Milton is hardly a likeable figure, but the power of his mature epic writing stands him head and shoulders above the crowd. There’s something maddening about the precocious effeminate boy who conceives the bold design of being a writer, often treading the narrow line between brilliant and insufferable. Milton certainly suffers from some modern critics whose religious and biblical illiteracy doth not help them understand what they are reading. So why read Milton today, apart from poetick grist to the lit crit mill?
It is fundamentally wrong to think Milton a “Puritan,” in blanket terms. As an adult he was very much an Independent, emphatically not a Presbyterian (thus his quip about new presbyter being old priest writ large.) His own personal theology, De Doctrina Christiana, unpublished in his lifetime, was pretty much libertarian, with touches of Arianism, and eccentric flourishes like having a personal theology in the first place. Now all our theologies are profoundly personal, like it or not.
Milton detested bishops, or what he called prelaty, with its controlling tendencies, prisons and enforcement schemes. He detested all tyrannies, civil and religious. He radically rejected any notion that faith for grown ups can be based on authority and coercion as opposed to conviction freely arrived at. Like his views on divorce, these are not comfortable positions, even today, but they are his considered view. It is interesting how we now live in a Monarchy with an established Church, but whose processes have transformed from within over 350 years to a point strikingly similar to much that Milton enivisaged. As we all have to learm when we leave student politics behind, Railing against the system is cheap and easy, but process is infinitely more important than structure to quality of life and human outcome.
As much as Milton would have abominated the Diocese of Oxford along with bishops and all their works, he might have endorsed two aspects of our present operations:
- The abolition of tithes, an almost obsessional bugbear of JM. He believed it wrong to run the Church off anything except voluntary contributions. From 1843 to 1920 his wishes came true, and tithes were abolished. I couldn’t say everyone is that much more keen on their replacement, Parish Share, than Milton was on tithes!
- His famous tract on the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates warmly endorses servant ministry — the legitimacy of authority for Milton rests not on anointing, custom or revelation, but on its conformity to Christ’s servant example.
Thanks to Graham Peacock for a Poster which, in itself, serves as an instant summary of English History 1649-1660. John Milton neither panicked, nor freaked out. A resurrected Milton would doubtless be online, blogging away at the tyrannies and self-deception of our powers that be. He believed that monarchies and theologies of infallibility in the Church bred a sick, servile society. He would fall about laughing at people craven enough, as he would see it, to imagine final religious authority could be found in any human source, least of all popery, Protestant or Catholic.
Challenging stuff — So, he might well be asking us,“However much you hate the word, are you not all Liberals now?”
What’s the difference between liberalism as an essential precondition of an open society, and the liberalism people use as a term of abuse?