[Marxism] Christopher Hill review in NYRB

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 18 07:56:17 MST 2013

On 2/18/13 9:45 AM, james pitman wrote:
> ======================================================================
> Rule #1: YOU MUST clip all extraneous text when replying to a message.
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> Can any comrades rescue this NYRB article from behind its paywall?
> http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1978/mar/23/milton-satan-and-subversion/
> It's Quentin Skinner reviewing Christopher Hill's 'Milton and the English
> Revolution'.
> Jamie.

Milton, Satan, and Subversion
March 23, 1978
Quentin Skinner

Milton and the English Revolution
by Christopher Hill
Viking, 541 pp., $20.00

Although Christopher Hill is undoubtedly one of England’s leading 
historians, his reputation has recently suffered from a number of 
astonishingly vituperative and unfair attacks, the most intemperate of 
which was launched a couple of years ago by Professor J.H. Hexter in the 
pages of the Times Literary Supplement. Hill’s many admirers will thus 
be all the more delighted that his new book, Milton and the English 
Revolution, is such a magisterial as well as exhilarating piece of 
scholarship. Hill has set himself a more exacting task than ever before: 
that of explaining the relationship between the social being and the 
consciousness of a great poet. And he has responded with his most 
ambitious book to date, a huge study crammed with fresh information and 
challenging arguments.

Hill aims to establish three main points. First he contends that Milton 
was not only a more political but a “much more radical” writer than is 
commonly supposed. Next he argues that Milton’s unorthodox views were 
largely derived from a “permanent dialogue with the plebeian radical 
thinkers” who came to prominence in the English revolution of the 
mid-seventeenth century. Finally he claims to find many echoes of this 
“radical background” in the great poems—especially Paradise Lost—which 
Milton completed after the failure of the revolution and the restoration 
of the Stuart monarchy in 1660.

It is true that, in order to defend his claim that Milton was “always a 
politician,” Hill has to glide rather rapidly over the years before the 
outbreak of the revolution in 1642. These are dismissed as “the period 
of his apprenticeship.” But Milton was already in his mid-thirties when 
the civil wars began, and there is no evidence that he had been involved 
up to that time in any activist or revolutionary groups. Quite the 
contrary: first he spent seven years buried in the scholastic curriculum 
at Christ’s College, Cambridge; then he devoted himself to what he later 
described as “many studious and contemplative years” of private reading; 
and finally he set off on the Grand Tour in the best aristocratic style, 
meeting such illustrious figures as the jurist Grotius in Paris and the 
aged Galileo in Florence. Not many signs here of any contacts with what 
Hill likes to call “the radical underground”—even supposing that such a 
movement existed.

Nevertheless, Hill’s emphasis on Milton’s political commitment is very 
salutary. Milton undoubtedly became a revolutionary in the course of the 
1640s, and served the Parliamentary cause with great personal courage. 
After the execution of Charles I in 1649, he instantly and recklessly 
published his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, congratulating the people 
of England on ridding themselves of a “wicked king” and reaffirming 
their natural liberties. Hill exaggerates when he says that Milton “was 
one of the first Englishmen publicly to defend the right of the people 
to call their kings to account.” The same argument had been mounted 
nearly a century before by such Calvinist revolutionaries as John Ponet 
and Christopher Goodman. But he is right to insist that Milton was one 
of the first to justify the regicide on the grounds that Charles I had 
tyrannously undermined the ideal of popular sovereignty.

Milton’s most courageous service on behalf of the short-lived Republic 
of England was performed in 1651. Claude de Saumaise, one of the 
greatest European scholars of the age, had published a violent attack on 
Cromwell and his supporters for murdering their king, and Milton was 
commissioned by the government to reply. He was warned that the 
intensive research and writing involved might cost him what remained of 
his already failing eyesight, and within a few months of completing his 
Defense of the People of England he in fact became totally blind. His 
sole comfort was the knowledge that, as Hill remarks, the Defense 
“enjoyed a fantastic success.” It not only established the 
respectability of the regicide government but also brought Milton the 
reward of international fame. As he proudly emphasized in his sonnet to 
Cyriack Skinner, he was much sustained in later years by the thought 
that he had lost his sight “in liberty’s defense,” and that “all Europe” 
was still talking “from side to side” about his book.

As well as being a political revolutionary, Milton was highly unorthodox 
in many of his religious beliefs. These he outlined in a long Latin 
treatise Of Christian Doctrine which he wrote and rewrote throughout the 
last decades of his life, regarding it as his “dearest and best 
possession.” Posterity has not agreed, for it was not even published 
until the late 1820s. But Hill is able to show—in the longest and most 
fascinating section of his book—how deeply Milton was affected by the 
most heretical ideas of his age. He was a Mortalist, denying the 
separation of body and soul. He was an Anti-Trinitarian, rejecting the 
idea of Christ’s divinity. He was a Millenarian, believing that Christ 
will return to reign on earth for a thousand years. And he was an 
Arminian, repudiating Calvin’s key assumption that God predestines an 
elect minority to be saved and everyone else to be damned. (But was he a 
consistent Arminian? What about the famous passage in Book III of 
Paradise Lost where God proclaims, “Some have I chosen of peculiar 
Grace/Elect above the rest”?) Finally, Milton was also a defender of 
polygamy and divorce. He spoke of “the liberty, not unnatural, to have 
many wives.” And he caused a sensation in 1644 by publishing a tract in 
which he pleaded for a “tender mercy” to be shown to those who (like 
himself) had “made themselves the bondmen of a luckless and helpless 

Hill’s main concern is to ask how Milton came to hold so many subversive 
beliefs. Drawing extensively on his own earlier and brilliant book, The 
World Turned Upside Down, he first sketches an outline of the 
“lower-class heretical culture” which emerged out of what he calls the 
“cultural revolution” of the 1640s. (Hill has a fondness for hinting at 
such alleged parallels: he even speaks of the English revolution as a 
“great leap forward,” and compares Cromwell’s army to the Soviet 
Communist Party in the 1920s.) Hill then advances his central argument 
that Milton derived his ideas from personal contact with these “way out” 
sects. It is true that he wavers a little at this crucial point, 
sometimes only suggesting that the radicals “may well have influenced” 
Milton’s intellectual development. But his fundamental thesis is stated 
with remarkable confidence: Milton “took nearly all his ideas” from “his 
radical contemporaries,” who provided “the intellectual milieu from 
which Milton’s ideas arose.”

By highlighting this perspective, Hill makes a most original and 
important contribution to the understanding of Milton’s thought. There 
seems no doubt that a number of Milton’s views were derived from the 
most subversive thinkers of his age. The defense of polygamy, for 
example, was mainly associated with the Anabaptists, while Milton’s 
attack on the monarchy for imposing “the Norman Yoke” as “a badge of 
slavery” upon the English people was a distinctively Leveller argument. 
Moreover, Hill is able to show that Milton’s attachment to these ideas 
gave rise to a creative tension in his poetry, since they left him in a 
state of uneasy suspension between his radical inclinations and his 
humanist heritage. Some of Milton’s best recent critics—notably 
Christopher Ricks—have already pointed out that Paradise Lost is at its 
subtlest and most memorable when Milton questions and equivocates 
instead of thundering out his lines. Hill goes on to suggest a 
historical explanation for this phenomenon, as well as offering many 
instances of the resulting conflicts in Milton’s thought: the conflicts 
between liberty and discipline, between passion and puritanism, which 
are such a marked feature of Milton’s personality as well as his finest 
creative work.

Hill’s account is much less satisfactory, however, when he tries to 
relate Milton’s heresies in detail to those of the radical sects. The 
startling claim he seeks to defend is that “the group closest to Milton 
was the Muggletonians”—the sect that Lodowick Muggleton and his cousin 
John Reeve founded in the early 1650s after God informed them in a 
series of direct messages that they were the “two witnesses” mentioned 
in the Book of Revelation. But the Muggletonians hardly seem close to 
Milton’s outlook at all. Muggleton was far from being a Millenarian, 
since he believed that the world was already in its “last times,” and 
that he and his associates had been singled out as God’s “last 
prophets.” Nor was he an Arminian, since he preached with great 
vehemence that God “predestinates” some men to be saved while 
“reprobating some men to damnation,” and does so “without any relation 
to good or evil actions,” but “merely to show forth the prerogative 
power of the Creator.” And whereas Milton was continually involved in 
radical politics, Muggleton scarcely seems to have taken any interest in 
political affairs at all—except that he was attracted by the royalist 
doctrine of passive obedience, and denounced the Quakers for failing to 
show due reverence to the king.

Even when Hill is right about the parallels between Milton and the 
sects, it is still hard to accept his central thesis that Milton arrived 
at his heretical beliefs as a result of making personal contact with the 
radicals in “tavern society.” Not only is there no direct evidence of 
any such links, but Hill has to contend with the awkward fact that 
Milton was a man of such notoriously retiring and fastidious habits. At 
college this had earned him the nickname of “the lady,” and in later 
life he developed into such a withdrawn scholar that—according to John 
Aubrey’s biography—his young bride ran away within a month of her 
marriage because of the oppressive quiet of his household. Hardly the 
sort of man to relish the rough and tumble of tavern debate.

But the main difficulty with Hill’s thesis is that there is no need to 
assume any contacts with “the radical underground” in order to explain 
how Milton may have arrived at his various heresies. For the ideas 
involved were in no case the exclusive property of the radical sects. 
Take for example Milton’s Arminianism. Hill points out that this 
doctrine was endorsed by “Quakers, Ranters and other radicals.” But it 
was also shared by some of Charles I’s most conservative bishops. Or 
take Milton’s Mortalism. Hill notes that this belief “was 
enthusiastically proclaimed by the Muggletonians.” But it was no less 
enthusiastically proclaimed by that scourge of all radicals, Thomas 
Hobbes. Or take his Millenarianism. Hill stresses that this attitude is 
“frequently met with in lower-class underground movements.” But the 
leading Millenarian writer of early seventeenth-century England was 
Joseph Mede—an Anglican, a member of the gentry, and a Fellow of 
Christ’s College, whose most important Millenarian tract was written 
while Milton himself was a student there.

These doubts only multiply if we turn from Milton’s religious heresies 
to his political beliefs, and in particular to his belief in individual 
liberty, arguably the most important value in his moral and political 
thought. Hill rightly observes that Milton’s political views were far 
from being those of an orthodox puritan. But he consistently overlooks 
the possibility that these differences may have arisen not from his 
presumed—and conjectural—involvement with “London congregations and 
taverns,” but rather from his well-known—and well-documented—familiarity 
with classical and Renaissance political philosophy.

Milton’s concept of liberty centers on the proposition that all men are 
created free. Hill duly notes this commitment, and immediately relates 
it to “a traditional lower-class reading of the Bible.” He fails to 
mention that the derivation of political society from an axiom of 
natural liberty had also been a basic principle of ancient 
jurisprudence. Nor does he mention that when Milton alludes to this 
doctrine, as he does in his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he refers 
us not to the Bible but rather to the various “men of learning” who have 
“treated this topic at length in both Greek and Latin.”

Milton also stresses the political implications of human freedom, 
arguing that “to take away from the people the right of choosing 
government takes away all liberty.” Hill quotes this passage, adding 
that its sentiment is “virtually identical” with the political outlook 
of the Levellers. What he doesn’t add is that the same sentiment had 
always been central to Renaissance discussions of republican 
self-government. Furthermore, he ought perhaps to have acknowledged 
that, when Milton discusses this argument in his political works, he 
makes no reference to the Levellers at any point, but repeatedly cites 
the authority of the Renaissance humanists. His Commonplace Book 
includes many passages copied from the leading humanist defenders of 
republican liberty, including Guicciardini, Sarpi, and especially 
Machiavelli. And in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates he goes out of 
his way to commend the radical views of George Buchanan and Sir Thomas 
Smith, two of the leading humanists of the sixteenth century.

Finally, Milton always insisted on the need to respect the liberty of 
others, above all defending the value of religious toleration. As Hill 
observes, Milton’s basic argument was that “given freedom of debate, the 
reason which is common to all men is likely to lead them to the same 
truths.” This attitude, Hill remarks, had already been taken up by 
“sectaries, Levellers and others left-wards.” But he doesn’t tell us 
that the same attitude had also been adopted long before by a number of 
prominent humanists, including Postel, Castellio, and Sir Thomas More in 
Utopia. Nor does he mention that, whereas Milton never once refers to 
the Levellers in this connection, he is known to have read and annotated 
Castellio, and spoke with deep admiration of More’s Utopia as a source 
of humane wisdom.

Hill is far too scrupulous not to mention quite a number of such 
counter-examples to his argument himself. The question is how much is 
left standing after all the exceptions and difficulties have been 
allowed. Hill seems to think that, although some of his details may be a 
bit shaky, his basic structure still remains there for all to see. But 
one begins to wonder whether some of the structure may not be a mirage.

Milton was of course far more than a writer of revolutionary tracts: he 
was also the author of Paradise Lost. The great strength of Hill’s book 
lies in his insistence that these two aspects of Milton’s life and work 
cannot be kept separate. After discussing the sources of Milton’s 
radical beliefs, Hill accordingly turns to examine their impact on the 
great poems to which Milton devoted the last fifteen years of his life.

The main argument of this final section is that Paradise Lost is not 
simply a meditation on the Fall of man. It is also an attempt to explain 
a more recent and in some ways a more devastating fall: the collapse of 
“the Good Old Cause” and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Milton 
is “wrestling with the problem of the failed revolution, the millennium 
that did not come.” So the character of Satan is intended to suggest 
“some of the ways in which the Good Old Cause had gone wrong.” And the 
epic is in part to be understood as a commentary on “the attitudes of 
the radicals whose irresponsibility Milton felt to be in large part to 
blame for the catastrophe of the Revolution.”

Admittedly there is a difficulty about this way of reading the poem. 
Even if Milton came to believe that Cromwell and his supporters had done 
the right thing for the wrong reasons, he surely never doubted that they 
had done the right thing—that they had been right to rebel, since the 
government of Charles I had been evil. But if we now press the analogy 
which Hill himself suggests, this seems to imply that Milton is telling 
us that Satan’s original act of rebellion must have been similarly 
justified, and thus that God is evil. Is this what Hill believes? He 
says not, for he explicitly rejects Empson’s claim in Milton’s God that 
the poet felt an active hatred for the God of Christianity. Yet the 
implications of Hill’s own interpretation seem to point inescapably in 
the same direction. Perhaps there is an inconsistency somewhere in his 
analysis which remains to be ironed out.

There is no doubt, however, that Hill’s “contextual” approach yields 
many fascinating new insights. He is able to uncover a large number of 
apparent political allusions in the poem, especially in Raphael’s 
account of the war in heaven and in Michael’s later survey of the 
history of the world. He is also able to offer an explanation of 
something that has troubled many readers of the opening Books: the fact 
that Satan is by no means presented as an embodiment of evil, but almost 
seems to be the hero of the poem. As Hill explains, “Satan is heroic: as 
heroic as Milton still thinks the English revolution had been.”

Finally, and most ambitiously, Hill is able to suggest a new view of 
Milton’s declared purpose, that of seeking to “justify the ways of God 
to Men.” Milton had seen the English revolution as “God’s cause,” and 
had watched that cause disintegrate. But as Hill puts it, this means 
that for Milton “God was on trial.” Why had he failed to prevent this 
outcome, why had he permitted evil to triumph? Milton’s answer is that 
because the leaders of the revolution had placed their own ambitions and 
interests above the good of the cause they deserved to fail. Like Adam, 
they were given freedom to choose, and chose evil methods instead of 
good. “Firm they might have stood / Yet fell.” God is thus said to be 
fully justified in having awarded their enemies the victory as a 
punishment for their sins. The lines “Vile and base/Deservedly made 
vassal” are taken to be Milton’s final judgment on the men he had trusted.

It is true that Hill takes this approach too far, with the result that 
he is occasionally betrayed into philistinism. At one unguarded moment 
he even implies that Paradise Lost is actually “about politics.” And 
when he tells us that “Milton’s known preoccupations at the time of 
writing” enable us to make sense of “the structure” of the poem, he 
seems insufficiently sensitive to the literary as opposed to the 
ideological influences which appear to have shaped Milton’s treatment of 
his theme. To Hill it seems obvious, for example, that there are “many 
analogies with the English Civil War” in Raphael’s long speech to Adam 
and Eve. But to other critics it has seemed no less obvious that the 
placing and character of Raphael’s narrative are intended to remind us 
of Aeneas’s parallel address to Dido in Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid—a 
source which Hill never mentions at all.

Hill anticipates this type of criticism in his Introduction, in which he 
speaks rather irritably of the “prevalent donnish assumption that ideas 
are transmitted principally by books.” The assumption may well be 
donnish, but this doesn’t necessarily make it absurd, especially when it 
is applied to a man of Milton’s wide memory and deep commitment to 
classical scholarship. If Hill wishes to say that the assumption is 
nevertheless incorrect, he will have to produce some better arguments. 
At the moment he seems too ready to overrule more traditional 
interpretations simply by raising his voice.

Nevertheless, Hill’s insistence on “replacing Milton in history” not 
only serves to illuminate many of the experiences out of which Milton 
distilled his greatest work but also helps in consequence to raise a 
number of extremely interesting questions about its meaning. In 
particular, as Hill points out, it helps us to understand not only what 
Milton’s “conscious self” may have been doing but also “what other more 
hidden intentions he may have had, which myths and allegory helped him 
both to realize and to disguise from himself.” One may regret the 
sneering tone which Hill adopts in talking about the products of the 
“Milton industry,” especially as he himself relies so heavily on the 
magnificent Yale edition of The Complete Prose Works. But there is no 
doubt that, in his own contribution to the industry’s output, Hill often 
shows us the hand of a master craftsman at work.

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