Thursday, December 18, 2008

Liberty requires virtue

December 9 was the 400th anniversary of John Milton's birth and this has occasioned recognition of his literary contribution more than of his Christian convictions and political thought. Theo Hobson thinks, instead, that "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." At openDemocracy in "John Milton’s vision" he argues that Milton's view of the proper relationship between church and state has been realized much better in this country than in his own.
It is far more accurate to say that Milton was a key founder of the American liberal tradition, than of the British one. This is not just because of his republicanism: even more important to him than republicanism was his aversion to religious establishment. During the interregnum (1649-60) he worried that England's revolution was uncertain until Oliver Cromwell had clearly separated church and state, and instituted an explicitly secular liberal state (which Cromwell never quite did). This was the ideological obsession of Milton's life. ....

The ideological cause of his life was not simply "liberty" but a specific story about liberty. True political liberty, he believed, was rooted in a common acknowledgment that a new form of Christianity had emerged, by God's grace. This new form of Christianity was not simply "Protestantism", for that word points in various directions, most of them wrong. It was a specific version of Protestantism that was only now coming into being - a politically mature form of Protestantism. ....

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. ....[more]
John Milton on liberty:
[S]tories teach us, that liberty sought out of season, in a corrupt and degenerate age, brought Rome itself to a farther slavery: for liberty hath a sharp and double edge, fit only to be handled by just and virtuous men; to bad and dissolute, it becomes a mischief unwieldy in their own hands: neither is it completely given, but by them who have the happy skill to know what is grievance and unjust to a people, and how to remove it wisely; what good laws are wanting, and how to frame them substantially, that good men may enjoy the freedom which they merit, and the bad the curb which they need.
John Milton’s vision | open Democracy News Analysis, Milton on Liberty’s Sharp and Double Edge (Harper's Magazine)

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