Amlan Das Gupta
The critique of violence is the philosophy of its history
I wish in this essay to consider a question which presents itself with some force in Samson Agonistes . As a consequence it has received considerable critical attention, but there may be, even after that, some point in re-examining it. Does Samson in his final act carry out the will of God, or does he significantly fail to realize it? The answer that we give to the question undoubtedly shapes our response to the play as a whole.
Since I intend this paper to be as short as possible, let me set aside the considerable (and deeply interesting) body of criticism that has in the last ten or fifteen years concentrated on the problematic nature of Samson’s last action, and briefly summarize the information which needs to be taken into account as given in the play itself. Samson, till more than two-thirds of the play is over has little idea how his story will end, though he is fairly clear that it will end badly. At 1381 he makes his famous comment about experiencing “rousing motions” and reiterates his vows generally as an Isarelite and more specifically as a nazirite, one separate to God, and forbidden to eat certain kinds of food, cut his hair and visit graveyards. He also hints that he intends to perform some great deed or perish: exactly how is unclear at this point. I would draw attention to the fact that Milton is unusually cagey about letting Samson refer to divine will at this point: the “rousing motions” may be from God, but there is no clear indication. The Argument that prefaces the play is equally unclear. Having refused absolutely to go with the Philistine officer, Samson “at length” is “persuaded inwardly that this was from God”. The scene of the play’s catastrophe distances us from the loquacious and argumentative hero. The messenger does not hear him speak, apart from the loud cry that he gives addressing the Philistine nobility (1640). Otherwise Samson’s own words are heard through intermediaries (as in his desire to rest on the pillars, 1629), but his thoughts are the subject of speculation. He stands with bent head, in the posture of either one who prays, or one who meditates some great action. Milton would have known the difficulty in the Biblical text in this regard. The Biblical Samson speaks relatively little (unlike Milton’s character) but his last words are reported in the Bible. Versions differ: KJV has “Let me die with the Philistines”, Samson expressing his desire for suicide. The Geneva has “Let me lose my life with the Philistines. The Vulgate is even more uncompromising: Let my soul die with the Philistines, “Moriatur anima mea cum Philisthim”.
Manoa is the first to recover from the shock of this news: after the tragic ode of the chorus, he seeks to put the best possible interpretation on the event. The first few lines seek to reestablish Samson’s heroic identity: “ Samson hath quit himself/Like Samson, and heroically hath finished/ A life heroic”: but he is quick to add that the best part of the whole business is that it proves that God has not abandoned Samson “as was fear’d”. The Chorus picks up this idea in a more assertive manner, concluding:
All is best, though we oft doubt,
What th’ unsearchable dispose
Of highest wisdom brings about,
And ever best found in the close.
Oft he seems to hide his face,
But unexpectedly returns
And to his faithful Champion hath in place
Bore witness gloriously; [ 1745-52]
This then, baldly, is the substance of what the play offers. If we return to the question posed at the beginning, we find that there is any clear textual evidence as to whether Samson acts according to divine prompting in the twinned acts of slaying himself and destroying the Philistine nobility. I would make what I hope is an unexceptional point: there is nothing in the play itself that can help us resolve the question, and we need to fall back on either radical interpretation or scholarly supplement to resolve the question to our satisfaction. But one question may have received less attention that it deserves. It might be interesting to consider briefly how the notion of divine will is present in the play in a general way, and how it may be understood or misunderstood. The problem here arises out of the fact that the notion of the divine in Samson is itself difficult to understand: the play’s presentation of Samson, judge of Israel, has to accommodate both the neoclassical formalism of the play and its invocation of Greek models on the one hand, and the ethics of the Christian poet on the other . How divine will is known (or can be known) is clearly different in the three cultural models that the play seamlessly integrates: consequently. Samson’s opportunities for responding to divine dictate must be thought to be itself a problematic issue. Leaving aside the fact that within the three systems, the Greek, the Hebraic and the Christian, there are profound debates and differences in the articulation of the relationship of the human and the divine, we could try to examine the broad outlines of three paradigms which seem to be relevant to what the play offers. If each of these systems is seen to be offering a range of options, the ones that we will be choosing are probably on the extreme side: this, I should explain is not in order to present them in parodic form, but because it is here that we may more clearly understand the problems that present themselves to us.
One point of convergence might be that in all these systems whatever happens is broadly in conformity with divine will; that is to say, irrespective of human agents, God’s will is manifested in events. It may be true that this is a relatively long term view: in the long run God’s will must prevail irrespective of human action and desire, whereas individual actions may possibly thought to be offences against divine will. In Samson Agonistes we are told that there is a fairly close dovetailing of human actions and divine desire: the Chorus concludes that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, God has supported his champion Samson in his actions. But at a more particularized level, the same convergence may be somewhat disturbing. But let me briefly try to state, quite categorically, the way I understand the possibilities of understanding divine will in the three separate systems under scrutiny.
In talking about the Greeks, I think it is necessary to enter a caveat, pointing out that the kind of notion about divine will that is directly relevant to the plays is neither epic nor philosophical, but that represented in the tragedy. The tragedies, in general, present divine will – in the broadest sense possible, irrespective of distinctions between various classes of divinities – as often being unknowable in two important senses. One is that what the god’s wish cannot be known beforehand. Human beings act well or badly according to their lights, but that is not necessarily what the gods desire. The problem of knowledge is particularly interesting because for the most part the consequences are known beforehand to the audience. Again divine will may be known to the actors, but that does not really help, because not knowing the will of the gods also extends to the inability of recognizing something that is revealed (for instance by prophecy or oracle). Oedipus (in Oedipus Rex) does not recognize the truth even after he is told about it by Teiresias; in Antigone, both Creon and Antigone claim the right to be on their side, but at the end it is revealed that one of them has correctly represented what the gods wish, the other has not. What is notable about Greek tragedy is that the will of the gods which is revealed with such disastrous effects for the characters can never be subsumed into a general code of action, as exempla that may help to regulate future human behaviour.
In other cases, the will of the gods, or at any rate something like it, may be recognized in the play itself, possibly enabling characters to avert catastrophic action. This would fall into the general bounds of Aristotle’s second class of desirable tragic plots, the kind where someone is on “the verge of performing some irreparable deed through ignorance, and for the reognition to pre-empt the act” (14:53b). In Philoctetes, a play which has close similarities to Samson, the voice of Heracles defuses the inevitable conflict between Philoctetes and Odysseus, and prompts Philoctetes to return with his magic weapons to the aid of the Greeks. In Samson, divine prompting – to suicide and mass slaughter – is silent, heard or misheard only by the hero.
The Hebraic protagonist may be thought to have a clearer divine mandate. Divine will is present after all in the form of the law, and even apart from this God reveals himself often enough in the clearest incentives to action. Human failure to act upon divine prompting thus constitutes guilt. Samson’s bloody and violent career till his marriage with Dalila (Delilah) in Judges is more or less in conformity with the promise made at his birth: it is only after he reveals his secret to Delilah that the spirit of God abandons him. After his hair grows back, and he is taken to the temple, he prays to God for the strength to be avenged on the Philistines for his eyes. Here too there is silence: there is nothing at this point in Judges to indicate that God either listens to him or does not. For later Christian interpreters, the way to assume that Samson remains heroic, or more properly, regains his sullied heroism, is to assume that God speaks to him privately, an argument put forward in defence of Samson’s suicide by Augustine, and repeated in a rather non-committal manner by Aquinas. It should be noted that both theologians are more concerned with the viability of Samson as an example of Christian moralism. The position of suicide in the Old Testament is not very clear in any case; neither is there any clear position against the slaughter of enemies. Such incidents are described often enough; in one particularly gruesome instance the prophet Elijah has more than 400 priests of Baal slaughtered. Later he wishes to commit suicide (saying “I am not better than my fathers”, I Kings 18:40, 19:4).
The point to note I guess is that for the Greeks the hero can inhabit (or claim to inhabit) an ethical position in spite of having failed to act out the will of the gods; in the Hebrew scriptures the possibilities of the hero claiming an ethical position independent of God’s will are generally absent. Thus there is the need, if we are to proclaim Samson’s continuing heroic status, to assert his instrumentality in carrying out God’s will. The little that I know about later Jewish treatments of the Samson story suggests that opinion is ambivalent as to his moral worth; one point that remains troublesome is the continuing captivity of the Israelites. If that is clearly divine punishment for impiety, Samson’s acts appear to be insufficient in reversing divine anger.
There is no doubt, I think, that the Samson story in the Bible is subjected by Milton to a critical Christian analysis. The results are there for us to see, but only obscurely. Even in Milton’s liberal understanding of reformed Christianity, the possibility of human beings reading God’s will unequivocally is on the whole remote. Since the violation of the first edict, human beings can know divine will imperfectly at best, and often make mistakes in interpreting it. Yet moments of success, in warding off temptation or subduing sinful impulses may be in retrospect viewed as the fulfilment of God’s will. In a critical instance in the play, Samson first blames Dalila for seeking to tempt him and attributes her coming to her viciousness and perverted desire, but later, having managed to refuse her, is mildly triumphant, saying “God sent her to debase me/ And aggravate my folly”. If Greek tragedy and OT narrative present two sharply distinct models of how ethical positions are achieved by men and women, the Christian paradigm follows the Hebraic model in recognizing the impossibility of maintaining an ethical position outside of God’s will, but at the same time is far less certain of it being at all available to us in the sinful state.
Does Samson act out God’s will or does he till the end misunderstand the will of God? The question, I think is more, of determining how we would like to understand the nature of the divine than of the motives of the human agent. That Samson commits an egregious act of violence is undeniable; his father and his friends are inclined to defend him by claiming that the act is expressive of God’s will. Should we wish to inhabit a Christian position at the end of the play, I think that we can do so only by rendering God blameworthy; to rephrase Elijah’s cry a little blasphemously, the Christian God is no better than his Jewish Father. If Milton does not intend us to think so, there is little scope of identifying divine prompting and consent in Samson’s act.
The exercise that we have conducted seems to have yielded little apart from support for the already considerable body of material that sees Samson’s act as violent and unchristian. The field is left open for regarding him either as exemplifying a particularly unappetizing form of Jewish vengefulness or as Samson’s struggle to reclaim heroic agency in a plot that is tragic in the true classical sense. Let me, however, at the end try out a different suggestion. Could it be claimed that the play incorporates an entirely Christian point of view that suggests the dangers of misunderstanding divine will, that the decision to act on the basis of a purely private revelation is particularly fraught with danger? Samson may well feel that he is acting out God’s will; but continually, we are given to understand that what he experiences is not something that we can know. Samson does a fairly good job of justifying his dubious biblical track record to the Chorus and later to Dalila and Harapha. It involves radical interpretations of the bare Biblical narrative, inserting points about motive and choice that are, in a profound sense, unverifiable. At the end too, he may be acting out a private interpretation of God’s will, something that can neither be known nor shared by others except in terms of the disastrous effects that it has. Milton’s Christ, in the work that accompanies Samson in the 1671 edition presents a powerful counter-example, of resisting the temptation to act, of succumbing to false and destructive interpretations of the world, reflecting thus on the tragic history of the Good Old Cause. (This is a position that Stanley Fish recognizes, but rejects, saying that the only measure of judging Samson’s action must be Samson’s own moral sense: if Samson thinks it is virtuous, it is virtuous.)
Does Samson then represent Milton’s dark reflections on the realities of political history, on how the struggle for political power and violence are inextricably twinned? Violence in its most naked form – and it would be difficult to think of a more extreme example than the story of Samson – stems out of the dark conjunction of the law and the exception. At the end I would like to quote from Walter Benjamin’s troubled and powerful essay “A Critique of Violence” (1921: which is incidentally one of acknowledged sources of Giorgio Agamben’s influential treatise Homo Sacer). Benjamin here reflects on the task of establishing the frontier, the line of control, that is the task of peace after war and victory:
For from the point of view of violence, which alone can guarantee law, there is no equality, but at the most equally great violence. The act of fixing frontiers, however, is also significant for an understanding of law … Laws and unmarked frontiers remain, at least in primeval times, unwritten laws. A man can unwillingly infringe upon them and thus incur retribution. For each intervention of law that is provoked by an offense against the unwritten and unknown law is called in contradistinction to punishment, retribution. But however unluckily it may befall its unsuspecting victim, its occurrence is, in the understanding of the law, not chance, but fate showing itself once again in its deliberate ambiguity.
The distinction between licit and illicit violence becomes philosophically impossible to determine. In the present context, one might say that law, custom, cultural difference, moral and ethical codes, notions of justice and reasonable behaviour, may all set limits upon violence in an attempt to lend it legitimacy in its discrete and distinct forms. Milton however in Samson confronts the act of violence with silence, neither approving nor disapprobating, but perplexing us: leaving us to deal with a phenomenon that is more meaningful today than even to Milton in his time.
Amlan Dasgupta is Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.