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The Milton Problem

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What follows is likely to sound a bit confused, because I’m not sure how to approach what I want to say here.

I spent an awful lot of time on this blog talking about education, and how it should be structured, and all the rest of it.  You would think, since I’d gotten that far in my thinking, I would also have made a comprehensive attempt to make sure that my own education corresponds to what I want for everybody else.

And yet, today, I find myself wondering if it is even possible to deliver the kind of education I want, at least in a comprehensive way.

Which is what brings me to my Milton problem.

My tendency is to associate Milton almost exclusively with Paradise Lost.  This is because that is the work of Milton’s I’m most familiar with, and I, like most “English majors” of my generation and before, was required to take an entire semester long course in which we read nothing else.

There’s a lot that can be said about Paradise Lost.  For one thing, the reading most of us have of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve almost certainly comes from Milton and not from “scripture alone,” although Milton himself thought he was presenting a fact and not an interpretation.

What he was presenting was actually a fairly standard seventeenth century Puritan reading, and that itself is unsurprising, since Milton was himself a seventeenth century Puritan.

Americans, especially, tend to think of Puritans as dour people in funny hats carrying muskets and shooting turkeys.  If we envision them as “political’ at all, we see them as “conservative” in the sense of “didn’t like and actively resisted change.”

But Puritans were not conservatives in this sense.  In fact, they were nearly the opposite.  The seventeenth century saw a Puritan revolution in England. 

And that revolution was not entirely religious, although it saw itself as having religious foundations. 

Along with the religion–and on the assumption that the changes they were making were supported by religion–the Puritans executed a king and made a Parliament supreme in England for the first time in its history.   The men who made that revolution also argued–and also on religious grounds–for things like freedom of speech and of the press.

In fact, one of the most ardent and prolific defenders of all these things in that same Puritan revolution was…John Milton.

And that odd thing is–I knew that.

I knew that Milton was the author of Areopagitica, the first great defense of freedom of the press in English, and of In Defense of the English People, which championed a republican state without a king.

I knew it both because I’d taken history courses in school and college that dealt with those facts, and because I’d read the short works involved.

In fact, I even have them around the house, in an edition put out by a small press in Indiana.

The problem was that I’d never put the two things I knew about Milton together.   And putting those things together would have helped me solve an intellectual problem that has puzzled me–and annoyed me–for some time.

The intellectual problem is this:  if you look at the writings and web sites put out by Christian conservatives, you’ll often find the claim that the US Constitution is “based on biblical principals.”

The problem with this claim is that, if all you know about anything is what is going on now plus what was directly written about the Constitution at the time of its adopting, this makes no sense.

I’ve actually read the Bible, both old and new testaments, and I have always found it impossible to find the basis for things like freedom of speech and conscience, for instance, or a republican government instead of a monarchy in its pages.

The Bible is, like most of what was written in the seven thousand years leading up to the twentieth century, determinedly and unashamedly monarchical.  And Christian writers leading up to the Puritan revolution in England and for a century and a half after it tended to rely heavily on the “divine right of kings” trope for explaining what the Bible did and didn’t want in a government.

But here’s the thing–the Puritan revolutionaries did not read the Bible that way, and they did read it, and press an interpretation of it, to support freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and elected government.

And people like Milton explain why.

What’s more, the Puritans who landed in New England in 1620 held to this same reading of the Bible, and were intent on establishing not just a religiously pure “city on a hill,” but a politically “Biblical” one as well.

I have no idea whether they people who make these arguments now understand the arguments on which the original Puritan thinkers presented republican government with rights to inquiry, speech and press as “Biblically based.”  My guess is that they don’t, because their work does not present those same arguments, or really any arguments that can be said to be coherent on any level.

But I was wrong to think that such arguments did not exist, and my mistake was all the more curious because I understood that Paradise Lost represented a significant break with most of the Christian theology that preceded it.

Neither Augustine nor Aquinas ever saw anything fortunate about the fall, or saw Adam’s sin as being in any way “understandable,” never mind excusable.

In a properly ordered world, I would have made these connections years ago, because my education would have led me to make them.

In this world, we study “subjects,” and Milton’s poetry is one “subject” while Milton’s involvement in the Puritan revolution is another, and never the twain did meet. 

I suppose that if I’d concentrated in the seventeenth century instead of in the tenth through fifteenth, I’d have found all this out eventually–but I want undergraduates to find it out, not just specialists.

This seems to me to be an enormously important bit of information, one that impacts the understanding of American history as well as British history, of American government as well as British literature. 

And Milton’s essays are worth reading in and for themselves.  Whether or not you think he makes his point for a Biblical foundation for representative government,  they represent some of the first passionate defenses of the rights we now all think of as “American.” 

And that provide much of the foundation for government in contemporary Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well.

Okay, maybe I’ve been less incoherent than I feared.

I’ve got to go put on disc two of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Written by janeh

March 29th, 2011 at 6:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'The Milton Problem'

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  1. Hmmm. I came at the 17th Century somewhat differently, but it’s true that once you see Montrose and Prince Rupert as calvinists, and Cromwell as the beginning of religious liberty, it knocks your notion of the dour, repressed Puritan into a steeple hat. I’ve made my case before, I think for studying limited sections of history in some detail. It makes a nice break from doing, say, intellectual, economic or military history, and you start seeing how the pieces fit together.

    I’d say the founding principles of the English-speaking world come in layers. Bits of the Bill of Rights come almost unchanged from Magna Carta, with no more theoretical underpinning than the English willingness to be pushed so far and no farther.(Kipling’s “The Old Issue” is inescapable here.)

    The Calvinists generally got to brooding on political liberty and self-government, in France as well as England. It’s the result of being–mostly–political losers in the age of monarchy. What the Puritan Revolution in England adds is tolerance for political and religious dissent–the price they pay for winning and having to apply their principles to actual government.

    The Enlightenment pays attention to the structure of government, with separation of powers and terms of office.

    But without having read the Christian conservative tracts, I think I’d also concede a Biblical layer so deep you only notice it when it’s challenged. For all the theoretical sources of liberty, for example, no founder suggested that the state ought not to be able to regulate sexual conduct. Drunkenness and sloth might be personal affairs, but bigamy, buggery and adultery were offenses against the community, almost everywhere punishable by law. (Mind you, so was the absense of sexual relations between married couples–and no, I don’t want to contemplate the court cases.) Pornography and public indecency gain no advantage under English, Puritan or Enlightenment liberties, and property is as secured by law and constitution as by the Ten Commandments.

    To say the US Constitution is founded on Biblical principles is pushing matters a bit, to say the least. But to say American society has long been based on principles it shares with ancient Israel, but not with pagan Saxons nor with Islam is pretty much a statement of fact.

    And now we get back to “is” vs “should.”


    29 Mar 11 at 7:10 pm

  2. I would say that both the US and Australian social and legal systems evolved from the British one. And what they evolved from was very firmly Christian.

    Thanks for the reference to “The Old Issue”. I wasn’t familiar with it.


    29 Mar 11 at 9:20 pm

  3. The origins of English common law had nothing to do with Christianity. It’s origins are far older.

    The civil law of the European continent likewise has its origins in Roman Civil law — which predates any Christian influence by nearly a millennium.

    That laws which suited the religious prejudices of Christians got made at some times, particularly as the Church lost secular power to enforce it’s edicts in canon courts I am not disputing. But.

    Those laws against adultery need to be seen against the historical context where quite frequently the vast majority, if not the only, persons with Church sanctified marriages were the aristocracy because the parish priest demanded money, which the peasants could rarely pay, and often the state – while concerned with inheritance actually had no actual marriage statutes of its own. You were married if at some point you said you were. Approximately. To say the history of marriage is complex is a titanic understatement.

    As for the specific example of “buggery” — “The Buggery Act of 1533 (25 Hen. VIII c. 6) was an English sodomy law which existed from 1534 to 1861. It was established during the reign of Henry VIII, and was the first civil legislation applicable against sodomy in the country, such offences having previously been dealt with by ecclesiastical courts.”

    So, the common law developed long before it was infected with the prejudices of whatever the prevailing creed or denomination Christianity at the time a particular statute was enacted.

    As for the Ten Commandments, its been noted by other more eloquent than myself that most of the rules were for the benefit of priests and the rest neither original nor exclusively Christian nor novel, and indeed necessary in any ordered society.


    30 Mar 11 at 12:44 am

  4. I think it would be extremely difficult to discuss English Common Law (and its cousins around the world with reference to its distant pre-Christian ancestor and without acknowledging the degree in which its development is inseparable from the Christian culture in which it flourished so long – and that this is definitely noticeable in the development of the idea of the individual and of personal liberty.

    I’m not sure who’s arguing that the rules stated in the Ten Commandments, in whole or in part, are found only in Christianity, or were novel when accepted by Christians. I’m certainly not.

    I’m not quite sure I follow you in your claim that they’re only for the benefit of priests, though. I personally would rather not be murdered, robbed by envious neighbours, treated with lack of respect by my children (if I had any, of course) etc.


    30 Mar 11 at 6:46 am

  5. “I’m not quite sure I follow you in your claim that they’re only for the benefit of priests, though.”

    I said most, in fact it’s a tie. The first four from Deuteronomy which is the version Christians follow (yes, there are others) are for the benefit of the priesthood:

    ONE: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’

    TWO: ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’

    THREE: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.’

    FOUR: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’

    Number five is a cultural/patriarchal rule – so long as the patriarch is alive he has authority over even his adult children:

    FIVE: ‘Honor your father and your mother.’

    The next four are general principals observed in stable societies:

    SIX: ‘You shall not murder.’

    SEVEN: ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

    EIGHT: ‘You shall not steal.’

    NINE: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.’

    And the last one is a moral precept, unenforceable at law:

    TEN: ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.


    30 Mar 11 at 12:30 pm

  6. Three and four at least have social value, especially if you take the ‘in vain’ to mean a way to encourage honesty under oath when settling disputes. Having a required break from work is an excellent ides.

    I don’t really see the profit to the priests in two, either – they could make more money from a religious with lots of statues.

    Having stability across the generations – as in five – increases societal stability.

    And quite aside from the moral benefit of avoiding covetousness, practicing that should reduce the amount of theft, theft with violence, fraud, and so on.

    I still think you’re overstating your case.

    And yes, I do know that there is more than one version.


    30 Mar 11 at 12:53 pm

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