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Historical Milton

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King Charles I

In the fourth recent book about Milton I am reviewing for the Sun News, author Thomas Fulton of Rutgers University looks at Milton’s Commonplace Book, which was in modern parlance his filing cabinet.

Fulton says the Renaissance meaning of “commonplace” originates in the Greek concept of topics, but the English word commonplace comes directly from the Latin. It captures “Aristotle’s sense of an idea occupying a mental space that can be accessed for the advantage of argument.”

The author has examined many other such commonplace books from the period, and found that “Milton’s collection of facts or concepts rather than aphoristic phrases distinguishes his research activities” from the others. The source of his notes was primarily historical, and he used the book as a handy reference while writing his own books. Fulton goes into great detail about the nature and content of the entries in the book, often reproducing images of the actual handwritten entries.

One of the texts Fulton concentrates on is Areopagitica, his 1644 tract that has been viewed as an influential defense of the right to freedom of speech.

In a flip-flop worthy of Mitt Romney, Milton goes from praising Plato’s Utopia in 1642 to shooting it down in 1644. “Milton’s ideas in Aeropagitica are often called utopian, but this misreads his explicit rejection of the Platonic political tradition.”

At the time there was a school of thought called Erastian, which believed the church should be placed entirely under the control of the state. “In contrast to recent suggestions that Milton’s politics are Erastian,” writes Fulton, “I argue that Milton maintains a subtle but strong opposition.”

Fulton also looks at another facet of the 1644 tract that is usually given scant treatment. “It is a serious mistake to undervalue as either tactical or secondary the argument for the liberty of printing.” Alas it also highlights another Miltonian flip-flop of classic proportions.

“Five years after writing Areopagitica, with his party now in power, Milton took a role as licenser ostensibly similar to the one he had railed against.” All he had to do to achieve his treasonous ends was write about how awful King Charles I was by warping every line of historical account from various countries to show had bad monarchy is and how people have the right to depose monarchs.

In the days before the Internet, people used pamphlets, which could be printed rapidly and cheaply, to get their ideas disseminated. “It is hard to gauge how avidly Milton read his pamphleteering peers. But he had his ear to the ground, and this unrecorded reading shapes and advances his writing.” The recent very fine biography of Milton by Anna Beer takes a particular look at pamphleteering, but Fulton does not reference her book.

Fulton’s analysis of Areopagitica, which he admits is an “unusual tract,” is just one of several books he examines closely in this fine example of scholarship that will become a standard text of Milton studies for many years. Another is Milton’s 1651 tract, A Defense of the People of England, in which he justified the execution of the King for a European audience who were aghast at the greatest crime ever perpetrated against monarchy.

Fortunately Milton lived to see the Restoration, when King Charles II took over the reins of government and England was once more a monarchy. That his life was spared by the son of the monarch he so cruelly abused was perhaps the cruelest blow of all to Milton.

His own death by execution would have justified his life’s work railing against tyranny, but his salvation at the hands of a monarch proved its hollowness. More than three centuries after his death we now have the best of both worlds- a gracious sovereign and free speech. That is his own personal Paradise Lost, and our Paradise Regained.

There is a typo on pg. 45: “theses” should be “these”

Historical Milton: Manuscript, Print, and Political Culture in Revolutionary England (304 pages) is $28.95 softcover or $80 hardcover from University of Massachusetts Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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