John Milton’s vision

Theo Hobson
9 December 2008

To honour the English writer John Milton on the 400th anniversary of his birth is to acknowledge his persistent otherness in the country he tried to transform, says Theo Hobson.

There are, according to the received wisdom of our day, two sides to the greatness of John Milton, who was born in London on 9 December 1608. First and foremost he was a great poet (despite being religious). Also, he was a champion of liberty; a key architect of the English-British tradition of liberalism (despite being religious). It is principally the latter assumption that I want to discuss, though I will come back to his literary reputation.Theo Hobson is a theologian and writer. He is the author of Milton's Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty (Continuum, 2008).

His earlier books include Against Establishment: An Anglican Polemic Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004)

Anarchy, Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on the Church (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005)

Also by Theo Hobson in openDemocracy:

"Rowan Williams: sharia furore, Anglican future" (13 February 2007)

"The Anglican vision after Lambeth" (4 August 2008) 

The idea is that he helped to put his country on the path to an enlightened constitution, in which such things as freedom of the press are firmly enshrined. Liberty is "the greatest gift that Britain gave the world", in the words of prime minister Gordon Brown; and John Milton was a founding father of this noble tradition (Brown mentioned Milton in his 25 October 2007 speech about liberty).

This subtly misrepresents what Milton was about. It's a variant of the Whiggish fallacy, that the history of ideas is essentially about how freedom unfolded into its present-day fullness. To call Milton a key figure in British liberalism is like calling Karl Marx a key figure in British political history. True, his thought was influential, but it is far more important to note that the entirety of his vision was shunned, rejected, reacted against. The nation defined itself in opposition to Milton's vision, considered as a whole - and still does. Unless this is acknowledged, he is treated with condescension: he is patted on the back for contributing something really useful to national identity, while his actual thought is ignored.

If we are to honour Milton on his 400th birthday we must clearly recognise the persistence of his otherness - the fact that he cannot be claimed as a noble exemplar of the national soul. The nation chose against him, and still does. 

It is far more accurate to say that Milton was a key founder of the American liberal tradition, than of the British one. This is not just because of his republicanism: even more important to him than republicanism was his aversion to religious establishment. During the interregnum (1649-60) he worried that England's revolution was uncertain until Oliver Cromwell had clearly separated church and state, and instituted an explicitly secular liberal state (which Cromwell never quite did). This was the ideological obsession of Milton's life.

So if Milton were to revisit us today he would not rejoice at the progress of liberty since his death. He would be depressed to see that the country of his birth retains a monarchy, and even more so an established church.

But surely, many will reply, Milton's ghost would acknowledge that liberty has blossomed despite the formal persistence of monarchy and establishment; surely he would have the sense to swallow his republican-disestablishmentarian pride and be glad about it? No. He would not take a pragmatic, "whatever works" view of the persistence of monarchy and establishment. To understand why not, we must speak of his passionate religious motivation (see Milton's Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty [Continuum, 2008]).

A church in freedom

The ideological cause of his life was not simply "liberty" but a specific story about liberty. True political liberty, he believed, was rooted in a common acknowledgment that a new form of Christianity had emerged, by God's grace. This new form of Christianity was not simply "Protestantism", for that word points in various directions, most of them wrong. It was a specific version of Protestantism that was only now coming into being - a politically mature form of Protestantism.

openDemocracy is pleased to offer readers special access to the History Today archive

Discover the history behind this story... >> The Worthy Doctor Fuller M. J. Cohen celebrates the life of Fuller, a pioneering historian and contemporary of Milton, with whom he shares his 400th anniversary. The two men came from similar backgrounds; they disagreed, however, in print and fought on different side during the Civil War. >> Archbishop Laud Milton reacted against some of the religious changes which Archbishop Laud sought to introduce in the lead-up to the Civil War. Kevin Sharpe provides an insight into Laud’s career.

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In his youth, his interest in ideas was secondary to his aestheticism. He was a sort of overgrown choirboy, who had made some stunningly pure poetic noises. He was a proudly Protestant young Englishman, but had not fully confronted the question-mark hanging over this identity. Was the English church properly Protestant? Or was its Protestantism skin-deep, and its latent Catholicism starting to show through? This was the fear of the Puritans, who saw episcopacy as the key marker: the church had to get rid of the bishops to achieve clarity about itself, and move on to a more complete Protestant identity. 

During Milton's student years, Charles I's archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, was reshaping the church. Laud was a passionate Anglo-Catholic and a canny politician (resembling, it might be said, the current archbishop Rowan Williams crossed with New Labour politician Peter Mandelson). Milton withdrew from his expected clerical career. He later said that he had been "church-outed" by this high-church movement. But it was only when he travelled on the continent of Europe that he became committed to the opposition movement. In Italy he saw the global religious picture with new clarity. Catholicism really was an authoritarian creed, using the inquisition to crush dissent. To use a cold-war analogy he looked behind the iron curtain and saw that there was no room for complacency: this was an evil empire. England was meant to be leading the free world - so why was its church taking a backward turn?

Such thoughts were shared by many parliamentarians in England, and shaped the environment that led to civil war. Milton joined the political fray, through writing pamphlets against the bishops. But more importantly he started working out a coherent account of England's religious situation. It wasn't enough to insist that the church should be more "Protestant", for that term was vague. He realised that the Reformation had evaded the whole issue of church-state relations; it allowed for an authoritarian state church. Real religious reform entailed going right back to the time of Constantine, and questioning the idea of a politically empowered church. A truly reformed religious culture would reject the idea of an established church imposing uniformity (see "Milton's vision for Church and State is our answer", Times, 31 October 2008). 

England must espouse this radically liberal version of Protestantism if it is to rise to its vocation, Milton said. It must pioneer a "reforming of the reformation". How? Through creating an explicitly secular polity - secular in the sense of excluding powerful religious institutions.

Against the grain

So was he an early "secular liberal"? Not in the dominant contemporary sense, which assumes that politics should be post-religious. He thought it should be post-ecclesial, but that liberal Protestant Christianity was the necessary foundation of a free society. This must be the national ideology, but it must not be identified with any religious institution. In effect, he was inventing the American approach to church-state relations.

So those who claim him as a secular radical, or a great British liberal, must be sharply told: no, he wanted a constitutional revolution, on Christian grounds. He wanted a revolution in Christian identity, away from church allegiance. The enlightened Christian should affirm the authority of the liberal state.

I consider Milton's thought to be acutely relevant to our contemporary religious and political situation. But it's hard to make this case, partly because it goes against the grain of our assumptions about the meaning of "secular liberalism"; but also because of "part one" of his greatness, his literary reputation. For centuries now, English intellectuals have seen him primarily as a poet, and his thought has been treated with slight embarrassment - whether on Tory, Catholic, atheist or aesthetic grounds. The vast majority of those who now write about Milton are literary critics who are not very interested in his religious thought, except as a theme within his art, almost as important as his misogyny. It's as if Germany had forgotten that Luther was a theologian, and only ever discussed him from a literary perspective.

A recovery of Milton's importance entails challenging two major intellectual habits: the assumption that we already know what "secular liberalism" is, and the post-Romantic assumption that literature is a sort of holy realm, from which dirty ideas should be excluded. Most of the "honouring" of Milton that's now going on just expresses these habits. Instead, Milton ought to be celebrated as England's greatest religious thinker, and one of the truly great Protestants, who points beyond the arid opposition of "religious" and "secular" and invites fresh thinking about both.

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