John Milton Takes a Stand? Prasanta Chakravarty

This is a guest post by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY

[Dissidence comes along with responsibility. If that sounds an utter sell out, one has to look back no further than the career and oeuvre of John Milton, whose 400th Anniversary is being celebrated around the world.]

Students of English literature usually do not prefer meddling too much with politics, especially if that comes in the way of appreciating the hermeneutics of the text, the lyricism set aside for the work of art. Sophisticated scholars have learnt to deftly negotiate and work with Marxism, new historicism and cultural criticism, without compromising on the finer points of close reading. They have also welcomed areas like textual studies and performance and newer genres like memoirs, broadsheets, travelogues, petitions, graphic fiction and so forth within the critical ambit with a careful eye that such forays do not destabilize the Great Book tradition. Students of politics and the political, on the other hand, have a certain distrust for soft aesthetic options. In one interesting recent interview, James Scott, who routinely uses Zola and Tolstoy in his classes and works, lamented in jest on his status at the Yale Political Science Department as an outlier, blaming it onto the ascendancy and monopoly of formal and rational choice models in the discipline.

Sure, every discipline reserves its own internal logic and rationale. It takes decades to evolve and arrive at a certain degree of disciplinary equilibrium. A lot of fine-tuning goes into grounding and sure-footing branches of learning. And mindless interdisciplinary ventures do not often stand the test of time, especially if the fundamentals remain wobbly. But entertaining imported insights sometime becomes necessary merely to get a clearer, fuller picture.

The poet John Milton and his milieu, for instance, are unlikely to feature even tangentially in any department of Political Science in India. This, considering his career and output can provide the student of the political with crucial insights into at least four methodological approaches: classical republicanism, early modern liberalism, Marxism and tenets of radical democracy. Not to mention the political implications of his theological positions taken at different junctures of his career. A student of literature, on the other hand, is usually content to explore the minutiae of his epic poems—Paradise Lost and Regained and Samson Agonistes, the superb masque Comus and his many poems and sonnets. Yes, the undergrad literary mind in India is sometimes allowed to peep into Milton’s mutinous nature through his divorce tracts and the singularly eloquent pamphlet Areopagitica, usually celebrated as an early instance of a literary text that champions freedom of expression in print. This is good beginning. But is that all we can salvage from someone who was not only a foremost antinomian pamphleteer of his time but was also Secretary of Foreign Tongue to Oliver Cromwell?

With someone as variegated as Milton and writing in times as tumultuous as he was, there is bound to be differing viewpoints about his literary and political takes. The issue becomes manifold tricky because his own trajectory evolves in a way—as he takes certain decisions, often pragmatically, during a period when the English monarchy and Parliament is not just indulging in serious skirmishes with Scotland and Ireland, but its own people are severely divided on issues of democracy and religious transformation. At the same time, it seems there are always some bedrock principles upon which Milton falls back that may be called revolutionary in a thick sense of the term. I use the word revolutionary advisedly because over the last few decades revisionist scholars (there is an interesting mix of old school conservatives and Foucauldians here) of early modern England have made sure that the acolytes of Christopher Hill/Robert Brenner (on the Marxist side) and R.H. Tawney/Lawrence Stone (on the liberal democrat aisle) do not easily glorify an upside down world as they used to do during the seventies.1640s England witnessed a contingent Civil War and was not at the verge of any structural Revolution. Or so we are told.

We all know the there are far more radical claimants to early modern British radicalism than John Milton. Even on purely democratic terms the sage ideas of James Harrington and John Toland dazzle. During the late 1650s, often giving a miss to even Parliament at times, many flocked to Harrington’s Rota Club at Miles’ Coffee-house in New Palace yard, Westminster, which came up with such novel ideas that we take for granted today: vote by ballot and rotation of magistrates and legislators, (ideas that John Milton rejected as mere innovation). But some middling sorts and the sectarians—Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchy men—go much further in existentially challenging royalists and moderate mainstream liberals.

In such a clime, Milton is a conundrum. He shifts his position constantly, keeping his interlocutors guessing, a trait that the literary critic David Norbrook calls his jumps. Milton typifies, and that is my point here, that a certain radical politics is possible without getting fixated with large changes and without defining ideological limits. He is a master of cut and thrust, trenchant in heretical outbursts against ecclesiastics and Royalists alike, and yet does single handedly define the dizzy heights of literary grandeur and political maturity in his time.

One key moment is1637-38 when Milton begins to write the Commonplace Book followed by the annalistic History of Britain, works portraying him to be a considerable historian, contextualizing, demythologizing and interpreting events afresh. His republican leanings show some early trends. He does not, first of all, characterize the citizen on a conservative Christian scale but on his ability to cohabit with other citizens who practice different faiths. More importantly, he resists grandezza or pursuit of glory—otherwise a staple in the Atlantic Republican lexicon: “The virtue should be sought by philosophers cautiously. For a blind and carnal love of country should not carry us off to plundering and bloodshed and hatred of the neighboring countries, so that we may enrich our country in power, wealth or glory,” he is quite categorical. He does not give any special status to the magistrates and the legislators, though they are important to run a polity, he believes. At every turn though, he maintains a fine balance between virtue and liberty, otherwise two contrasting political ideals. And then, a startling observation: good laws often arise from riots and disturbances, he assures us. This is indeed a most strange kind of classical vision for his country, which resists pigeonholing. No wonder early Whigs, who preferred limited monarchy, disavowed the author of Areopagitica as a zealot.

His traditional Marxist interlocutors, on the other hand, have never forgiven Milton for his bourgeois excesses, for his penchant to champion individual heretical fervor, education and democracy. Milton, they conclude, is a theorist of a small revolutionary fringe that tries to seize power from a propertied class but at the same time consolidates its own class position. The classic Marxist target is Areopagitica. Books should not be subject to licensing because it disrupts the healthy flow of market. But books are not commodities to be marketed like other commodities because the power of the book production is not commensurable with the commodity form. Its circulation depends on the normative ethical principles of anti-monopoly. The capitalist subject is at once created and being symbolically reacted against. The two drives—of possession and proprietorship constantly battle each other in Milton, say Marxists beginning C.B. Macpherson, who see the English ‘revolution’ itself as a bourgeois phenomenon to be perfected later in keeping with the dialectic of history. The likes of Terry Eagleton continue to lionize Milton till date making him the architect of the modern liberal marketplace by amply stressing his anarchic potentials. Milton’s republic stood on deeper, subtler and may I add, contradictory foundations.

Bits and pieces of value system—ideologemes—build up Areopagitica. Most importantly, natural law and civic virtue combine in the tract with a devastating effect. This combination is a fundamental belief that trumps any pre-political imagination of a natural world in order to justify contract and sovereignty, of which Hobbes is one well-known early modern proponent. Personal rights are never used in a juristic sense in Milton and yet cannot be utterly subjective in a purely existentialist manner. Positive law corrupts; virtue constructs, if wielded democratically. Areopagitica affirms that free flow of learning and exchange will provide us with an intersubjective space where reason and unreason, virtue and vice, liberty and license can be tested unto one other. Choice, that liberal watchword gets constantly undercut by something more unyielding: “Truth and understanding are not areas as to be monopoliz’d and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards,” he thunders. The basis of Milton’s anarchic potential lies in discovering this refreshing cocktail, one that resides somewhere between the civic and the liberty of soul; its not a dialectic of the split bourgeois individual.

Then there are his so called regicide tracts, which are virtually justifications for a political rupture, Milton at once makes a case for the necessity of removing and executing Charles I and asserts the necessity for some kind of a legal framework. The covenant (not a contract) between the ruler and ruled is not sacrosanct and is liable to be radically revised, there always remain the scope for revising the minimal political and legal framework through legal reforms or through democratic upsurges.

The trajectory of his theological positions is even more fascinating and has a more direct bearing upon the philosophy enshrined in his magisterial epics. By 1673, Milton warmed up to the heretical Arians and Socinians.  In his capacity as licenser in the Republic, he probably authorized the publication of the Catechesis or Racovian Catechism, and that decision suggests that by 1652 Milton had abandoned the orthodox position on the Trinity.  In fact, some evidence can be found that he may have begun to have severe doubts on the orthodox position as early as the mid-1640s. He is, of course, best as a poet when he refrains from writing with total directness. His sarcastic temper, famously noted by his biographer John Aubrey, often leads to ambivalence and irony, laying layer upon layer of meaning and drawing unexpected conclusions from traditional premises in his poetical works. Paradise Lost began taking shape from 1658 and a return to poetry in itself may be an evidence of his disenchantment with the Cromwellian Protectorate. After the ironical presentation of God as tyrant, the refutation of that very idea pivots once again around the virtue of the subjects. Worship is an art of positive transfiguration leading to participation and union of subjects. Love of God and of our neighbor can only be worked through a communion of spirits. At the heart of Milton’s conception of liberty rests a fervent plea for the abolition of outward restraints only so that an inward control may take its place: “though love/Alone shall fulfil the law.” Christ, the messiah, embodies right reason, something that brings Milton quite close to certain itinerant radical preachers of his time. More importantly—prime nature made us all equal—Milton draws a close parallel between the unwritten law of God and the primary law of nature: “man over men/ He made no lord; such title to himself/Reserving, human left from human free.” Such pronouncements, barely hiding an unmistakable warning against tyranny, could lead to a radical reconsideration of statehood and legality in early modern England.  Besides, leading Miltonists now argue for an activist temper even in Paradise Regained, placing the poem within the Quaker writings of the period. Patience and spiritual inwardness is not a stoic principle, they argue, but a highly charged political ideal and anticipation of God’s command to wage holy war in a philosophically fallen world.

And yet, John Milton is an insider to power, a deft calculator among the Parliamentarians. There is no gainsaying there. A recent blogger has rightly brought up these prickly questions: “Where was Milton when the Putney debates were taking place? Was he whispering into Ireton’s ear? And when Cromwell decimated the ranks at Burford, what did Milton have to say? And what about Drogheda? Milton was an admirable poet, an Independent and a Republican but was he a friend of the Poor Man? Or the Irish? Or women?” And then, of course, his unflattering pronouncement on sex as a “brutish congress” with “two carcasses chained unnaturally together,”—rather makes him look like a prig, doesn’t it?

Indeed, the period of his beauracratic stint as the Latin secretary is deeply instructive about how a non-idealogically oriented public figure might act in testing times. First the bad news: Milton propses perpetual oligarchy in more than one tract during the anarchic interregnum period of 1658-1660, before Charles II is restored. He commends for his nation the pattern of governance followed by the most uncontrolled oligarchy in Europe, which in some cases even purchased titles from the King of France: The Prince of Orange and his cohorts in the United Provinces. We seem to have come a long way from his radical republican and deliberative refrains. But have we? There are at least two other tracts where he roots for a gathered communion and relentlessly pits greed, covetousness, pettifoggery, spiritual leprosie and simony against an original primitive simplicity in Christianity. He is especially hard on the clergy for exacting money for conducting civil and household contracts: taking money for grave-plots, preaching funereal sermons, marriage and so forth.  So, no hireling clergy, no tithes. It is however quite impossible to speculate and distinguish between his concerns for a pure and simple Christian life, his uncompromising Biblicism and his appeal to the conscience. While his vision is deep and magisterial, it is also blighted by a certain righteousness that we witness in all messianic imagination, especially among the godly ones arguing for a regenerate nation.

But here is an example that blurs easy and fashionable slotting. An upcoming liberal taking sectarian democratic concerns rather seriously, a godly Christian pushing inclusive civic republican ideals, a deft rhetorician and educator who redefines sublimity in the poetic universe.

(Prasanta Chakravarty is the author of Like Parchment in the Fire: Literature and Radicalism in the English Civil War, London & New York: Routledge, 2006).

2 thoughts on “John Milton Takes a Stand? Prasanta Chakravarty”

  1. Quite a remarkable read for a blog. Great to know Kafila is morphing into fresh and varied subjects that have obvious connections to its usual committed commentaries. Please do encourage more such analytical pieces. Prasanta, can you give us a lowdown on the more radical fringes in the tradition that you mention in the passing?

  2. It is a great dilemma for Marxists to accommodate such people in their scheme of things, especially if existential concerns battle with strictly material ones. Your essay catches that dilemma quite well. David Hawkes from Arizona is writing and giving talks these days tracing Milton to usury. That could be an interesting challenge to the position that you take.

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