This article will feature in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019)
Today, freedom of speech and action is seen as being central to western democracy. Yet, despite being one of the chief architects of the arguments for free speech and free will, and debating the importance of these issues for much of his career, John Milton remains an obscure historical figure. His martyrdom and labours to secure our freedoms have been reduced to vaguely-remembered and tedious secondary school English classes on extracts from a dusty old poem about Adam and Eve.
The tragedy of Milton’s his life lies in his blindness: after his vision had failed him, Milton was forced to witness, without sight, the political system, which he had spent his life toiling to inaugurate, collapse. Moreover, the poet was forced to live the final twelve years of his life in public disgrace and virtual exile, crafting some of the finest poetry of the English language in a forgotten, plague-ridden corner of London, where the blackened bodies of the plague’s victims piled in the streets.
The three triumphing works of Milton’s poetic career, Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671), all declare a theodicy which seeks to, “assert eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men,” (Paradise Lost, 1.25-6) while insisting on the Divine significance of Man’s endowment with free will. Milton’s Protestant theology, and his defence of free will, is ubiquitous throughout his works. Paradise Lost finds its origins in Milton’s demand for freedom of speech in Areopagitica (1644).
Areopagiticia constructs a narrative of intellectual liberty which illustrates the Fall of Man as a tragic example of personal culpability. The text championed the defence of choice: “when God gave [Man] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing”. Produced during the English Revolution (1642-51), Aeropagiticia was instrumental to arguments against state legislature, censorship, and regulation. Arguing that censorship denies intellectual liberty to the public, Milton puts forward, in Areopagitica, an idea that was revolutionary to his Renaissance society: free speech is a fundamental human right.
Just six weeks after the commencement of the English Interregnum – between reigns – period, Milton sought to justify the regicide of Charles I in his publication of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649). The text argues that, not only do the public possess the right to depose tyrannical sovereign regimes that are exerting cruel or unjust dominion over the people, but that they also have the right to execute that tyrannical sovereign.
Although problematically brutal in its proposed solutions for deposing a sovereign, Milton’s unwavering Protestant faith clearly supports his political beliefs in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. “The right of choosing,” Milton writes, “yea of changing their own government is by the grant of God Himself in the people.” Democracy, for Milton, was not simply a human right, but a divine gift from God; to deny the people that gift was to transgress against God Himself.
Thanks to the anti-monarchical and republican writings of his career, during the republican regime, which replaced the monarchy during the Interregnum, Milton was appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State. Persevering with notions radical to the society of Renaissance England, such as the discreditation of the divine right of kings, democratic rule, and freedom of speech, Milton supported the government as its chief propagandist and penmen of diplomatic letters.
By 1660 Milton had suffered the total and permanent loss of his sight but he continued his work in the office of Secretary of Foreign Tongues. With the possibility of the Restoration of the monarchy looming, Milton published The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth to warn of the dangers of tyranny that he believed to be innate in monarchical systems of government. Yet, the Declaration of Breda – a proclamation issued less than two months later by Charles II from his exile in the Netherlands – offered assurances of pardon and personal property retention which reassured people about the risks which Milton warned of.
Almost immediately after their receipt of the Declaration of Breda, Parliament extended a formal invitation to Charles II, imploring him to return to London and assume the throne. Milton, devastated by the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and having spent much of his career passionately defending the regicide of Charles’s II father, fled into hiding and suffered subsequent capture and imprisonment.
Eventually pardoned for his anti-monarchical writings and actions during the Interregnum period, Milton nonetheless suffered public disgrace and the burning of his books by royal proclamation. The republic, carefully constructed upon the ideology of free speech, appeared to be dead.
Retiring quietly into exile in one of London’s darkest and most overlooked corners, Milton, through the texts of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, depicted the history of Man as a cyclic series of tragedies, consequential to our endowment with free will. With, “no light, but rather darkness visible,” (Paradise Lost, 1.63) Milton concludes his career by dictating epic poetry through his blindness which, to this day, retains an enduring capacity to trigger thought about the limits of power and the prerogatives and privileges of free will.
Notwithstanding the literary achievements of Milton’s poetry, the current constitutional monarchy of England, with its limitations on Royal Prerogative powers, may never have been established or discussed without Milton. Moreover, the freedom of speech which today’s society take as a given right of existence, is a freedom that was fundamentally constructed from Milton’s arguments Aeropagiticia.