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Milton: A Republican And A Christian – Discuss Essay, Research Paper

Milton is well known as an epic poet, but also as a prominent member of the Protestant faith and he has often been labelled as a Puritan. In this essay I will attempt to explore the nature of Milton’s Christianity and his personal beliefs and inner conflicts, looking for evidence particularly at Paradise Lost but also at other more minor poems. Parallells and disparities between Milton’s views and other movements within the society of the day will also be considered. John Milton was also renowned as a close ally of Cromwell and a prominent exponent of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century. Indeed, after the Restoration his life was for some time in peril and even after he escaped alive, he had to retire completely from public life; such was the perceived threat he represented. The main purpose of this essay will, therefore, be to examine how Milton’s stance as a Christian and his position as a staunch Republican were related and how one effected the other. Milton despised what he saw as the ornamentation and purely selfish aims of the Cavaliers and the Anglican Church. He defended the right of ordinary citizens to rid themselves of tyrants when inferior magistrates had failed to do so in The Tenure of Kinqs and Magistrates (1649) and by so doing, positioned himself very clearly as a supporter of the recent execution of Charles I, and of the Army which had purged Parliament the year before to prevent a treaty being reached with the King, possibly reinstating him on more favourable terms. This was the general wish of the majority of the Presbyterian members of Parliament but the more radical Army wanted to execute Charles to ensure they retained the increased power they had recently gained and to prevent a return to the past. Milton had to quickly decide which side he supported and defend his position. He made it clear he was behind the Army in the strongest possible terms and condemned the hypocrisy of the Presbyterians who were now backing out by repeated allusions to a speech in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: And be these juggling fiends no more believ’d, That palter with us in a double sense; That keep the word of promise to our ears, And break it to our hope.(V.9.19-22) Milton claimed that the Presbyterians had ‘juggl’d and palter’d with the world’ and spoken ‘with a double contradictory sense’(pp.4-6). He went on in The Tenure of Kinqs and Maqistrates to defend the right of the people to depose and punish an unjust King by means of using, as he announces on three occasions (pp.8,10,23,) specifically Presbyterian and Scottish sources to emphasise that: They were the men themselves that deposd the King,and cannot with all their shifting and relapsing, wash off the guiltiness from their own hands.(pg.26) More importantly for our understanding of Milton’s spiritual beliefs this position also assumes that the people have the right to decide that he is an unjust King in the first place, but we will return to this later. His efforts brought him to the attention of Cromwell’s government and after the execution of Charles I he was appointed Minister for Foreign Tongues. His position in the government gave him an even more prominent position from which to expound his beliefs. He went on to defend his position by means of a complex argument citing Scripture as evidence of the justness of what had been done. The point of using, where possible, only Scottish and Presbyterian sources in his defence of the execution of the King was to remind the Presbyterians that the theory of resistance they had espoused at the beginning of the Civil War owed much to their own predecessors of the sixteenth century, George Buchanan and John Knox, whose work the Presbyterians could not dismiss but whose radicalism was now likely to embarrass them. However, this was complicated because rather than disowning their radical heritage the Presbyterians had actually inverted it to, they believed, further support their position. In order to do this they made the distinction between inferior magistrate and private person which was orthodox in Lutheran and Calvinist tracts on resistance. An inferior magistrate was deemed to be legitimate in taking action against a tyrannical ruler, but a private person was never justified in doing the same. Since the Army was raised by Parliament and was therefore only the agent of the inferior magistrate, it lacked any magisterial authority and was, according to their argument, no more than an assembly of private persons. It followed that the Army’s action of purging Parliament (Pride’s Purge, 6th December 1648,) leaving the so called Rump which was sympathetic to their aims, was inherently unlawful. Milton had to challenge this line of argument if he were to succeed in defending the army’s actions as legitimate. Therefore, he devotes a whole section of The Tenure (pp.16-23) to challenging the assertion that it is always unlawful for private persons to seize the political initiative. He does this in a somewhat novel manner, however. Rather than confronting the issue and disputing it categorically, he undermines it at a weak point. Knox had, whilst upholding the distinction between inferior magistrates and private persons, reluctantly allowed that there were certain circumstances in which the private person could be justified in acting against a tyrant. He and his sixteenth century counterparts usually opened this kind of discussion with the traditional distinction between two types of tyrant. These were defined as the tyrant by practice (such as Charles I) and the tyrant by usurpation (the tyrant without title.) In the first case, they upheld the traditional position of only the inferior magistrate being legitimate in taking action, but in the second case they allowed a certain degree of flexibility. A foreign invader could be resisted by the private person acting in defence of his nation, although even in this case individual resistance had to cease once the invader had acquired legitimacy. They referred to Rome’s transition from republic to empire,when lawful resistance became sedition,to emphasise their point. However, the constitutional theory had to overcome the problem of the Bible, on which their precept was based, appearing to be somewhat contradictory in presenting numerous cases of individual, apparently divinely sanctioned resistance to the oppressors of Israel. It would therefore appear that there were scriptural precedents for the very conclusion they sought to avoid. The fact that it was divinely sanctioned was indeed their main defence; they maintained that God alone had the power to act this way and that characters such as Moses, Ehud and Jehu, although appearing to be private persons had an authority surpassing even that of a magistrate as they had received an extraordinary calling from God. Thus, when Milton chooses Judges 3.12-26 to illustrate his argument, it is precisely because the story of the slaying of King Eglon by Ehud in defence of Israel occupied a central point in the controversy over who had the right to challenge a tyrant. In the section which Milton devotes to upholding the right of the people to resist, he begins by stating the old arguments about who may resist a tyrant by saying: (Eglon) was a forren Prince, an enemie, and Ehud besides had special warrant from God.(p.17) He goes on, however, to dismantle these precepts entirely. His first point is that he can see no material difference between a foreign invader and a domestic tyrant: For look how much right the King of Spaine hath to govern us at all, so much right hath the King of England to govern us tyrannically.(p.17) He takes a supra-national perspective, using the Ciceronian notion of the Brotherhood of Man to argue that there is a bond between all humans and that the only way men can exclude themselves from this is by assuming a hostile position. He states that: (it is not) distance of place that makes enmity, but enmity that makes distance.(p.18) Therefore, any attempt to distinguish between tyrants was no more than “a weak evasion.”(p.18.) Thus, as no distinction could be made, it was no longer possible to determine when an inferior magistrate was uniquely legitimate in taking action against a tyrant, or that a private person was not. Eglon, in the scriptural story was therefore undoubtedly an enemy, but not because he had no right to govern; the Israelites had indeed sworn allegiance to him; he was a tyrant by practice and not a foreign usurper. However, in order to contradict the usual Presbyterian argument that Ehud had a special warrant from God, Milton asserts that it was nowhere specifically expressed that he had received any direct command from God. Although he was: A man whom God had raysd to deliver Israel(p.17) he had acted purely: …on just principles, such as were then and ever held allowable.(p.19) This statement emphasises an important aspect of Milton’s Christian beliefs which can be seen to play a crucial role in his political philosophy. He argues that even had Ehud received a special command from God, it would have made no difference to the argument above. Jehu, in another scriptural story, had received “a special command to slay Jehoram” but according to Milton, this did not make his action any less imitable. He states that the action was grounded so much on natural reason that the only thing that a direct command from God can do in his opinion is to …establish the lawfulness of such an act.(p.19) He maintains that a divine command establishes the lawfulness of resistance, but does not necessarily have to instigate it. For that we can look to natural reason, and it is this belief in man’s natural reasoning ability, closely based on the works of Plato, that infuses much of Milton’s more ostensibly religious works such as Paradise Lost with its sense of underlying tension and conflict. Here we see one of Milton’s major differences with the Anglican Church and indeed with many members of the Presbyterian faith. Although this notion of the spiritual dignity of the individual and his ability to reason is already present in The Tenure of Kings and Maqistrates~it is explored more fully in Paradise Lost. By 1660 Milton’s youthful high hopes of success in transforming the world had become increasingly disappointed and tinged with the intolerance towards his opponents we see manifested in Lycidas (1638) for example, with his diatribe against the Anglican clergy. Whereas in his youthful days he had tried to transcend his personal desires, doubts and reasoning and follow the will of God, believing unquestioningly in Scripture and doing the will of God, he began to be faced with the quandary of how he was to discover the will of God without searching his own heart. The secularism and anarchic tendencies of this line of argument should not be underestimated, but as we saw before, Milton was able to find biblical references to support him. In fact, the rationalist core of Milton’s Protestantism should not be ignored, nor should its effect upon his poetry. Milton believed that reason was essential if a new order was to be created. He also attributed every man with the ability to reason if allowed. The rational individual must, therefore be free from all forms of constraint, whether they be external (institutions such as the Anglican Church for example) or internal (non-rational elements within the individual personality such as the passions.) Whilst the notion of being free from the passions would fit well enough with the Protestant and indeed the Presbyterian ideology, it would be reasonable to ask at this point where God stands in this system. Whilst the existence of God is never doubted in Milton’s work, (for example in Paradise Lost) he has no practical independent existence other than through the medium of rational individuals of which the universe is composed. We can see this idea illustrated in The Ancient Bounds: There are two things contended for in this liberty of conscience: first to instate every Christian in his right of free, yet modest, judging and accepting what he holds; secondly, to vindicate a necessary advantage to the truth, and this is the main end and respect of this liberty.(p.54) Milton and the Independents believed that where for medieval Catholicism, the interpretation of the Bible was a matter for the Church, it should, under the theory of reason, be a matter for the individual. Hence, one of the first demands the Protestant Church made was for an English translation of the Bible. Here a conflict of interests arose between the Presbyterians and the Independents. The latter argued for religious tolerance and against the re-establishment of a monolithic state church, whether it be Anglican or Presbyterian. The Presbyterians on the other hand were very keen to establish a power base in the country. Milton saw this as a betrayal and an almost equal tyranny to that which they had worked so hard to dismantle. Milton began to attack the Presbyterians with the force he used to reserve for the Anglicans as can be seen in his work of 1646 On the New Forcers of Conscience and his increasing sense of betrayal, disappointment and isolation can be seen throughout his work up until the 1660’s. He never concedes defeat,however, nor does he admit to being mistaken, even after the Restoration. Paradise Lost (published in 1667 and thought to be the work that Milton’s life had been leading up to) gives us a clear indication that Milton still believes in the spiritual dignity of the individual and the right of citizens to just rule. In fact, in Book XII Milton could almost be seen to be advocating a kind of God-fearing anarchy: ~’O execrable son! so to aspire Above his brethren; to himself assuming Authority usurp’d, from God not given: He gave us only over beast, fish, fowl, Dominion absolute; that right we hold By his donation: but man over men He made not lord; such title to Himself Reserving, human left from human free.(64-71) However, by this stage in his career Milton felt he could only advocate small, personal actions as effective. He was bitterly disappointed by the Restoration and almost lost his life as a result of his place in the government and his written work. He was forced to retire from public life and his sense of loss and expulsion are obvious in Paradise Lost. However, whilst Samson in Samson Aqonistes(1671) is never deserted by God and does his will until the end, although blinded, betrayed and imprisoned (the parallells with Milton are clear) he destroys the whole temple that he is imprisoned in. Milton does not destroy the temple of ideas and beliefs he has created though. He refuses to accept defeat and changes his position to recommend a different course of action. When Adam and Eve have left the Garden of Eden, Michael advises them thus: “This having learn’d, thou hast attain’d the sum Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the stars Thou knew’st by name………………………. only add Deeds to thy knowledge answerable; add faith, Add virtue, patience, temperance; add lo~ve, By name to come call’d charity, the soul Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess A paradise within thee, happier far. His advice is meant for all Milton’s audience too; they must chip away at the evil in the world, making persistent small dents: Milton came to terms with the fact that he could not transform the world as he hoped in the days when he wrote his youthful works such as On the Morninq of Christ’s NativitY (1629) nor were his political ideas going to be as easily put into practice as he thought when he wrote The Tenure of Kinqs and Maqistrates (1649) but although bitterly disappointed, he has not given up, there is still a better world possible; we may just have to wait, like Adam and Eve, far longer for it than Milton had at first anticipated.BIBLIOGRAPHY Danielson, D/MILTON (Cambridge) Dzelzainis, M/POLITICAL WRITINGS (Cambridge) Fish, S/SURPRISED BY SIN (UCP) Kranidas, T(ed.)PARADISE LOST (UCP) JOHN MILTON & THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION (Barnes) Milton, J/POETICAL WORKS (Wells


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