John Milton is generally regarded, next to William Shakespeare, as the greatest English poet, and his magnificent Paradise Lost is considered one of the finest epic poems in the English language. Educated at Saint Paul's School in London and Christ's College in Cambridge, Milton was versed in Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. Unsatisfied with the rote memorization that was the basis for the university education of his time, he decided to give himself a liberal education. Through extensive reading, he sought to digest the mass of history, literature, and philosophy so as to gain the “insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs” that he felt was needful for those who aspired, like himself, to be leaders and teachers.
Despite the fact that some of his religious beliefs defied the official Puritan stance, Milton was nonetheless a Puritan, and, as such, supported Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentary cause against Charles I in the English Civil War of 1642-1651. His support for the new Commonwealth was such that in 1649 he was appointed Secretary for Foreign Languages in Cromwell's Council of State.
Milton argued that the true nature of a monarch's power lay in the popular sovereignty that grants him that power. Thus, the people have the right to overthrow a monarch who abuses his power. Importantly, the people derive this sovereignty from God. Insisting fervently on humanity's rational freedom and responsible power of choice, Milton believed that liberty is best safeguarded by the strong moral character of a nation's citizens. While he was a member of Cromwell's Council of State, Milton pushed for “a better provision for the education and morals of youth,” deeming such a provision necessary for preserving Christian liberty, upon which all other liberties depend. He devoted his life, often to the scorn of his contemporaries, to the idea of a free commonwealth wherein citizens could pursue knowledge and exercise the freedom given by God.
In his Second Defense of the People of England, Milton articulated his notion of true liberty: “Unless your liberty be of that kind, which can neither be gotten, nor taken away by arms; and that alone is such, which, springing from piety, justice, temperance, in fine, from real virtue, shall take deep and intimate root in your minds; you may be assured, there will not be wanting one, who, even without arms, will speedily deprive you of what it is your boast to have gained by force of arms.”
Sources: That Grand Whig, Milton by George F. Sensabaugh (Stanford University Press, 1952), and History of Political Philosophy, third edition, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (University of Chicago Press, 1987).
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