“Constructing a Humanist Politics”


Issue No 14 Friday 5 December 2008







John Milton (9 December 1608 – 8 November 1674)



This week


·         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.


In Joannis Miltoni Angli Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda (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."


Milton argued in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) that marriage should be able to be dissolved if the partners were incompatible. His views were labeled as "licentious, new and dangerous," although the book was widely bought.


His selfless dedication to the Republic was evident when on the eve of the return of monarchy, after eleven years, Milton urged his fellow British citizens to remain loyal to the principles of Commonwealth rule. He set out in The Ready & Easy Way To Establish A Free Commonwealth (1660) a political system that included an advanced system for the election of local councils, balanced by a rotating Grand Council. God "hath not quenched the spirit of liberty among us" he wrote, but his proposals were overtaken by events and the restoration of the monarchy ensued.





At the restoration of Charles II, deprived of all official work, he went into hiding for three months in Bartholomew Close, London. After the Amnesty Act, he returned to live in Cripplegate, again in London. During the plague year of 1666, he moved to a cottage in Buckinghamshire which is still preserved as a museum to him in Chalfont St. Giles. It was there in 1667 that his most famous work "Paradise Lost" was published.




His body lies in St Giles Church Cripplegate and on the floor, near the pulpit, is a stone recording his burial spot. He died in 1674 in a house nearby in Artillery Row.


John Milton is also commemorated in “Poets’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey.





The importance of Milton’s standing as a Republican thinker and activist can never be in doubt but there is some controversy as to how important his poetry still is. For instance, how does he compare with his only serious rival as our greatest poet, William Shakespeare?





Nigel Smith in a new book, Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?, sets out to convince us that Milton is the "more salient and important" of these literary giants. But in time magazine reviewer, Gary Taylor,,9171,1806582,00.html challenges this view. He writes: Smith contends that Milton is the better poet for he "places liberty at the center of his vision.


Taylor admits that Smith lets Milton take the stand in his own defense as ninety-nine extended quotations of Milton's poetry and prose account for 30% of the main body of the book. Taylor says perusing these passages, it's easy to see why most of America's Founding Fathers "read Milton and revered him" — and even easier to understand why, for at least two centuries, Paradise Lost was widely considered "the greatest poem in the language." He admits the amazingly sustained quality of Milton’s poetry saying: “You can't believe it's possible for anyone to remain airborne for so long”.


Taylor argues that “glorious long sentences are part of the explanation for the slow decay of Milton's reputation. He's not a poet for the sound-bite century.” But others might say dumbing down has gone too far and the “sound-bite” culture should be resisted.


Against Nigel Smith and in spite of Milton’s technical superiority, Taylor concludes in favour of Shakespeare, on the grounds that “For better or worse, millions love Shakespeare. Lovers are blind, and will forgive any number of faults. Milton is hard to love.”


There must equally be as many who cannot stand Shakespeare and find his meter mechanical and even robotic. By contrast Milton sings. Not just when spoken, but in your head, as you read him. Let us give Milton the last word and listen to him reflecting on time. We may or may not accept the religious content but who could not be affected by his message of human hope?



On Time.


FLY envious Time, till thou run out thy race,

Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,

Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;

And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,

Which is no more then what is false and vain,

And meerly mortal dross;

So little is our loss,

So little is thy gain.

For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb'd,

And last of all, thy greedy self consum'd,                           10

Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss

With an individual kiss;

And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,

When every thing that is sincerely good

And perfectly divine,

With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine

About the supreme Throne

Of him, t'whose happy-making sight alone,

When once our heav'nly-guided soul shall clime,

Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,                                   20

Attir'd with Stars, we shall for ever sit,

Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.



Has the English language ever sounded so beautiful?





400th Anniversary Websites


General John Milton Websites


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…….Until next week