John Milton
John Milton; drawing by David Levine

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 matrimony.”


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.

This Issue

March 23, 1978