Milton: A republican and a christian - Discuss

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Milton: A republican and a christian - Discuss

Milton is well known as an epic poet, but also as a prominent member of the Protestant faith and he has often been labelled as a Puritan. In this essay I will attempt to explore the nature of Milton's Christianity and his personal beliefs and inner conflicts, looking for evidence particularly at Paradise Lost but also at other more minor poems. Parallells and disparities between Milton's views and other movements within the society of the day will also be considered.

John Milton was also renowned as a close ally of Cromwell and a prominent exponent of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century. Indeed, after the Restoration his life was for some time in peril and even after he escaped alive, he had to retire completely from public life; such was the perceived threat he represented. The main purpose of this essay will, therefore, be to examine how Milton's stance as a Christian and his position as a staunch Republican were related and how one effected the other.

Milton despised what he saw as the ornamentation and purely selfish aims of the Cavaliers and the Anglican Church. He defended the right of ordinary citizens to rid themselves of tyrants when inferior magistrates had failed to do so in The Tenure of Kinqs and Magistrates (1649) and by so doing, positioned himself very clearly as a supporter of the recent execution of Charles I, and of the Army which had purged Parliament the year before to prevent a treaty

being reached with the King, possibly reinstating him on more favourable terms. This was the general wish of the majority of the Presbyterian members of Parliament but the more radical Army wanted to execute Charles to ensure they retained the increased power they had recently gained and to prevent a return to the past. Milton had to quickly decide which side he supported and defend his position. He made it clear he was behind the Army in the strongest possible terms and condemned the hypocrisy of the Presbyterians who were now backing out by repeated allusions to a speech in Shakespeare's Macbeth: And be these juggling fiends no more believ'd, That palter with us in a double sense; That keep the word of promise to our ears, And break it to our hope.(V.9.19-22) Milton claimed that the Presbyterians had 'juggl'd and palter'd with the world' and spoken 'with a double contradictory sense'(pp.4-6). He went on in The Tenure of Kinqs and Maqistrates to defend the right of the people to depose and punish an unjust King by means of using, as he announces on three occasions (pp.8,10,23,) specifically Presbyterian and Scottish sources to emphasise that: They were the men themselves that deposd the King,and cannot with all their shifting and relapsing, wash off the guiltiness from their own hands.(pg.26)

More importantly for our understanding of Milton's spiritual beliefs this position also assumes that the people have the right to decide that he is an unjust King in the first place, but we will return to this later. His efforts brought him to the attention of Cromwell's government and after the execution of Charles I he was appointed Minister for Foreign Tongues. His position in the government gave him an even more prominent position from which to expound his beliefs. He went on to defend his position by means of a complex argument citing Scripture as evidence of the justness of what had been done. The point of using, where possible, only Scottish and Presbyterian sources in his defence of the execution of the King was to remind the Presbyterians that the theory of resistance they had espoused at the beginning of the Civil War owed much to their own predecessors of the sixteenth century, George Buchanan and John Knox, whose work the Presbyterians could not dismiss but whose radicalism was now likely to embarrass them. However, this was complicated because rather than disowning their radical heritage the Presbyterians had actually inverted it to, they believed, further support their position. In order to do this they made the distinction between inferior magistrate and private person which was orthodox in Lutheran and Calvinist tracts on resistance. An inferior magistrate was deemed to be legitimate in taking action against a tyrannical ruler, but a private person was never justified in doing the same. Since the Army was raised by Parliament and was therefore only the agent of the inferior magistrate, it lacked any magisterial authority and was, according to their argument, no more than an assembly of private persons. It followed that the Army's action of purging Parliament (Pride's Purge, 6th December 1648,) leaving the so called Rump which was sympathetic to their aims, was inherently unlawful. Milton had to challenge this line of argument if he were to succeed in defending the army's actions as legitimate. Therefore, he devotes a whole section of The Tenure (pp.16-23) to challenging the assertion that it is always unlawful for private persons to seize the political initiative. He does this in a somewhat novel manner, however. Rather than confronting the issue and disputing it categorically, he undermines it at a weak point.

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Knox had, whilst upholding the distinction between inferior magistrates and private persons, reluctantly allowed that there were certain circumstances in which the private person could be justified in acting against a tyrant. He and his sixteenth century counterparts usually opened this kind of discussion with the traditional distinction between two types of tyrant. These were defined as the tyrant by practice (such as Charles I) and the tyrant by usurpation (the tyrant without title.) In the first case, they upheld the traditional position of only the inferior magistrate being legitimate in taking action, but in the second case they allowed ...

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