During the latter part of the twentieth century, and mainly in order to reassert his politics, academic critics, and especially historians, have given Milton’s prose more attention than his poetry. The ‘surly republican’ whom Samuel Johnson had tried to separate off from the sublime poet moved back to centre stage. Much of what has been most interesting in Milton scholarship over the past thirty years is exemplified in an excellent and often demanding collection of essays devoted to Milton and Toleration. How can someone so passionate about liberty of expression yet hate Catholics so much that he excludes them from toleration? This dilemma pervades the book. One wonders, although no-one does here, how Milton could be so well received during his visit to Italy — where he mostly managed to follow the wise advice he had been given just before his departure, keeping his religious views to himself — and yet continue his hostility on his return. One essay by Andrew Hadfield shows that even the most eloquent defenders of toleration, like the Leveller William Walwyn, were vague about Catholicism; drawing heavily on an essay by John Shawcross, he traces the consistent hostility throughout Milton’s career, and argues Milton saw popery as a force for political oppression masquerading as a religion. It was especially insidious as the creeping popery of Laud’s Anglican church under Charles I, and then it threatened to kill off the revolution. The last book of Paradise Lost imagines the struggle between godly sheep and anti-christian wolves continuing long into the future, and by implication even into the Restoration: ‘Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous Wolves,/ Who all the sacred mysteries of Heav’n/ To thir own vile advantages shall turne/… and the truth/ With superstitions and traditions taint’ (XII 508-12). That is exactly what Milton and his friends had against Catholicism, superstition and respect for tradition, ‘outward Rites and specious formes’ (534). The whole passage is instinct with Milton’s sadness at what had happened to the ‘good old cause’, and it ends famously: ‘so shall the World goe on,/ To good malignant, to bad men benigne,/ Under her own waight groaning’.
The apparent contradictions in Milton’s attitudes impart a special tang to this book, which marshals the finest historians among contemporary Milton critics in order to investigate the idea of toleration during the stormy and passionate years of the English revolution. Nigel Smith gives a survey of attitudes toward toleration throughout Europe —often more liberal than in England, as in Holland, -- and David Loewenstein follows with a study of three defenders of the principle at a time of increasing fear and strife. In his view the argument about toleration was usually about how to treat heresy. Sects and heretics were demonized. For some indeed toleration itself was a monster. The more authoritarian within the church felt the need to attack ‘the monster of Toleration conceived in the wombe of the Sectaries long ago, they having grown big with it ever since’, as Thomas Edwards put it in his immense Gangraena of 1646. But such fine men as William Walwyn had read enough Montaigne to have learned from his religious scepticism. And Milton went even further in Areopagitica, his great tract for liberty of publication. ‘A man may be a heretic in the truth’ is the startling paradox he there formulates; ‘and if he believe things only because his Pastor says so…though his belief be true, yet the truth he holds becomes his heresie’. He challenges his readers to exert their own judgement, and goes even further than Paul, who in I Corinthians 11.18 argued ‘there must be heresies among you’. Milton refers to the heresy hunters of the early church, who ‘discover more heresies than they well confute, and that oft for heresy which is the truer opinion’. This last phrase, which is not quoted by Loewenstein, nonetheless seems to me to give the essence of Milton’s reason for allowing a wide variety of opinion to flourish. And the tract is still a fine antidote to what Milton calls ‘these fantastic terrors of sect and schism’.
And yet Thomas Corns can clearly show, as have many in the last few years, all the uncertainties and contradictions within the often inspiring language of Areopagitica, especially its exclusion of ‘Popery and open superstition’ from toleration. That phrase seems to contradict what Milton writes earlier, insisting on toleration because ‘it will be hard to instance where any ignorant man hath bin seduc’t by Papistical book in English’. Corns summarizes the various ways Milton’s readers have tried to account for the contradiction, but not the one that used to be most persuasive, that he distinguishes the books of the Jesuits and others, which the ‘ignorant’ are unlikely to read, from the practices and rituals of Roman Catholicks, which Milton was still denouncing after the Restoration in Of True Religion in 1673: ‘Popery, as being Idolatrous, is not to be tolerated either in Public or in Private’. In a further and even more interesting phrase, Milton also excludes what is ‘impious or evil absolutely either against faith or maners’. Corns rightly thinks this latter phrase is ‘mysterious’, and suggests it refers to those Ranters or Quakers who were disrupting church meetings, but surely ‘evil absolutely’ must have a stronger reference: more likely he is thinking of those ‘sons of Belial’ who wandered the streets of Sodom (later denounced in Paradise Lost I.503-5) and who, one night in Gibeah (Judges 19), provoked a Levite to give them his concubine to avoid ‘worse rape’. She was herself raped to death. Milton’s fascination with this story can be explained by its sequel, or so Paul Stevens argues: the dead wife’s body is dismembered and the several parts sent out to all the other tribes. The war that ensues is the re-membering of the community as it comes together to punish their apostate kin. The offending tribe, the Benjaminites, are abominations to be purged like the bishops and Presbyterians. The violence of Milton’s language reproduces the Bible’s, and asserts Milton’s need to struggle for his identity within the idealized community. Corns compares the tract with the works of Milton’s friend Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony, who had been excluded by Winthrop from the Massachussetts Bay Colony over the issue of state control of worship. Corns concludes that Areopagitica is poised uneasily between its ‘magniloquent’ anticipation of the ‘principles of western liberalism’ and Milton’s narrower political need to secure the hostile presbyterians’ compliance with the new regime. He fondly dreamed, in Corns’ view, that he could still have a dialogue with those defenders of godly discipline, prelates and Calvinism.
Nicholas von Maltzahn, on the other hand, in comparing Milton with his friend Andrew Marvell, finds that Milton was consistently hostile to Presbyterians from as early as 1641, and traces the hostility all the way through their readiness to compromise with the imprisoned Charles in 1648, which Milton denounces in the ‘Digression’ of his History of Britain, in Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and Eikonoklastes. They are ‘bad men’ eager to collude with tyrants. Even in 1673, when Milton chose to publish some of his political sonnets for the first time, the contempt for these ‘new forcers of conscience’ is clear. And in the second edition of Paradise Lost, published the next year, 1674, the new twelve-book structure brings the republican Nimrod episode into extra prominence, and balances it with the ‘grievous Wolves’ who arrogate authority in the post-apostolic church (12.508). Von Maltzahn sees this as continued hostility to popery, but in the largest sense which includes the Presbyterian advocates of prelacy. None of this is easy to square with toleration, and shows a Milton less willing than Marvell to accept diverse views of church governance.
James Turner takes a very different line. What Milton is really concerned to tolerate is not so much religious heresy as pornography. Around the single mention of Aretino, ‘that notorious ribald’, in Areopagitica Turner builds an ingenious but tendentious case. Leaving aside the rather pointless parallel he establishes with Giordano Bruno, whom Milton never mentions, Turner unearths various buried references from the convoluted language of the tract to show Milton’s concern with erotic books. On this reading ‘the utmost that vice promises to her followers’, which Milton urges us to try (‘trial by what is contrary’) and still abstain, is the chief ‘benefit of books promiscuously read’. Suddenly that last phrase, which most of us will have lingered over on a first reading of Areopagitica, comes alive again. It means not only what editors anxiously annotate as meaning simply ‘without limit’ but shades into ‘reading promiscuous books’. Indeed in the same treatise Milton imagines the Spartans chased Archilochus out of their city for ‘his broad verses’ but adds that they were in fact ‘as dissolute in their promiscuous conversing, whence Euripides’ claims ‘their women were all unchaste’. Turner shows how the case of pornography keeps bobbing up just when Milton seems to be launching a theological argument. The Church Fathers themselves ‘transmit our ears through a hoard of heathenish obscenities’. Obscenity, however, was something Milton himself was proud of on occasions, as when he justifies his ‘plain-speaking obscenity’ in his defense of the rights of the English people to behead their king. The obscenity he defends is not always sexual, but nonetheless Turner makes one read with renewed attention all the physical language of the tract. Milton does after all argue that books ‘contain a potencie of life’ extracted from the ‘living intellect that bred them’. A good book, he goes on, is ‘the pretious life-blood of a master spirit’ and it is this blood to which he refers when he argues we must be wary ‘how we spill that season’d life of man preserv’d and stor’d up in Books’. Turner spoils his case when he rearranges this language to imply that the verb ‘spill’ refers to Milton’s vision of the canon as a sperm bank. And he might have remembered what Jason Rosenblatt incidentally shows in his essay on Milton as one of the earliest proponents of natural law, that heresies could often be referred to as adulteries — and were so by Milton in the Apology. Milton knew about the principle of natural law through his acquaintances Grotius and Selden if nothing else, and espoused it early. His idea of tolerance was also influenced by the notion of equity (the legal not the financial concept), which Milton always interprets, in Victoria Silver’s view, in favour of the victim rather than inflexible legal systems, even when it is Satan who thinks himself the victim.
The violence of Milton’s language in the political tracts against prelacy has always been hard to square with any kind of toleration. Roger Williams contrasted the ‘marvellous different stile and manner’ of the two sides: those who wrote in favour of toleration wrote ‘in milke’, those who opposed it ‘in bloud’. Paul Stevens uses Williams’ metaphor as a way to trace the ‘virtues of sacred vehemence’ through from the early tracts to Samson Agonistes, focus of so much impassioned debate since September 11, 2001, and then the final prose works, not only Of True Religion but also that odd pamphlet Milton published in the same month as the second edition of Paradise Lost, the Declaration, or Letters Patent. This was actually a translation of a Latin text announcing the election of John Sobieski as King of Poland. Stevens follows Nicholas von Maltzahn in relating this otherwise incomprehensible publication directly to the Exclusion Crisis: the way to stop the Duke of York eventually becoming James II would be to imitate the Polish practice and elect the next king. In this his final work, religious violence has been exiled to the borders of Milton’s wildly idealized Poland with its reputation for religious tolerance, to be directed against the infidel Turks. But the inherent paradoxes of Milton’s attitudes continue: he is extolling the virtues of one Catholic king to exclude the succession of another.
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