Miltonesquie: Enlightenment Republicanism and Radical Heterodoxy
Some months after the exhumation of the Lord Protector marked the English commonwealth’s official demise, one of the Royalists who bayed for the spilling of John Milton’s blood flicked his satirical ink in the blind man’s direction. Milton, he claimed, ‘is so much an enemy to usual practices that I believe, when he is condemned to travel to Tyburn in a cart, he will petition for the favour to be the first man that ever was driven in a wheelbarrow’ . Milton had a great penchant for non-conformism; one that led him to a life of heresy, heterodoxy and over a decade as the reddest-handed Cromwellian apologist in England - one that had clearly caught the eyes of both admirers and detractors alike. Was he simply a contrarian whose scruples were not above bending or were his controversial theses on liberty, grace and republic truly felt; clung to and only abandoned when fate presented no other choice?
Cambridge Milton was rather cheerfully orthodox, and wholly unapologetic in said capacity. The poems written in 1626 marking the deaths of two notable Bishops - Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester and Nicholas Felton, Bishop of Ely - present standard seventeenth century college fare. Bittersweet ‘in memoriams’ to be expected of Oxbridge undergraduates in the wake of a religious figurehead’s death, Milton applied himself wholesale to the expected sentiment. As Cedric D. Brown has noted, youthful Milton is here arguing with all his greatest immature dexterity that ‘protestantism needs vigilant leadership against the forces of Catholicism,’ and that a bishop can serve as a ‘model minister,’ even post-mortem. Regicidal sympathies are also distant from "the Lady of Christ’s" reality as he attends to extolling the late James I, with the Stuart monarch having been a ‘guardian of Protestant England’ in the young student’s estimation.
It was not long before this juvenile faith in authority would begin to wane; five years free from the Cantabrigian embrace and Milton was already to have pulled an abrupt reverse. 1637’s Lycidas charges the church authorities with having strayed from the Reformation’s intent and betrayed its spirit even as it reprimands the courts for a lax godliness and reminds the colleges that their role is to steer the nation’s youth a course which circumvents the Big Bad Wolf of Catholicism - the ‘spectre over Europe’ of his day. Such iconoclasm would have been unthinkable to the scribe of A Paraphrase on Psalm cxiv, Psalm cxxxvi, etc whose destiny was still thought to comprise a life among the ecclesiastics. Lycidas was the culmination of a long walk towards the fundamentals of radical heterodoxy, but it was far from a final product. Within a few years of its publication, Milton had begun scrawling away in his Commonplace Book - declaring to himself in ink that ‘the name of kings has always been hateful to free peoples’. He was ‘preconditioning’ himself - as Brown terms it - to a resentment of bishops and kings. It was this ‘preconditioned’ leaning towards iconoclasm which lent him the nerve required to launch his heresies into the public domain.
The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce was the first piece of Miltonic radical heterodoxy to be allowed a fully public-facing position. From its pages, Milton declared that ‘Custom’ fills ‘each state of life and profession, with abject and servil principles; depressing the high and Heaven-born spirit of man, farre beneath the condition wherein God created him, or sin hath sunke him.’ In a world choked by doctrines of rigid predestination and one whose beliefs included total human depravity, here was an outlying, youthful theologian arguing for a system founded in human reason and espousing the benefits of individual liberty. Marriage to a spouse with whom you share nothing and have but enmity for outwith the bedroom is decried akin to being a living person chained face-to-face as a corpse - an image borrowed from Virgil’s account of the tyrant Mezentius’ brutal outrages. To go on in such a lashed, constricted fashion is to ‘grind in the mill of an undelighted and servil copulation.’ Divorce, in instances such as these, is justified as the crime of companionless marriage was one as impious as that of adultery. Though arguably a secular document, the roots of state were so entwined with those of church that Milton drew ireful accusations of Satanic heresy - the nascent poet, they declared, deserved expulsion from the earth by burning.
Heresy, an etymologically minded Milton would have been fully aware, was a word which carried significant negative connotation. As Janel Mueller reminds us, however, he was later to overlook its pejorative intention and argue that the term properly indicates ‘only the choice or following of any opinion good or bad in religion.’ Heresy, he explained, is simply a way of referring to the new frontier of belief - those with the theological backing to make innovative strikes from the struggling main unit of belief should do so. Those partaking of this battle for conscientious, active thought were Milton’s comrades-in-arms. This redefinition served as both personal justification and unsubtle jibe at the church powers; at once accusing his enemies of attempted censorship and making clear the justice which lay at his side. In Areopagitica, he would come down firmly in favour of free press and perhaps the spur to do so was his feeling of suffocation at the church’s hands as he became ever-more outspokenly anti-prelatical.
Mild notoriety among a select circle of English theologians was to be all that the world could present to Milton until its serving of the revolution upon his disappearing feet. Caught in his rebellious, pseudo-republicanism and a supporter of the Cromwellian sect, it was the infamous regicide which was to buy the free-thinker his ticket to the public recognition he so clearly craved. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates wherein he attempted to prove that it is lawful for ‘any, who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant, or wicked King... [and] depose him... put him to death...’ was to see him placed on a train to international infamy. His highly strung and wide-reaching concept of the social construct was, if not original, progressive, and aligned to beguile an England who believed herself a burgeoning champion of liberty and inheritor of the ‘God’s country’ mantle. That a dominion’s people had now, and had ever, possessed the right to deal in the most dizzying of heights of its politics was appealing, and not just to those on the European side of the Atlantic. As John Rumrich notes, the eighteenth century brought ‘such principles’ as those articulated by Milton to the men whose burden the construction of an American ideal fell. Thomas Jefferson said as much at the time of the declaration of Independence, while the United States constitution was quickly to legalise the right of the nation’s people to modify its government by means ordinary and extraordinary - i.e. election or impeachment.
The notion of popular sovereignty has become a commonplace to the extent that we are forgiven for overlooking Milton’s radicalism in his arguing its favour. The times dictated that a person born below the aristocracy was born to servitude and his behaviour, function and freedom was bound by the unspoken laws which defined him a cog in the machine. Milton’s assertions, in the words of John Rumrich, ‘piqued the powerful and were dangerous to maintain.’ It is plausible that this tract would have cost Milton his life had its existence not been wilfully overlooked when he was held on trial in the wake of the Restoration. It is testament to his singular vision that the near-fatal heresies which he dared to publish in his own time have become unspoken truths of government in our own.
The market for polemic was never comprised of much laity, however, and so the task of propagation of Miltonic thought had to fall to his prosody. Paul Stevens acknowledges that Paradise Lost is ‘clearly, intensely political’ and this is nowhere further evinced than in the clear analogy to be drawn between Satan and Charles himself - certainly John Beale became alarmed by the allusions and ever more convinced of the poem’s underlying politicism. He writes of seeing the old regicide apologist spilling out through the pages of epic: dangerous attacks on monarchy concealed in Milton’s depiction of the tyrant Nimrod who, not content with ‘fair equality,’ falsely claims ‘sovereignty’ from heaven and extends wanton dominion over others. The post-modernist Andrew Hadfield extends these claims to have Milton include a sharp criticism of colonialism - a discipline he believes Milton to have been taught by his Dutch tutor, Roger Williams. This Plymouth Bay colony-founder adopted a radical and outspoken line against the colonalists’ assumption of natural superiority over the native peoples whose lands they had invaded. In his book A Key into the Languages of America, a guide which presented a series of arguments for the sophistication of Native Americans, he compared all the hungry Massachusetts colonists to the king of England, their both having ‘succumbed to their own desire for power.’ This iconoclasm would not have been lost on Milton, who likely used the concept as a foundation for Satan’s epic voyage. As Satan approaches Eden, the language becomes lurid - a ‘rural mound’ with ‘overgrown hairy sides’ is that which leers from the mist. The land is as Walter Raleigh described Guinea: with ‘maidenhead... never sackt, nor wrought, [its] face not... torne’. The fallen angel is cast as the would-be rapist sent to take humanity’s liberty and exploit its innocence. In doing so he finds himself in the mold of Charles I or any autocratic, insupplantable leader. It was Milton’s belief that even a good ‘single person’ in power ‘is the natural adversarie and oppressor of libertie’ - and it is this tenet of Miltonic political philosophy which so frightened Michael Beale by its flagrant presence in his popular work.
Those who detracted from monarchical absolutism, though, had to find a system with which to patch the hole its absence would leave behind. For most, including Milton, this was republicanism. Those who propounded its implementation in England, however, were often time-serving apologists. Pocock and Schochet have demonstrated that English republican theory was ‘far more the effect than the cause of the execution of the king in 1649.’ Those who stood up in advocacy for a departure from monarchism did so as apologists for the Cromwellian regime. Jonathan Scott found that none of the ‘first wave’ of ‘key republican texts’ published in the key period just after the regicide ‘amounts to much as a positive statement of republicanism.’ Works such as Milton’s Tenure or Marchamon Nedham’s The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated have their main focus in heaping spite upon the late king’s head and acting as a mouthpiece for the new regime, just as autocratic as the last. ‘Their objectives are justification and submission,’ Scott states. Milton as republican is here cast in a less than positive light. From the army’s purge of the Long Parliament in 1648, the regicide, the dissolution of the Rump Parliament and Cromwell’s ascension to despotic heights as Lord Protector, Milton allowed his boat to drift with the prevailing winds. In no instance did he criticise the regime which he must have observed made contravention of his principles a daily burden. It was not before the late 1650s that English republicanism truly matured as a series of anti-Cromwellian literature espousing the republic’s many virtues was published - even then in the name of Milton’s contemporaries: he himself neither contributed to the republican discourse or the line which formed in front of the "Cromwell criticism" kiosk. As Martin Dzelzainis says, it was ‘only in a flurry of published and unpublished works shortly before the Restoration [that Milton] express[ed] opposition to monarchy in terms approaching the unequivocal.’
Perhaps, though, this charge of ‘trimming’ is an unfounded one. For it to stand, one has to believe in a rigid, hard-edged definition of "republicanism," stated by Perez Zagorin as being comprised of 'a doctrinaire antagonism to all forms of kingship'. Milton had never subscribed to this definition, and nor did he claim otherwise. His ‘doctrinaire republicanism’ in the years leading up to 1660 did not mesh on all points of argument with that which had become its standard definition on the continent and in England. He held to the position that he was not opposed to monarchy per se; simply the tyranny that would traditionally be attached to the institution. It was a neat model, and one that exempted him from much scripturally backed criticism. As the Restoration loomed ever closer, however, his neutrality would have to be shattered and the fevered tracts which left Milton’s scribes in winter 1559 and spring 1560 expressed hostility not only towards Stuart tyranny, but monarchy in general. It was now that he finally charged any ‘single person’ - whether a monarch, protector or dictator - with being the ‘natural adversary’ of liberty and personal freedom. The Readie and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth was printed and with it the claim that ‘all ingenious and knowing men will easily agree... that a free Commonwealth without single person or house of lords, is by far the best government.’ The model republics of Venice and Netherlands were not above subjection to his wrathful pen: Venice had a Doge whose power allowed him to sit atop their republican constitution while the Dutch, he claimed, relied far too much on the authority of the Oranges.
When Milton looked in the mirror, then, how did he perceive the republican that stared back at him? Is Satan himself not presented as a republican orator in the grand Roman tradition? On Mount Niphates he stands and articulates that he finds God’s grace to be a great and intolerable burden. Despite feeling the embrace of his love, it is a strangulating force in which he feels constricted beyond measure. Like Tacitus, he considers Christianity the religion of slaves and in his desire for individuality, he rejects God in favour of a classical mode of liberty. He becomes a model republican, in the classical sense. Despite Milton’s attachment to the classics, his was never a pagan political conception - while he may agree with Satan’s desire for personal liberty, the similarities must end there. Instead, it was in the pious messenger Abdiel that Milton invested himself, or so Isaac Asimov believed. For Satan, the exaltation of the Son was an infringement on his liberty and a tyrannical exertion of Godly power. It is his argument that he and his angel cohorts were born to their ‘native heaven,’ and are ‘self-begot, self-raised/By [their] own quickening power.’ For Abdiel (and Milton), this reasoning represents the gradual bifurcation of religion and politics which will result in a state governed entirely by principles of autonomous humanism with God cast from the boat; torn from the lives of men. Abdiel wields Psalm 2 as the blunt, anti-monarchical weapon that Milton believes it to be. ‘Shalt thou,’ he asks of Satan, ‘dispute with [God] the points of liberty?’ It is within Abdiel’s understanding that in begetting the Son, the Father was not expropriating power for his own benefit, but levelling it among all creation. God has shared his absolute sovereignty with a being to whose level angels and men alike can rise. Psalm 2 does not exalt human kingship as the spirited royalist might argue: rather it deconstructs the very concept of inborn superiority.
The same concept of equality did not apply to the relationships between nations and their people. Naturally, the rather smug island to which Milton had been born was ‘the elect nation’ - one chosen by God to adopt the mantle which the Israelites had allowed to fall from their brows. For Milton, as Andrew Hadfield writes,‘England’s national identity’ post the Reformation was defined ‘by its superior religious virtue.’ Where the other states had fallen to sin and allowed themselves to be beguiled by the honeyed stick of Satan, England stood alone in preserving the faith as the Father had intended. England had to present an example to those nations whose ailing had allowed for the influx of Catholicism and the beguiling of the Pope (while sleeping, Milton claimed in his History of England) and pave the way back to virtue. Milton’s concept of history aligned with the earlier English moralists - Bede, Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth - who believed that the success of England and the British isles stemmed from a point in deep history, notably at the height of King Arthur’s power, where the nation and its people were closest to God. The further they strayed from the path of faith, the worse their lot became. A long-running tradition, its tenets were adopted by the earliest Anglo-Saxon kings as a viable method of motivation for lethargic populaces. Milton saw Paradise Lost as an informative document - to help the people ‘re-member’; as he put it in Areopagitica. The poet is a greater teacher, so be believed, than the scholar; for the poet’s verse effects a subtler manipulation than that of a bookworm’s prose. ‘To make the people fittest to chuse, and the chosen fittest to govern, will be to mend our corrupt and faulty education, to teach the people faith not without virtue,’ was Milton’s belief. The ‘deluge of epic madness’ which was bringing England closer and closer to the Restoration had to be plugged somehow. Milton advocates for a Mosaic patience; having parted the dead sea, the citizen-saint eschews the easiest path to instead lead his congregation into the desert and establish their government. To rescue the life of the polis whose grand heritage made it Israel’s successor, enlightenment was required. The window behind which illumination hid, Milton believed, required a copy or two of Paradise Lost to fling open.
The immediate impression that John Milton left upon the earth in the period post his departing it was not, however, one of glittering light. The regicide apologist who had ridiculed a Christian King lately incapable of defending himself was difficult to forget - especially given that said king was undergoing a process of burnishing in the furnaces of distant memory; gradually attaining sainthood in popular conception. John Rumrich puts it best in his recording that ‘popular sympathy for even an occasionally abusive paternal figure under attack tends to neutralize logic and evidence...’ Given the monarch’s recent decapitation, ‘silence would [have been] a better reply than telling truths... Charles won by dying.’ Within a few short years, the son the victor left behind would have restored the monarchy to its full power and Milton could but be ‘reviled for centuries’. The Romantics misinterpreted Miltonic thought and appropriated Satan for their own hedonistic ends while the Marxists were revolted by all that Areopagitica had been constructed for; seeing in it nothing but a ‘bourgeois’ liberty of thought and a false consciousness to the benefit of a certain class and exclusion of another. He has been painted a Lutheran, an addict, a closet Jew and likely everything in between. As Paul Stevens says, every generation labels their interpretation of this great poet the ‘new Miltonic criticism’. His importance may vary from generation to generation and the slant which one sees his epic taking is a variable that alters from person-to-person. Nevertheless, as Rumrich states, Milton in his own time was ‘heretical to the core.’
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