Platonism once again emerges, this time, though, it is through humanistic faith: the final lines of the poem connote this when Milton writes “Or if virtue feeble were, / Heav’n itself would stoop to her” (Lines 1022-23). As Hughes’s footnotes alludes to, it seems that Milton is referencing Jonson’s Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue in the repeated celebration of Virtue (114).
What is interesting here is that Virtue have been secularized. While the theological trappings of Milton’s articulation of a Ptolemaic universe remain, we see a mild inversion when he recounts that “Heav’n”, or, The Empyrean, that uppermost sphere, “stoops to [Virtue]”. In a sense, then, it is a powerful image of the godly submitting to the immaterial mortal, but on a cosmic scale. In the Platonic conception, it is The Forms submitting to the imperfect Sensible Things, the Intelligible Realm temporarily becoming bested by the non-intelligible.
But, if it is in fact true that the intelligible realm is bested, at least for a bit, by the non-intelligible—those carnal and sensual aspects of the world which prevents people from figuring the intelligible—then how virtuous is Virtue in actuality? If Virtue has heav’n itself stoop to her, then we need to ask where she actually participates; if Virtue participates in the intelligible realm, and heaven relents to her, then she is likely A Form; but, if she is participates in the non-intelligible, as connoted by the idea of the heavenly “stopping” to her, an undefined element, then she is a Sensible Thing.
This matters because if we follow Augustinian Platonism, and accept that reality was shaped according to God’s will, then the material world of Earth, being part of the Creation, is not, in fact, sinful; by extension, then, we would have to accept that emanation—the Platonic idea that every step away from The One, a sort of God-figure for Platonists, represents a fall—is faulty logic: Virtue would be participating in God’s creation, the imperfection which she was designed to encode. As such, it would be impossible for us to label her as a Form, unless we are to claim that the Empyrean is imperfect in some manner (which, considering Milton’s writing in Paradise Lost, could be a reality), and that Virtue is a Form residing outside of heaven and represents a wandering iota of The One/God.
Let me demonstrate another way,
(This graph aims to demonstrate the variations of the Platonic and Augustinian Platonic conceptions as explored in this response; extrapolations on these configurations will be provided after the demonstration. The aim here is to work through some of the implications inherent in the text as it plays with philosophy, especially in relation to Milton’s use of the word “stooping” and Virtue becoming enfeebled)
(A) Traditional Platonism
1. The Empyrean=Perfection
1.2 Virtue within the Empyrean=A Form
1.3 Virtue within Earth=Sensible Thing
Virtue resides as a Form within the heavenly body, but as a sensible thing on Earth. Because heaven is perfect, and she is a product of God, she is perfect and so represents, likely, a divine attribute; likewise, because Earth is imperfect, she is imperfect, and so her residence on Earth reflects that imperfection by being merely a duplicate of a far superior attribute.
(B) Traditional Platonism in Dialog with the text
2.0 Fallen (”stooped”) Empyrean=imperfection
2.1 Earth as uplifted realm=perfection
2.2 Virtue within the Empyrean=Sensible Thing
2.3 Virtue within Earth=A Form
Virtues here is a sensible thing within the empyrean but a form on earth. This is due to the inversion by the text, the “stooping” of heaven; because of this, readers are able to perceive a heavenly imperfection which manages to transfer its apparent (divine) elements to earth (since this is where, presumably, Virtue resides; otherwise, how could heaven “stoop”?). Thus, Virtue on earth is a form because heaven has been stopped to bow to Virtue. As an attribute of God, Virtue remains as she was in the previous set (“A”), but the locales themselves have shifted.
(C) Augustinian Platonism
3.0 The Empyrean (Augustinian Platonic) =The One
3.1 Earth (Augustinian Platonic)=Limited Perfection
3.2 Virtue within the Empyrean=Godly Form; God (?)
3.3 Virtue within Earth=A Form
The introduction of Augustinian Platonism seems to result in a dialectical negation (as conceived in certain branches of Marxist-Helgelianism). The empyrean has been transformed into “The One”, a stand-in for the Judeo-Christian God, while earth is seen as an extension of that perfection, wiped as it is of the material evil which permeated it within traditional Platonism. Interestingly, Virtue in this conception is a Form no matter how we should conceive of her since the empyrean is one-in-the-same with God, and so Virtue would be a divine attribute; one earth, then, Virtue is a Form—an extension of God’s will to a select determination (those repaired concepts—Angels, people—whom he gifts with perfection, in order to bless his creations with agency and freedom.
(D) Augustinian Platonism in Dialog with the text
4.0 The Empyrean (“Stooped”)=Limited perfection, intelligible realm.
4.1 Earth (uplifted; residue from Empyrean stooping)=limited imperfection, intelligible realm.
4.2 Virtue within the Empyrean=Sensible Thing
4.3 Virtue within Earth=Sensible thing
If the previous set was a dialectical negation, something great which upsets the established order, then this final set, Augustinian Platonism as it interacts with the text, is the next step: a negation of the negation. Since the empyrean (God) has “stooped”, He admits to imperfection, thus wiping the perfect design—Form-like constructs—from existence. Any divine residue leftover from this stooping, then, can only benefit earth in strictly limited conceptions. In either case, it is impossible for virtue to be a Form, only a sensible thing; this would, undoubtedly, be in reference to the “if virtue feeble were”, but this could also imply that none of the above could transpire without Virtue having been lowered in some degree, which, in turn, could imply a sort of impossibility in knowing exactly what kind of philosophical operations are possible (example: if Virtue had been enfeebled, then set A would likely be impossible and we would have to skip straight to this set in order to understand Virtue’s role). In any case, this set represents a distinct inversion of the previous.
Okay, well, that is enough non-Platonic musings for now (see, I can make a joke). Point is, it is fair to say that there is an abundance of dense material hidden in Milton’s text if we only take a moment to try and understand it. What more could we delve into? Well, I suppose that depends on how far we would want to go into Christian theology. Presently, I am satisfied. Maybe tomorrow I will go into Anselm’s works in relation to Milton, but for now, I’m good.