A Warning Against Conformity and Tradition

Found in John Milton’s writings are ideas of Freedom of Speech, Religious Tolerance, Individual Conscience, and Democracy that stand as a rejection to the systematic control of the clergy and monarchy that surrounded him.

(links to referenced writings at the end of the post)

In the summary before Areopagitica is the statement that “Milton defends widespread religious toleration, though with restriction on Roman Catholicism, which, like most of his Protestant contemporaries, he viewed as a political threat and a tyranny binding individual conscience to the pope”(1479). Such a belief and derision for the Catholic Church is found throughout Milton’s speech. This is a striking statement made by Milton and is one that exactly mirrors the religious atmosphere of England when just a century before this time England was a Catholic nation under the guidance of the Catholic Pope. The words of God were left in the hand of the various clergy of the Catholic Church who then dispensed truth that was approved of by the church. No commoner had their own Bible and the Bible was not in the language of the common people, making it impossible for the individual to create their own ideas and understanding of God’s words and teachings. 

The Catholic Church held the monopoly on Truth and for centuries ruled with an iron fist, slapping down any who rose up against it. Milton makes mention of this when he speaks of England being the birthplace of the Reformation due to his mention of John Wycliffe who struck out against the Catholic Church- yet for this, John Wycliffe was viciously attacked for his differing beliefs as “…all must be suppressed which is not found in their syntagma”(1484). This is an important part of Milton’s argument due to what he uses it for, as this is not merely a battering ram used to attack the Catholic Church, but is instead a warning towards the current Protestant churches so that they do not fall into the same trap and conformity that once existed in the Catholic Church. “But now, as our obdurate clergy have with violence demeaned the matter, we are become hitherto the latest and the backwardest scholars of who God offered to have made us the teachers”(1485); a truly striking reprimand towards those in the Protestant Churches who have becomes stuck in their own ideas and beliefs enough that they stop the very growth of Truth as the Catholic Church had. He petitions to these religious people to be more accepting and more open to those around them so that God’s Kingdom can truly be built, shown wonderfully in his analogy of the man who was labored for a long time and now wishes to share that knowledge with so many, yet is kept out by the censorship that has been pushed forward. 

He looks down on the Presbyterian Church government, seeing their words as fabrications and a mockery of the Truth that exists. “We do not see that while we still affect by all means a rigid and external formality, we may as soon fall again into a gross conforming stupidity, a stark and dead congealment of ‘wood and hay and stubble,’ forced and frozen together, which is more to the sudden degenerating of a church than many subdichotomies of petty schism”(1488, emphasis added). The use of the word ‘again’ leads one to think of the previous church of power that existed before the Reformation- the Catholic Church was truly a centuries old creation based on tradition and conformity where the existence of Truth was kept under lock and key and any who fought against this control were excommunicated, exiled, or sentenced to death. Milton is worried that the Protestant Churches now in power will begin to follow after the Catholic Church in creating set ideas and beliefs, compelling followers to believe rather than allowing individuals to create their own ideas and understanding of the various shapes that Truth can take. He warns that they must not turn away the ideas of others solely for the fact that they do not match their own as that will only lead to an existence where Truth will fall away from the faith itself. His call is that Christians are to always strive towards growth and change; towards intuition and progress. Christians are to always seek to improve their understanding of Truth through their toleration and acceptance of those around them. He warns that if they do not do this, then the Protestant Churches will be no better than the Catholic Church and that, as a result, Truth will once again fall away from the hands of the people as conformity and tradition take precedence. 

It is a stunning statement supporting freedom of speech and religious tolerance, something that is just starting to be common around this time period. He is also upholding the individual’s right to receive truth and understanding for themselves, and that the individual should never be battered down by the collective just because the truths they have discovered and found may complicate or shake the foundations of the collective. He is offering Truth as a free creation, as something that cannot be systematically owned by one group or other and especially not just because one has the power and influence to do so. Power and influence mean nothing to Truth: Truth is able to stand on its own regardless of what is brought against it. If your truth can be knocked down or destroyed by the words of an individual, than it is not absolute and may need to be revised or possibly even let go of.

Milton is also showing the foresight of history here. Once, millennia ago, Christianity and ‘Catholicism’ were lowest on the totem pole and were constantly knocked down by the powerful religions and systems of the Roman Empire and other nations. Yet, favor changed and Christianity was made legal and even supported by the Emperor. And then, like a cycle, when Christianity- Catholicism -became the most powerful religion in the West, it followed the same path as their previous tormentors had. Now a new shift has occurred, Catholicism has been knocked down from the top of society and has been replaced by the various Protestant churches. Once again, the same path can be taken. Yet, at the core of the Protestant religions is the idea of freedom of individual thought and understanding. There is a very real threat that if Protestantism becomes just like Catholicism was, that it will truly lose its core principles and ideas- and in the process, lose its heart and soul. That is what Milton is warning against here. Many writers and poets throughout time have used the written word as a way to escape the world around them, but Milton consistently does the opposite. His writings are totally drenched in the ideas and situations of the world he found himself born within. He speaks of such issues with power and confidence, willing to say what needs to be said in order to create change and awareness.

He has spent his entire life surrounded by religion, being born in a strong Protestant household and going to prominent schools like St. Paul’s and Christ’s College, Cambridge. Yet, he was not impressed with such places and “became increasingly disenchanted with the lack of reformation in the church under Archbishop William Laud…”(1448). Towards his fellow students he said, “They thought themselves gallant men, and I thought them fools.” Even more, though he was incredibly proficient in writing Latin(long used as the main language of western religion) he became determined to write in English, as fit the times, going against centuries of religious tradition. Yet, “Milton could always maintain friendships and family relationships across ideological divides”(1449), befriending Protestants and Catholics alike. His contempt was more towards the leaders and officials of religion; it was the structure and disciplines that drove him into protesting.

He was so involved in the world around him and deeply aware of the events of his own life in his writings that he couldn’t help writing endlessly about such topics. Areopagitica(1644) itself was written due to the fact that his writings promoting divorce(based on his own shaky marriage) were shot down by Parliament, a censorship that galled him. Freedom of Speech and Religion is the driving message of this work and one he passionately defends. He really was a Modern Man born in a still mostly Medieval Century. His life was truly tragic, though, as he lost two wives and two of his six children while at the same time becoming blind, all during the execution of Charles I, the Reign of Cromwell, and the Restoration of the Stuart Royal Line.

He was a democratic man at heart, a man that extolled freedom and liberty as much as he could and railed against the system that controlled his country of England and supported revolution and change. Of course, his most well-known work Paradise Lost (1667/74) was completed near the end of his life after the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666; a story telling of the battle between Heaven, Hell, and the Mortal World. By his last year, he wrote the Christian Doctrine which “denies the Trinity (making the Son and the Holy Spirit much inferior to God the Father), insists upon free will against Calvinist predestination, and privileges the inspiration of the Spirit even above the Scriptures and the Ten Commandments”(1451) which is a stunning and strong stand to take in this time period.

The work that shows his life the best, though, seems to be Samson Agonistes (published in 1671): “The deeply flawed, pain-wracked, blind, and defeated Samson struggles, in dialogues with his visitors, to gain self-knowledge, discovering at last a desperate way to triumph over his captors and offer his people a chance to regain their freedom”(1451). How poetic and striking an image; here is John Milton, elderly and blind, having spent his entire life pushing for freedom and liberty, having been given the hope of it with the revolution and the reign of Cromwell that he might see a fully Democratic and Republican England, only to see the Stuarts reestablished and England continue on as a Monarchy. Yet, it is in this defeat that he writes his best works with Paradise Lost, Christian Doctrine, and Samson Agonistes that are still read today; Epics that he has wanted to write his entire life and finally completes at the very end. His life truly is a struggle, one wrapped up in the events and situations of the world around him that he fights endlessly against and is consistently aware of. Yet from this struggle, victory and change is created through the power of the written word, a word that lasts even till now in a world that has taken on and fought to create the various ideas that Milton wanted to create in his own time: Religious Tolerance, Democracy, Freedom of Speech, and Individual Rights.

Links to Referenced Writings

The entire work of Areopagitica by John Milton from Project Gutenberg.

A free photocopy ebook of Christian Doctrine by John Milton, free to read- it even has a free audiobook option if the words are too small to read on the page for you(though it is very computerized)!

Project Gutenberg being reliable as always with a free copy of the entire book of Paradise Lost by John Milton(introduction and all 12 ‘books’), with free Kindle and epub options as well here: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/26.

This link leads to all the Poetical Works of John Milton that Project Gutenberg has, but at the end of the table of contents is a link to Samson Agonistes by John Milton, free to read!

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. pp. 1447-51, 1479-89, 1493-1768. New York: Norton, 2012.