Learning to Obey in Milton and Homer

Daniel Shore
Georgetown University

Daniel Shore, "Learning to Obey in Milton and Homer."EMLS 16.1 (2012): 5 http://purl.org/emls/16-1/shorlear.htm


  1. At the end of Book 12 of Paradise Lost, after viewing the highlights of Biblical history, Adam explains what he has learned: “Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best.”[1] The archangel Michael approves Adam’s lesson, calling it “the sum of wisdom.”  Uttered at the close of Milton’s epic, “to obey is best” has the position as well as the cadence of a moral, and critics have often understood it as one.[2]  Since the 1734 publication of the poem edited by the Richardsons, Milton’s editors, including Thomas Keightley and Alastair Fowler, have given the source of this line as 1 Samuel 15.22: “behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”[3]  Milton’s understanding of obedience is doubtless rooted in this and numerous other passages from Scripture.  Deuteronomy 13:4 is typical: “Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him.”[4]  The New Testament likewise calls for obedience, as in Acts 5:29: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”  And yet the phrase, “to obey is best,” is drawn most directly from Book 1 of the Iliad.  Recognizing this source allows us to see Adam’s chief lesson not merely as the quotation of a Biblical truth, but instead as a corrective to Homeric obedience.  Milton reworks Homer’s epic formula to distinguish the singular, absolute form of obedience due to the Christian God from the plural, relative forms of obedience articulated in the Iliad.[5]  He theologizes Homer’s poetry to fit his Christian faith.

  2. Before exploring the different workings of obedience in Homer and Milton, I want first to set out the clearest case for influence.  In the first direct encounter between human and divine in the epic tradition, Athena descends from heaven to prevent Achilles from slaughtering Agamemnon.  Where Milton’s angels lead our first parents by the hand, Athena yanks Achilles by the hair:  “I come to check your rage,” she begins, “if you will obey [ai ke pithēai]” (1.207).[6]  On behalf of Hera and herself, she charges Achilles, to “hold your hand then, and obey us [peitheo d’ hēmin]” (1.214).  Achilles answers:
    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.”  

  3. Here we might remember the claim of Milton’s biographers, Toland and Richardson, that Milton could repeat Homer “almost” without book, and that his daughter, Deborah, could recite “considerable verses” from the Iliad and Odyssey.[7]  The importance of obedience in Paradise Lost hardly needs to be argued.  The poem announces its chief subject as “man’s first disobedience” (1.1). When Adam and Eve eat the apple of the tree of knowledge they violate the “sole pledge” of their obedience (3.95). Christ saves man through “filial obedience” (3.269). And it is a deeper understanding of what he owes to his Creator that Adam registers at the end of the poem when he learns that “to obey is best.”   In writing a poem so intensely concerned with obedience and disobedience, Milton would have been deeply sensitive to the way obedience works in Homer, at the level of words and phrases as well as concepts.[8]    

  4. He would have paid special attention to Book 1 of the Iliad, which lays out the central conflicts of power and authority that drive the rest of the poem.  The Greek verb to obey, peithomai, occurs more often in Book 1 than in any other book of the Iliad or Odyssey. We have already noted two instances of its use: first in Athena’s restraint of Achilles, and then in Nestor’s attempt to end the quarrel over Briseis. Why is it better to obey? Achilles gives a pragmatic answer: the gods heed those who are obedient. They reward those who do as they command.  This kind of quid pro quo is also evident throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, as in Deuteronomy 11:27, which promises that Israel will receive “A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God.”  Nestor, however, demands obedience on very different grounds.  He begins his address to the quarreling heroes by ordering them to “obey [pithesth], for you are both younger than me” (259).  Then he recounts how, in days of old, he fought in the war between the Lapiths and Centaurs: “I once joined with warriors who are better men than you,” he tells the quarrelling heroes, “And they listened to my advice, and obeyed [peithonto] my words” (260-74).  Nestor rests his authority on his age, wisdom, and experience, rather than the promise of future rewards.

  5. As these two examples suggest, there is in the Iliad no single overriding rationale for obedience.  Indeed, one can obey for entirely opposed reasons: out of love Patroklos obeys Achilles (“philoi epepeitheth’ hetairoi” (1.345)); out of fear, the prophet Calchas hesitates to cross Agamemnon, “whom the Achaeans obey” (“hoi peithontai Achaioi” (79)). In the relationships developed in Book 1, there is always one who obeys and one who is obeyed.  These roles are founded on prior social hierarchies, but these hierarchies are neither stable nor well ordered.  Relationships of power and authority threaten, in many circumstances, to reverse themselves.  Aggrieved at the loss of Bryseis, Achilles asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to petition Zeus for the destruction of Achaean army.  Thetis agrees to visit Zeus on Olympus, “in the hope that he will obey” (420). She seeks Zeus’s favor as a supplicant: I will “clasp his knees,” she tells Achilles, “and I think I will persuade him” (427).   Of course, Thetis does not rely only on mercy to gain assent: she couples her sexual charms with the gentle reminder that, when the entire pantheon revolted against Zeus, she had freed him from his bonds and brought one-hundred handed Briareus to fight on his behalf.  Obedience does not simply flow from high to low: through his mother, the will of Achilles eventually prevails over Zeus himself, and the Achaean army is punished.   
  6. The wide range of uses to which obedience is put in the Iliad can be explained in part by the Greek verb peithomai, “obey.”  In Indo-European Language and Society, Emile Benveniste observes that the verb appears first in the middle voice, which represents the subject as acting on, or for, or with a special relationship to, him or herself.  The present active peitho, “persuade,” is coined at a later date.[9]  As we can see from Thetis’s response to Achilles, in which she hopes to persuade and expects that she will be obeyed, the active and middle voice maintain a close and reciprocal relationship. In both voices the Greek verb has a broader meaning than our English verbs, “persuade” and “obey,” encompassing both rational assent, compelled subjection, and everything in between.   

  7. Obedience functions in the Iliad in much the same way as the de-theologized version of power famously developed by Michel Foucault.  It operates “as a strategy,” as the effect of various “maneuvers, tactics,” and “techniques.” Like Foucauldian power, Homeric obedience should be understood not as a “property” or “privilege that one might possess,” not as an abstract potentia held in reserve, but rather as something actively exerted (to take our examples from Homer) in persuading, restraining, commanding, requesting, enjoining, pacifying, supplicating, threatening, and seducing. Like Foucauldian power, Homeric obedience is neither singular nor “univocal.”   It exists as part of a “network of relations, constantly in tension,” which “define innumerable points of confrontation, focuses of instability, each of which has its own risks of conflict, of struggles.”[10]

  8. Such points of confrontation and struggle are what impel the plot of the Iliad forward.  Book 1 explicitly sets out to narrate the strife between Achilles and Agamemnon, and it is in this strife that we see the extent to which Homeric obedience is contested, subjected to agon, potentially reversible.  In response to Nestor’s call for peace, and his reminder that “to obey is better,” Agamemnon replies,
    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.[11]  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.   

  9. It would be impossible to compare Homer and Milton’s theories of obedience, since a theory is precisely the kind of thing Milton has and Homer does not.  The Iliad presents us only with a diverse set of unstable hierarchies, power relations, commands complied with and resisted, but at no point is this diversity assimilated to an overarching theoretical account.  And yet, reconstructing the practical functioning of obedience in Homer allows us to return to Miltonic obedience with the sense that it is not a self-evident or simply received notion, but rather one that has been wrested from an older tradition, revised, and developed in its own right.   Milton’s process of appropriation should be understood as an attempt to theologize obedience, to adapt it to the single, absolute God of Scripture.

  10. Obedience, for Milton, is singular.  There is only one true obedience, it is always and everywhere in force, and it is owed, ultimately, only to God.  All other forms of obedience are false.  This does not mean that one should never obey someone else, only that such obedience is necessarily derivative.  There are two instances in Paradise Lost that speak of legitimate obedience to someone other than God.  In the first instance, God commands the Angels to obey Christ,
                                     him who disobeys
    Me disobeys, breaks union, and that day
    Cast out from God and blessed vision, falls
    Into utter darkness (5.611-13)
    In the second instance, Eve professes her obedience to Adam:
    My author and disposer, what thou bidd’st
    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)
    In 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.

  11. As I mentioned earlier, Homeric obedience is etymologically bound up with persuasion.  Miltonic obedience, by contrast, has lost its intimate connection to verbal argument, much as Man, at the fall, loses his intimate connection to the God he must obey.  But the connection to reasoned deliberation remains.  The reasons for obedience require some careful parsing.  Like Achilles, who obeys Athena because the Gods reward those who heed them, and like the Hebrew Scriptures, which promise the obedient that God “will be an enemy unto thine enemies” (Exodus 23:22), obedience in Paradise Lost has a pragmatic dimension.  Raphael tells Adam:
    Attend: that thou art happy, owe to God;
    That thou continu’st such, owe to thy self,
    That is, to thy obedience; therein stand. (5.520-22)
    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:
    Thou art my father, thou my author, thou
    My being gav’st me; whom should I obey
    But thee, whom follow? (2.864-66)
    Sin 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:
    Can we want obedience then
    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)
    Man’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). 

  12. Let me return briefly to Homer to add one final distinction.  At the close of Book 1, Zeus becomes enraged at Hera when she rebukes him for his promise to punish the Achaeans.  “Sit down and be quiet,” he orders her, “and obey my words [epipeitheo muthoi], lest all the gods who are in Olympus be unable to protect you against my coming when I lay irresistible hands on you” (1.565-67).  Homer expresses Zeus’s superiority over the other gods in relative terms. This relative superiority is most famously illustrated, in Book 8, by a tug of war. Boasting “how far the mightiest” he is of all the gods, Zeus dares the Olympians:
    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.”[12]  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.

  13. In Milton, by contrast, God’s power is not relative but absolute, not a magnitude but beyond all magnitude.  He is, as the Angels praise him, “omnipotent, / Immutable, immortal, infinite, / Eternal king” (3.372-74). One of the rebel angels’ chief errors is to conceive of His power as a relative measure, one that can be compared to, and therefore contested by, opposing powers.  In his first speech Satan laments, “so much the stronger proved / He with his thunder” (1.92-3).  God, of course, is not merely “stronger” – Satan’s comparative adjective shows his incomprehension – but is the source of all strength, including Satan’s own.  Beelzebub makes a similar error when he boasts that the rebels had “endangered Heav’n’s perpetual King” (1.131), apparently unaware that Heaven’s King is “perpetual” because he can never be “endangered.”  A few lines later Beelzebub seems to correct this error when he speaks of God, “whom I now / Of force believe almighty” (1.143-44), and yet in the very next phrase he reverts back to a relative account: “since no less / Than such could have o’erpow’red such force as ours” (1.144-45).  Like Greek heroes stranded in a theological universe, the demons are unable to avoid repeating this error.  They speak of God as absolute only to lapse back into Homer’s relative, improvisatory understanding of obedience.[13]

  14. What separates Milton from Homer, at least on the question of obedience, is less Christian theology than theology itself.  By theology Aristotle meant what we now refer to as metaphysics, the knowledge of things that have independent being and immutability.[14]  Theology in this sense first arose in classical Greece, some four centuries after the composition of the Iliad.  To be sure, Homer depicts theoi, gods, but they are contingent, fully immersed in the flow of cause and effect.  Earlier I likened Homeric obedience to the Foucauldian account of power.  We may account for the likeness by observing that Homer precedes the project of theology, while Foucault seeks to end it.  The former thinks obedience without a Deity, while the latter thinks “power without the King.”[15]

  15.  “It is said of the incomparable Virgil,” writes Ben Jonson in his commonplace book, “that he brought forth his verses like a bear, and after formed them with licking.”[16]  Milton finds his lines wandering about in the wild and domesticates them to his theology.  It will have escaped no one’s notice that in transforming Nestor’s proverb, “to obey is better,” into Adam’s lesson, “To obey is best,” he has elevated the comparative “better” into the superlative “best,” elevated ameinon into aristos.  Obedience to God is not, for Milton, one good to be held up in comparison with other goods, but the highest good without which all others lose their value. In this smallest of verbal alterations – the transformation of Homeric comparative to Miltonic superlative – we find reflected the larger transformation of obedience: from multiple to singular, relative to absolute, contingent to immutable, contested to incontrovertible.  In this change we witness Milton assimilating Homer to his own theological notion of obedience, the chief lesson of which he wishes us, his readers, to learn along with Adam.


[1] 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. 

[2] 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. 

[3] 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).

[4] Biblical quotations are from the Authorized Version.

[5] 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.”

[6] 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.

[7] The Early Lives of Milton, ed. Helen Darbyshire (London: Constable, 1932), 179, 343.

[8] 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. 

[9] Emile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society, trans. Elizabeth Palmer (London, Faber: 1973), 94-100.

[10] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995) 26-27.

[11] 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=.

[12] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964).

[13] 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.

[14] Metaphysics 1026a15.

[15] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 91.

[16] Ben Jonson, Explorata: Or Discoveries in The Complete Poems (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 447.



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