What constitutes “the people”? That is the basic question posed in this book by Paul Hammond, Professor at the University of Leeds, as he closely examines the differing ways John Milton used the concept of “the people” for his own personal agenda.
To a large extent, that agenda was the destruction of the monarchy of England. He lived at that unique time in English history, the mid-1600s, when the monarchy was abolished. But he also lived long enough to see the fondest desires of his heart turned to ashes as the monarchy was restored in 1660.
The author characterises Milton’s explanation of Parliament’s authority as superior to that of the King as a “fragile argument.”
Time and again the author lays bare the supreme hypocrisy of Milton. He notes that for Milton the “law is easily set aside if the cause of Miltonically defined freedom so requires.” Milton tendentiously asserted that even if the majority of the people wanted a monarchy, the minority who opposed it should have the right to over-rule the majority!
So how could it be that the English people were unable to grasp the so-called “true” meaning liberty? “For Milton, the exercise of liberty entailed rational moral choice, and he thought that many people were insufficiently rational or moral to recognize or to pursue true liberty.”
Thus, for him, the people were often nothing but “the vulgar.” Hammond says Milton did not define his terms closely. Rather, he was often “polemical and opportunistic, inspired by principles, certainly, but responding to what he saw as needs of the moment.” Thus, in Milton’s hands, the term ‘the people’ is “ripe for exploitation and dispute.”
In this incisive and thorough study, Hammond looks at a range of Milton’s writings from his tract on divorce to his most famous work, Paradise Lost. Milton regretted writing his work on divorce in English instead of Latin because he realised his thoughts became accessible to “an audience which was unable or unwilling to consider them seriously,” in Hammond’s words. In Latin, Milton had the temerity to call his English readers vernas. In Latin, verna means slave and verna has connotations of boorishness and buffoonery.
Milton was attacked for his work about divorce, and he responded viciously. Hammond says Milton characterises the writer who replied to him “as the lowest of the vulgar, and even as an animal. The author of this reply actually makes some fair points which manifest a degree of compassion towards women and children which seems absent from Milton’s own texts on divorce.”
If the mere matter of divorce was too much for the people, it is no wonder Milton thought understanding of the divine was also beyond them. “It is to Milton a scandal that divine knowledge should be regarded as ‘a mystery too high for their capacity’s.’ ”
Ultimately, says Hammond, Milton believed the failure of the so-called Good Old Cause (that is, the abolition of the monarchy and its replacement by a commonwealth) “was the moral failure of the English people.” In Milton’s own words, he said Britain was “naturallie not over fertile of men able to govern justlie & prudently in peace.”
Thus he finally accepted that each people receive the government it deserves. One wonders what he would think of the government of the Soviet Union and now Russia, which was successful in overturning its monarchy in 1917. Do the Russian people really deserve what they have suffered through since then? It is no wonder Marxists have for a long time looked admiringly at Milton, but Hammond does not extend his analysis to cover recent analogies or revolutionary inspiration.
What Hammond has done is write a very important and exemplary scholarly study of how Milton wrote about “the people”. The fact that he has the courage to show Milton in a largely negative light is a refreshing change from many works that seem to either absolve him of hypocrisy (and worse) or entirely gloss over the very dark side of the thought and personality of one of England’s greatest and most influential writers.
Milton and the People (271 pages, including a 14-page bibliography) is $74 from Oxford University Press.