John Milton was arguably one of the greatest writers in the English language. He also was a noted historian, scholar, pamphleteer, and civil servant.
Milton ranks along with William Shakespeare among English poets; his writings and his influence are an important part of the history of English literature, culture, and thought. He is best known for Paradise Lost, which is generally regarded, as he intended, the greatest epic poem in the English language. Milton’s prose works, however, deserve their place in modern histories of political and religious thought.
According to one biographer, Milton “was loved by many, hated by some, but ignored by few.” How did John Milton come to have such influence? What made his last work—On Christian Doctrine—so controversial that it remained unpublished for 150 years? (John Milton: A Biography)
John Milton was born into a financially secure London family in 1608. “My father destined me in early childhood for the study of literature, for which I had so keen an appetite that from my twelfth year scarcely ever did I leave my studies for my bed before the hour of midnight,” Milton recalled. He excelled scholastically and received a master’s degree at Cambridge in 1632. Thereafter, he continued to read history and classical literature. By his own account, his early enthusiasm for the sensual poetry of Ovid and other Roman writers gave way to an appreciation of the idealism of Dante, Petrarch, and Edmund Spenser. He then moved on to Platonic philosophy and finally came to hold the biblical Book of Revelation in the highest esteem. Milton’s scholarly and literary gifts had from childhood marked him out in the minds of his family and teachers for the ministry, however Milton wanted to be a poet. England in his day was in the throes of revolution. Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, appointed a court that had King Charles I executed in 1649. Using persuasive prose, Milton defended this action and became a spokesman for the Cromwell government. In fact, before attaining fame as a poet, John Milton was already well-known for his tracts on politics and morals..
After the monarchy was restored with the coronation of Charles II in 1660, Milton’s earlier alignment with Cromwell put his life in danger. Milton went into hiding, and only with the help of powerful friends did he escape death. Through it all, he retained a strong spiritual inclination.
Describing his early spiritual interests, Milton wrote: “I began by devoting myself when I was a boy to an earnest study of the Old and New Testaments in their original languages.” Milton came to regard the Holy Scriptures as the only sure guide in moral and spiritual matters. But his examination of the accepted theological works of the day left him thoroughly disappointed. “I considered that I could not properly entrust either my creed or my hope of salvation to such guides,” he later wrote. Determined to measure his beliefs strictly “against the yardstick of the Bible,” Milton began listing key scriptures under general headings and quoted Bible texts from these lists.
Today, John Milton is best remembered for composing Paradise Lost, a poetic retelling of the Genesis account of man’s fall from perfection. It is primarily this work, first published in 1667, that earned Milton literary fame, especially in the English-speaking world. He later published a sequel entitled Paradise Regained. These poems present God’s original purpose for man—to enjoy perfect life in an earthly paradise—and point to God’s restoration of Paradise on earth through Christ. In Paradise Lost, for example, Michael the archangel foretells the time when Christ will “reward His faithful, and receive them into bliss, whether in heaven or earth, for then the earth shall all be Paradise, far happier place than this of Eden, and far happier days.”
He follows the scriptural lead in personifying the Devil, Satan, who has, on a superhuman scale, the strength, the courage, and the capacity for leadership that belong to the ancient epic hero, but these qualities are all perverted in being devoted to evil and self-aggrandizement. In his first speech to his lieutenant Beelzebub, Satan’s defiance of God manifests his egoistic pride, his false conception of freedom, and his alienation from all good; and his other public harangues reinforce and amplify the portrayal of power that is religiously and morally corrupt. The influence of this challenge is readily seen in the fiction of today. As for the doctrine of Hellfire, I will reserve for another Post.
For years, Milton also wanted to produce a wide-ranging discussion of Christian life and doctrine. Despite having become totally blind by 1652, he laboured on this project with the help of secretaries until his death on November 8, 1674. Milton entitled this final work A Treatise on Christian Doctrine, Compiled from the Holy Scriptures Alone. In its preface, he wrote: “Most authors who have dealt with this subject. . . have relegated to the margin, with brief reference to chapter and verse, the scriptural texts upon which all that they teach is utterly dependent. I, on the other hand, have striven to cram my pages even to overflowing, with quotations drawn from all parts of the Bible.” True to Milton’s word, On Christian Doctrine alludes to or quotes the Scriptures over 9,000 times.
Although Milton had previously not hesitated to express his views, he held off publishing this treatise. He knew that its scriptural explanations widely differed from accepted church teaching. Furthermore, with the restoration of the monarchy, he had fallen out of favour with the government. He may therefore have been waiting for quieter times. In any case, after Milton’s death, his secretary took the Latin manuscript to a publisher, who refused to print it. The English Secretary of State then confiscated the manuscript and filed it away. 149 years would pass before Milton’s treatise came to light.
In 1823, a clerk came across the wrapped manuscript of the noted poet. England’s then reigning monarch, George IV, ordered that the work be translated from Latin and made public. When it was published, by Charles Sumner, in English two years later, the manuscript excited intense controversy. One bishop immediately pronounced the manuscript fraudulent, refusing to believe that Milton—regarded by many as England’s greatest religious poet—could have so firmly rejected cherished church doctrines. Foreseeing such a reaction and in confirmation of Milton’s authorship, the translator had furnished the edition with footnotes detailing 500 parallels between On Christian Doctrine and Paradise Lost.
By Milton’s time, England had embraced the Protestant Reformation and had broken with the Roman Catholic Church. Following Tyndale, Protestants generally believed that authority on matters of faith and morals came only from the Holy Scriptures and not from the Pope. On Christian Doctrine, though, showed that many Protestant teachings and practices were also out of harmony with the Scriptures. On scriptural grounds, he rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination in favour of free will. He promoted respectful use of God’s name, Jehovah, using it freely in his writings.
Milton argued scripturally that the human soul can die. Commenting on Genesis 2:7, he wrote: “When man had been created in this way, it is said, finally: thus man became a living soul. . . . He is not double or separable: not, as is commonly thought, produced from and composed of two different and distinct elements, soul and body. On the contrary, the whole man is the soul, and the soul the man.” Milton then posed the question: “Does the whole man die, or only the body?” After presenting an array of Bible texts showing that all of man dies, he added: “But the most convincing explanation I can adduce for the death of the soul is God’s own, Ezekiel 18:20: the soul which sins shall itself die.” Milton also cited such texts as Luke 20:37 and John 11:25 to show that dead mankind’s hope lies in a future resurrection from the sleep of death.
What triggered the strongest reaction to On Christian Doctrine? It was Milton’s simple but powerful Biblical proof that Christ, the Son of God, is subordinate to God, the Father. After quoting John 17:3 and John 20:17, Milton asks: “If the Father is Christ’s God and our God, and if there is only one God, who can be God except the Father?”
Further, Milton points out: “The Son himself and his apostles acknowledge in everything they say and write that the Father is greater than the Son in all things.” (John 14:28) “Indeed it is Christ who says(Matt.26: 39): O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. . . . Why does he pray to the Father alone, rather than to himself, if he is himself really God? If he is himself both man and supreme God, why does he pray at all for something which is in his own power? . . . As the Son everywhere adores and venerates the Father alone, so he teaches us to do the same.”
For some readers, the drama of Samson Agonistes is the most powerful and completely satisfying of Milton’s major works. The tragic poem deals with the final phase of Samson’s life and recounts the story told in the Bible book of Judges. The action, up to the reported catastrophe, is wholly psychological; it is the process by which Samson, “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves,” moves from preoccupation with his misery and disgrace to selfless humility and renewed spiritual strength, so that he can once more feel himself God’s chosen champion. He is granted a return of his old strength and pulls down the pillars that support the temple of the Philistine god Dagon, crushing himself along with his captors: “Their own destruction come speedily upon them”. The drama must owe a great deal of its power to Milton’s sense of kinship with his blind hero; “chief of all, O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!“, but there is nothing in the drama that does not belong to the story of Samson.
Altogether, if Samson was his last epic poem, it was a grand testament. Like Samson, Milton, totally blind since the age of 44, was able to conquer despair or to sublimate it in his last three great poems. These expressed not his earlier revolutionary faith in men and movements but a purified faith in God and the regenerative strength of the individual soul.
John Milton sought the truth. His failings, however, can sometimes be traced to his own negative experiences. For instance, soon after they married, Mary Powell, the young daughter of a Royalist squire, abandoned him and returned to her family for about three years. During this time, Milton wrote tracts justifying divorce, not only on grounds of marital infidelity—Jesus’ sole standard—but also in cases of incompatibility. (Matt. 19:9) Milton promoted the same idea in On Christian Doctrine.
Despite Milton’s shortcomings, On Christian Doctrine forcefully presents the Bible’s viewpoint on a multitude of important teachings. To this day, his treatise obliges its readers to measure their own beliefs against the unerring yardstick of Holy Scripture.
Milton’s reputation grew steadily after 1667 and was well established before Joseph Addison’s papers on Paradise Lost appeared in The Spectator (1712); these were instrumental in extending the poet’s fame to the Continent. His influence on 18th-century verse was immense. In the 19th century two main streams of critical opinion are evident. On the one hand, the revolutionary Romantic poets William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley launched the “Satanist” misinterpretation of Paradise Lost and made its author, like themselves, a rebel; their attitude is summed up in Blake’s saying that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it (in other words, that he had projected himself into Satan, who, according to Blake, was the poem’s real hero). Conversely, other critics—also concentrating on the epic—threw overboard Milton’s beliefs and ideas as fundamentalism and attended to the poem’s purely literary qualities. A balanced view would take his writings and biographical details into account. He clearly was influenced by pagan Greek conceptions of Hell, and this becomes clearer in the pages of On Christian Doctrine, as opposed to the graphic descriptions within the blank verse of Paradise Lost. In addition, while vigorously supporting the Cromwellian regime, he failed to grasp the principle of Christian neutrality, although his life, of all lives, demonstrates its practical value, but above all, represents obedience to God, not man.