Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Milton Resists the Restoration

In Search of the Republic--20

After a turbulent 20 year experiment with republican government, England slowly staggered its way back to monarchy. Republican polemicist John Milton, now blind, wrote a last defense of the republic and warned against the return to monarchy. In The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1659), he  described his vision of the ideal republic. Moreover, he introduced a model for virtue that differed from the classical aristocratic notions of virtue. This other concept of virtue gradually supplanted the older classical virtue as republics supplanted monarchies.

Milton opens by reminding his readers of the struggles of the 1640s, when the people threw off monarchy. "The Parliament of England," he writes,

"assisted by a great number of the people who appeared and stuck to them faithfullest in defence of religion and their civil liberties, judging kingship by long experience a government burdensome, expensive, useless, and  dangerous, justly and magnanimously abolished it."

After the overthrow of Charles I, the Parliament disregarded tradition and the ancient constitution. Instead, bound by "the law of nature only, which is the only law of laws truly and properly to all mankind fundamental," established the commonwealth.

He warns his readers that if England returns to monarch, they will "soon repent" of it when they gradually see "the old encroachments" on their religious consciences which "necessarily proceed from the king and bishop united inseparably in one interest."

He reminds them of the "haughty court" that will emerge with a restoration, the "vast expense and luxury" that will burden the people, and the claim of "hereditary right over them as their Lord" that will soon be asserted.

Instead of depending on a monarchy and an aristocratic court with its classical pretended virtues of leisure, wealth, and refinement, Milton asserts that his readers that they "need depend on none but God and our own counsels, our own active virtue and industry. He quotes the Biblical Solomon:

"Go to the ant, thou sluggard, saith Solomon, and consider her ways and be wise, which having no prince, ruler, or lord, provides her meat in the summer, and gathers here food in the harvest."

According to Milton, this passage uphold the ant as an example of

"frugal and self-governing democratic or commonwealth, safer and more thriving in the joint providence and counsel of may industrious equals, than under the single domination of one imperious Lord."

This important passage contrasts the virtue of equal, hardworking citizens with the classical  virtue of a  hierarchy of well-born and  leisured aristocrats who disdained work.

Milton then describes his vision for the ideal republic. He deviates from the traditional republican ideal of a mixed government in which some kind of aristocracy is represented in one lawmaking assembly and the people are represented in another. Milton argues for a single legislative body, not filled with a hereditary aristocracy, but with representatives elected by the people. Echoing James Harrington's notion of a "natural aristocracy"  of merit, Milton asserts that this body should contain the "ablest men." A natural aristocracy of merit is to be preferred to a hereditary aristocracy based upon birth. But in contrast to Harrington's position on rotation in office, Milton suggested that these legislators serve for life. Milton obviously disapproved of what he called the "successive and transitory parliaments" that plague the English commonwealth.

He judged that such a Senate of principled men would better protect the liberty of the people than an "licentious and unbridled democracy." He divided liberties into two types: civil and spiritual.

Civil liberties consists

 "in the civil rights and advancements of every person according to his merit; the enjoyment of those never more certain and the access to these never more open, than in a free Commonwealth."

Spiritual liberty consists

"in the liberty to serve God and to save his own soul, according to the best light which God hath planted in him to that purpose, by the reading of his revealed will and the guidance of his holy spirit."

Consequently, Milton supported freedom of conscience in matters of faith.

Both civil freedom and religious freedom are threatened by monarchy, a hereditary aristocracy, and a state supported episcopacy.

Milton's warning went unheeded, however, and in 1660. England restored the Stuart dynasty to the throne.

Only a free commonwealth insured a government of laws and not of men.






John Milton


1 comment:

PT Bohan said...

V.L., I am enjoying your history lessons and appreciate you dropping by my place. I just watched your video on Thanksgiving and "property rights". Funny and very true.