Milton on Free Political Institutions: ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates’ (1649), ‘A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Courts’ (1659), ‘The Ready and Easy way to Establish a Free commonwealth’ (1660)

“He was, as every truly great poet has ever been, a good man; but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations, either in religion or politics, or society, he gave up his heart to the living spirit and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching it with this record of his own transcendental ideal.” (Comment on John Milton by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834)

For my introduction to Milton see here, for my post on freedom of the press in Milton see here.

Milton made important arguments for the kind of political institutions which would serve liberty, as well as discussing to goal of freedom in discussion of opinion. Though there are two basic Milton texts identified here, I will not attempt to distinguish them here, let alone take into consideration every possibly relevant text by Milton. This is a period of rapid change in political institutions in England (also applying but unevenly and differently in Ireland and Scotland; at this time Wales has to be considered part of England), of experimentation including the execution of King Charles I just before the publication of the first essay identified was published and the institution of a Commonwealth and Free State, in that year, and of reaction in the sense of royal Restoration in the year that the last essay identified was published. Context matters and so does change, but I think for the purposes of this post as opposed to a blog about the details of Milton’s life as a man of letters and politics, this will be mostly an overview rather than a tracking of Milton’s evolution.

As with his views on free speech, Milton’s views on political institutions mix religious commitments with knowledge of English history and great scholarship of ancient texts. The knowledge of ancient texts to some degree overlaps with the knowledge of religious texts, which is one reason why intensified study of the Bible in the sixteenth and seventeenth century tended to serve general cultural development and liberty.

Milton’s objections to monarchy are partly established through his reading of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible where he argues that God warned the ancient Jews against adopting the institution of monarchy. Anyone interested in following up which parts of Hebrew scripture Milton is using here should start with the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 8. Disasters that befall the Biblical Jews are in some measure the consequence of ignoring God’s counsel in this matter. Of course, many have seen the Bible as justifying not just monarchy, but absolute monarchy so Milton goes to some effort to argue that monarchy was a second best institution for the Jews from God’s point of view and that the Jews never gave their monarchs absolute power.

The view that Milton has then, of the rights and powers of kings, is that they are established by covenant with the community and not a divine authority which the community must obey. The idea of covenant is important in Christianity, with regard to the view that the ancient Jews had a covenant with God as his chosen people and that Christ offered a new covenant for all humans willing to follow him as the son of God. These covenants were very much emphasised in the Protestant culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which thought it was returning to a relation with God obscured by centuries of Catholic interposition of church hierarchy between believer and divine word.

The idea of covenant moved quite quickly from theology to political and legal thought in Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch theologian and legal-political thinker who was one of the major shapers of modern thought in these matters. Milton does not emphasise him in these essays, but he was certainly an influence. For Grotius, the covenant is at the centre of theology, and influences his view of the obligation to obey law and government, though he does not use the language of covenant greatly in that context. The point being in political terms that in some way laws and political institutions rest on some choice of the community to obey them. In Grotius’s thinking, this is more about the reason for obedience than an incitement to rebellion where laws and institutions lack popular backing, but the latter aspect is necessary outcome. This ambiguity carries on into the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes (1551) which takes a foundational social covenant (defined more in legalistic than theological terms) as the basis of absolute obedience to the sovereign, but certainly influences the view of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Civil Government (1690) according to which ‘the people’ (in practice Locke meant the upper classes reğresented in Parliament) the right to overthrow government.

So Milton precedes Locke’s view that rebellion against unjust government is lawful, even admirable, and that laws are uniquely made by ‘the people’ in Parliament and never by a monarch. Milton himself draws on earlier historical precedent for this view of government as based on contract and the right of rebellion against government which ignores that contract. Particularly important is the Dutch Revolt of the late Sixteenth Century, in which merchant towns rebelled for political, commercial, and religious reasons against the absolutist Catholic monarchy of Spain which had acquired them for rather accidental dynastic reasons in recent history. Final agreement with Spain took a long time, but the new Dutch Republic quickly established the possibility of a mercantile republic in modern Protestant Europe and offered support to those who considered republics to be more Protestant than monarchies. Milton draws further on recent Scottish history, pointing out that a Protestant Scottish parliament had deposed Mary, Queen of Scots, in the preceding century. In general, Milton argues that the idea of monarch contradicts the idea of an ordinary human with an ordinary body, with legal accountability like anyone else, and so can never be incorporated properly into a state of free citizens.

Though monarchy which obeys such agreements is allowable from Milton’s point, it is not ideal and is very likely to decay into outright tyranny. Nevertheless he offers examples of how great monarchs of European history, including Roman Emperors, accepted that their power was only justified by serving law and the good of the community. As Milton emphases the last great Roman Emperor Justinian (ruling from Constantinople towards the end of the period during which any Roman Emperor controlled much territory beyond Anatolia and the Balkans) produced the greatest codification of Roman law, making himself the servant of law, not god on Earth. In any case is monarchy might be just about tolerable in many societies for Milton, the proper practice of Protestant Christianity certainly required a freedom from the religious and institutional church authority demanded by kings. Protestant ideas of free discussion of religious ideas and self-governing groups of believers could not thrive under a king (which was a reasonable estimate since Protestant Dissenters were not really equal citizens until the nineteenth century when the monarchy had become largely ceremonial, and indeed the last monarch who really struggled for a more than figurehead role, George III, was en enemy of religious emancipation).

Milton developed a view of how a republic, or commonwealth, might survive over the long term, certainly a longer term than the period it lasted in England, in its purest form only from 1649-52, and then the Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell until 1658 and his heir Richard Cromwell until 1660. He thought that while the country might need a new parliament in 1660, once elected it should serve permanently, replacing dead or absent members through its own method. What Milton seems to advocate here though is not a permanent republican law, but something necessary to institute a permanent republic. Milton thinks of the beginnings of  a republic as embattled and as needing to act more like an army than a fully stabilised and secure civil republic should. Both the chance for election and eligibility to vote can be restricted while the republic secures itself against selfish internal a faction and external danger. Here Milton runs into the problem Niccoló Machiavelli, an ardent republican despite frequent misrepresentations, encountered in The Prince, how to get a people that is not very republican and maybe not very ready for a republic to the point where civic virtue and understanding of public good are strong enough for a workable republic.

Milton’s life and public service under the take over of the English republic by the quasi-monarch Oliver Cromwell, followed by his life and exile from public life under the restored monarchy, is the context for the quotation from Coleridge at the head of this post. For Milton, republicanism and associated ideals, became more and more associated with some better and other world. After the Restoration Milton certainly became the author of poetry rather than political essays, producing in particular Paradise Lost, a religious epic which places him just below Shakespeare in general evaluation of English literature. We could look there for a more ‘transcendental’ exploration of republicanism and liberty, and I had hoped to do so. However, this task will be deferred as I think a responsible investigation of republicanism in Milton’s poetry, though a recognised area of discussion, is just too big and different to incorporate into this sequence of posts. Later I hope.


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