Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce Questions

John Milton’s Prose


Of interest: Amanda Foreman’s Feb. 2014 essay “The Heartbreaking History of Divorce” in The Smithsonian Magazine.

1. The dedication of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce from 696-702 column 1 bottom sounds much like the exordium of a classical oration, which portion generally seeks favor from the hearers, casts the speaker as credible, and suggests why the topic is important. So how does Milton accomplish those things in his dedication? In responding, consider at least some of the following: his remarks about “custom” (696 column 2 top “so it happens for the most part that custom still is silently received for the best instructor…” – 697 column 1 “… aught that sorts not with their unchewed notions and suppositions”), his comments about England’s position in intellectual and theological history (see 701 especially), and his references to the key virtue of charity (699 column 2 middle – 700 column 1 middle).

2. From 702-705 of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, namely the Preface of Book 1, how does Milton delineate his argument, and how does he make it clear that it will partly have to do with the nature of interpretation itself? What would you say is the lynchpin of the case he will make: what assumption about God’s purpose for men and women’s relationships scripts much of what he will go on to argue?

3. From 705-07 of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, namely Chapters 1-2 of Book 1, how does Milton deal with the authority of Moses regarding divorce? What does he suggest is the best way to read and extend what that ancient authority is said to have uttered on the issue? How does he enlist the help of modern interpreters such as the early sixteenth-century German scholar of Hebrew, Paulus Fagius (i.e. Paul Buchlein, 1504-49)?

4. From 707-08 of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, namely Chapter 3 of Book 1, how does Milton defend against the notion that complaining about intellectual- or personality-based incompatibility after one marries is an insufficient reason for divorce? Why, according to him, is it so easy for young people to end up in an unhappy marriage?

5. From 708-10 of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, namely Chapters 4-5 of Book 1, how does Milton reinforce his argument that overly strict laws about divorce violate the first rule of Christian conduct, which is charity? Why is it uncharitable not to allow an unhappy marriage to end, according to him — what ill effects are likely to follow when ill-suited partners must remain together?

6. From 711-12 of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, namely Chapter 6 of Book 1, what use does Milton make of the Greek legend of Eros and Anteros, drawn in part from Plato’s Phaedrus 255 (use “find” to search for the word “Anteros”)? How does this legend support his argument about the purpose of marriage and the true nature of relations between the sexes?

7. From 712-14 of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, namely Chapter 1 of Book 2, Milton insists that with regard to Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3-9, he “meant not to be taken word for word …” (713 column 1 bottom). What method does Milton suggest Jesus employed in this and other encounters with those who either couldn’t or wouldn’t understand his teachings? Moreover, what relationship does Milton assert between Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels regarding divorce?

8. From 714-15 of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, namely Chapter 3 of Book 2, how does Milton counter rigid opponents of divorce by suggesting that they would make God’s law a reinforcement of sin and God himself guilty of sin? What is his reasoning on this point?

9. General question, not for a presentation but okay for journal: a fair number of passages in the Bible either directly or indirectly address the issue of marriage and divorce. Following is one site that offers a substantial list with the most relevant parts of the text referenced: 36 Bible Verses about Marriage and Divorce. Based on your interpretation of at least some of these passages (in some cases that may require reading the material surrounding them, not only the immediate quotation), what picture emerges for you regarding the Bible’s statements about divorce? Does it sound like Milton has a good case in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, or is he at least partly rationalizing or reinterpreting the Bible’s statements to support his view that divorce may be granted on a broader basis than sexual infidelity on the woman’s part?

10. General question, not for a presentation but okay for journal: it’s painfully obvious that the legal system of Milton’s day was not at all geared towards what we “C21ers” would call “equality in the eyes of the law” with regard to gender. Men and women certainly did not enjoy the same rights, and there was no thought of their doing so, either. Where exactly in our Hughes anthology selections from Milton’s The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce does this kind of male gender bias come through most clearly? Can his argument easily be extended to apply to women trapped in a bad marriage, too, or do you find that difficult to do? Explain your reasoning for responding as you do.

Edition: Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Hackett: 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0872206786.

Copyright © 2013 Alfred J. Drake. All rights reserved.