Published on openDemocracy, by Theo Hobson, Dec. 9, 2008.
To honour the English writer John Milton on the 400th anniversary of his birth is to acknowledge his persistent otherness in the country he tried to transform, says Theo Hobson.
There are, according to the received wisdom of our day, two sides to the greatness of John Milton, who was born in London on 9 December 1608. First and foremost he was a great poet (despite being religious). Also, he was a champion of liberty; a key architect of the English-British tradition of liberalism (despite being religious). It is principally the latter assumption that I want to discuss, though I will come back to his literary reputation.
The idea is that he helped to put his country on the path to an enlightened constitution, in which such things as freedom of the press are firmly enshrined. Liberty is “the greatest gift that Britain gave the world”, in the words of prime minister Gordon Brown; and John Milton was a founding father of this noble tradition (Brown mentioned Milton in his 25 October 2007 speech about liberty) …
… Against the grain:
So was he an early “secular liberal”? Not in the dominant contemporary sense, which assumes that politics should be post-religious. He thought it should be post-ecclesial, but that liberal Protestant Christianity was the necessary foundation of a free society. This must be the national ideology, but it must not be identified with any religious institution. In effect, he was inventing the American approach to church-state relations.
So those who claim him as a secular radical, or a great British liberal, must be sharply told: no, he wanted a constitutional revolution, on Christian grounds. He wanted a revolution in Christian identity, away from church allegiance. The enlightened Christian should affirm the authority of the liberal state.
I consider Milton’s thought to be acutely relevant to our contemporary religious and political situation. But it’s hard to make this case, partly because it goes against the grain of our assumptions about the meaning of “secular liberalism”; but also because of “part one” of his greatness, his literary reputation. For centuries now, English intellectuals have seen him primarily as a poet, and his thought has been treated with slight embarrassment – whether on Tory, Catholic, atheist or aesthetic grounds. The vast majority of those who now write about Milton are literary critics who are not very interested in his religious thought, except as a theme within his art, almost as important as his misogyny. It’s as if Germany had forgotten that Luther was a theologian, and only ever discussed him from a literary perspective.
A recovery of Milton’s importance entails challenging two major intellectual habits: the assumption that we already know what “secular liberalism” is, and the post-Romantic assumption that literature is a sort of holy realm, from which dirty ideas should be excluded. Most of the “honouring” of Milton that’s now going on just expresses these habits. Instead, Milton ought to be celebrated as England’s greatest religious thinker, and one of the truly great Protestants, who points beyond the arid opposition of “religious” and “secular” and invites fresh thinking about both. (full text).