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where the nobility and chief gentry, from a proportionable compass of territory annexed to each city, may build houses or palaces befitting their quality; may bear part in the government, make their own judicial laws, or use those that are, and execute them by their own elected judicatures and judges without appeal, in all things of civil government between man and man. So they shall have justice in their own hands, law executed fully and finally in their own counties and precincts, long wished and spoken of, but never yet obtained. They shall have none then to blame but themselves, if it be not well administered; and fewer laws to expect or fear from the supreme authority. . . .125
They shall not then need to be much mistrustful of their chosen patriots in the grand council; who will be then rightly called the true keepers of our liberty, though the most of their business will be in foreign affairs.126
It is a sort of provincial oligarchy that Milton wishes to establish. Perhaps he longed, his whole life through, for the peace of the Horton period, when he frequented "the nobility and chief gentry." Anyhow, he has lost his last illusion: his faith in the people. Nothing remains but despair on the Earth-for the present- and trust in God, who will set things right, no doubt; but at the time Milton lifts up his voice in ultimate bitterness of spirit, and delivers judgment on the people of England:
I have no more to say at present: few words will save us, well considered; few and easy things, now seasonably done. But if the people be so affected as to prostitute religion and liberty to the vain and groundless apprehension, that nothing but kingship can restore trade, not remembering the frequent plagues and pestilences that then wasted this city, such as through God's mercy we never have felt since; and that trade flourishes nowhere more than in the free commonwealths of Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries, before their eyes at this day; yet if trade be grown so craving and importunate through the profuse living of tradesmen, that 126 Ibid., II, 126.
125 Ibid., II, 135.
nothing can support it but the luxurious expenses of a nation upon trifles or superfluities; so as if the people generally should betake themselves to frugality, it might prove a dangerous matter, lest tradesmen should mutiny for want of trading; and that therefore we must forego and set to sale religion, liberty, honour, safety, all concernments divine or human, to keep up trading: if, lastly, after all this light among us, the same reason shall pass for current, to put our necks again under kingship, as was made use of by the Jews to return back to Egypt, and to the worship of their idol queen, because they falsely imagined that they then lived in more plenty and prosperity; our condition is not sound, but rotten, both in religion and all civil prudence; and will bring us soon, the way we are marching, to those calamities, which attend always and unavoidably on luxury, all national judgments under foreign and domestic tyranny.
What I have spoken, is the language of that which is not called amiss "The good old Cause": if it seem strange to any, it will not seem more strange, I hope, than convincing to backsliders. Thus much I should perhaps have said, though I was sure I should have spoken only to trees and stones; and had none to cry to, but with the prophet, "O earth, earth, earth!" to tell the very soil itself, what her perverse inhabitants are deaf to. Nay, though what I have spoke should happen (which thou suffer not, who didst create mankind free! nor thou next, who didst redeem us from being servants of men!) to be the last words of our expiring liberty. But I trust I shall have spoken persuasion to abundance of sensible and ingenuous men; to some, perhaps, whom God may raise from these stones to become children of reviving liberty; and may reclaim, though they seem now choosing then a captain back for Egypt, to bethink themselves a little, and consider whither they are rushing; to exhort this torrent also of the people, not to be so impetuous, but to keep their due channel; and at length recovering and uniting their better resolutions, now that they see already how open and unbounded the insolence and rage is of our common enemies, to stay these ruinous proceedings, justly and timely fearing to what a precipice of destruction the deluge of this epidemic madness would hurry us, through the general defection of a misguided and abused multitude.128
127 It is curious to see Milton making such short work of economic factors, which we set such store by nowadays. 128 Prose Works, II, 137–38.
VII. THE PROBLEM
The Cause is lost. The sons of Belial hold the world, and lead it to ruin and chastisement. The Saints have disappeared: killed, in prison, in exile, in misery. Milton is in hiding, perhaps in peril of his life.
How is such a world to be explained? Can the triumph of crime be understood, if there be such things as justice, liberty, God? Such was the problem for Milton at the Restoration, and for several years he had seen it looming on his thought's horizon. Had God then forsaken his own elect? If Cromwell had succeeded in organizing a true Kingdom of God, Milton would have again become a literary man in search of a subject, as in 1640, instead of being an Apostle preaching the Faith. Perhaps a Paradise Lost would have been written, but the poem would have been essentially different. It would have been a splendid song of triumph, no doubt, but somewhat superfluous. The failure of all the terrestrial hopes of the Puritans made something more of Paradise Lost. Disaster gave to the poem that vital and impassioned interest which makes of it more than a work of art, the ultimate question of man interrogating destiny. This it is that places Paradise Lost so high in human consciousness: it is an attempt to give a precise answer to a metaphysical question which arises both from personal anguish and universal suffering. It is a voice singing of mankind at a loss to understand its repeated failures in its struggle against Fate.
The long series of disillusions that had set the problem had also provided Milton with the elements of the answer. Milton finds in human nature all the causes of its failures, and consequently he thinks that man holds in
his power the means to shape the future. The workings of Milton's thought and his own private experience, as we have seen, go together.
Very early in his life, at a time when his doctrine was still orthodox, he reached the idea that desire was legitimate. This was in his troubles and trials of 1643. This central conception, based essentially on his high idea of himself that could not regard as evil what he felt to be normal in his heart, is probably what ruined his orthodoxy. He probably passed from the idea of the legitimacy of desire to that of the goodness of matter, and then to that of the divinity of matter. His own desires could not be vile; his intellect, working on this basis, found in the end that his desires came from God, the source of all good, and consequently that the body, the instrument of desire, the flesh contemned by the Puritans, came from God, was part of God. Thus disappeared the distinction between body and soul—a useless distinction if the body be as divine as the soul. So Milton felt God in the desire of the flesh and the material laws of nature. He identified God with the Creation; he felt God in himself, not by a mystical feeling of union, but through intense consciousness of the "goodness" of the flesh, of
But God was necessarily much more than that. Rising to the rank of member of God, Milton could not but feel his limitations. God is the Creation, but he is much more; he is the infinite, he is justice, he is the incomprehensible. This ruined in Milton's mind the idea of the Trinity; above the created world, which he called the Son, he set incomprehensible Destiny, which he called the Father.
It is no doubt impossible to trace in detail the evolu
tion of a man's thought; but details are of little importance; the essential thing here is to seize the harmony between Milton's ideas and Milton's character. The central point of his cosmology, the God-all, and divine matter as a source of all good, seems to coincide thus with his high conception of himself and his tendency to vindicate the legitimacy of his desires. The same coincidence exists in his ethics. He set down as a principle that his desires could not be evil, since his reason approved of them. Hence what is peculiarly his religion: regeneration through Reason, Christ being the incarnation of divine Reason coming to tame passion. From that same pride comes all his need of liberty, which is the basis of his politics. The regenerated man, in whom reason rules, cannot but be free; and politics merge into theology through the idea that man is a part of God and that regenerated man is a member of Christ, is the very reason of God:
What have we, Sons of God, to do with law?
On this monumental pride, in all its close organization, disaster after disaster came down, from Milton's first marriage to the Restoration. But Milton, who did not look upon himself as a being apart, applied to the body politic the notions derived from his own sentimental experience. Thus he discovered the causes of the failure of the Puritans: in the greed of the Presbyterians, in Cromwell's self-interested policy, in the blindness of the people, whom he accuses explicitly of not having got rid of "avarice, ambition, and sensuality." 129 These passions necessarily brought back the tyrant. Yet all hope is not
129 Defensio secunda, in Prose Works, I, 295. See below, pp. 185 ff.