Milton on Causation: Theodicy & Noise
2016 - 2017 (January-June)
Elizabeth Weckhurst is a PhD candidate in the English department at Harvard University, where she is currently working to complete a dissertation titled “Milton on Causation: Theodicy & Noise,” which relates Milton’s career-long preoccupation with origins to early modern rationalist accounts of causation in the fields of history, theology, and metaphysics. Originally from Los Angeles, CA, she received her B.A. from UC Berkeley in English and Rhetoric. Her interests include Renaissance poetry and poetics, rhetoric and philology, philosophy and literature, comparative arts, sound studies, and queer theory.
My project relates John Milton’s career-long preoccupation with origins to early modern rationalist accounts of causation in the fields of theology, natural philosophy, and political thought. Anticipating the skeptical challenge of Hume, I argue, Milton’s late poetry reveals causal reasoning to be inessential, if not counterproductive, to the pursuit of knowledge. But he also seeks to redeem such reasoning as making possible human creation, or poïesis, even as it underwrites custom – the principal antagonist in the poet’s interregnum pamphlets. I begin by sorting out the confused meanings of the word “cause,” which in mid-seventeenth century England could refer to confessional identities, reasons for action, the agentive powers of matter, mind, or God, as well as acts of legal advocacy. This age also witnessed the first use of the term to describe political movements, as in the “Anabaptist cause,” the “royalist cause,” or most famously, “the good old cause,” a rallying cry after the restoration with a contentious afterlife in English historiography. I hope to show that Milton’s late work provides a genealogy of the belief in causal reasoning that makes these imbricated forms of epistemological, ecclesiastic, and political justification possible.