Let us never forget Milton, the first defender of regicide.
-Frederick Engels, The Northern Star Dec 18th, 1847.
Biographies are bourgeois. More often than not, they are little more than the supports to Great Man theories of history, in which the dynamics of historical change are explicable through the actions of the most prominent individual actors. We can see this in the tremendous academic industry of biographies of the Founding Fathers of the United States, whose every whisper and fart becomes more relevant to national history than the culture (in Raymond Williams’ sense of a way of life) of the millions over whom they ruled. (Highlighting the genre’s ideological proclivities does not, of course, render it useless).
Christopher Hill’s biography of John Milton is particularly worthwhile for its interaction with the these strictures of the genre. Milton was one of the first bourgeois radicals, and in many ways the high water mark for the tradition until Thomas Paine. It is thus not inappropriate that he should be examined through an ideological lens (partially) commensurate with his own. More important than this congruence, however, is Hill’s own subtle revision of the problematic of biography. Counterpoising the previous efforts of scholars to trace the influence upon Milton of authors like Plato, Aquinas, and Homer, Hill argues that a far more fecund source of his subject’s ideas lay in his dialogue with his fellow countrymen. By emphasizing the collective input into Milton’s development, Hill does much to defetishize the bourgeois ideal of individual genius.
This emphasis on the dialogic nature of Milton’s thought is at the heart of Hill’s argument. He argues that in the political terrain of the English Revolution, there were three main cultures contending – the Royalists (led by Charles I), the Parliamentarians (Oliver Cromwell), and the radicals (the Diggers, Levellers, and Ranters.) For Hill, Milton is located perpetually in the interstices between the second and third culture. Though of a middle class upbringing – the son of a moneylender – Milton developed enthusiasms for the democratic currents in England early in his life through friendships with many of the radicals of his day.
Milton’s contact with the radicals led him, when the revolution began, to adopt a position well to the left of many of the Parliamentary leaders. Though he did not always agree the positions of the radicals, and often criticized them, a dialogue existed nevertheless. It was partially this positioning that led Milton to take the radical position in favor of free speech he did in his famous pamphlet the Areopagitica. While older scholarship has focused on the Biblical and Greek philosophical quotations Milton uses to make his point, it has never bothered to ask why he chose to make the defense in the first place when other, no less dedicated classicists, endorsed censorship. The same contact with the radicals informed Milton’s spirited defense of regicide, the Eikonoklastes.
Milton’s radicalism was not limited to the political, however; it extended to the personal as well. Though Milton was once the bete noire of feminism (see Mary Daly), recent scholarship has placed him firmly on the side of antimisogyny. Hill was one of the earliest (1977) to argue against the received wisdom on Milton and women. Through a close examination of Milton’s relationship to both the rulers and the radicals, Hill demonstrates that the former viewed the poet as a disgusting libertine for advocating divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, while the latter saw his work as a foundation to build off. Though Milton was certainly displeased by the direction in which some of the radicals took his work, such as excusing adultery, he was nonetheless well in advance of many of his contemporaries in his views on relations between men and women.
Unsurprisingly, this radical in politics and romance was also a radical in theology. Though a committed Christian, Milton flirted with the radical theology produced by the third culture which even contemporary Christians would have a hard time accepting. Among other things, Milton was a mortalist, who believed that the soul died along with the body. In all his theology, Milton was far more concerned with what transpired in this world than in the next.
Even when considering the material realm Milton went farther than most of his contemporaries. Though not an antinomianist himself, Milton was strongly influenced by the plebeian theology which held that men in the community of God were not subject to laws either spiritual or mundane. While stopping short of endorsing such theses, Milton did argue that whatever heresies the people of England did commit, they were not responsible; the Bishops of an idolatrous Church who had kept the people in ignorance were. He also thought angels had pretty wild sex.
Though they occupy a large portion of the book, I cannot do justice to Hill’s readings of Milton’s great poems (Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes) in this review. Suffice to say that through a meticulous examination of the texts, Hill argues that one can find distinct echoes of the debates surrounding the English Revolution. In reconstructing the poems’ contexts, Hill maps out a compelling progression through the three works. Paradise Lost, written in the aftermat of the restoration of Charles II to the thrown, seeks “to justify the ways of God to men” That is, to examine why God allowed the English Revolution to fail. In narrating the Fall, Milton was also engaging in (self)-criticism of the shortcomings of the Parliamentarians and Radicals. Paradise Regained, the story of Jesus’ resistance to temptation, Milton offers a program for humanity in which God’s kingdom can finally be brought to earth. Finally, Samson Agonistes shows what an ordinary (fallen) man can do with the proper faith. Though the defeat of the revolution deeply shook Milton’s faith in the English people, his poetry offered him a means by which to maintain hope.
Some of the parts of Milton and the English Revolution that I found the most engaging were Hill’s little asides explaining this or that detail of his argument. Culled from a lifetime’s study of seventeenth century English history, Hill packs more insight into a paragraph than are found in many books. To take one example: in discussing Milton’s ideas on women, Hill briefly surveys middle class Puritan and bourgeois ideas concerning the family. Hill notes that although bourgeois women were often surrounded by an aura of grace and deference, this aura actually concealed their powerlessness in society. While Puritan women, as part of an economy based on household production, played a vital role in producing and reproducing society, the bourgeois woman was utterly removed from this whole process. Her husband’s employers did the producing, and her servants the reproductive work of raising children and maintaining the home. Though only an aside here, Hill’s argument introduced a whole level of depth previously lacking in my understanding of bourgeois English society.
Milton and the English Revolution stands as a testament to the ability of Marxist historiography. Though largely free of terms like ‘mode of production’ and ‘class struggle,’ Hill is deeply committed to a Marxist method which sees society as a totality and seeks to excavate the dialectical interactions of its different parts. It is perhaps a final dialectical irony that a genre so deeply influenced by bourgeois society should reach its apogee in the hands of one committed to that society’s undoing.
*For those interested in getting into Christopher Hill, I recommend his (very) early essay “The English Revolution 1640,” which is available courtesy of the good folks at Marxists.org.*
 In another context, Hill offers a partial explanation for the harshness with which so many contemporary commentators view Milton: “Part of the difficulty in assessing Milton is that some of his ideas are so advanced that we tend to treat him as though he were our contemporary.”