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John Milton on Liberty, License, and Virtuous Self-Government

John Milton

The notion that genuine liberty is predicated upon virtuous self-government was an accepted ideal among many of the United States' founders. During the Founding era, this ideal was perhaps best expressed in a 1791 letter by the Irish-born British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, who wrote: "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites . . . It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."

Burke's convictions and concerns were anticipated by the English poet and Interregnum statesman John Milton (1608-74). Throughout his writings, Milton addressed the idea of genuine liberty or freedom over against the self-indulgence that he sometimes called "license," a self-indulgence that inevitably leads to tyranny from within and from without.

For Milton, the distinction between liberty and license is first and foremost a theological matter, for true liberty comes from Christ giving believers freedom from the sin that brings about licentious indulgence. Such liberty, once gained, frees the individual to live according to a mature, self-regulating Christian conscience. Milton articulates this explicitly in On Christian Doctrine, his posthumously discovered theological treatise:

Christian Liberty means that Christ our liberator Frees us from the slavery of sin and thus from the rule of the law and of men, as if we were emancipated slaves. He does this so that, being made sons instead of servants and grown men instead of boys, we may serve God in charity through the guidance of the spirit of truth.

Milton's understanding of Christian liberty emphasizes the individual Christian's ability to self-govern by exercising liberty of conscience according to the Spirit's guidance, within the context of obedience to the Word of God. But Milton also warns against the slavery of sin, a slavery brought about by the perverted exercise of liberty that he considered license.

Milton's discussion of liberty, license, and virtuous self-regulation is perhaps most explicit in his regicide tract, Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, written just before the January 30, 1649 execution of King Charles I. In this tract's opening paragraph, Milton asserts: "For indeed none can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license; which never hath more scope or more indulgence than under Tyrants." According to Milton, "bad men" are "all naturally servile," they desire "to have the public State conformably governed to the inward vicious rule, by which they govern themselves," and they "color over their base compliances" with "the falsified names of Loyalty, and Obedience." In sum, Milton argues that tyrants and bad men get along quite well because bad men, loving license, governed by vice, and incapable of self-regulation, do not threaten tyrants but contentedly submit to them as long as they do not disturb their self-indulgence. By contrast, tyrants "fear in earnest" those men "in whom virtue and true worth most is eminent." Such virtuous men are subject to those tyrants' "hatred and suspicion." Self-regulating, virtuous persons threaten tyrants because, loving liberty and goodness, they recognize that tyrants obstruct the freedom to live according to a virtuous conscience.

Five years later, in Defensio Secunda (1654), Milton urged the English Commonwealth Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, and British citizens in general, to work to be a nation characterized by the liberty of virtuous self-government. As his tract concludes, Milton tells his countrymen that "to be free is precisely the same as to be pious, wise, just, and temperate, careful of one's property, aloof from another's, and thus finally be magnanimous and brave"; moreover, "to be the opposite to these qualities is the same as to be a slave." Milton tells his audience that if they hope to avoid slavery, they must "learn to obey right reason and to master yourselves."

After the 1660 Restoration of Charles II to the throne, marking the collapse of Britain's republican experiment, Milton retreated from active politics, concentrating on completing his greatest long poems, including Paradise Lost (1667, rev. ed. 1674) and Paradise Regained (1671). But his conviction that virtuous self-government offers true freedom and that license precipitates the loss of liberty, remained acute.

Satan
Satan, as drawn by Gustave Doré, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost's most significant discussions concerning matters of liberty, license, and self-regulation take place in the conflicts between Satan and the angel Abdiel— loyal to God and generally interpreted as a character with whom Milton specifically identified—at the beginning of Satan's rebellion against God. Satan mocks Abdiel, seeking to turn on its head the Miltonic distinction between liberty and license, suggesting that those who join his rebellion against God are supporters of "Liberty" (6.164), and calling the angels who remain loyal to God those who

through sloth had rather serve,

Ministering Spirits, trained up in Feast and Song;

Such hast thou armed, the Minstrelsy of Heaven

Servility with freedom to contend. (6.166-69)

Significantly, Satan here describes the loyal angels with various characteristics of license, including "sloth" and the self-indulgence implied in their participation in "Feast and Song." Presenting a picture of license similar to that which Milton presents in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Satan argues that those who maintain "Servility" to a tyrannous monarch do so for its ease.

But Abdiel's response turns the tables on Satan, distinguishing between legitimate service to God and servitude to an unworthy ruler:

Apostate, still thou err'st, nor end wilt find

Of erring, from the path of truth remote:

Unjustly thou deprav'st it with the name

Of Servitude to serve whom God ordains,

Or Nature; God and Nature bid the same,

When he who rules is worthiest, and excels

Them whom he governs. This is servitude,

To serve the unwise, or him who hath rebelled

Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,

Thy self not free, but to thyself enthralled;

Yet lewdly dar'st our ministering upbraid. (6.172-82)

Abdiel's implication is clear: true liberty, not servitude, comes from serving the true God, whereas servitude is to serve the unworthy ruler. But Satan's lack of true freedom is accompanied both by Satan's license and his failure, for all his show of liberty, to govern himself rightly. With relation to God, the best self-governance is willing obedience to God, as Abdiel himself exemplifies. But Satan is "not free" because he exemplifies "servility to a wicked self"; he is "to [him] self enthralled," and, consequently, he shall be bound by "Chains in Hell" (6.186).

The connection between license, the failure to govern oneself, and the loss of liberty for the human race as a whole is shown explicitly in the final book of Paradise Lost. There, the fallen but now repentant Adam is instructed by the archangel Michael concerning the future of the human race. In a particularly useful passage, Michael speaks to Adam concerning the tyrant Nimrod, who presided over the building of the Tower of Babel and who worked "to subdue / Rational Liberty" in men (12.81-82). Michael tells Adam:

Since thy original lapse, true Liberty

Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells

Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being:

Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,

Immediately inordinate desires

And upstart Passions catch the Government

From Reason, and to servitude reduce

Man till then free. Therefore since he permits

Within himself unworthy Powers to reign

Over free Reason, God in Judgment just

Subjects him from without to violent Lords;

Who oft as undeservedly enthrall

His outward freedom: Tyranny must be,

Though to the Tyrant thereby no excuse.

Yet sometimes Nations will decline so low

From virtue, which is reason, that no wrong,

But Justice, and some fatal curse annexed

Deprives them of their outward liberty,

Their inward lost. (12.83-101)

In this crucial passage, Michael notes that reason and liberty, inextricably joined, are both lost when men give themselves over to license, being ruled by their passions instead of wise and virtuous self-government. The inevitable result of the failure to self-govern is to be subjected to tyranny, something which, Milton suggests, is the deserved state for those who exchange liberty for license.

The idea that those who fail to self-govern through wise virtue will be subjected to tyranny is seen again in Paradise Regained, Milton's poetic retelling of Satan's tempting of Jesus in the desert as recorded in Luke 4:1-13. Late in this brief epic, Satan exhorts Jesus—usually called "the Son" in the poem—to free the Romans from the "servile yoke" (4.102) of the vile emperor Tiberius Caesar and to, with Satan's help, rule them himself. But the Son refuses, stating that God did not send him to free

That people victor once, now vile and base,

Deservedly made vassal, who once just,

Frugal, and mild, and temperate, conquered well,

But govern ill the Nations under yoke,

Peeling their Provinces, exhausted all

By lust and rapine; first ambitious grown

Of triumph that insulting vanity;

Then cruel, by their sports to blood enured

Of fighting beasts, and men to beasts exposed,

Luxurious by their wealth, and greedier still,

And from the daily Scene effeminate.

What wise and valiant man would seek to free

These thus degenerate, by themselves enslaved,

Or could of inward slaves make outward free? (4.131-45)

Here the Son—another character with whom Milton strongly identified—makes clear that the various fleshly indulgences of the Roman empire brought about their subjection to a tyrannical ruler, the deserved result for exchanging liberty for license. There is obvious irony that the Romans, having become lascivious themselves, are subject to the licentious Tiberius. Having rejected the virtuous self-governing that characterized the Roman Republic, the Romans are now unfit for liberty, and the Son recognizes the illogicality of attempting to free from without those who, like Satan in Paradise Lost, are enslaved to themselves.

By contrast, the Son of Paradise Regained is free to resist Satan's tyranny because he is himself the ultimate model of virtuous selfrule, exemplifying the principle of selfgovernment he describes as he rejects one of the evil one's fleshly temptations: "Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules / Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more [than] a King" (2.466-67). The Son goes on to describe the absurdity of one who aspires to rule over others even as he is "Subject himself to Anarchy within, / Or lawless passions in him which he serves" (2.471- 72). Even as the Son is portrayed as the exemplar of faith and self-control, Milton suggests that those who trust, obey, and imitate him will know true liberty.

The ideal of self-governance remains a popular dimension of the American psyche. But the idea that the freedom of self-governance must be based on virtue now seems largely quaint, and one may reasonably ask if Americans desire not liberty but rather license. From Milton's perspective, freedom from governmental tyranny was predicated upon freedom from the licentious self, even as usurpation of one's rational virtue by self-gratifying license was the prelude to tyrannical outside rule, a view Milton held consistently throughout his life. Indeed, writing the year before his death in his final prose tract, Of True Religion (1673), Milton warned explicitly that England was at risk of falling under the judgment of God, a judgment that would manifest itself in a tyrannous government that would rule over the nation. This risk, Milton argued, was due in no small part to the moral license so prevalent in the nation: "Pride, Luxury, Drunkenness, Whoredom, Cursing, Swearing, bold and open Atheism," Milton wrote, were "every where abounding." His final admonition to his countrymen to avoid such judgment was straightforward: "amend our lives with all speed."

This essay is a condensed version of a longer article appearing in the spring 2014 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality. David V. Urban is an associate professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.