Stephen B. Dobranski and John P. Rumrich, eds. Milton and Heresy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. x+272pp. ISBN 0 521 63065 7.

William Walker
University of New South Wales

Walker, William. "Review of Stephen P. Dobranski and John P. Rumrich, eds., Milton and Heresy." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 15.1-6 <URL:>.

  1. Although the editors of this volume claim that their intention is "not to begin establishing a new orthodoxy within Milton studies,"(16) they make clear in their introduction that in presenting these twelve essays they aim, first, to reassert that Milton is the author of De doctrina Christiana (and so to discredit William Hunter who argues he may not be). Second, they understand these essays to show that Milton is not, as critics such as C. S. Lewis and Stanley Fish claim, "a poet of the timeless verities of Christianity" (3), but is a heretical theologian and poet. Finally, because earlier scholars, such as William Empson and Maurice Kelley, have made many of these claims but have been muted by the "persistent desire to present Milton as an orthodox Christian" (12), the editors aim to give credit where credit has not been given, but is due.

  2. Some of the essays in the volume do indeed support this agenda. Though, in "Milton's Antiprelatical Tracts and the Marginality of Doctrine," Thomas Corns observes that Milton in these tracts takes issue not with Laudian doctrine but with Laudian practice and discipline, he speculates that this is because in the early 1640s, Milton "probably had notions too distinctively Arminian for him to center his critique of episcopalianism in doctrine" (44). That is to say, Milton at this time had notions that would have been deemed as heretical by the Calvinist theology of the ascendant Presbyterian Puritans. It is mainly because of this commitment to Arminianism (which is also emerging in Comus and explicit in Paradise Lost), and his view that sectarian beliefs cannot harm English Protestantism, that in the reformed church for which Milton argues at this time, "belief is to be left substantially free and beyond prescription" (48). In "Milton's Arianism: why it matters," Rumrich observes that early readers of Paradise Lost suspected it of denying the Trinity, and effectively cites Maurice Kelly and Michael Bauman as well as the texts themselves to support his argument that Arianism features in both De doctrina Christiana and the epic. Moreover, the fact that Christ derives from God's substance means not, as Hunter claims, that Christ is in some sense unbegotten and part of God, but simply that Milton was also a "monist materialist" (83) who believed that everything is part of one first matter. In "'Elect above the rest': theology as self-representation in Milton," Stephen Fallon argues for Milton's authorship of De doctrina Christiana, but for the reasons that in both this treatise and the epic Milton is justifying himself, and that in both works there is a conflict between Calvinist and Arminian positions on predestination, one which is resolved in the treatise but not in the poem. Fallon makes his point in relation to Paradise Lost by observing that in his speech in Book III on those "elect above the rest" (III, 183-201), God begins as a Calvinist but ends as an Arminian. Fallon thus confirms Christopher Hill's observation in Milton and the English Revolution that Milton's "Calvinist lines" on those elect above the rest are "sandwiched between two unequivocally 'Arminian' passages" (276). Finally, in "Milton's kisses," William Kerrigan, after surveying how several Renaissance lyric poets describe kissing, observes how Milton's description of Adam kissing Eve in Book IV of Paradise Lost is part of a general project to celebrate carnal pleasure as a dimension of breeding within marriage. But the description of these "kisses pure" is also an indication of Milton's commitment to a monistic ontology or "animate materialism," one implication of which is that "carnal pleasure can be gradually refined into heavenly love" (118). These essays thus forcefully confirm the views of Kelley and others that Milton is the author of De doctrina Christiana, which, along with Paradise Lost, espouses Arianism, Arminianism, and monism.

  3. Because the rest of the essays in the volume are not about heresy in the sense of unorthodox religious belief but in the sense of "dissent from modern critical orthodoxies" (1), they support not a particular view of Milton's heresies, but what the editors in their introduction identify as the view that "Milton as poet, thinker, and public servant shunned reliance on set beliefs and regarded indeterminacy and uncertainty as fundamental to human existence" (12). Thus, in the opening essay, "Milton on heresy," Janel Mueller shows how, throughout the prose, Milton uses the word "heresy" in both the Greek and late antique Jewish sense of personal and principled choice and the latter Pauline sense of a mistaken choice resulting in division of the true church. It is in relation to these two distinct usages that Mueller carefully explicates Milton's often paradoxical statements on the subject, such as the claim in Areopagitica that a man may be a heretic in the truth, and the claim in Of Civil Power that "any church worthy of the name cannot do without heresy..." (26). In the late Of True Religion, however, Milton exclusively adopts the Pauline usage in order to argue for toleration for all Protestants. In "How Radical was the young Milton?," Barbara Lewalski provides a remarkably succinct and informative survey of Milton's career up to the 1645 poems in the service of her general claim that "from the outset, he began to construct himself as a new kind of author, one who commands all the resources of learning and art but links them to radical politics, reformist poetics, and the inherently revolutionary power of prophecy" (49). Sensing himself to be a "new kind of reformist poet" (53), Milton reforms debased genres and entertainments; sensing himself to be a "polemicist-prophet" in the manner of Isaiah (60), he attacks the bishops; sensing himself to be a member of a community of independent authors, he argues against censorship.

  4. In "Licensing Milton's Heresy," Stephen Dobranski looks at the scant information there is about Milton's activities as a censor in the early 1650s. Because it is doubtful that Milton licensed the Racovian Catechism which the Council of State condemned, Dobranski is critical of those who cite this episode as clear evidence of Milton's commitment to the principles he ostensibly espouses in Areopagitica. In addition, in light of entries in the Stationer's Register and the Council's Order Books, it is clear that, in the early 1650's, Milton participated in the government's regulation of the book trade to a greater extent that critics recognize. The only consistency in Milton's work as a licenser, Dobransky concludes, is in the tension between Milton's concerns to promote himself and to cooperate with the government. There seems, however, to be nothing ambiguous about Milton's cooperation with the government in his First Defence (1651), for, as John Hale shows in "Milton and the Rationale of Insulting," Milton here produces "gems of vituperation" as part of his project to attack Salmasius and defend the regicide (159). More specifically, Milton abides by the instructions for insulting provided by Aristotle, Quintilian, and Greek speculations on spoudogeloion, the "laughing serious." And it is because he followed these instructions with such urbanity, wit, and sophistication, Hale argues, that Milton provided a particular pleasure to his readers and was so successful in refuting his opponent. In "Treason against god and state: blasphemy in Milton's culture and Paradise Lost," David Loewenstein cites the Presbyterian parliament's ordinance of 1648 against heresy and blasphemy and the Purged Parliament's Blasphemy Act of 1650 as evidence of how the Puritans were intensely concerned with language and behavior, such as that of the Ranters, which was felt to repudiate clerical and political authority and order. That Milton approves of the 1650 Act in Of Civil Power, Loewenstein claims, suggests that he would not align himself with the extreme behavior of contemporary antinomians and sectarians which the Puritans felt was blasphemous. But that Christ and Abdiel in Paradise Lost describe Satan as a blasphemer shows that in this poem Milton associates blasphemy not with the extreme behavior of antinomians, but with "orthodox Protestants who invoked the authority of synods or convocations to determine matters of faith" (186). Loewenstein interprets these differences and similarities to mean that Milton "complicates and revises the orthodox Puritan politics and language of blasphemy" (186). Milton, according to Elizabeth Sauer in "The politics of performance theater: Samson Agonistes as closet drama," soon engages in the more radical project of repudiating Restoration theatre and culture at large and imagining and addressing "a heterogeneous, agonistic community of readers" (202). He does this by casting his play as a closet drama, a genre which "denies performability" (202), and presenting Samson's final act as one which is interpreted differently by different characters and which makes it difficult to distinguish between performers and spectators.

  5. Joan Bennett considers Samson's final act, as well as Christ's less violent action in Paradise Regained, from an entirely different perspective: that of contemporary South American liberation theology. In "Asserting eternal providence: John Milton through the window of liberation theology," she argues that Milton and liberation theologians, such as Jon Sobrino, subscribe to "radical Christian humanism," by which she means that they work on the premises that Christian faith demands action aimed at achieving justice, and that theology does not precede correct action, but is properly the product of reflection upon it. The analogy, which Bennett draws out in some detail, is enlightening, but I think she pushes it too far when she asks us to hear in Samson's denunciation of Harapha and Dalila, "the oppressed" fighting to be human and struggling to restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression (232). The volume concludes with Joseph Wittreich's observations of how some early readers of Paradise Lost, such as Dryden and Sir Allen Apsley, as well as modern readers who discuss Milton in relation to the culture wars, fail to see that "Milton's poem is an arena for conflict, a battleground for warring values, for contrary theologies, philosophies and politics" (244), and that this is one of its great strengths. While this claim ostensibly supports the view that Milton shunned reliance on set beliefs, it also conflicts with the view, emerging from some of the other essays in the volume, that the late Milton is firmly committed to particular heretical views in both the poetry and his theological treatise.

  6. If we come to this volume after having read Maurice Kelley, Balachandra Rajan, William Empson, Michael Bauman, and Christopher Hill on Milton's heresies (in the strict sense of unorthodox religious belief), we will learn very little from it on this particular issue. This, however, would not count as a weakness given that the editors want to acknowledge and honour the achievement of some of these scholars and recall it in order to refute Hunter, question the seriousness with which the recently composed panel of experts responded to his claims, and weaken "the present orthodoxy" they associate with Lewis and Fish (3). Nor would it count as a weakness given that most of the essays in this volume do not really aim to improve our knowledge of Milton's relationship to officially condemned theological doctrines anyway, though several pay lip-service to this theme. What they do is to improve our understanding of a wide variety of aspects of Milton's life and writing, and to argue, in many cases, that Milton was committed to limited forms of toleration in part on grounds of his sense of himself as a heretic and of the indeterminacy and uncertainty of the human condition. As for the editors' ambition not to establish new orthodoxies, I think they may well fail: the volume at least has helped to persuade me that Milton wrote De doctrina Christiana, that Milton aligns himself in this work with several heresies, and that he forwards them in various ways in Paradise Lost. If it has this effect on others, we may well find ourselves in a situation similar to that of 1947 when, in light of Kelley's work on Milton's heretical views in both De doctrina Christiana and Paradise Lost, Rajan wrote that "most scholars now assume that the treatise and the epic are doctrinally identical" (22). Though such a situation, grounded as it is in a kind of orthodoxy, is supposedly not what the editors of this volume seek to create, I think they would nevertheless regard it as sign of the volume's success.

Works Cited


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