Obey in Milton and Homer
Daniel Shore, "Learning to Obey in Milton and Homer."EMLS 16.1 (2012): 5 http://purl.org/emls/16-1/shorlear.htm
Goddess, one must observe the words of you two, no matter how angry he may be at heart, for it is better so: whoever obeys the gods, to him they listen most of all [hōs gar ameinon: / hos ke theois epipeithētai mala t’ ekluon autou]. (1.216-8)Achilles obeys the gods because, simply put, “it is better so.” When Nestor steps in to end the strife between Agamemnon and Achilles, he sharpens the superiority of obedience into a simple maxim: “obey me, since to obey is better” (1.274) “epei peithesthai ameinon.” It is this most encapsulated form, “to obey is better,” that bears obvious comparison to Adam’s “to obey is best.”
Old man, in all this you have surely spoken properly. But this man is minded to be above all others; over all he is minded to hold sway and be king among all, and to all give orders; in which there is one, I think, who will not obey. (1.288-90)Achilles interrupts Agamemnon’s speech, objecting,
I should be called a coward and a nobody, if I am to yield to you in every matter whatever you say. On others lay these charges, but give no orders to me, for I think I will not obey you. (1.293-96).In opposing each other, Agamemnon and Achilles both employ the same phrase, “ou… peisesthai oiō” (“I think not to obey”). To our ears the repetition may sound like a sarcastic rejoinder; Homer’s Byzantine editor, Aristarchus, saw it as a reason for rejecting the second line as corrupt; before the seminal work of Milman Perry and Albert Lord it might have been described as a stock phrase or “Homeric epithet”; after Perry-Lord we can identify it as a particularly visible use of oral formula: “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea” in the improvisatory process of oral composition. To obey, “peithesthai,” is frequently used as part of a formula, most often as the dactyl preceding the final spondee of the line (to give only examples from Book 1): peithesthai oiō, peithesthai ameinon, epepeitheth’ hetairoi, epipeitheo muthoi, peithontai Achaioi. Like the oral formula itself, Homeric obedience is multiple, mutable, iterable, improvisatory, and re-interpretable according to its context of use.
him who disobeysIn the second instance, Eve professes her obedience to Adam:
Me disobeys, breaks union, and that day
Cast out from God and blessed vision, falls
Into utter darkness (5.611-13)
My author and disposer, what thou bidd’stIn both instances, obedience is neither multiple nor divided. For the angels, obedience to Christ is a derivative of obedience to God: “Him who disobeys / Me disobeys.” For Eve, obedience to Adam is a derivative of obedience to God: “what thou bidst / Unargued I obey; so God ordains.” All true obedience not shown immediately to God must be referred, in a hierarchy ascending by steps, back to Him. Because God has a monopoly on obedience, this hierarchy is not, as in Homer, open to contestation, change, or reversal, but only falsification or perversion. One either obeys or disobeys.
Unargued I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise. (4.636-8)
Attend: that thou art happy, owe to God; That thou continu’st such, owe to thy self,In Milton’s Christian world as in the world of Homer and the Bible, future rewards depend on present behavior. And yet for Milton there exists a deeper reason for obedience, beyond the future good it will yield. Deeper than pragmatism lies ontology. We obey because we are created beings. In our very existence we have already been given more that we can possibly repay. Ironically, the clearest articulation of the ontological ground of obedience comes from Sin as she converses with Satan:
That is, to thy obedience; therein stand. (5.520-22)
Thou art my father, thou my author, thouSin explains her obedience to Satan in essentially the same way that Eve does her obedience to Adam. They both profess to obey their “Author,” whom their “being gav’st.” The difference, of course, is that Eve recognizes that her author was in turn created by the “world’s great author.” Sin misplaces her obedience because she stops with her immediate progenitor, Satan, rather than tracing the chain of creation back to its source. All creatures ultimately owe their existence to one creator, and on the grounds of that existence they owe their obedience, undivided, to that creator as well. For Milton, the pragmatic and ontological reasons for obeying God are distinct but reinforcing. In response to Raphael’s admonition to remain obedient to God, Adam responds:
My being gav’st me; whom should I obey
But thee, whom follow? (2.864-66)
Can we want obedience thenMan’s bliss and existence are both inextricable from God. We are obligated to obey Him for what we have received from him in the past (our existence), but we should want to obey him for what we hope to receive in the future (our bliss).
To him, or possibly his love desert
Who formed us from the dust, and placed us here
Full to the utmost measure of what bliss
Human desires can seek or apprehend? (5.514-18)
Make fast from heaven a chain of gold, and lay hold of it all you gods and all you goddesses; yet you could not drag to Earth out of heaven Zeus the counselor and most high, not even though you labored mightily… by so much do I surpass gods and surpass men (8.19-27).Zeus imagines testing his power in a tug of war in which the opposing sides take hold of what Arthur Lovejoy much later calls the “great chain of being.” He conceives of his power in relative terms, as a magnitude greater (“by so much do I surpass”) than the sum of the power of all the other Olympians combined.
 John Milton, Paradise Lost in The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, ed. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon (New York: Modern Library, 2007) 12.561.
 See Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 291, 332; Marshall Grossman, Authors to Themselves: Milton and the Revelation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 17; Gordon Teskey, Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 152.
 See the commentary on 12.561 in Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary eds. Earl Miner, William Moeck, Steven Jablonski (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2004).
 Biblical quotations are from the Authorized Version.
 Milton is not the only one of Homer’s successors to adapt the formula. See David Norbrook, “Milton, Lucy Hutchinson, and the Lucretian Sublime.” Tate Papers 13 (2010), http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/10spring/norbrook.shtm, (web, 3 June 2010), for a discussion of Lucretius’ line, “ut satius multo iam sit parere quietum” (5.1129), and Lucy Hutchinson’s translation,“tis much better to obey.”
 I quote Homer’s Greek from Homer, Iliad, trans. A.T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). I also use the Loeb translation, altering it where necessary.
 The Early Lives of Milton, ed. Helen Darbyshire (London: Constable, 1932), 179, 343.
 For a rich discussion of the Milton’s responsiveness to and use of the classical languages see John K. Hale, Milton’s Languages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 10-16, 105-57.
 Emile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society, trans. Elizabeth Palmer (London, Faber: 1973), 94-100.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995) 26-27.
 Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, ed. Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2003), 30. For the scholia of Aristarchus see Venetus A: Marcianus Graecus Z. 454 (= 822) 17v on the webpage of the center for Hellenic Studies: http://chs75.chs.harvard.edu/manuscripts/image-viewer?folio=17v&ms=msA&image=.
 Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964).
 It is this kind of behavior that leads Regina Schwartz, in Remembering and Repeating: on Milton’s Theology and Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), to diagnose the demons with repetition compulsion disorder.
 Metaphysics 1026a15.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 91.