“Each in their several active spheres assigned” (V.477)—in accordance with that matter’s greater (or lesser) state of perfectibility. Worth noting is that this “perfectibility” of grades (gradus) on the “scale of Nature” (V.509) ranks the angels, mankind, animals, and plants according to their respective faculties (with the highest degree of intellection at the top). In fact, Raphael’s “scale of Nature,” or scala naturae, is tied not only to Neoplatonic ideas of hierarchy and ascent but also to two main metaphysical beliefs popularized by mainstream renaissance Aristotelianism: first, that prime matter, which is itself without form but, paradoxically, not without existence, is regarded as a substance, just an “incomplete” one; and, second, that matter enformed with life exists in four ontological grades in a continuous series, where each progression marks a reduction in their respective degrees of potentiality: vegetation, sense, motion, and intellect.13 Raphael’s speech thus depicts matter as “yearning” to be near its creator, thereby improving its ontological condition: “more refined, more spirituous, and pure, / As nearer to him [God] placed or nearer tending” (V.475–476).14 The language hints that the final cause, or sake for which, matter “works” to become spirit is identical to matter’s efficient cause (or the cause that brings about a principal change): namely, God, or “the Almighty” mentioned at line 469.

But the poetry itself gradually moves attention away from God as the agent of change. In the lines, “Till body up to spirit work, in bounds / Proportioned to each kind” (V.478–479), one kind of matter is seen to “work” to move itself out of its respective “sphere,” or station, to become another discrete “kind” (V.479). Note how the verse visually captures how matter leaps (or “bounds”) across the line break. Yet it does so in such a way so as to emphasize the ordering power behind it (“proportioned” gains additional force through the enjambment). Like the verse itself, matter is incapable of this sort of regulation on its own: something or someone has to “proportion”—that is, “allot” or “assign”—this organizational power to matter in the first place. In Raphael’s account, it is none other than God who implants this tendency and who fashions matter to receive certain forms in accordance with the “bounds”—or limits—assigned (i.e., “proportioned”) to each grade. “Bounds” in this sense alludes as much to matter’s implanted impulse for possible action as to the restrictions God has placed on it (as in the 1535 Coverdale Bible’s translation of Job 14:5: “Thou hast apoynted him [man] his boundes, he can not go beyond them”). Since the principle by which body becomes spirit is analogous to the way bodily nutriments are said to ascend—or to be “sublimd” by—the organizational principle (viz. the “gradual scale”) that God set up, the entire process is seen to be conserved by God and shrouded in the mystery of final causation.15 This may explain, at least in part, why Milton chose to describe the incredible transformation of corporeal matter to spirit in distinctly alchemical terms.16

Raphael’s attempt to render this mystery more explicable through metaphor is therefore particularly charged: “So from the root / Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves / More airy, last the bright consummate flow’r / Spirits odórous breathes” (V.479–482). Elsewhere, I have discussed how the theological valences in this passage raise the possibility that Raphael is not simply describing a process by which one material substance is refined; it depicts instead how one substance becomes another.17 Here, however, I particularly want to draw attention to the way Raphael’s plant/tree analogy brings into play a metaphysical conceit that shifts the very interpretative framework within which matter is analyzed by introducing different ways of looking at it. As soon as we examine how Milton’s thinking about matter and metaphor is part of a larger philosophic tradition that accords a greater degree of flexibility to the term “matter,” the epic’s metaphysic begins to undergo radical revision.

In his predominately Aristotelian, but nonetheless highly eclectic, Cursus philosophici encyclopaedia (Herborn 1620), Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588–1638) refers to a tree analogy that effectively moves one’s thinking about matter in the opposite direction from that prompted by Raphael’s speech:

Omne corpus est materiatum. Necesse igitur est ut detur communis aliqua materia: ut hâc ratione omnes materiæ particulares revocentur ad unam generalem … Neque tamen ita generalem facimus hanc materiam, ut quidam Peripatetici, qui dicunt, materiam primam ita intelligi posse, si concipiamus arborem sine radice, trunco, ramis, foliis … fructibus. Hæc enim abstractio non est physica, sed mathematica.18

The whole body is corporeal; and so it is necessary that it should somehow be given matter common (to all things), and that for the same reason all parts of matter should be summonable back to one common sort … However, we do not make up this general matter, as some Peripatetics [seem to think] who say that prime matter may be understood as if we were able to think up a tree without roots, trunk, branches, leaves or fruit: for such abstraction is not physics but mathematics.

Having stripped away everything that makes a tree a tree, these peripatetic philosophers leave only a ghostly trace of the tree, or afterimage, in the mind (this may make Alsted uncomfortable because the abstraction suggests that prime matter does not really exist except in the mind). Nevertheless, the imaginative exercise, which moves the mind into levels of increasing abstraction by way of negation, or apophatic knowledge, suddenly propels one from thinking about a concrete object (a tree) to conceiving what is fundamentally prior to it: namely, the prime matter that has the potential to receive the form of a tree. What Alsted put his finger on is that accounts of prime matter in peripatetic philosophy speak of it as that which appears characterless and, therefore, unintelligible, mainly because it exists prior to the categories.

While the movement in Raphael’s speech is directed toward the higher permanence and purity of “more spirituous” substances and not toward increasing potentiality (viz. prime matter), he strains, much like the peripatetic philosophers in Alsted, to convey the existence of a matter different from the simply corporeal. This matter is characterized by intellectual thought or reason—something that Raphael attributes not to lower types of material substances, such as the vital and animal spirits, but only to the higher (intellectual) ones (V.486–487). On the one hand, the process Raphael describes leads to perfection—here encoded by the movement through increasingly attenuated states, from the “lighter” (V.480) to the “more airy” (V.481), until it reaches the quality of a “bright consummate flow’r” (V.481), where “consummate,” from the Latin word consummatus, places the stress on how this substance is “lacking nothing, absolute.” On the other hand, even this image of perfection is too material for the state it is meant to describe: the flower “breathes,” or emits, “spirits odorous” (V.482). The perfection of matter is no longer imagined as a tangible flower but as a wisp of a fragrance. As in the peripatetic “thought experiment,” the materializing force of the final image in Raphael’s speech—the flower—suddenly disappears. In both cases, matter may remain, but it is not the same matter with which the image began. The matter at the end of the process—when man’s “bodies may at last turn all to Spirit” (V.497; italics mine)—is distinct from the corporeal matter treated by physics (i.e., natural philosophy) at the beginning of his speech.

Insofar as Raphael, like Alsted’s Aristotelian philosophers, considers matter absolutely—that is, through the lens of metaphysics—he enlarges the scope of its analysis, implicitly highlighting the limitations of treating matter according to physics alone. Matter is now more, not less, complex. The arising thought is that the attenuated spiritualization the angel describes—“Till body up to spirit work” (V.478)—points to how the “matter” of spirit, such as that of the angels, is a “spiritual matter” that is radically different in kind from corporeal matter. The plant metaphor depicts a process that is like, but not identical to, that of man.19 The difficulty is that, in Raphael’s speech, the referent of the metaphor begins to develop in unforeseen ways. The angel’s metaphor conveys a description of matter in distinctly metaphysical terms (here, in the metaphysical conceit of matter-as-tree), even though the metaphor itself (the blossoming plant) draws on how matter exists within the natural world (the subject of physics). In more literary terms, one might say that the vehicle for describing matter is necessarily physical—by which I mean materializing—and that this materialization is then further compounded by the way the metaphor treats matter in accordance with being (i.e., a living, growing plant). Meanwhile, the tenor remains distinctly metaphysical, focusing on what is not found in nature and which remains essentially different. Those who speak of Milton’s “materialism” emphasize the positive areas of the analogy, but attention should also be paid to the differences.

The Oxford tutor Richard Crakanthorpe (bap. 1568, d. 1624) drew attention to this distinction in his popular textbook, Introductio in metaphysicam (1619), which went through four editions by 1677 and was a staple in the study of metaphysics at Oxford and Cambridge:

Materiale sumitur dupliciter, 1° vulgariter, sed impropriè … abusivè pro corporeo, seu pro eo quod quantu[m] est … extensu[m] secundu[m] longu[m], latum, … profundum; quo sensu corpora solummodò materiala sunt, … materiam habent, (1.) corporalitate[m]; Secu[n]dò sumitur propriè, sed non vulgariter pro substa[n]tiali, seu pro eo quod naturam habet substantiale[m], per quam accidentibus substare potest: atque hoc sensu (qui verus est, … genuinus istius vocis) spiritus omnes, Angeli, animaeque rationales tam verè materiales sunt, quam vlla corpora, quia materiam, id est, substantialitatem, seu vim substa[n]di accidentibus æquè habent. Hoc enim sensu solus Deus immaterialis est …20

What pertains to matter may be understood in two ways: first, in ordinary usage—but improperly and by misuse—for “the corporeal”; or if used for that which has measurable dimension and extension according to length, width, and depth, or according to which bodies are just material and possess matter; secondly and more correctly (if not in ordinary thought), for substance, whether in regard to that which has natural substance through which it is able to sustain accidents; and in this sense (which is truthful and of more genuine voice), all spirits, angels, and rational souls are as truly material as any bodies because they possess material, i.e., substantiality, or strength equal to the supporting of [lit. “standing under”] accidents. For in this sense God alone is immaterial …

By privileging the second way of thinking about matter (where it is taken for substantiality), Crakanthorpe endorses the universal hylomorphism of Bonaventure against Aquinas (broadly speaking, universal hylomorphism assigns a sort of matter and form to the spiritual as well as to the corporeal world whereas the Thomist account denies matter to the spiritual, asserting, for instance, that the angels are pure form). Like Crakanthorpe, the metaphysics of the Lutheran Christoph Scheibler (1589–1655) were widely read in England. Scheibler countenanced one kind of matter—that in nature—but simultaneously admitted a super-rarefied matter not found in nature. It is this second sort of matter that becomes, in a quasi-Aristotelian sense, the extremely subtle stuff of the angels in Paradise Lost and that helps to explain why they can eat and drink (V.637–640), digest corporal food (V.406–413), enjoy sex (VIII.622–629), and reveal themselves to, and interact with, Adam and Eve.21

Since the mid- to late seventeenth century retained the peripatetic vocabulary, albeit with significant (and sometimes radical) modifications, debates about matter continue to testify to the extraordinary flexibility of the term.22 The nonconformist Richard Baxter’s (1615–1691) dispute with the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1614–1687) about the nature of spirit in 1682 largely hinges on the use of the word “material,” as Baxter outlined:23

And now if this be so, this very Conceptus of Fundamental Reality [viz. substance], is but that same which Schibler, and abundance others call Materia Metaphysica, as different from Materia Physica; and which Dr. Crakenthorpe, … many others, take the general and most proper sense of Materia to contain. … therefore I say but, that you should not take an equivocal word for univocal, and lay so great a stress on an ambiguous name. And I confess still all your names of Indiscerpibility, Penetrability and Immateriality, give me no scientifical notion of the true difference between the lowest Substantiality of a Spirit, and the highest of Fire or Aether, or Aristotelis quinta Essentia (which you call Matter.) But I am fully satisfied of an Incomprehensible Purity of Substance; 2. And of the true Form of a Soul; and I find my self to need no more.24

Baxter’s point is that spiritual matter remains fundamentally unknowable and that belief in immaterial substance is itself an article of faith. Nonetheless, his remark highlights how the term “matter” is open to different types of analysis as either materia metaphysica or materia physica—an approach that Milton evidently shared when he observed that “‘the father of the spirits’ occurs in a Theological sense, not in a physical sense.”25 When matter is understood in a metaphysical sense, it is the same as substance—that is, the “conceptus fundamentalis”—because everything is, in some metaphysical sense, material.26

For Baxter, then, “matter” is (incorrectly) used in a univocal sense—a mistake applied also to the term “spirit”: “I take not the word [Spirit] to be of univocal signification here, but so analogical as to be equivocal. God and Creatures are not univocally called [Spirits.]27 Since words such as “spirit” and “matter” are spoken of in vastly different senses with regard to God and the angels, they require an “expression of divided reference” that takes into account the essential differences involved.28 According to Robert Sanderson’s (1587–c. 1662) ever-popular logical textbook, Logicae artis compendium, which first appeared anonymously in 1615 and reached its eleventh edition in 1741, an equivocal manner (aequivocè) makes things known “according to the name and not the definition: in this manner Being is made known by the ten categories.”29 Employing Sanderson’s otherwise scholastic distinction between univocal and equivocal concepts, Baxter treated matter either in an equivocal sense (itself still problematic) or, as he preferred, analogically (less problematic). Baxter recognized that the substance of the angels and higher level of spirit is emphatically not “material” in the same way as corporeal substance is, even though the term used to describe both is one and the same. It is this mode of analogical thinking that is present in Raphael’s speech by virtue of the thrusting plant metaphor. The philosophic and poetic dynamism of the passage stretches the term “matter” in ways that enrich and, simultaneously, complicate the intelligibility of matter in the epic.

The result in Milton is a sequence that provides a sense of continuity between corporeal and spiritual matter, even while it reasserts the latent discontinuity between them. This emphasis on superficial continuity emerges most clearly when—in opposition to Bonaventure, who denied the possibility of change between corporeal and spiritual matter—Milton’s poetry energetically embraces it30:

  • flow’rs and their fruit
  • Man’s nourishment, by gradual scale sublimed
  • To vital spirits aspire, to animal,
  • To intellectual, give both life and sense,
  • Fancy and understanding whence the soul
  • Reason receives, and reason is her being,
  • Discursive, or intuitive; discourse
  • Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours,
  • Differing but in degree, of kind the same.
  • Wonder not then, what God for you saw good,
  • If I refuse not, but convert, as you,
  • To proper substance; time may come when men
  • With angels may participate, and find
  • No inconvenient diet, nor too light fare:
  • And from these corporal nutriments perhaps
  • Your bodies may at last turn all to Spirit,
  • Improved by tract of time, and winged ascend
  • Ethereal, as we, or may at choice
  • Here or in Heav’nly Paradises dwell.

PL V.482–500

What Raphael contemplates—here through a description of digestion—is the possibility of an ontological transformation. If “flow’rs and fruit” (V.482) can be distilled by humans into “vital spirits” (V.484) and, from thence, to animal and intellectual ones, then, in like manner, he suggests, mankind may be able to transform the entire body “all to Spirit” (V.497). Raphael’s visionary scheme radiates from the claim that “what God for you [Adam] saw good” (V.491), he, as an angel, can similarly “convert” into “proper substance” (V.493).

This is a radical amplification of what the widely read Jesuit and neoscholastic philosopher Francisco Suárez (1548–1617)—whose writings were as prominent in England as they were popular on the continent—had explained in his commentary on Aristotle’s De anima: “Every living thing,” Suárez wrote, “nourishes itself by an agreeable food; the agreeable is whatever can be assimilated easily into the body being nourished.”31 Although it was widely held in the seventeenth century that angels did not need to eat because nutrition implies growth and angels do not grow, Raphael makes it clear that “whatever was created, needs / To be sustained and fed” (V.414–415). Since this biological process is based on the principle that “of elements / The grosser feeds the purer” (V.415–416), Raphael asserts that he is able to convert the lunch Eve has served him into “proper substance” (V.497), where the word “proper” refers to “his own” substance (from the Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”).32 Given that angels are able to transform “corporal” food (meaning “food for the body”) into their own more rarefied substance (spirit) and that mankind can “sublime” the same nutriments into the higher grade of internal spirits, Raphael proceeds to say that a transmogrification of substance may also occur at the macro level, thereby transforming human bodies. By imagining a future time when an ontological leap in substance is possible (V.483), the angel describes not just how matter but the whole organism is “Improved by tract of time” (V.488). The power implanted by God in prime matter to organize and differentiate itself has mysteriously expanded its scope to include an ontological metamorphosis. The buried power of final causation, in which all created things yearn to return to their maker (a point emphasized also at V.414–426), becomes a way to justify, in terms of metaphysics, a change that otherwise is explicable only in terms of theology, as God himself makes clear: “[T]ill by degrees of merit raised / They open to themselves at length the way / Up hither, under long obedience tried, / And earth be changed to Heav’n, and Heav’n to earth, / One kingdom, joy and union without end” (VII.157–161). This is the time when human bodies will be transformed—as Raphael hints to Adam at V.487–500—into the shimmering spiritual bodies described at I Corinthians 15:44.33

A careful critic like John Rogers, who provides other paradigms for Milton’s matter, specifically in the vitalist iatrochemical literature, such as Francis Glisson’s De rachitude (translated into English in 1651 as A treatise of the rickets) and William Harvey’s De circulatio sanguinis (or Circulation of the blood, which was translated into English in 1653), acknowledges that Raphael gives a “speech on the gradation of material quality.”34 The honest assessment—”gradation of material quality”—is key. If matter does differ qualitatively—that is, formally—as the inflections in Raphael’s language suggest, then the point at issue for those who want to say that this scala naturae exemplifies a materialist ontology hinges on one word: “material.” The implicit assumption in such an analysis is that when we use the term “material,” we are referring to matter in the same sense as writers in the seventeenth century. But to say that the account Raphael gives in book 5 summarizes the poem’s “fully spiritualized material universe” is to render matter explicable only in terms of physics, or what critics have called “Raphael’s natural philosophy.35 The difficulty is that the tradition of textbooks, commentaries, and encyclopedias—many of which Milton would have read at Cambridge in his youth and which affected the philosophy of the novatores well into the second half of the seventeenth century—were noisily keeping alive a scholastic inheritance that treated matter in a much more expansive, not to mention problematical, way.36

For one who concedes that this breadth of reference may cause complications for a materialist reading of the poem, it might yet be objected that it is nonetheless congenial to the epic’s “animist materialism,” where the term “matter” is yet further expanded to mean energy “immanent within bodily matter, and even nonorganic matter.”37 This may be true but only in a limited sense. In what follows, I trace how vitalist readings of the poem invite us to reconsider how the poetry registers competing ontological and theological commitments, and that the epic’s “vitalism” may be attributable to this tension—and to the energy of the poetry—rather than to any specific system of vitalist thought.

II. “Vitalism” and Causality

In Raphael’s account of creation to Adam in book 7, Milton’s poetry is as richly fluid as the “Matter unformed” (VII.233) it describes:

  • Thus God the heav’n created, thus the earth,
  • Matter unformed and void: darkness profound
  • Covered th’ abyss: but on the wat’ry calm
  • His brooding wings the Spirit of God outspread,
  • And vital virtue infused, and vital warmth
  • Throughout the fluid mass, but downward purged
  • The black tartareous cold infernal dregs
  • Adverse to life: then founded, then conglobed
  • Like things to like, the rest to several place
  • Disparted, and between spun out the air,
  • And earth self-balanced on her centre hung.

PL VII.232–242

This is a picture of slow but continuous movement, in which the pre-elemental is described in various states of liquefaction. The fluidity of the unformed matter of this “watry calm” (VII.234) is matched only by the liquidity with which the “vital virtue,” or divine, life-giving power, is “infused,” or “poured into,” this “fluid mass” (VII.237).38 The repetition, “vital virtue … vital warmth” (VII.236), gives a particular emphasis to how prime matter is animated with a warmth that sustains life by removing anything “Adverse” to it (VII.239). The depiction of the archetypal cosmos as it is in the process of being formed is conveyed in the parallel construction “then founded, then conglobed” (VII.239), where “founded” (from the Latin fundere, “to melt or pour”) retains—through its allusions to metalworking (which Milton plays on at I.703)—the fluidity of creation: unformed matter is heated and then, like molten metal, cast in a mold to be shaped. Now enformed with a life-giving capacity, “Like things to like” (VII.240) are “conglobed” (VII.239), or compacted and formed into globes (from the Latin conglobatus, “to gather together to make into a ball”), from which arises the universe (VII.242). Meanwhile, what is presumably “unlike” disparts, or separates itself, proceeding in different directions to “several place[s]” (VII.240). Raphael’s creation account is arresting because the language of liquefaction works hard to convey how the strange power belonging to the Spirit of God is sent streaming down through a sea of potentiality—through the “Matter unformed and void” (VII.233)—in order to create. Through the movements of the verse, the agent of change and the change itself are on the cusp of becoming one and the same.

But as soon as we claim that this “Spirit of God” is “Milton’s name primarily for the energetic principle behind most natural processes,” we run the risk of altering the poem’s theology in radical ways: God’s actions are immediately naturalized; ideas pertaining to divine conservation (where the conservation of an effect depends on God per se and immediately) as well as to divinus concursus, or divine concurrence (where the production of an effect requires God’s cooperation) are effectively removed.39 What this reading actively promotes, therefore, is the idea that matter in Milton is endowed with its own “vital power of self-determination” and that the epic’s metaphysic subscribes to the doctrine of vitalism, in which there is a “monistic view of substance as energy.”40

The poetry presents difficulties for such a reading. The first is that the efficient cause of creation in Raphael’s account is the Spirit of God, which the Milton of De doctrina christiana understood as shorthand for “the father’s power and virtue” transfused “through” the Son.41 In other words, the Spirit’s “virtue” owes its power to a divine, not natural, source, since “God is the first, absolute, and sole cause of all things … [he who] contains and comprehends within himself all causes.42 Milton’s comment is in line with Suárez’s thinking that “God is a cause of his effects in such a way that by their intrinsic nature, and with an intrinsic necessity, they require that cause in order to exist.”43

In other words, every created, natural thing, including its causal powers, depends on God per se and immediately for conservation. In Raphael’s account, the very fluidity of the poetry reinforces the sense that God not only brings things into existence and conserves them but also that the actions of these things—such as when matter conglobes and disparts—occur simultaneously with God’s general and immediate cooperation, or divinus concursus. What appears to be a natural, self-animating action belonging to matter is actually directed and sustained at creation through divine conservation, while divinus concursus contributes causal activity to the effects of the natural agent’s operations.44

Yet, elsewhere in the epic, the straightforward vitalist reading may seem more plausible—as in the second part of Uriel’s account of creation:

  • I saw when at his word the formless mass,
  • This world’s material mould, came to a heap:
  • Confusion heard his voice, and wild uproar
  • Stood ruled, stood vast infinitude confined;
  • Till at this second bidding darkness fled,
  • Light shone, and order from disorder sprung:
  • Swift to their several quarters hasted then
  • The cumbrous elements, earth, flood, air, fire
  • And this ethereal quíntessence of heav’n
  • Flew upward, spirited with various forms,
  • That rolled orbicular, and turned to stars
  • Numberless, as thou seest, and how they move;

PL III.708–719

The weirdly suspended and static verbs—“Stood ruled, stood vast infinitude confined” (III.711)—suddenly yield to the quickening movement of creation itself (III.712). The verbs—“fled” (III.712), “sprung” (III.713)—still refer to God as the agent, but when we reach line 715, the subject of “hasted” (III.715), “spirited” (III.718), “rolled” (III.719), and “turned” (III.719) appears to be the matter that is differentiating itself. The verse is alive to the possibility that matter is propelled by some mysterious quality within it—with a power that God has somehow implanted but that now operates independently. As the matter becomes strangely self-animating, attention is subtly shifted away from God as the originating and sustaining agent. Even if this is an instance of vitalist final causation, it is possible that another nonmaterial element may be at work.

The poem’s theology responds by proleptically attempting to remove this difficulty. Hence, Uriel reminds the “stripling Cherub” (III.636) to whom he speaks that the power of creation belongs to God alone: “For wonderful indeed are all his works … / But what created mind can comprehend / Their number, or the wisdom infinite / That brought them forth, but hid their causes deep” (III.702, 705–707; italics mine). He clarifies that the causal force of creation remains, at its core, an insoluble mystery—for the angels as much as for Satan. In his soliloquy in book 9, even Satan acknowledges that the sun “as God in Heav’n / Is Centre” (IX.107–108), thereby conceding that things are not autonomously generated but, rather, spring from a higher, life-giving source: “In thee [the sun], / Not in themselves, all their known virtue appears / Productive in herb, plant, and nobler birth / Of Creatures animate with gradual life / Of growth, sense, reason, all summed up in man” (IX.109–113).

But the tension between a Lucretian self-animating matter and God’s causal agency is not so easily dispelled. In book 3, the epic narrator hedges his bets: the movement of natural agents—which Satan assigned to the sun and, hence, to God—is now attributed first to an independent, internal power for movement and then to final causation (here imagined as a form of magnetism): “towards his all-cheering lamp / [the constellations] Turn swift their various motions, or are turned / By his magnetic beam, that gently warms / The universe, and to each inward part / With gentle penetration, though unseen, / Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep” (III.581–586; italics mine).45 Meanwhile, the angels’ creation accounts retain both options (viz. independent movement and God as the final cause, or “that for the sake of which” a thing is done). As the poetry flirts between a metaphorical account of final causation and a literal expression of it, the causal force of God’s transeunt actions (i.e., acts from God that take place outside of God) is gradually translated into a poetics of material action.46 This may help to explain why Raphael’s description of emergent land does indeed, as Rogers says, “dramatically wrest from God his creative agency,” even while it, paradoxically, reasserts God’s power:47

  • The earth was formed, but in the womb as yet
  • Of waters, embryon immature involved,
  • Appeared not: over all the face of earth
  • Main ocean flowed, not idle, but with warm
  • Prolific humour soft’ning all her globe,
  • Fermented the Great Mother to conceive,
  • Satiate with genial moisture, when God said
  • Be gathered now ye waters under heav’n
  • Into one place, and let dry land appear
  • Emergent

PL VII.276–286

Rogers beautifully describes how the “the earth conceives and generates the very embryo that was her former self,” thereby suggesting that the “exquisite circularity of Raphael’s narrative of the embryonic earth’s self-enwombment and eventual self-expulsion is formulated clearly to counter this sceptical insistence on pre-existing agents [i.e., God].”48 But is it possible that the “temporal inversion”—that is, the “embryonic maturation” (VII.277), “conception” (VII.281), and “sexual satiation” (VII.282)—is, in fact, a symptom of how, in final causation, natural agents are endowed with a metaphorical desire to reach their natural telos, or end? The phrase “Satiate with genial moisture” (VII.282) describes a process of impregnation but also a gratification of a desire of nature. The inversion in Raphael’s speech, which places this desiderio naturae last, not first, conveys, verbally as well as visually, how God’s speech act (VII.282–284) concurs with the desire and sexual satiation of the “Great Mother” (VII.281), not simply its product (viz. her “embryon immature” at line 277). In this reading, God is involved with the different stages of the generative process through the doctrine of divinus concursus, according to which the natural agent acts by its own powers as a particular cause of an effect, while God acts by his uncreated power as a general cause of the same effect. Divinus concursus in any token event is therefore necessary and sufficient for a natural agent to produce a given effect insofar as that effect is the kind of thing that agent would naturally produce. The deployment of the temporal word “when” at line 282, which reaches back to cover the entire process so that generation and parturition are weirdly sped up in order to occur as God is speaking, reinforces the sense of divine concurrence in Raphael’s account.

So while the poetry emphasizes how the natural generative power of the earth is the particular cause for the emergence of land, the general cause is still understood to belong to God:49

  • Immediately the mountains huge appear
  • Emergent, and their broad bare backs upheave
  • Into the clouds, their tops ascend the sky:
  • So high as heaved the tumid hills, so low
  • Down sunk a hollow bottom broad and deep,
  • Capacious bed of waters: thither they
  • Hasted with glad precipitance, uprolled
  • As drops on dust conglobing from the dry;
  • Part rise in crystal wall, or ridge direct,
  • For haste; such flight the great command impressed
  • On the swift floods …

PL VII.285–295

Note how the language used to describe both the waters parting and the earth-in-the-process-of-being-born recalls the descriptions of prime matter at creation as narrated by Raphael and Uriel (where words such as “hasted,” “conglobed,” and others are employed). The similarity is significant because it emphasizes how, like God’s voice at VII.710, the “great command” (VII.294) causes matter—in whatever form—to respond, in a general sense, with something like intentionality. The account of God’s creation of the animals is similarly not a picture of Earth independently producing its creatures (as in Lucretius’s De rerum natura) but is, rather, an account of how God’s actions concur with the earth’s “response” to God’s command (VII.451). As the earth’s metaphorical “desire” to please its creator grows, the poetry exploits the intentional language in richly material terms: “The earth obeyed, and straight / Op’ning her fertile womb teemed at a birth / Innumerous living creatures, perfect forms, / Limbed and full-grown” (VII.453–456). By conforming to scholastic descriptions of matter as “desiring” form, this scene recapitulates the core idea expressed in Raphael’s speech about prime matter at V.469–500: namely, that natural agents are endowed with an impulse to incline to the good (which is none other than God) and that God’s concurrence is sufficient to be a general (though not particular) cause for these natural agents to incline to the good insofar as that is the sort of thing created natural agents do in ways particular to their respective species.50

The theology framing the accounts given by Uriel and Raphael thus reasserts the idea that God creates, conserves, and concurs with natural agents, including their causal powers and actions. The difficulty is that as the poetry strives to register more fully the effects God has on matter, the agency through which change occurs appears to become materialized. The vibrancy of Milton’s verse arises, therefore, from the tension between the poetry’s depiction of a self-vivifying movement in matter and Milton’s theology, inherited from the Genesis account, that attempts to control and also explain such movement. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century moderate scholastic accounts of causation—especially of the final cause—hold on to the metaphorical language of desire as a way of describing how the natural agent is moved to reach its certain telos, as the Italian poet Torquato Tasso made clear in his Il mondo creato (c. 1592):51

  • Ma con le forme la creò spirando;
  • E di bellezza e di bontà divina
  • Spirolle al seno un desiderio interno,
  • Un vago instinto, anzi un leggiadro amore
  • Ch’a la natia diè fine orrida guerra,
  • Per cui ritrosa e fella e ribellante
  • Era a sé stessa in suo furor discorde.52

    Il mondo creato, “giorno primo,” ll. 328–334

  • But, with forms, [God] created it [matter] by breathing into it;
  • And inspired an internal desire deep within for beauty and for divine goodness,
  • A longing instinct, indeed, a gracious love
  • Which, on the day it’s born, ends dreadful war,
  • For which reason, it [matter]-- recalcitrant, wild, and rebellious--
  • was, to its own self, in its rage, discordant. (my translation)

Although this is not the place to explore the similarities and dissimilarities between the creation scenes in Tasso and Milton, it is worth noting that Tasso’s account of creation underlines how God implants in inanimate matter its final cause—that is, a natural desire for beauty. Meanwhile, in the creation accounts of Milton’s angels, prime matter slips into looking like its own agent of change, even though the narrative itself works hard to assert God’s causal agency. To make “the creative fiats in Paradise Lost … less causal than occasional in nature” is to flatten this tension and its resultant richness.53

Still, Milton’s description of prime matter, in which “Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry, four champions fierce / Strive here for mast’ry, and to battle bring / Their embryon atoms” (II.898–900), seems fiercely self-animating. The natural state of Milton’s prima materia is, like Tasso’s, in “endless wars” (II.897). While the “pregnant causes” plunged into the murky stuff of Aristotelian prime matter in Paradise Lost may signal the creative tendencies God has implanted in matter that he also directs, they are also evocative of a more vitalist and independently mobile corpuscular prima materia: the “embryon atoms” mentioned at II.900. This alternative vision of a more rebellious, atomistic prima materia in Milton threatens to reject any causal ordering by God (VII.236–239). As the poetry cuts against the theology, it raises the possibility that matter may be endowed with some nonmaterial element—such as an occult quality or self-determining causal power—that enables matter to move itself in its unformed state. For the moment, the vitalist interpretation of matter is in the ascendant.

Rather than seeing “animist materialism” as an answer to the problem of what constitutes prima materia, the vitalist aspect of matter in Paradise Lost may be read as symptomatic of how a definition of prime matter cannot be reached. It marks a productive tension within the verse: How can one define, let alone describe, prime matter—the substance that is said to desire form—if that first matter is wholly characterless? How can prime matter, as a substrate persisting through change, be said to exist, if existence is itself the mark of something actualized by form (which prime matter is not)? There appears to be an insoluble problem implicit in the idea that as one of the two fundamental substances (the other being form) from which things arise, prima materia cannot be a compound (this would presuppose another “first matter”); but nor—in its state of potentiality—can it simply be potentia (as an actual, existing entity, prime matter must have some metaphysical actus, or actuality, by which it is said to exist).54 The arising paradox is that prime matter is said to exist, even while it simultaneously cannot be said to exist; its essence is said to be potentia, even while it must, metaphysically, be something more than potentia in order to continue to subsist after it is enformed.

The poetry of Paradise Lost thrives on these paradoxes. In Uriel’s account, prime matter is a “formless mass” (III.708) and in a “heap” (III.709), both words that suggest an indefinite accumulation of some mysterious stuff. The phrase “material mould” (III.709) conveys how this mass of indefinable matter imparts the material out of which the earth is created, where the very choice of the word “mould” draws attention to how prima materia is the material, but not the formal, cause of creation (Milton could just have easily written the more metaphysically loaded word “form”—instead of “mould”—to communicate the idea of “shape”). The emergent thought is that prime matter’s knowability is itself marked either by its fundamental unknowability (as seen in the case of the peripatetic philosophers Alsted described) or by its disposition to a certain end (as conveyed in Raphael’s speech in terms of its tendency to become “more refined, more spirituous, and pure, / As nearer to him placed or nearer tending”; V.475–476).

Raphael’s account of creation in book 7, which is markedly different from his lecture to Adam in book 5, chooses to emphasize the former: the unintelligibility of first matter. His description of how things need to be purged from prima materia slides dangerously close to the heretical assertion that a preexisting or eternal matter already exists at the time of creation. Even if this is not the case (as Milton had argued in De doctrina christiana), the lines, “downward purged / The black tartareous cold infernal dregs / Adverse to life” (VII.237–239), teeter on the edge of heresy.55 On the one hand, the lines gesture toward an inanimate matter that is devoid of the desire for form, where the Latin origin of “adverse” (advertere, meaning “to direct attention to” or “attend to”) hints that the “dregs” are perversions of proper natural appetites because they do not attend to, or desire, the form of life (they are, therefore, “black, tartareous cold infernal”). But, on the other hand, the evocation, and then subsequent cancellation, of intentional language can also be read as a quasi-Aristotelian reassertion of how prima materia cannot properly be said to desire anything. The difficulty is that the description of this very lack of desire (for life) slides into becoming something more like a power that actively opposes life-giving form and inclinations, where the word “adverse” forms a pun with its Latin participle, adversus, for “standing over against” or “in opposition to.” The absence of a desire for life-giving form moves, by way of the poetry, into a darker description of a hostile power—the metaphysical actus of prime matter—which, like its warring corpuscularian prima materia, asserts its existence over and against its association with pure potentiality.

Milton’s poetry thus careens from presenting prime matter as potentia receptive of form (which would destroy the essence of matter) to becoming a thing that subsists—albeit problematically—through its transference of potentiality to a power “Adverse to life” (VII.239). By presenting its potential for form and implanted natural inclination for perfectibility alongside its recalcitrant metaphysical actus, Milton’s “one first matter” captures the paradoxical nature of prima materia itself. The mystery surrounding this strange substance is preserved by the poetry—first by way of analogy (as we saw in Raphael’s speech at V.469–490) and then by way of allegory (through the figure of Chaos).

Since the topic of Chaos is too vast to be discussed here in detail, I simply draw attention to how this vision of prime matter is what we as readers encounter first through the eyes of Satan when

  •      Into this wild abyss,
  •   The womb of Nature and perhaps her grave,
  •   Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
  •   But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
  •   Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
  •   Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
  •   His dark materials to create more worlds,
  •   Into this wild abyss the wary Fiend
  •   Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while …

PL II.910–918

Yet it is no less a figure than the Son of God, raised high on the chariot of paternal deity and instinct with spirit, who validates Satan’s initial impression:

  • They viewed the vast immeasurable abyss
  • Outrageous as the sea, dark, wastful, wild
  • Up from the bottom turned by furious winds
  • And surging waves, as mountains to assault
  • Heav’n’s heighth, and with the centre mix the pole.

PL VII.211–215

This depiction of violent prima materia—which is as hostile to the approach of evil as it is to goodness—haunts Paradise Lost as an enigmatic substance that at once draws on, but also develops beyond, its origins in renaissance Aristotelian accounts of matter. If this is the substance from which all things that potentially desire to perfect themselves arise, it also constitutes the “dark materials” (II.912) of an unfathomable abyss that, in its very wildness, intractably stakes a claim to existence. In this picture, Chaos bizarrely becomes the metaphysical actus of prime matter that makes the latter exist as something (though we know not what). The arising thought is that while matter in Milton is a fluid and dynamic substance subtending energetic change, it is also the unruly and uncontrollable stuff resistant to that change. The matter that comprises the “hoary deep” (II.891) into which God’s secrets are plunged is also the “wild abyss” (II.917) that seems to swallow and obscure not only the matter “purged” from creation but also God’s causal powers. The more orthodox account of an organized matter that has God as its final cause (as described by Raphael in book 5) is thus held in tense opposition to a material representation of the fundamentally abstract concept of prime matter, here expressed by the allegorical figure of Chaos, whose active resistance to God’s causal ordering is evident in his “visage incomposed” (II.989).56

III. Conclusion

By staging explorations of different ways of thinking about matter and, especially, prima materia, Milton’s epic is wonderfully exploratory and speculative. The “vitalist” elements discernible in the poetry owe less to a philosophic doctrine of animist materialism per se and more to the tensions arising from the conflict between theological explanations and their poetic expression and the philosophic paradoxes attending prime matter. As the poetry draws on, and richly complicates, the lingering legacy of scholastic treatments of causation and matter, it unleashes a remarkable philosophic dynamism that energizes the poetry. Discussions of prime matter that focus exclusively on how it is already a self-animating substance effectively remove the very theological and philosophical problems that enliven the epic’s exploration of it.

As W. H. Auden observed, “Love like Matter is much / Odder than we thought.”57 In attempting to set out—however briefly—what makes matter “odder than we thought,” this essay has traced the role of metaphor and theology in discussions of matter and how a philosophy that relies on analogical modes of thinking might assist, or further perplex, descriptions of prima materia. By bringing to the fore the way Paradise Lost reveals an eclectic mode of philosophizing that occurs within, and through, the poetry, it suggests that the poem does not easily conform to either of the two main materialist philosophies that emerged in England in the second half of the seventeenth century: the first, in which every substance that exists is corporeal, asserted that everything was—without exception—a passive and inert matter; the second, in which matter is capable of performing functions hitherto assigned to form—including the rational soul and even God—ran the risk of making God a dispensable hypothesis.58 The problem with aligning Milton with one or the other of these materializing philosophies is that it diminishes the complexity with which the literary, philosophic, and theological are intertwined in his poetry.59 To speak of Milton and “matter,” as opposed to Milton and “vitalist materialism,” is to retain a degree of sensitivity to the theological implications of certain philosophical positions and to highlight the range of meanings associated with the term “matter” in the seventeenth century as well as the array of often contradictory descriptions used to characterize it.

As soon as the ascription of “vitalist materialism” to Milton’s poetry is discarded in favor of the far more flexible, yet troublesome, term “matter,” future lines of inquiry immediately open up: Chaos, the War in Heaven, the substance of heaven and hell, and even music itself become much richer and far more complicated expressions of reality when they are read through the lens of metaphysics and theology, not simply natural philosophy. In rejecting the imposition of any totalizing “-ism”—be it “materialism” or “vitalism”—Milton’s epic reminds us that such labels sap not only the philosophic vigor but also the poetic vitality that makes Paradise Lost the endlessly fascinating and complex poem that it is.


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Vickers, Brian. “Analogy versus Identity: The Rejection of Occult Symbolism, 1580–1680.” In Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, 95–163. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Walker, William. “Milton’s Dualistic Theory of Religious Toleration in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power,’ ‘Of Christian Doctrine’ and ‘Paradise Lost.’” Modern Philology 99.2 (2001): 201–230.Find this resource:


(1) Andrew Marvell, “On Mr Milton’s Paradise Lost,” in The Poems of Andrew Marvell, ed. Nigel Smith, rev. ed. (London: Pearson Education, 2007), pp. 180–184; quote on p. 181.

(2) Stephen Fallon, Milton among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 1.

(3) See Milton, De doctrina christiana (henceforth, DDC) 1.7, ed. and trans. John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington with additional material by Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), in vol. 8 of The Complete Works of John Milton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008–) pt. 1: 292–293.

(5) William Walker, “Milton’s Dualistic Theory of Religious Toleration in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power,’ ‘Of Christian Doctrine’ and ‘Paradise Lost,’” Modern Philology 99.2 (2001): 201–230; Rachel J. Trubowitz, “Body Politics in Paradise Lost,” PMLA 121 (2006): 388–404; and N. K. Sugimura, Matter of Glorious Trial: Spiritual and Material Substance in Paradise Lost (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

(6) Fallon, Milton among the Philosophers, especially pp. 79–255; John Rogers, Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the age of Milton (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), especially pp. 103–143.

(7) The phrase belongs to Christopher Lüthy and William Newman in “‘Matter’ and ‘Form’: by way of a Preface,” Early Science and Medicine 2.3 (1997): 215–226; quotation on 222.

(8) Matthew Arnold, “Preface,” Literature and Dogma: An Essay towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan … Co., 1873), p. xv.

(9) See Ann Thomson, Bodies of Thought: Science, Religion, and the Soul in the Early Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), especially pp. 13–17, 44–63, 65–86; Ann Thomson, “Mechanistic Materialism versus Vitalistic Materialism?” in Mécanisme et vitalisme, ed. Mariana Saad, La lettre de la Maison française d’Oxford 14 (Oxford: Maison française d’Oxford, 2001), pp. 22–36; and Robert Schofield, Mechanism and Materialism: British Natural Philosophy in an Age of Reason (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970).

(10) All citations to Paradise Lost are to John Milton, The Complete Poems, ed. John Leonard (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

(11) Fallon, Milton among the Philosophers, p. 102. For a contrary view, see Balachandra Rajan, “The Two Creations: Paradise Lost and the Treatise on Christian Doctrine,” in Milton and the Climates of Reading, ed. Elizabeth Sauer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), pp. 112–134; quotation on pp. 114–115.

(12) The Greek word for “matter,” hyle, and its Latin equivalent, materia, is distinct from the Greek word for body, sôma, as well as the Latin term, corpus. The OED definition for “corporeal” (A2), which equates the “corporeal” with the “material,” should therefore be treated with extreme care. On the danger of overvaluing the concretely material meaning of hyle, see Heinz Happ, Hyle: Studien zum Aristotelischen Materie-Begriff (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1971), pp. 276–277; on the distinction between the corporeal/material and the incorporeal/immaterial, see Robert Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes, 1274–1671 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2011), pp. 350–373, and Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 7–9.

(13) On the paradox inherent in this account of prime matter, see also Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes, pp. 35–52, 120–124; on the scala naturae, see Aristotle, Parts of Animals IV.5.681a12–15, 333, and History of Animals VIII.1.588b4–16, 62–63; on weak continuity in the scala naturae, where each kind is discrete and distinct (contra Lovejoy), see Herbert Granger, “The Scala Naturae and the Continuity of Kinds,” Phronesis 30 (1985): 181–198. A clear account of the scala naturae in an early modern Aristotelian commentary is to be found in the Spanish Jesuit Franciscus Toletus’s (1532–1596) Commentaria una cum quæstionibus in III libros De anima (1st ed., Venice, 1575), which was reprinted twenty-two times by 1625; see Toletus, Opera Omnia philosophia, facsimile reproduction of the Cologne, 1615 edition, 5 vols. (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1985) 3:50va [2.c.2.txt.23].

(14) For the expression “Matter desires form just as the female desires the male, or ugliness, beauty,” see Aristotle, Physics I.ix.192a22, in Aristotle, The Physics, trans. Philip H. Wicksteed and Francis M. Cornford (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 94–95.

(15) On the conservation of created things and change, see Dennis Des Chene, Physiologia: Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Caretesian Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp. 313, 324–327, 331–333.

(16) The idea for this sort of transformation may also have its roots in the doctrine of angelic metamorphosis as outlined by Gregory of Nazianzus; see John A. McGuckin, “Gregory of Nazianzus,” in The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1:482–497 (especially 497). On “spiritual bodies,” see Milton, DDC 1.7, pt. 1:295; on prime matter as being endowed with a sort of power, see Sugimura, Matter of Glorious Trial, p. 52.

(18) See Johann Heinrich Alsted, Physica, Pars Prima, in Cursus Philosophici Encyclopaedia … (Herborn, 1620) col. 401 [cap. 4: “Materia Prima”].

(19) See also Brian Vickers, “Analogy versus Identity: The Rejection of Occult Symbolism, 1580–1680,” in Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 95–163, especially 116–117.

(20) Richard Crakanthorpe, Introductio in metaphysicam (Oxford, 1619), cap. vii, 60.

(21) Christoph Scheibler, Metaphysica: duobus libris … (Oxford, 1637) [§50–§53], 228–229 [irregular pagination]. Scheibler’s own view of spiritual substance was a Lutheran defense of Christ’s two natures against the Calvinists. In order to make Scheibler’s text more palatable for an English readership, Thomas Barlow (1608–1609), reader in metaphysics at Oxford, doctored the text to shift the focus from the Calvinists to the Socinians, appending his own Exercitationes aliquot metaphysicae De Deo at the end. On Scheibler, see Sarah Mortimer, Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 57; on Milton and the angels, see Sugimura, Matter of Glorious Trial, pp. 158–195.

(22) Lüthy and Newman, “‘Matter’ and ‘Form,’” p. 221.

(23) It is no small irony that these different conceptions of “matter” may account for why Henry More, who wrote against Hobbesian materialism in The Immortality of the Soul (1659), was later accused by Richard Baxter of materialism; see Baxter, Of the Immortality of Man’s Soul (London, 1682), pp. 47–48 [viii.§2]; discussed also in Thomson, Bodies of Thought, p. 48, and Simon J. G. Burton, Hallowing of Logic: The Trinitarian Method of Richard Baxter’s Methodus Theologiae, Brill’s Series in Church History, Vol. 57 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), p. 143.

(24) Baxter, Of the Nature of Spirits, especially Man’s Soul … (London, 1682), pp. 43–44 [§vii–§viii].

(25) Milton, DDC (1.7), p. 309.

(26) See Baxter, Of the Immortality of Man’s Soul (London, 1682), p. 32 [i.§11]: “Do you know what material signifieth? See Crakenthorp’s Metaphysicks, and he will tell you in part, it’s an ambiguous word. Sometime it signifieth the same as substantia; and so Souls are material. Sometime it signifieth only that sort of Substance which is called corporeal.”

(27) Baxter, Of Spirits, p. 82 [xxix.§2].

(28) The phrase is D. J. T. Bailey’s; correspondence with the author.

(29) Robert Sanderson, Logicae Artis Compendium (2d ed.; Oxford, 1618) I.c.6.§7, 21: “Æquivocè, est prædicari secundùm nomen … non secundùm definitionem: quomodo Ens prædicatur de decem Prædicamentis.”

(30) For Bonaventure, a loss of corporeal form may lead to “transmutable matter” but not “spiritual matter” as such; see Bonaventure, Liber II Sententiarum III. p1.a1.q2,, in Opera Omnia … (Florence: Quaracchi, 1885), 2:98.

(31) Suárez, De Anima 2.c.4.¶.2., in Opera omnia, ed. D. M. André (Paris: L. Vivès, 1856), 3:587 and quoted in Dennis Des Chene, Life’s Form: Late Aristotelian Conceptions of the Soul (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 26.

(32) Noted also by Leonard in Paradise Lost, p. 82 n.493.

(33) Suárez rejected the idea that terrestrial matter could become spiritual; see Disputationes metaphysicæ [henceforth, DM] (first printed 1597) in 2 vols. (Paris, 1855, reprinted in facsimile Hildesheim: George Olms Verlag 1965) xiii.§1.¶11, 1:308.

(35) Rogers, Matter of Revolution, pp. 149, 111 (italics mine).

(36) While it might be objected that I am assigning yet another “-ism” to Milton (namely, “Aristotelianism”), my point is that Milton’s poetic engagement is with a variety of “Renaissance Aristotelianisms” and that his verse productively draws on, and further develops, the tensions implicit in these different strands of Aristotelian thought.

(38) This “matter unformed” is ex Deo; see DDC 1.7, pt. 1:294–295. There, Milton argues, “[T]he more excellent substance virtually (as they say) and eminently contains within itself what is undoubtedly the inferior substance.” Note that “virtually” here means “not formally”—that is, “not the same kind of being as that which is produced”—but capable of containing that thing; “eminently” means that whatever produces something is more noble than the thing being produced.

(39) See Rogers, Matter of Revolution, p. 132. For a good account of divinus concursus, see A. J. Freddoso, “Introduction,” On Creation, Conservation, and Concurrence: Metaphysical Disputations 20, 21, and 22, trans. with notes Alfred J. Freddoso (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s Press, 2002), especially pp. xciii–cxxi.

(40) Rogers, Matter of Revolution, pp. 132, 133; Thomson, Bodies of Thought, p. 70 (on Glisson).

(41) Milton, DDC 1.6, pt. 1:247; see also pt. 1:315–317.

(42) Milton, DDC 1.7, pt. 1:292293 (italics mine).

(43) Suárez, DM xxi.§1.¶9, 1:788.

(44) See Suárez, DM xxii.§4.¶6, 1.830. A doctrine of divine concurrence compatible with human freedom—such as that promoted by the Jesuit Suárez—would presumably be more attractive to Milton than the Thomist alternative (or the “premotion theory,” which places divine motion first in the causal order). This is because Suárez’s theory accords with Milton’s view that “neither God’s decree nor his prescience impedes free causes by any necessity”; see Milton DDC 1.3, pt. 1:67 and Suárez, DM xix.§10.¶2, 1:735: “in relation to the First Cause, no effect in the universe occurs by absolute necessity, because all effects depend on the concurrence of it [the First Cause], which he is able to withhold from them on account of his freedom.” On divine concursus, see also Suárez, DM xxiii.§10.¶5, 1:887; Des Chene, Physiologia, p. 321; and Stephen Menn, “On Dennis Des Chene’s Physiologia,” Perspectives on Science 8.2 (2000): 119–143.

(45) Although the idea of efficient cause (viz. God) is also present, there is a strong poetic sense of a final cause to which everything is directed. The constellations are substantially attracted to the pure actuality that is God.

(46) According to Suárez, creation is a transeunt action; see Suárez, DM xx.§4.¶17, 1:774.

(49) Menn, “Physiologia,” p. 124.

(50) See Des Chene, Physiologia, pp. 186–211; on metaphorical intentionality in noncognitive agents, see Suárez, DM xxiii.§1.¶14, 1:847.

(52) Torquato Tasso, Il mondo creato, ed. Paolo Luparia (Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2006), p. 23.

(53) Rogers, Matter of Revolution, p. 114 (citing Christopher Kendrick’s Milton, p. 180).

(54) Des Chene, Pyshiologia, pp. 84–121; Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes, pp. 102–114, 119–124; on matter as the “passive Principle” dependent on God, see also Milton, DDC 1.7, pt. 1:289–291.

(55) Milton, DDC 1.7, pt. 1:291.

(56) On Chaos, see John Leonard, “Milton, Lucretius, and ‘The Void Profound of Unessential Night,’” in Living Texts: Interpreting Milton, ed. Kristin A. Pruitt and Charles W. Durham (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2000), pp. 198–217, and John Rumrich, “Milton’s God and the Matter of Chaos,” PMLA 110.5 (1995): 1035–1046.

(57) Auden, “Heavy Date,” in W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendleson (1976; New York: Modern Library Edition, 2007) pp. 257–260; quote on p. 259.

(58) See Thomson, Bodies of Thought, especially pp. 14, 19–22, 49, 63; for a contemporary assessment of the dangers of vitalism, see Cudworth, The True Intellectual System … (London, 1678) bk. 1, ch. 3, p. 105.

(59) Congenial here is William Kolbrener’s essay, “The Poverty of Context: Cambridge School History and the New Milton Criticism,” in The New Milton Criticism, ed. Peter C. Herman and Elizabeth Sauer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 212–230.