Introducing John Milton: Republican and Poet (1608-1674)

John Milton is one of the major figures in the history of English literature. His poetry, particularly but certainly not only his epic Paradise Lost, has conditioned all of English literature since his own time. He was also a major political writer and advocate of liberty.

In some ways his appeal has become a bit more limited with the decline of religion as a major part of life in Britain and other English speaking countries, but he is still read and has influence on the non-religious no less than the religious. He came from a time when political and literary activity in England (strictly speaking there was no Britain or Great Britain in terms of the legal state until 1707, before which there was a union of three kingdoms or states, England, Scotland and Ireland with no superseding state on top) and across Europe was very tied up with religion. Both of the greatest English political philosophers of the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, were centrally concerned with the relation of the state to religion. The last thinker I discussed, James Harrington, though not very religious in orientation, still discusses the Biblical ancient Jews in his political writing.

Milton was a Puritan in religion and a republican in politics. To say he was a Puritan is to say he was one of the more radical Protestants outside of the mainstream of the state church as it existed under English kings. Puritan was originally a pejorative label associating religious dissenters and radicals with joyless fanaticism. This might have been an accurate description of some Puritans, but not all and certainly not Milton. He travelled in Catholic Europe where he made friends and intellectual interlocutors. He advocated for the right to divorce, which had been no more recognised in Protestant England after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century than in preceding Catholic England. His learning, including that of ancient pagan classics, was greater than normal for bigoted fanatics. Furthermore, his poetry shows great joy in the pleasure of words and imagination, traits uncharacteristic of the bigot whose greatest pleasure is to think of his enemy burning in hellfire.

Even the more joyless kind of Puritan often showed a spirit of equality in social life, democracy in church government, and the value of all honest work, along with a belief in enough education for children to at least study the Bible carefully and intelligently, which played a large role in the growth of liberty, commercial society and civil institutions in England. This was not an era where complete religious tolerance, or complete independence of the individual from the state, was at all mainstream and even the most tolerant states (the Netherlands being the best candidate) did not have complete equality between faiths or tolerance for open non-believers.  For the time, Milton was at the more tolerant end of the spectrum and so were many other Puritans, despite the forbidding associations of that term.

Milton lived through through the Civil War (1642-1651) between Crown and Parliament and was a strong supporter of Parliament as were Puritans in general, though Milton’s political views should also be seen in the light of his classical learning and respect for the republics of ancient Greece and Rome.

Parliament’s victory lead to the creation of an English republic known as the Commonwealth in 1649, and Milton’s advocacy of republicanism led to an appointment as Secretary of Foreign Tongues, an office which required him to compose correspondence with foreign governments in Latin and continue a defence of republicanism for a European audience. Milton continued in this post as the Commonwealth gave way to the Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell, the most outstanding general of the parliamentary army. This was not an explicit repudiation of republicanism, but did reflect the difficulties of organising parliamentary government in a country used to monarchical governments.

Parliaments were very happy to offer Cromwell powers he was not ready to accept, and even the explicit title of king. Cromwell essentially served as an uncrowned king, making various experiments with parliamentary and military administration. Cromwell is sometimes portrayed as a religious fanatic and tyrant, but he restrained the intolerance of the most radical Puritans and was not religiously intolerant by the standards of the era. His tendency towards more militaristic and personal government reflected institutional failures rather than a plan for absolute personal power. He purged and selected parliaments, but all previous parliaments had presumed the subservience of MPs to monarchical domination and conformity to the state church.

Cromwell’s darkest reputation arose in Ireland, but tales of Cromwellian massacres of Irish Catholic civilians are now agreed by Irish historians to be highly exaggerated. What he was guilty of was completion of a long process of subordinating Ireland to England, and of removing power and landed property from the Catholic majority. Deplorable as this was, it was no more than the standard statecraft of the time. Cromwell did not establish an arbitrary violent despotism in England. He largely operated within the law and reformed the administration of the nation in an efficient and enduring way. He did not acquire spectacular wealth or establish a court of ostentatious luxury. Though Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard inherited the Lord Protectorship, Cromwell had not prepared the way for the dynastic rule of his family, and power returned to the previous royal family.

I have discussed Cromwell’s status as a figure in English history to show how a sincere republican like Milton could continue in his state position. There is no reason to think he did so for reasons of acquiring wealth or addiction to power. He remained true to his principles after the return of the monarchy, unlike many, and was in real danger of very serious legal consequences. Fortunately those who respected him in the new regime, after abandoning the old regime, intervened and Milton was able to live out his life peacefully though in rather simple style for one of the greater writers of the time.

Milton’s writings, along with the failed republican experiment and the Cromwellian administrative reforms, established the conditions for a second concealed republican revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which under the pretence of restoring a traditional relation between monarchy and nation, in practice established a successful aristocratic-commercial republic under a monarch who could only act in co-operation with Parliament.

Next I will begin the investigation of Milton’s writings.

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