After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of John Milton.
Life and Works of John Milton:
John Milton was born in 1608. Milton’s grandfather was a Roman Catholic, but his father embraced the Church of England. This made his grandfather angry and deprived him of property.
Milton was an extraordinary meritorious student. At an early age he was sent to school and at the age of 16 he was sent to Oxford and then to Cambridge.
Thus John Milton got the opportunity to have the best of education of the two leading universities. He obtained his M. A. degree and decided to devote his life and energy to the cultivation of intellect. Though Milton was reared in an orthodox atmosphere he had very little interest in religion.
At the age of twenty-nine he went out for a long tour of continental Europe. After two years he returned to England to find his native land completely plunged in civil war which moved his mind and thought remarkably.
John Milton was a strong supporter of Parliamentary system and very often advocated it. At the initial stages of the Puritan Revolution Milton did not take any side and he tried to maintain his neutrality. But the course of events prevailed upon him who forced him to give up the political neutrality and he joined the Puritan side.
John Milton began his political career and wrote several pamphlets and books on politics. At the age of thirty-two he was appointed a secretary to the council of state for the Commonwealth which he held till he was 52. During these twenty years he made very little contribution to intellectual product. His “poetic output shrank like a stream in a drought-smitten land”.
The people of English speaking world primarily know him as a man of poetic genius. He generally expressed his political views and ideas through literature and due to this people know him as a great personality of literary world.
His most memorable work on politics is Areopagitica. It was published in 1644. In this book he defended the freedom of publication.
It is to be noted here that John Milton said nothing new in this book. But his mode of expression and assertion drew the attention of the then society. This book contains the classic argument for freedom of speech and this can be compared with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
It is said that his Areopagitica was written in the background of ordinance promulgated in 1643 whose purpose was to impose restrictions upon various freedoms including freedom of speech.
This order failed to receive his support. Rather, he strongly opposed. When he was in service his another important work Tenure of Kings and Magistrates was published. Here Milton defended the execution of Charles. He also wrote several books on republican ideas.
Political Ideas of John Milton:
The importance of John Milton in the history of Western political thought lies in the coherence of political thoughts and views. Maxey says “In Milton’s political writings there were little that was original and novel, but his ideas were the outgrowth of a consistent philosophy of liberty and were fused into a potent body of thought. The major premise of his libertarian doctrine was the ancient postulate of natural freedom and natural rights.”
In the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates he has argued that all human beings are by nature born-free and are endowed with the reason and the right to work on their own accord. That is, reason and spontaneity are the chief traits of human character and no authority can curb this.
Peoples have formed government for their own benefit, that is defence. And the foundation of the government should be mutual understanding between the ruler and his subjects.
People must have the right to select their rulers or which may be called magistrates. This indicates that Milton was in favour of people’s democracy and he had no faith on conventional form of democracy.
From the above it transpires that, according to John Milton, the powers of the kings and magistrates are derived from the people and not from God. In his own words— “The power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what only is derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people to the common good of all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their natural birth-right.” Every man has the right to defend and also to preserve himself.
The public authority is created by the people unitedly for this purpose. Hence the kings and magistrates derive their power from them, they are not their lords and masters, but to be their deputies and commissioners, to execute, by virtue of their entrusted power, the justice.
The kings and magistrates have, therefore, no indefeasible rights but are accountable to the people and they can remove them from offices when they think fit. Milton further argues that the king has the right to his crown and dignity.
If anybody deprives him of that right he must protest or resist. Similarly, every individual in the Commonwealth has certain birth-rights to which he is entitled and any deprivation will lead to resistance.
In Milton’s republican thought the king, magistrates and mass are on the same plane. The implication of this contention of Milton is that king’s right ends only in claiming the crown and monarchical status, but he cannot claim to have prerogative or arbitrary power. He was, in other words, supporter of limited monarchy.
John Milton has also emphasized the importance of law. The kings and magistrates may be perverted, that is, they may adopt tyrannical methods which will go against the interests of men.
As an antidote to this misuse of power Milton prescribed the prevalence of the administration of law which subsequently came to be known as rule of law. The rules must be framed or consented to by all to limit the actions of the governors.
They are not above laws and cannot violate them. That is, their actions are limited by the laws. By making law the supreme authority in the Commonwealth Milton has ruled out the importance of divine right theory.
To say that the kings are only accountable to God is overturning all laws and government.
“For if they may refuse to give account, then all covenants made with them at coronation, all oaths are in vain, and mere mockeries; all laws which they swear to keep made to no purpose.”
So the kings are bound by laws and oaths given at the time of coronation. What John Milton emphasizes is that law is the determiner of everything and none is above law or outside the purview of law. This indicates the progressiveness of Milton’s.
Milton’s political philosophy is the clear manifestation of popular sovereignty and individualism. John Milton had no interest in the form or type of government. His main interest centred on popular sovereignty.
He recognized and emphasized people’s right to dislodge any government which clearly fails to serve the cause of society as a whole. Like Hobbes and Rousseau, Milton did not elaborate the concept of sovereignty, but the spirit of his analysis reveals that popular sovereignty was of prime importance to him.
He vindicated people’s right everywhere. His idea of liberty also convinces us that he was radical minded and this idea, in the background of his time, is highly attractive. Dunning says “Milton is the earliest great prophet of that individualism which came to be almost a philosophic fetish in the nineteenth century. It is, however, the foundation and not the content of his doctrine that suggests the recent system of laissez faire”.
He advocated individual’s freedom in economic affairs and he was against governmental interference. John Milton was not only a great prophet of individualism but also of liberal philosophy which was subsequently developed by number of thinkers.
From his concept of liberty and individualism can be deduced his attitude to religion and church-state relation. The Protestant principle that every individual had the right to interpret the Scripture in his own way was accepted by Milton.
Church had no right or power to impose its own religious principles or faith upon men. Its main concern was only with the ethical acts and state’s concern was with outward acts. Both should try to confine each within its own sphere. He treated church and the state as two different institutions.
Milton’s political philosophy is a curious mixture of contradictory views. He was a supporter of democracy and popular sovereignty. But at the same time he was in favour of the “best men” who would rule and hold office for life.
He had little faith on the electorate. Like Plato and Aristotle he was of opinion that common people were not capable of shouldering the responsibility of managing the administration of the state. If man were not capable of taking the responsibility of administration how could they enjoy liberty?
Sabine’s comment in this respect is quite pertinent; “He wholly failed to see that individual liberty is an impracticable ideal if men are unfit to be trusted with a voice in government. Like all who idealize the early stages of revolution as a new birth of civilization, he was ill-prepared to face the realities of its last stage”.