XVIII. JOHN MILTON (1608-1674)
Today most readers know John Milton as John Milton the poet, and all this because most colleges and universities focus on this part of his work. The reality is that John Milton was a superb essayist with many seminal political ideas.
In the struggle between Puritans and Royalists in England —in the middle of the seventeenth century— the proponents of republican ideas followed their own instincts about politics based on general principles of fair play and political justice. The fact that there existed ample statutory and common English law did not deter them.
Pamphleteers and essayist argued for the rights of the people. Slowly but surely a body of doctrine began to take shape, with human rights as their guiding star.
John Milton distinguished himself for his original political essays. Not only were his essays serious and accessible, but he wrote them with a depth of philosophy. Not only did Milton write, but he was also an activist, not unwilling to tangle with established authority.
Controversy followed him. First he tangled with church government. Of this entanglement he drew the conclusion that there ought to be a definite separation of church and estate. Milton was also an advocate of free expression, even of the right to privacy which included the right to divorce. His arguments were so convincing that the American founding fathers’ considered them in drafting the Constitution of the United States.
Charged with contempt and embittered by it he published an essay entitled Areopagitica: a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. In this essay he wrote about the evil of censorship of the press, going beyond into a defense of liberty.
After Charles I was executed Milton immediately aligned himself with the republican group, expressing the justification of the execution in a pamphlet on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates; proving, that it is lawful and hath been so held through all ages, for any, who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant, or wicked King, and after due conviction, to depose, and put him to death, if the ordinary magistrate have neglected, or denied to do it, and that they, who of late, so much blame deposing are the men that did it themselves.
In 1660 he wrote another essay: The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and the Excellence thereof compared with the inconveniences and dangers of readmitting kingship in this nation.
The Eikonoklastes (" ImageSmasher") was another piece written in reply to the Eikon Basilike (" Royal Image" an anonymous pamphlet believed by many to have been penned by the King himself).
John Milton was an indefatigable man of letters and action; not just an idle poet. Besides his popular works, he also wrote scholarly essays in Latin.