A Critical Survey of the Prose Works of Milton

Pamphlets Urging the Abolition of the Episcopal System

Milton was pre-eminently a poet; but he also wrote a number of prose works. His prose works were written chiefly in the form of pamphlets or tracts, though he did write a couple of larger works also. The pamphlets were written, chiefly on subjects which were engaging public attention at that time, and which had given rise to many controversies in the field of politics and religion. From the spring of 1641 to the spring of 1642, Milton remained engaged in a public controversy relating to church government which had been a subject of many debates in the Long Parliament and which had (aroused strong public passions. Milton wrote as many as five pamphlets, one after the other, urging the abolition of a form of church government known as the episcopal system. His pamphlets provoked many angry replies from his opponents, and he himself became angrier as he wrote pamphlet after pamphlet. His first pamphlet on this subject was entitled Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline. This pamphlet was written in a tone of moderation, and it was a carefully reasoned historical discussion of the subject. His position in this pamphlet was essentially that of Calvinism to which he ultimately became almost hostile. In this pamphlet he suggested that the English Church should emulate the example of the Scottish Church which favored Presbyterianism. The Scottish Church did not believe in the hierarchy of ecclesiastical officials which the episcopal system required. The Presbyterians believed in the equality of all the churchmen, while the episcopal system favored a hierarchy. Milton’s second pamphlet was entitled Of Prelatical Episcopacy. This pamphlet was an attempt to .prove that the episcopal system was an institution of the primitive church. In his third pamphlet entitled Animadversions on the Remonstrants, Milton employed a flippant and satirical tone in criticizing an opponent, namely Bishop Hall, an eminent man in his profession. The fourth and the fifth pamphlets were elaborate treatises entitled The Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelacy. All these pamphlets, taken together, show Milton’s keen interest in ecclesiastical matters and his deep concern in the kind of organization which he thought should prevail in the church. His opposition to the episcopal system was almost fierce, and he wrote strongly and emphatically in favor of Presbyterianism which subsequently was opposed by him as much as he had opposed the episcopacy at the time of writing his first five pamphlets.

The Divorce Pamphlets

When the ecclesiastical controversy ended, Milton began his campaign against the divorce laws of his country. From 1643 to 1645 he wrote four pamphlets on this subject. The most important of these was the first pamphlet entitled The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. The existing laws permitted a divorce only on the ground of adultery; but Milton advocated divorce on other grounds as well, including temperamental incompatibility between a man and his wife. Milton was prompted to write upon the subject of divorce by his own personal circumstances. His wife, Mary Powell, seemed to have deserted him; and Milton felt so angry with her that he wanted to divorce her. That was the reason why he urged a change in the divorce laws so as to be able to divorce his wife on the ground of temperamental incompatibility. His divorce pamphlets brought a violent reaction from Milton’s contemporaries because the orthodox Christian faith did not recognize the reason which had been put forward by Milton as a valid ground for divorce. Milton was obviously very much ahead of his times in this matter because today temperamental incompatibility has been recognized legally as a ground for divorce in many Western, and even Oriental, countries. These divorce pamphlets were a remarkable testimony to Milton’s ability to formulate a principle which has ultimately been recognized as having almost universal validity.

A Pamphlet on the Subject of Education

In 1644 Milton wrote a pamphlet entitled Of Education. This pamphlet, like those on the subject of divorce, was a direct result of Milton’s personal experience. This experience was two-fold: on the practical level, it was his tutorship of his sister’s two sons; and on the theoretical level it was the many discussions which were going on about the teaching methods of a famous educational reformer by the name of Comenius. In his pamphlet, Milton outlines an elaborate programmed of studies in schools and universities. This scheme of studies shows Milton’s humanist ambition to create a “universal” man. In 1580 Sir Philip Sidney had similarly outlined a course of studies by recommending first the Scriptures, and then works on moral philosophy, on the art of war, on history, and on geography. Milton, like eve1Y humanist, would have agreed with Sidney’s remark: “The variety rather delights me than confounds me.”

The “Areopagitica”

In the same year (1644), Milton wrote the Areopagitica which subsequently proved to be the most durable of all Milton’s prose writings. This pamphlet was written in the form of an oration addressed to the two Houses of Parliament of the time, urging them to repeal or withdraw the licensing order which they had passed in the preceding year with regard to all kinds of publications. Milton was firmly opposed to any kind of censorship upon books, pamphlets, tracts and, in fact, all kinds of writings. Milton was a staunch believer in freedom—freedom of all kinds including the freedom of authors to write whatever they pleased and ‘the freedom of publishers to publish whatever they pleased (of course, with the consent of the authors whose writings they wanted to publish). The Areopagitica is a forceful and eloquent plea for the freedom of authors and publishers to print and publish. Milton here first points out that there was hardly any real censorship in ancient Athens, the only exception being blasphemous and libelous writings. He then tries to show that even bad books can serve a good purpose. Next, he tries to convince the Members of Parliament that the licensing order passed by them would not serve the purpose which it was intended to serve. And, lastly, he argues at considerable length to make the point that the licensing order would hinder the Spread of existing knowledge and would obstruct the discovery of new knowledge.

A Pamphlet to Justify the Execution of Charles I

In 1649 Milton published a pamphlet entitled The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates to justify the execution of King Charles I. The King had been executed just two weeks before; and Milton wrote this pamphlet to justify the action taken against the King by the Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell who had proclaimed a Commonwealth in place of the monarchy which stood abolished with the execution of Charles I. As with the pamphlets on divorce, Milton here goes beyond the immediate occurrence to formulate general principles. Here he argues that free men, having once entered into a voluntary contract with their governors, may terminate that contract if they find that their governors (in this particular case the King) had become tyrannical and despotic, But in this pamphlet Milton also criticizes the tendency of the Puritans or the Presbyterians, who had won the battle against the King, to control and coerce the conscience of the individual and thus to commit the same blunder which the Prelates and the Bishops had previously been committing. Thus, besides offering a justification for the execution of the King, Milton here disapproves strongly of the policies of the Presbyterians whom he had vigorously supported in his anti-episcopal pamphlets.

Some Other Political Writings

Between the years 1651 and 1660 Milton wrote a few other political pamphlets as well. These were his two Defenses of the Republican regime, and one entitled The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. Milton’s thinking here appears to have become less flexible until his endorsement in the last-mentioned work of government by a grand council of the worthiest persons. Milton insists that sovereignty may never be transferred but only delegated. He also expresses his opposition to government by any single person, be it a king or å leader (like Cromwell). Milton did not approve of the rule of a single person for the simple reason that such a ruler would be corrupted by the very excess of his power. In fact, whatever he had written against the monarchy in his first political pamphlet, was not written out of any hostility to the person of the king but out of a pure zeal for the freedom of mankind. Milton’s political thought, as expressed in these pamphlets, was diametrically opposed to that of Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher of the same period. Hobbes was a materialist. Milton was an idealist. Milton maintained that the liberty of man was a fundamental right granted to him permanently by God. Hobbes supported absolute authoritarianism or autocracy. Milton emphatically rejected any theory which deprived man of his independence, while Hobbes was a. believer in a powerful government having complete and absolute authority over the people. Milton also differs from Hobbes in another respect, namely the style of writing. Even in his political pamphlets, Milton writes with the magniloquent tone of the epic poet. However, Milton’s political pamphlets like some of his ecclesiastical ones are somewhat marred by a frequent use of bad language. Milton here employs not only the weapon of mockery and ridicule but also of invective and vituperation. The Arcopegitica is the one outstanding pamphlet in which Milton adopts a gentle, polite, and courteous tone verging on suavity.

Not Many Prose Writings by Milton after the Restoration

After the restoration of monarchy in England in 1660 Milton did not write much prose because he realized that, under the changed political conditions, it would be useless to write any further pleas for liberty. Besides, he now wanted to get busy with his great poetic enterprise, namely Paradise Lost. However, it is quite safe to assume that he would have risked even his own life if an occasion had presented itself for him to start another campaign for liberty. He did write a few tracts on miscellaneous subjects, one of them bearing the title of True Religion, Heresy, Schism, and Toleration, which was published in 1673.

“History of Britain”

Another prose work written by Milton was the History of Britain which was published in 1670, though it might well have been written in the early 1640s. In writing this History Milton evidently aimed at veracity, brevity, and readable ness. And, although in writing it he was certainly influenced by modern writers, he actually went back to the original authorities such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Laws, Bede, and the medieval chroniclers, which no English historian had done before him; and he exhibits a very modern sense of the need of assessing their respective values. Milton’s critical and scholarly point of view won him the admiration of such a distinguished contemporary historian as Sir Charles Firth. But the History was never completed. Another of Milton’s works in prose was a theological treatise entitled De Doctrina Christiana which he wrote in Latin and which was published a century and a half after Milton’s death, in 1825.

A Critic’s Comment upon Milton’s Prose Writings

A critic thus comments upon Milton’s prose writings: “Milton said that in writing prose he had the use, as it were, only of his left hand. But that left hand was a powerful one, whether in Latin or in English, and whenever he deals with matters of more than transitory significance (and it is characteristic of him to interpret particular issues at hand in accordance with large and enduring principles), his writings at their best constitute a vital and permanent contribution to literature and thought. Many passages have in them all the intensity of Milton’s personality, the temperamental and passionate qualities which belonged to him as a poet, while they often prevent him from taking a calm and judicious view of his subject, fire his eloquence and make his work a personal record of the highest interest.”

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