CIVIC REPUBLICAN NEWSLETTER
“Constructing a Humanist Politics”
Issue No 14 Friday 5 December 2008
SPECIAL JOHN MILTON QUATERCENTENARY EDITION
John Milton (9 December 1608 – 8 November 1674)
· The Republican beliefs of John Milton, our greatest poet, mean that the 400th anniversary of his birth on Tuesday, 9th December 2008, is being ignored
What is happening now of interest to Civic Republicanism
· The Republican beliefs of John Milton, our greatest poet, means that the 400th anniversary of his birth on Tuesday, 9th December 2008, is being ignored
John Milton, undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest (some would say THE greatest) of our poets and one of our greatest republicans, was born 400 years ago on 9th December 1608. On Tuesday, 9th December, we are, or should be, celebrating the quatercentenary of his birth
In fact there seems to be no official celebration planned and there does not appear to be any major coverage planned on the main media such as the BBC. Imagine the situation if it were the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth and many would argue that Milton was the greater poet (see below). The most conspicuous celebrations are at Milton’s college, Christ’s College, Cambridge .For links see below.
The reason for ignoring this important event in the British cultural calendar are of course not hard to find. It results from Milton’s strong republicanism – the political position that today dare not speak its name, as far as the British establishment is concerned. Luckily some sections of the academic world take a more detached view.
Milton was the author of the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost, and a reforming prose writer. He was also a member of a revolutionary government. He was a victim of censorship, whose daring positions we now consider vital to modern governance. Advocate of freedom of the press, transparency in government, public debate, education for liberty, the right to divorce, the disestablishment of the church and the abolition of monarchy, Milton espoused some positions radical even by some of today's standards. As a Civic Republican, the cornerstone of Milton's republicanism was the virtuous citizen, the notion of an individual endowed with reason to make choices and to act freely in the world. In this he drew heavily on the republican ideals of ancient Rome.
A politically engaged writer as well as a poet, Milton saw his lifelong struggle as a defense of liberty. He despised all forms of tyranny, whether political, religious or domestic. After the abolition of monarchy in 1649, which Milton defended, the poet served in the republican government. His writings justifying the execution of the king were particularly aimed at the rest of Europe.
After the return of the monarchy in 1660, Milton's republican writings were condemned to be burnt, and the author was sent to prison. Thanks to the Amnesty Act he was freed and it is worth reflecting that without that act the world would have been deprived on one of its profoundest works of art. It was in prison that he began composing Paradise Lost, a poetic retelling of the Biblical story of the Fall of humankind. In this he was embarking on a poetic mission to help humans understand themselves, their history, their place in the cosmos, and to empower citizens to a virtue "equal to their calling."
John Milton was born in London on December 9th 1608 to a prosperous middle-class family of Puritan leanings, and was by the age of ten an avid reader and poet. Though his father intended him for the ministry, young Milton saw his destiny lay with social reform and poetry.
He understood that political literacy was the goal of education in the Renaissance. He immersed himself in classical rhetoric, philosophy, history and literature, and very early on mastered French, Italian, Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Milton took the Ancients as the source of wisdom and political counsel. His ideas on liberty, virtue and artistic engagement derived from his reading in the Classics,
He was educated at Christ’s College Cambridge and began writing poetry from an early age. A Puritan and a Parliamentarian, his formidable intellectual and linguistic abilities proved invaluable during the years of the republic when he served in the government. In addition to his political role he wrote on social issues, including the right to challenge tyranny, freedom from censorship, and divorce. He believed in the value of education for society and wrote a tract on education in 1644. Milton hoped to shape leaders for public life by broadening education to academies in every city.
Milton joined in the public debate following the king's execution when the constitutional republican revolution abolished the monarchy in England. To Milton, "all men naturally were born free" and kings and magistrates were accountable to the people. Milton wrote a brave and eloquent defense of republican principles against arbitrary government which was published just two weeks after the execution of Charles. This was The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and it led to his appointment to the Commonwealth Council of State, the executive body.
Milton expressly wrote, not to insult the
King, but to serve "Queen Truth." In his work for the
Council of State, Milton's gifts as a writer, and
especially his fluency in Latin, were put to use,.
Milton strenuously argued that people had a right to
oust tyrants and to choose their own rulers.
Although steeped in the classics Milton was fully aware of the power of the new printing media and presciently saw it as a "privilege of the people." In the run-up to the English civil war, the censorship that the king operated over the new print technology collapsed and an avalanche of political pamphlets began in 1640. Among these were Milton's arguments for total reform of the church and his courageous proposals to legalize divorce in England.
Milton saw the execution of King Charles I as a triumph of freedom against tyranny. His Defense of the English People, was published 24 February 1651. This frontispiece bears the arms of the new British Commonwealth, uniting England, Scotland and Wales without a king.
He defended the new republic and answered its European critics. Partly because of his mastery of the international language of Latin he became Secretary to Foreign Tongues in the revolutionary government, and helped to compose diplomatic correspondence in the then obligatory Latin.
Milton at the same time suffered the intense pains of his onset of the blindness which would become total by 1652. On his commission to write a defense of the new republic in Latin even as he was losing his eyesight, Milton later wrote, "I resolved therefore that I must employ this brief use of my eyes while yet I could for the greatest possible benefit to the state."
He wrote Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio in 1651 and the Commonwealth’s Council of State ordered reprints for numerous European editions of this work. Because of its advocacy of a republic, it was burned and banned in Toulouse and Paris. But, as a result of its success, Milton was sought out by many international visitors and found new supporters.
Joannis Miltoni Angli Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio
(1654) addressed mainly to Europe, the view is
republican: "If to be a slave is hard, and you do not
wish it, learn to obey right reason, to master
yourselves." Milton likens his own countrymen to the
illustrious Greeks and Romans, with his own role as the
epic poet singing their "heroic achievement." He
cautions English citizens to summon the vigilance
necessary to safeguard liberty at home, and to learn the
"arts of peace."