On the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton
There are no commemorative postage stamps, as there were to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. There are no bank notes or coins bearing his image, and no medals cast in his honour. There will be no services of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey, where he is not buried but ought to have been, and no national expression of appreciation to be attended by Her Majesty the Queen.
John Milton is fading into oblivion, remembered principally by the society which bears his name and the great university he attended. He matters most because of his impact on the English literary tradition: his writings – alongside those of Shakespeare – remain at the heart of the language, politics, theology and philosophy of England. Indeed, he was Shakespeare’s finest pupil, also able to remould words to bear new meanings, to create a word or phrase where the language offered none, and to stretch imagery and syntax in the effort to represent emotion and thought.
He lived in the age of polarity between church and state, and acquired an anticlericalism which hardened into republicanism. Faced with a king who asserted his divine right and a crypto-Catholic archbishop, it is no surprise that one so gifted with spiritual, theological, political and philosophical insight should side with many of the reformers and non-conformists against clerical hierarchy.
Such insight, however, never grasped the significance of the Trinity, and his ‘broadly Protestant’ views were actually Arian and what became known as Unitarian. Milton came to stand apart from all sects, though he found the Quakers most congenial. He eschewed religious services altogether in his later years.
Milton wrote in A Treatise of Civil Power (1659) ‘that it is not lawfull for any power on earth to compell in matters of religion'. He argued against the Erastian position, yet favoured the platonic model of government by philosopher-rulers – an ‘aristocracy of virtue’. He did not favour democracy, though he strongly supported meritocracy, and was at the forefront of defining the liberalism which so shaped Whig-Tory philosophy and which became foundational to the creed of Conservatism. As he meditated on forms of government, he helped to define the best way to ensure the health and glory of the English nation, and forged an understanding of tyranny, liberty and servitude, alongside notions of civic identity and political subjectivity.
He was quite simply a religio-politico-philosophical genius who articulated some of the most fundamental and valuable insights about politics, society, morality, and human nature.
He was a prophetic philosopher poet.
We shall not look upon his like again.