Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Milton. Paradise Lost.

John Milton defended not only the overthrow, but also the execution of Charles I in his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. In the second edition of TKM, Milton marshals a variety of oddly misrepresented Protestant authorities to bolster his case. Protestant Christians--from Luther, to Calvin, to such contemporary English Presbyterian figures as Stephen Marshall--had long argued over what rights magistrates (but not the common people) had to take up arms against a king. The crux of the argument is this: Who may resist a king, and under what circumstances? In summary terms, the conclusions of the above-mentioned figures are these: so-called "private-persons" may themselves take no action whatsoever against either a king, a prince, or an inferior magistrate; these magistrates and/or princes may resist, and may even depose, a king or other superior ruler, if that ruler is behaving in a grossly unjust and violent way toward his subjects.

Milton puts many of these very same arguments in the mouth of his Satan. Satan uses the Protestant rhetoric of legitimate rebellion by "princes" or "inferior magistrates" against a king and transforms it into a rallying cry for the overthrow of God himself. Satan continually refers to his compatriots as "Princes," as "Powers," as "Potentates." Even the poem's narrator gets in on the act: in referring to Mammon in his pre-fall role as Heaven's architect, the narrator gives readers an image of "Scepter'd Angels" who viewed "many a Tow'red structure high," angels who "sat as Princes, whom the supreme King / Exalted to such power, and gave to rule, / Each in his hierarchy, the Orders bright" (I. 733-737). The political structure of Heaven itself is drawn on a model of a King and his princely magistrates, the very magistrates by whom, according to the above-mentioned Protestant thinkers, resistance, rebellion, and overthrow could be carried out under the right circumstances.

In making Satan the mouthpiece for Protestant theories of rebellion that spell out the "proper" relation of the individual Christian to secular authority, Milton critiques not only the theories themselves (which tended to uphold secular tyranny so long as it was decent enough to refrain from intruding into the realm of Christian religion), but also the notions of magistracy and kingship contained therein. Milton wants to take the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Marshall into much more radical territory than those men were willing to enter. According to these men, the power of princes is from God. Satan goes even further, implying that the power of (heavenly) princes is "self-begot, self-rais'd," before he finally claims, of himself and his fellow princes, that "Our puissance is our own" (V. 860, 864). Milton comes dangerously close to making the same claim for the people. For Milton, the people, in the sense of "private persons," do not need a representative body of magistrates to rid them of a tyrannical king. The people may rid themselves of such a king directly, because, according to Milton in TKM, "the power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what is . . . committed to them in trust from the people" (755). In his Defense of the People of England, Milton writes that "kings . . . receive their kingship from the people alone, to whom they are bound to be accountable" (93). True, Milton is careful to include God in this theory of power, writing that "all human power . . . be of God" (TKM 754), and that the "right of the people . . . is from God" (Defense 94), but this making of the vox populi into an image of, or conduit for, the vox dei, tends, paradoxically, to threaten God with erasure. If the people may with this power appoint and depose kings and princes on earth, why may they not also turn this power against heaven? In arguing that the power of a king or a magistrate comes from, and may be revoked by, the people ruled by that same king or magistrate, while consistently portraying God himself as a king, Milton stakes out a position that not only disavows the political "Protestantism" of his Satan, but also threatens to undermine the authority of his God.

The Tyranny of Heaven
Milton's Rejection of God as King

Michael Bryson
(U. Delaware Press, 2004)

 

Queen Elizabeth created the Anglican Church to keep at bay, not just the Roman Catholics, but the radical Protestants. At the extremes, Protestantism was extremely dangerous politically largely because of its extreme insistence on individualism. It takes no great leap of imagination to see that once one has overthrown the authority of the Church in religious matters, one can easily move to wanting to overthrow the authority of the traditional political hierarchies in political matters. And so radical Protestantism spawned a number of highly charged, fiercely democratic, egalitarian, and often communal sects--the Anabaptists, the Fifth Monarchy Men, the Diggers, the Baptists, and so on. These often enjoyed strong popular support and were constantly getting in trouble with the authorities, who were only too happy to break with Rome but who wanted no such manifestations of religious individualism creeping into political life. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Methodists were the largest body of organized opinion in England, and the authorities were rightly alarmed at the enthusiastic following the Methodist preachers attracted. A really significant point in English political history is that the Methodists had no radical political agenda (although the authorities were not sure about that); if they had been as revolutionary as some of their Protestant brethren, the French Revolution might well have caught fire in England. Even Cromwell, the leader of the Protestant revolution in England, treated the radical fringe of the Protestant movement very sternly (although he used their energies to win his battles). Cromwell might be a Protestant, but he was also a gentleman and a landowner, and he had little patience with the extreme democratic yearnings of many of his followers.

Between the Anglicans and the radical Protestants stood a very significant group generally called the Puritans (the non-Anglican Protestants were commonly called the Dissenters). This group was particularly prominent among the business classes, largely because (it has been argued) their version of Protestantism saw success in business (i.e., making money) as one sign of God's favour. The Puritans were, in general, law abiding, but often hostile to the traditional structure of authority based on titles and land ownership. They welcomed reform and innovations in science and business. In effect, they formed a powerful nucleus for what was to become the Whig (or Liberal) party in the eighteenth century. The traditional authorities viewed them with suspicion and banned them from higher education and many professions (e.g., medicine). Puritans were, especially in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, harassed and discriminated against. The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower were Puritans who felt so persecuted in England that they wanted to put the Atlantic Ocean between them and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Puritans went on to create one of the most formidable wealth generating groups the world has ever seen, the early capitalists. Because their faith demanded untiring efforts in work, sanctioned profit making as a sign of one's spiritual success, and yet denied the religious person the right to spend the profit on himself, the Puritans created astonishingly successful business men, who worked constantly and reinvested all their amazing profits into the business, adapting themselves quickly to accelerating changes in technology and always emphasizing the importance of practical education. These are the people who had more to do with the successful exportation of English culture to North America than anything else, and they were absolutely decisive in the development of Canada as a nation. For a powerful sense of the union between Puritan faith and money, you cannot do better than read the great classic by Defoe, Robinson Crusoe.

Queen Elizabeth created the Anglican Church to keep at bay, not just the Roman Catholics, but the radical Protestants. At the extremes, Protestantism was extremely dangerous politically largely because of its extreme insistence on individualism. It takes no great leap of imagination to see that once one has overthrown the authority of the Church in religious matters, one can easily move to wanting to overthrow the authority of the traditional political hierarchies in political matters. And so radical Protestantism spawned a number of highly charged, fiercely democratic, egalitarian, and often communal sects--the Anabaptists, the Fifth Monarchy Men, the Diggers, the Baptists, and so on. These often enjoyed strong popular support and were constantly getting in trouble with the authorities, who were only too happy to break with Rome but who wanted no such manifestations of religious individualism creeping into political life. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Methodists were the largest body of organized opinion in England, and the authorities were rightly alarmed at the enthusiastic following the Methodist preachers attracted. A really significant point in English political history is that the Methodists had no radical political agenda (although the authorities were not sure about that); if they had been as revolutionary as some of their Protestant brethren, the French Revolution might well have caught fire in England. Even Cromwell, the leader of the Protestant revolution in England, treated the radical fringe of the Protestant movement very sternly (although he used their energies to win his battles). Cromwell might be a Protestant, but he was also a gentleman and a landowner, and he had little patience with the extreme democratic yearnings of many of his followers.

Between the Anglicans and the radical Protestants stood a very significant group generally called the Puritans (the non-Anglican Protestants were commonly called the Dissenters). This group was particularly prominent among the business classes, largely because (it has been argued) their version of Protestantism saw success in business (i.e., making money) as one sign of God's favour. The Puritans were, in general, law abiding, but often hostile to the traditional structure of authority based on titles and land ownership. They welcomed reform and innovations in science and business. In effect, they formed a powerful nucleus for what was to become the Whig (or Liberal) party in the eighteenth century. The traditional authorities viewed them with suspicion and banned them from higher education and many professions (e.g., medicine). Puritans were, especially in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, harassed and discriminated against. The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower were Puritans who felt so persecuted in England that they wanted to put the Atlantic Ocean between them and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Puritans went on to create one of the most formidable wealth generating groups the world has ever seen, the early capitalists. Because their faith demanded untiring efforts in work, sanctioned profit making as a sign of one's spiritual success, and yet denied the religious person the right to spend the profit on himself, the Puritans created astonishingly successful business men, who worked constantly and reinvested all their amazing profits into the business, adapting themselves quickly to accelerating changes in technology and always emphasizing the importance of practical education. These are the people who had more to do with the successful exportation of English culture to North America than anything else, and they were absolutely decisive in the development of Canada as a nation. For a powerful sense of the union between Puritan faith and money, you cannot do better than read the great classic by Defoe, Robinson Crusoe.

TS Eliot : The most important fact about Milton, for my purpose, is his blindness. . . . Had Milton been a man of very keen senses--I mean of all the five senses--his blindness would not have mattered so much. But for a man whose sensuousness, such as it was, had been withered early by book learning, and whose gifts were naturally aural, it mattered a great deal. . . . Milton's images do not give this sense of particularity, nor are the separate words developed in significance. His language is . . . artificial and conventional. . . . Thus it is not so unfair, as it might at first appear, to say that Milton writes English like a dead language. . . . To extract everything possible from Paradise Lost, it would seem necessary to read it in two different ways, first solely for the sound, and second for the sense.

W. Blake : The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it. (Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

P.B. Shelley: Milton has so far violated the popular creed (if this shall be judged to be a violation) as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his god over his devil. And this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton's genius. (Defence of Poetry)

**************************************

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost: the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?

It is no accident that when Winston Churchill was looking for something to rally the British people after the military disaster of Dunkirk, he used these lines on the radio. There is nothing in English literature to match the heroic determination, power, courage, and energy manifested here and throughout Satan's early speeches.

 



09/10/2009
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