Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Heretic Pride: The Radicalism of John Milton (pt. 2)

"And I start laughing like a child,
And I mark their faces one by one.
Transfigurations gonna come for me at last,
And I will burn hotter than the sun.

I waited so long and now I taste jasmine on my tongue
And I feel so proud to be alive.
And I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives."

-The Mountain Goats, "Heretic Pride" 

DARLING YOU'VE GOT TO LET ME KNOWThe period after his college graduation and his early life as a schoolteacher was--to put it mildly--a fairly exciting time for Milton. Part of it is simply the fact that any man, having completed his education and entering his late twenties and early thirties, is going to have some exciting times ahead as he finds love and figures out what to do with his life.

Part of it was the English Civil War breaking out when he was 34, as forces supporting a Republic governed by Parliament tried to overthrow the divinely-ordained king. That'll shake anybody up.

The first major change in Milton's life was that he got married, almost by accident. Nobody's quite sure of the details, but after his father's death in Milton's early thirties he went off to collect a debt owed to his father by a Mr. Powell, and returned married to the 16-year-old Mary Powell. Milton, a fairly strong believer in the education of women, was excited to have a chance to educate a woman personally, and looked forward to long years spent discussing Virgil with Mary--until he discovered that she didn't care about poetry, loved the King, and had no interest in learning Latin. Which, considering that Milton's 3 main interests were writing the greatest poem ever, killing the King, and teaching Latin, makes you wonder what the hell they talked about on their first date.
"Her name's not Crindi, John."
Then when that whole "war" thing happened, Mary, discovering that not only was her husband a giant nerd, but he believed in deposing a man she thought God gave a magic hat to so he could tell poor people what to do, ran off back to her father's home.

It's also around this time--and this might just be a coincidence--that Milton published a pamphlet arguing that it should be easy and legal to get a divorce (which, considering his country was ruled by a church specifically founded so that King Henry could get divorces easily and legally, wasn't really too much to ask). Now, it would be easy to call Milton an asshole for this: marry a teenage girl because her dad owes you money, realize that you hate her (it's like she's a child or something!), and whine that you can't divorce her. But Milton's pamphlet on divorce is actually pretty revolutionary for the day, in that he argues the main reason to get married is to have company in your old age--not to put a baby in a girl, not for money, but so that a woman as intelligent and learned as you can be by your side to talk about Spenser until one of you watches the other die. And that's a pretty sweet sentiment, to be honest.

Of course, the Anglican church at the time wasn't too keen on Milton's advocacy of divorce for everyone. Not because they were pro-marriage (See The Eighth, Henry), but because the Anglican Church at this point was essentially an organ of the state which existed to tell people that Charles wasn't an incompetent dandy who was spending the country into a depression. Pamphlets arguing that the Church didn't understand the common people (and Milton's advocacy of Scottish Presbyterianism as a faith which actually listened to its followers) made him a target for censorship. And that's when things started getting pretty vicious.

You see, what dictatorships--from England to England again to France to Russia to Russia again--don't understand about this kind of thing is that when you tell a person their writing is dangerous to the state is that a) you're making a casual opponent into a bitter enemy, and b)you are telling them that they are strong enough to take down the state. Making someone hate you and making them realize their power are, let's be honest, incredibly stupid things to do to an angry schoolteacher.
Most kings have private tutors, how come no one ever teaches them this shit?
Their attempt to stop Milton from publishing (of course) led to the writing of probably the greatest work ever written in defense of the freedom of the press, Aeropagitica. Published at the height of the Civil War, Aeropagitica is a work that even now is pretty impressive in its passion. The core argument is, of course, that books are awesome and that the government should let him publish his, but more importantly, anyone should be allowed to publish anything. Milton's argument is that we don't punish people for thinking things-- if someone publishes a book that is evil and corrupting, they can be punished for it, but everyone has the right to at least say their piece before being thrown in jail.

There is, of course, a theological argument at work here too. Milton was a strong believer in the notion that the truth shall set you free and that God would never allow a falsehood victory (the growing inevitability of the King's removal from power certainly seemed to bolster this), and so that even evil and ignorant books contributed to the world; even books that were wrong advanced mankind by giving others an opportunity to prove them wrong.
Yes, even that one.
In fact, because God would never allow a deceiver to go unpunished--and the inevitable victory of good becomes one of the central tenets of Milton's theology, including driving the main resolution of Paradise Lost--the work's argument becomes somewhat libertarian, with the belief that a "bad" book will be proven wrong by its failure; that the Free Market, guided by the Divine Hand, will censor books better than a government office ever did.

And Aeropagitica went on to revolutionize the publishing of the day, showing that-- oh wait, right. Charles I was a king who abolished Parliament because they didn't want to tax people to buy him a bigger palace, and Milton's works went right on being censored. But at least the book was good.

After this conflict, Milton became fully involved in the Civil War, throwing his support roundly behind the Parliamentarian forces and calling for the complete abolition of the monarchy. He wrote some fairly impressive sonnets in praise of Cromwell and his generals (although, thankfully, rescinded his support once he saw what Cromwell actually did with power-- it's important to note that, in the Civil War, Cromwell is actually a fairly admirable hero of democracy rather than, well, a racist war criminal), as well as a fairly beautifully sarcastic one arguing that, if Royalist troops were to find him, they should still spare him so that they would have a poet speaking in their defense when Parliament's armies finally won.

(This war, by the way, is responsible for an amazing quote from one of the Royalist commanders: "In our army, we have only the sins of men--drinking and debauchery--but yours has the sins of devils: false piety and spiritual pride!")

The Royal Army, pretty much.

Like his support for the freedom of the press--and, really, everything in his life--Milton's politics stem in large part from his radical notion of God. The Anglican Church, like Rome, relied on an Aristotelian worldview which stated that everything had a natural place on a ladder of the universe: Kings rose above commoners as naturally as steam rose above water, because they were instilled with properties of kingliness and somehow biologically equipped to rule justly. Milton, however, proved himself again to be totally punk, pointing out that there was absolutely zero Christian basis for this notion. Indeed, God created only one man and then let him live freely in a garden with his wife--hardly a kingly position--and Christ in his life only led those who chose to follow him. Milton argued, then (and keep in mind that this is the 1640s, over a century before Jefferson), that as all men were fallen and equal in God's eyes, the very notion of a king was an affront to God's plan for the world.

Several of these ideas weren't totally new, of course. Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, made the argument that all men were equal in their animal nature, but his conclusion was that we needed a bigger animal to tell us what to do and keep us from mauling each other--that even an evil or incompetent king still protected men from each other. Milton is...more optimistic, to say the least.

Hobbes does win the beard fight, though.
 This was also, despite the political victories, a difficult time for Milton--he realized that he was growing blind, losing his vision to the glaucoma that would later blind him entirely. His sonnet on this, however, is a triumph, both of himself and of the poetic form. In it he recommits himself to the poetry of God, trusting that he will still produce the masterwork he promised as a young man and that he is doing God's work in politics.

Milton also began to see some (well, not literally) disillusionment with himself during the war. He became disappointed in Scotland--a nation of religious liberty and rebellion--when it lent its armies to a tyrant king merely because his father was born in Scotland, and disappointed with many of the rebel forces for not seizing the banner of individual freedom and waving it high. And there is also, as the above sonnet shows, something of a crisis of art--he was unsure if he would ever produce his great work, and worried that he was abandoning his art (Spoiler alert: Cromwell unjustly conquers Scotland and massacres the Irish, the monarchy is reinstated, and Milton creates one of humanity's greatest artistic triumphs).

When King Charles escaped from Parliamentarian prison, tried to marshal another Scottish army, and was later captured, Milton crafted, not his artistic triumph, but his political one: calling for the King's execution.
That Nick Cave thing is making more and more sense.
It's at this point where I think anyone who has remotely admirable political ideals has to get on board with Milton (I'm looking at you, Eliot!)--King Charles is a war criminal, an enemy of democracy, and he truly believes that God wants him to be king and will tear his nation apart just to put himself back on the throne. Yes, by all means, cut the bastard's head off. That can't be too controversial.

Except that John Milton, never one for restraint, takes it a step further. He argues in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates that any Tyrant--and he defines Tyrant as a king who puts his own power ahead of his people's good--deserves death for betraying his people. He also directly retaliates against the Hobbesian idea of a beneficial Tyrant, pointing out that the reign of a bad king only creates more corruption and opportunities for men to hurt each other (because it's not as if Hussein's Iraq had a low crime rate). He also, while not directly arguing for the complete abolition of the monarchy (YET) makes the claim that a parliamentary commonwealth is the most just and free form of government.

In 1649, Charles was executed for his crimes against Britain, and contemporary reports claim that a hush fell over the crowd when they realized that a king could actually be killed by his people, and the first democratic revolution in human history came to an end.
Milton's response to the beheading.
Before we wrap up this section and move on to the Great Work, I just wanted to make a comment on the two major poems still undiscussed: "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso." They're both beautiful, beautiful works-- the last major pieces he wrote that weren't sonnets or epics. Each portrays a different man: "L'Allegro" a happy man in the fields, enjoying music with his friends in the sunlight, and "Il Penseroso" a melancholy scholar who stays up reading in his tower by moonlight. Both, though, are portrayed admirably, beautifully, and as men to aspire to, and there's a very good argument to be made that the poems represent an essential conflict of Milton's: whether to dedicate his life to living or to art. By this stage in his life Cromwell had won the war and Milton had a well-paying job in the administration, and was beginning to realize he could make a good living as  government official and Latin translator.

Each poem, and each character, represents a choice for Milton: does he rest on his laurels and try to make this whole "woman" thing work, or does he keep trying for that great epic? He's going blind, his vision will likely keep getting worse, and he desperately wants to commit himself to freedom and serve the government he believes is God's will. It will be years--and the end of the Cromwell administration--before he makes his decision, but the debate framed in these poems is a fairly timeless one: is it possible to be an artist and still enjoy life outside of art?
Well...maybe this time it'll be different.
 In Part 3...Paradise Lost

1 comment:

  1. :D
    I know where to turn for my college assignments now!