Milton and the Radicals

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John Hale writes…

During his recent U3A lecture series on radical religion 1640-1660, Andrew Bradstock asked me about John Milton’s relationship, if any, with the radicals, and notably the Quakers. He said, “Was he, as Christopher Hill famously maintained, carrying on a dialogue with them, sharing their intellectual convictions but held back from commitment by ‘patrician social prejudices’?”

Our exchange came at a time when I had finished editing Milton’s Christian Doctrine for Oxford Complete Works of John Milton: does this position me to comment on what he believed, and how and why? Anyhow, I want to get out from the trees and think about the wood, and relate both to wider terrains, from a rare and relevant perspective.

Yes, Milton knew Quakers, as friends and benefactors in his blindness. And at points in De Doctrina he comes within an ace of naming them. But his ideas about interpreting scripture by the light of the spirit only sound like the Quakers’ inner light until we see that he get them from scripture itself (Book 1, Chapter 30), from which everything he believes in must come, by his announced programme (see Epistle).

Similarly he agrees with the Independents on the nature of the church: it is the gathering of local believers, just as the church of Corinth or Thessalonica was for Paul. This, or rather these, “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17: 6; this is about conversion, so Hill’s title is metaphor). So with infant baptism: with the Baptists, he is against it because scripture tells (mainly of the baptizing of believing adults. He finds the biblical evidence insufficient to establish that worship should emphasize Sunday: on this he exceeds the Quakers in informality. Paul explicitly refused to be paid: a paid clergy is therefore unbiblical anathema.

Why, then, would Milton join any one of these groups which stress some single feature of the early church, when he is driving towards reform which recovers all of the early churches’ observances? He is eager, rather, to strip away from worship — and conduct too — whatever does not get scriptural warrant. The civil power shall have no standing in church matters. Implicit faith has no standing. “Bishop” and “presbyter” are general terms or functions, nothing to do with orders and ordination. No paid clergy and no tithe. And so on.

To my mind, negatives are many, and clearer than positives. They include what offends him in England’s church and state relations, and what (without offence, just a negative negative) is simply not there in scripture. Milton does not advocate political action, beyond insisting that curbs on freedom of worship are abominable. Masters and property owners keep that standing: just as slaves remain slaves for Paul (and are not to get above themselves because of the faith), so servants, or usury, or inequalities of wealth stay put.

It’s true he owned property, which might be termed having “social prejudices” in favour of ownership, but most people did and do. His beliefs follow the pastoral Paul. This is bound to disappoint any modern radical for whom it is social–not religious–equality which makes a radical; but that is not how Milton sought to be “radical.” Milton has no programme for “having all thing in common” [Acts 2: 43-4 and 4: 32]. He doesn’t cite those verses in De Doctrina, an absence which may or may not be a significant negative.

Negatives of another kind throw more light on his belief-system. Going outside De Doctrina for a moment, I find in his other writings two great rejections, based on bitter experience. He had had a bellyful of the bishops, and of Laudian regulation in particular (coerced changes in worship, changes which gave double offence, aggravated further by an apparatus of snoops and informers to aid the coercion). And Presbytery in turn disappointed him, when it (nearly) got its hands on the levers. In the same way that elections now put into office any group which is not the one which has been abusing office (improbable coalitions preferred to jack-in- office-too-long), Milton wanted to avoid repetitions of the old order in church and state. How often we know best what we don’t want. Once bitten, twice shy.

Monarch and bishops and tithes and regulation all came back in 1660. The regime almost took his life, and compelled him into silence (and stopped publication of De Doctrina, twice over). But for our questions here, he did not budge in the negatives of experience, conviction, and — for De Doctrina — method of finding out truth.

It seems inexact, therefore, to think of Milton as “patrician.” He was not of the ruling class by origin. His father was a self-made man. Milton was not so much an “intellectual” as a zealot. His commitment was to a method. He may look “eclectic,” another term used by Hill. However, reliance “on scripture alone” will tend to take you in more than one direction, just as the mid-century paralleling of England with ancient Israel did.

Why would he be a joiner? His unnerving, doctrinaire adherence to consistency (not to mention his confident sense of vocation, and the isolation of blindness) overrode the priorities of other radicals. He seems less, not more, eclectic than they do.

I don’t fully accept Hill’s idea of Milton as an “intellectual” on these subjects. Certainly he had strong views, and availed himself of print and the cessation of censorship to write book about them. In De Doctrina, however, he reads more like a conscientious and well-organized believer, in whom strong views break out from time to time under pressure. There is something home-grown, and endearingly personal about this compilation.

If so, that could encourage a return to the older question, of the relation between De Doctrina and Paradise Lost. Do they conflict or say the same? Can one be used to gloss the other? My hunch, after long immersion, is that both works took a long time to evolve into the forms in which they are now read. That they overlapped, so that their relations shift from one topic to another. (The poem doesn’t deal in topics, but the treatise indeed does, and the MS exposes some shifts of position.) The relations between the two masterworks are asymmetrical. Closer attention is needed to growth within Milton’s thinking. Though it would be easy to get that wrong in detail, and to lapse from objectivity, some progress can be made, with the help of a new transcription of the MS and a linguistic attention to Milton’s own (Latin) words.

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