Indiana University Bloomington

Divinity in Literature: Speech Acts, Paradise Lost, and the Character of God

Celia Daniels, English

Written for ENG-L480: “The Making of Modern Persons:  from Reformation Theology through the Declaration of  Independence”

Instructor: Linda Charnes


Published two decades after the Thirty Years War, a period of violent conflict between Protestant and Catholic churches, John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, might be read as the product of a time of great change for English Christians. The transformation that Christian doctrine underwent during this time occurred not only on a national level, but on an interpersonal level. John Milton’s thoughts on Christianity would have been considered heresy by both his intellectual peers and church authorities (Carey); however, his position on God as perfect and unquestionable remained in line with that of both churches. According to William Empson, in his work, Milton’s God:  “[God’s] Godhead [had to] be mysteriously one with Goodness itself…he is built into the moral structure of the universe so as to be quite unlike other persons” (93). Yet Empson’s emphasis on God’s transcendence is complicated by the rhetoric the character of God uses in Paradise Lost. In the text, God appears to perform a number of J.L. Austin’s speech acts. Speech acts don’t have an inherent morality, but actors use them in order to manipulate social situations. God’s non-human, moral authority, as emphasized by His role as “Goodness itself”, should eliminate the need for Him to manipulate or speak indirectly to His audiences, as His Word is inherently right. Comparatively, human characters, such as Petruchio in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, are able to perform speech acts flippantly; their status in society is based on how said societies perceive them. They, however, are not bound by religious doctrine. If Milton’s God is performing speech acts in Paradise Lost, then the character of God breaks with the nature of divinity defined by Empson and the churches of Milton’s time.

The difference between a general statement and a speech act is not always clear. Kent Bach, in his encyclopedia entry “Speech Acts”, describes a speech act as “a generic term for sort of language use, oral or otherwise…an especially pertinent feature is that when one acts intentionally, generally one has a set of nested intentions” (386). The intention behind a statement is what separates a speech act from a general statement. Take, for example, Shakespeare’s use of the characters Petruchio and Baptista in his play, The Taming of the Shrew. A conversation between the two men in Act Two of the play details Petruchio’s potential marriage to Baptista’s daughter, Katherina. This conversation utilizes the language of business and styles the marriage in a contractual style, particularly with Petruchio’s immediate invocation of Katherina’s dowry (Shakespeare 2.1.121). The intention of this statement is to convince, but its meanings are not layered. What separates a speech act from a deliverance of fact is what Bach calls “nested intentions” (386). “Nested intentions” suggests that a statement must have meaning on contextual and subtextual levels. Bach details how his forbearer, J.L. Austin, describes these levels, stating that they consist of “the act of saying something, what one does in saying it, and what one does by saying it” (386). This suggests that there are three parts to the delivery of a statement: the actual content of the statement, the implied meaning of the statement, and what kind of response the statement intends to elicit. Implied meanings rely on what the recipient or recipients of the speech act are able to interpret. Implied meaning also calls the society within which the recipients of a speech act have been raised in, as a recipient’s society can impact how certain words, cultural references, or other means of communication are interpreted.

The Taming of the Shrew addresses “nested intentions” and societal influences in the speech act Baptista delivers following Petruchio’s previously quoted statement. Where he previously complied with Petruchio’s business-oriented rhetoric, he abruptly changes his tune, stating:  “Aye, when the special thing is well obtain’d/That is, her love; for that is all in all” (Shakespeare 2.1.129-130). This statement switches the tone of the conversation away from business and onto the idea of romance. The reasoning for this change can be found in the present situation of Baptista’s society. He is a man of New Money; speaking in business deals is not unusual for him, as such a skill is an essential part of his ascension through society’s ranks. As a wealthy father, however, he and his class are supposed to be above marrying for wealth and position, so he must play at entertaining the idea of love in his daughter’s marriage, not only for society’s sake, but because Katherina is staged a room away, as though to potentially overhear her father’s dealings. Petruchio, comparatively, is Old Money, and far more cynical in his approach to marriage due to his lack of liquid capital. Because he is in need of a quick fix to aid his empty wallet, he is far more willing to bypass the flattering formalities of courtship. With this in mind, the statement quoted above could be interpreted as Baptista’s attempt to call out Petruchio’s crudely commercial nature – reminding him of his status and of who in the room holds the most power – while simultaneously attempting to appease his eavesdropping daughter. Thus as lines 129-130 invoke an implied meaning while also addressing two parties, one directly and the other indirectly, the quote stands as a speech act. In addition to its addressing of two individuals, directly and indirectly, Baptista’s statement also invokes a sense of society and what certain individuals from certain backgrounds are allowed to say to one another, and then to individuals of higher or lower classes.

Baptista and Petruchio, however, are human. The literary version of the Christian God, be He written in the biblical canon or in a fictional work, comes along with ideas of doctrine, divinity, and infinite power. Empson, speaking to the churches of Milton’s time, emphasizes God’s connection with “Goodness” and “the moral structure of the universe” while also stating that God must be “be quite unlike other persons” (93). Because of these qualities, God should never find Himself needing to assert His authority over anyone else, as said authority is implied along with his divinity. Likewise, God doesn’t have a society to contend with, as Heaven in Paradise Lost is society-less (Knott 494). All of God’s statements in Paradise Lost, then, should be mere deliverances of fact. Yet there are moments throughout Paradise Lost, where God speaks to His angels and worshippers in ways not dissimilar from the way Baptista speaks to Petruchio. If God is, in fact, using speech acts, as Baptista, then His literary representation breaks from the Christian doctrine emphasized by Empson and the churches of Milton’s time.

Book Three of Paradise Lost introduces readers to the character of God for the first time. He also provides God with His first opportunity to perform a speech act. Here, God says to his Son:

So will fall/[Satan] and his faithless progeny: Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. (3.96-99)

The content of God’s statement clearly references Satan’s fall and establishes that it is through no one else’s fault but Satan’s that this event occurred. God’s insistence on this direction of blame, however, seems to overstate His point. God seems here as though He is defending himself to His Son; he also seems distressed, even angry, as indicated by His use of the derogatory term “ingrate”. This repetition suggests that there is an underlying meaning and emotionalism to God’s speech. By insisting that there was nothing He could have done to prevent the situation, however, God cements Himself in a rhetorical place of power. The content of the above statement seems clear at first glance, but is put into question by the emotional tone of the delivery. The figure’s emotional delivery thereby suggests that the content is not as clear as it initially seems and that there is a message beneath the factual statement being presented. The statement also allows for the speaker to settle Himself into a position of power or correctness. With these three aspects in mind, the above quote meets the criteria to be labeled a speech act. However, according to the doctrine of the Christian religion and Empson, God is perfect, correct, and separate from humanity; thereby, God should neither feel guilt nor doubt about His decisions. Neither should He be anything besides straightforward with His statements, as manipulative speech would impede His inherent “Goodness”. The only thing preventing this statement from being labeled as a speech act, then, is the doctrinal logic imposed on the story by Milton’s society.

If this kind of rhetoric only occurred once throughout Paradise Lost, it could be written off. However, a similar occurrence appears in Book Five. God, speaking to Raphael in regards to Adam and Eve, says:

…discourse bring on
As may advise him of his happy state
Happiness in his power left free to will
Left to his own free will, his will though free
Yet mutable… (5.233-237)

The idea of free will is repeated in this statement three times. Just as before, God is insisting on His creation’s personal abilities to control their fate as well as His own inability to interfere with His creation’s choices. The situations that God faces in both of the cited quotes are similar; both quotes express God’s thoughts on the fall of His creation, be that creation divine or human. The underlying message of both of the quotes is similar, as well: God appears to be feeling guilty over work He claims that He cannot do. In the above statement, however, the underlying message seems to be one of hope. God may be hoping that, in being grateful for their free will, Adam and Eve will achieve complete happiness without eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The repetition of the idea of free will also allows God to absolutely reassure Raphael and Himself that, because Adam and Eve can make their own decisions free of God’s influence, thus denying Him power over the situation, He is not responsible for their decisions. This, in turn, gives Him the authority to judge their situation as a divine, omniscient, and detached being. Because of these implications – that of a restoration of authority and “nested intentions” – the above quote, unimpeded by the divine qualities Empson cites, could be labeled a speech act.

To complicate matters further, the character of God exhibits what could be considered sarcastic, even condescending, diction in the following quote from Book Five. God says to His Son:

…Such a foe
Is rising, who intends to erect his throne
Equal to ours, throughout the spacious north…
Let us advise, and to this hazard draw
With speed what force is left, and all employ
In our defense; let unawares we lose
This our high place, our sanctuary, our hill. (5.724-732)

This statement references Satan, who, at this point in the poem, is traveling through Chaos to get to Earth. The content of God’s statement suggests that He and His Son should address Satan’s travels with genuine concern. God’s tone, however, implies otherwise; the above statement is preceded by the phrase, “And, smiling…” (Milton 5.718). This phrase implies that God, despite the content of His speech, is amused by Satan’s attempts to overpower Him; thereby, the content of His statement and His meaning differ from one another. This statement also works to re-establish God in a position of power over Satan. If He can address Satan’s journey with a smile, then His audience – in this case, His Son – will be led to believe that Satan is not significant enough to be considered a serious threat. This dismissal is important to consider when establishing the power dynamics of Milton’s universe, because at this moment, God’s greatest foe has broken through supposedly impenetrable gates and is now en-route to the home of the creatures God loves most dearly. Yet if the idea of Satan reaching Adam and Eve was truly concerning, then God’s dismissal of Satan’s abilities would allow God to assert Himself as the stronger combatant in his battle with the fallen angel while also diminishing the impact He thinks Satan could have on his people. Thus the dissonance between content and tone as well as the returning of social power to the figure delivering the statement suggests that the quote about is in accordance with Kent Bach’s description of J.L. Austin’s speech acts.

With all of these quotes in mind, it can reasonably be said that, within the universe of Paradise Lost, God is shown to find Himself in emotional situations wherein He feels the need to reassert His position of authority. The meanings of the statements presented here are different from their actual content; by all accounts, they comply with J.L. Austin’s layers of speech acts. The only thing preventing these statements from accepting the label of speech act is the society within which Milton lived and the doctrine that the English churches of the seventeenth century upheld, as emphasized by William Empson in Milton’s God.

Yet the churches’ doctrine of divinity and the divine character of God presented in the Bible may differ. The invention of the printing press and the publishing of the Bible in English allowed those who were literate to develop individualized understandings of the Old and New Testaments. Martin Luther, in his work “Concerning Christian Liberty”, states the following:

We have therefore need to pray that God
will lead us and make us taught of God, this
is, ready to learn from God; and will Himself,
as He has promised, write His law in our hearts;
otherwise there is no hope for us.

The phrase “write His law in our hearts” can be interpreted to mean that God writes the meaning of His Word of the hearts of His followers. This interpretation allows for another break within the churches of England that seemingly invalidates the institution of the church altogether. If the Word of God is written on each individual’s heart, then the Word itself is individualized. In accordance with this logic, the words written in the Bible would only be a template for the individualized Word given to each of God’s worshippers. This idea of individualized word meshes well with Milton’s own breaks from the churches of his time. Milton did embrace the foundations of the Protestant interpretation of divine grace over works, but he did not believe in equality between the Divine Trinity, the continued application of the Ten Commandments as laws, nor that the soul remained alive between bodily death and Judgement day (Carey). This mindset shows great separation from both of the major English churches: Protestants and Catholics alike believed and still believe in the equality of the Trinity, not to mention the continued impact of the Ten Commandments (Rosario). While Milton was not alone in his beliefs (Riva 96), his gradual breakage with the churches shows an individualization of doctrine that Martin Luther’s statement suggests. With this in mind, the breakage of Paradise Lost with the doctrine emphasized by Empson is entirely plausible, not the least in the speech patterns of the character of God.

The altering of the rhetoric of God seems to best represent this breakage with the doctrine emphasized by Empson, as said rhetoric is both impactful – it denies the pure and factual nature of speech an honest God is supposed to have – and subtle. Readers of Paradise Lost would naturally assume that because God is God, God can do as he pleases – such an idea is reflected by Slavoj Žižek when he states “law is law”: because the subject in question is said to be infallible, even toying with the idea of its inadequacies could be seen as a sort of blasphemy (Žižek 36). Milton, in writing Paradise Lost, seems to recognize this and calls on the Holy Spirit to aid him in his writing (1.6). He seems, in this effort, to attempt to negate any claims of blasphemy his work may receive post-publication. However, he also states as follows: “That to the height of this great Argument/ I may assert Eternal Providence/ and justify the ways of God to men.” (1.24-26). To “justify the ways of God to men” is to attempt to explain what common doctrine has claimed to be inexplicable. By Žižek’s logic, what Milton is doing is then a sort of denial of ‘true faith’; Milton, in “justify[ing]” God, is breaking from common doctrine on the first page of his epic poem. With this in mind, one can turn one’s gaze to the character of God and assess the situations wherein God appears to be making use of J.L. Austin’s speech acts with a more open eye, because if the author has stated his break with doctrine within the text, then the characters – even if originally infallibly divine – will likely reflect that.

This diction reveals a flaw in the argument, however: the “characters” in question are bound to reflect the opinion of their author. The term “characters”, of course, implies fiction, and Paradise Lost is a work of fiction. Fictional works, by the nature of their label, go against the laws of real life; thereby, fictional works are undoubtedly able to reject real-life doctrine. It is unclear, however, whether or not the former has any impact on the latter. The entire fictional element of Paradise Lost stands in contrast to the argument presented here because of the separation that exists between the fictional and the real. One must consider this, however: when writing stories or poems, authors become ‘gods’ in miniature, establishing the rules that dictate the universes that they create. The rules of their fictional worlds, being established, then require authors to address any plot holes that appear within their work – to address, then, any breaks with the story’s reality. Even when using divine beings as characters, this remains the case. Milton states something along these lines himself through the character of Raphael, who, in Book Seven, says: “…though to recount almighty works/ What words or tongue of Seraph can suffice,/ Or heart of man suffice to comprehend?” (7.112-114). Through this statement, Milton seems to be saying that neither man nor angel can adequately describe the being of God or His works, thus emphasizing the fictionalized – or incorrect – nature of the poem Milton is writing. The separation between what is fiction and what is real, then, is being invoked in order to prevent anything within Milton’s written work from being blasphemous, because whatever is being written is not actually being claimed as Biblical canon.

With this in mind, attention should be directed back to the first page of Paradise Lost, where readers can see the word “justify” written into the introduction. It is shown throughout Milton’s life that he had developed his own doctrine that was separate from that of the churches of England (Carey). Paradise Lost could be interpreted as an attempt on his part to work out that doctrine on paper, using a fictionalized space in order to set matters straight in his mind – an attempt to “justify” the religious beliefs he’s developed after being exposed to both churches. In this justification, and through the use of the fictional environment, the laws of divinity in Paradise Lost can differ from those set by the churches or by Empson; as the universe is established by Milton, the divinity of the story must play by his rules. Thus, when looking at the speech God uses, one could assume that such speech would have to be confined to Milton’s own capabilities, much like his universe is. Because, as Raphael says, neither human nor angels can adequately depict God, the God depicted in Paradise Lost is not a doctrinally accurate depiction. This, when associated with Žižek’s statement about the inexplicable nature of fixed objects, again suggests that the character of God is not the same God depicted by the churches of England or by Empson. Thus, looking back to the quotes referenced above: all three quotes from Paradise Lost contain content that differs from their meaning; all three re-establish God as the most powerful person in conversation, and all three address some sort of societally induced propriety – as much can be attributed to religious scenarios, in any case. Thereby, with the idea that this God is a character as opposed to a religious figure, it is reasonable to say that the God in Paradise Lost is capable of committing speech acts.

Paradise Lost, read in this manner, represents Milton’s individualized doctrine; a doctrine that is separate from both that of the English churches and the divine qualities emphasized by William Empson in Milton’s God. However, the depiction of God as a character – as figure that, due to the humanness of his author, is in turn humanized – speaks to the presentation of divine figures in literature. As Milton has Raphael say, God cannot be described by humans or angels – thereby, in Paradise Lost, at the least, the God presented is inaccurate. However, based on the arguments presented here, any literary presentation of God is inaccurate. This inability of Milton to accurate capture the character of God may not solely be due to his presentation of an individualized doctrine; it may, rather, be a result of the fact that Milton is human. If this is the case, the interpretations of God throughout historical and modern literature are all inherently flawed, as their authors’ humanity prevents them from displaying a “law is law”, Zizekian God. With all of that in mind, not only is it capable for the literary God to commit speech acts, but it is possible for the literary God to move beyond the boundaries set by the doctrine of the Christian Church, specifically because the character of God, in literature, is not confined a holiness of being; He is instead freed by the flawed nature of his creation.

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