England's Greatest Scholar.
These five elegantly bound volumes may be regarded in the light of a "vast storehouse of wisdom," eloquence, and erudition. Three of these volumes are edited by J. A. St. John, and adorned with his scholarly notes, observations, and reflections. Milton's Defence of the People of England against the learned, insolent, pedantic, mercenary sophist Salmasius—a Leyden professor—is an immortal monument of his genius. He pours sarcastic vitriol upon the head of the king's apologist. Indeed, both in this work and also in the Eikonoklastes, he excels even Demosthenes, and in point of odious personalities, Cicero himself. His fulsome vituperation mars the splendour and brightness of his eloquence. Despite his herculean efforts in the cause of civil and religious liberty, the people "returned like animals devoid of reason to their old servitude under the Stuarts." Salmasius and his servile brood could only maintain their cause by "fraud, fallacy, ignorance, and barbarity." Milton had "light, truth, reason, and learning on his side." He was a grand Puritan and republican. Kings, peers, and prelates he hated. And yet he was only partially emancipated from superstition. In the Hebrew theocracy, it seems, "upon matters of great and weighty importance, they could have access to God himself and consult with him." How did they get veracious responses? Only through the mouth of a juggling prophet, like pagans from a Delphic oracle God never commanded to put a tyrant to death; albeit, it may be often lawful to dethrone a ruler who sets himself above the law—for the Lex is Rex. Superstition is a question of degree, and questionless. Milton has loaded his antagonists with everlasting disgrace. Out of the law of God, the laws of nations, and the laws of England and Scotland, he justifies the execution of Charles, who is roundly accused with having poisoned his father. In the teeth of canting Presbyterians, who perpetually oscillated between superstition and despotism, he relates that "no less than fifty Scottish kings have been either banished, or imprisoned, or put to death, and some of them publicly executed." Milton was a fearless eikonoklast or image-breaker of the idols of Salmasius, the bishops, and the presbyters. Milton, like Cromwell, had decision of character, a rare quality at all times. The Presbyterians—between two stools—fell to the ground. A just reward for renegades, place-hunters, and impostors. The tenure of kings and magistrates subsists only upon good behaviour. It is "a mutual Covenant between king and people." These Presbyterian "mercenary noise-makers first began, fomented, and carried on, beyond the cure of any sound or safe accommodation, all the evil which hath since unavoidably befallen them and their king." They practically deposed, outlawed, defied, depressed, and killed him, and when he is solemnly hanged, as he deserved, they begin to cant and preach in another strain. Milton's masterpiece, the Areopagetica, was written in 1644 "with the design of convincing the Presbyterians—who, being now in power, were mimicking the intolerant example set them by the prelates—of the iniquity and impolicy of endeavouring the suppression of opinions by force." But to enlightened toleration they were as deaf as dumb adders. After the death of Cromwell, Milton wrote his tracts on the Commonwealth, but the royalists managed, through Presbyterian superstition, to get Charles II. restored, and lo! for twenty-eight years the nation—especially Scotland—groaned under the despotism of the Stuarts. Milton's views are still in advance of this age. Ormond's proclamation and the Belfast Presbyterian pastoral are denounced as "devilish malice, impudence, and falsehood." They made "a show of gravity, learning," and liberty, but they were only hollow pretences of despotism and superstition. The Letters of State, written by Milton in Latin for Cromwell, the Parliament, and Council of State, prove what power England wielded over Europe then. Dr. Griffith's sermon in 1660, on the fear of God and and the King, was mercilessly torn in tatters by Milton, who treated that "pulpit mountebank" page break as he deserved. The obstructions in the way of a perfect Reformation in England he ascribed, in two books, to two causes—senseless ceremonies, and an Episcopal corporation of impostors. Lucifer, according to Milton, was the first prelate. His Reason of Church Government, in two books, is dead against prelacy, or even Presbyterianism. Every Christian is his own prophet, priest, and king, despite the arbitrary dictum of "any college of mountebanks." Milton would give no toleration to Popery because it gives none. His essay on true religion, heresy, and schism, might be advantageously studied now. Heresy, he defines, is in the will and choice professedly against Scripture; error is, against the will, in misunderstanding the Scripture after all sincere endeavours to understand it rightly. Hence, he would tolerate all honest interpretatian of Scripture, but atheism and superstition he would extirpate.
In Milton's day, the Scripture was before the Church; now both are disavowed by many. Conscience must be free; and now Reason protrudes upon the function of Conscience, even when alleging Scripture as its warrant. Milton's line of argument for toleration must inevitably lead to universal toleration of all sorts and conditions of men and opinions—not openly at variance with the peace and stability of the commonwealth. According to Milton, heresy is selection, schism is division, and Popery is idolatry. In 1659 Milton dedicated to the Parliament of the Commonwealth a book, entitled "The likeliest means to remove hirelings out of the Church." His panacea was to stop supplies. Under the gospel dispensation, tithes and "fees for sacraments, marriages, burials are wicked, accursed, simoniacal, and abominable." Hence the Church has become "a den of thieves and robbers." He also "shatters to atoms the feeble logic" of Bishop Hall in defence of his order. It is in the form of a dialogue, and withers away with sarcasm all apologies for Episcopalian drones, litanies, liturgies, matin, and evensong. He taxes them with having poisonsd the fountains of learning with their doltish and monastical rubbish.
Having thus sternly rebuked the Bishop's defence against Smectymnuus, he himself offers an apology for the same next year, 1642. He comes to the aid of the "five Presbyterian divines, under the appellation of Smectymnuus, a word formed with the initial letters of the names of the united authors of a pamphlet—Stephen Marston, Edward Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcornen, and William Spurstow." Had the assembly of divines secured the services of Milton, their cause might have obtained a perpetual ascendancy over England. Milton loathed "the scragged and thorny lectures of monkish and miserable sophistry," the food with which the English, and even the Scottish universities fed their students. They return from these fountains of learning "with a scholastic burr in their throats—their voices cracked with metaphysical gargations." They cannot "speak in a pure style, nor distinguish the ideas and various kinds of style in Latin." To the Parliament and assembly of divines Milton dedicated his radical work on the doctrine and discipline of divorce, in two books. As his editor justly says, "This great work on divorce, with the three parasitical treatises, 'Tetrachardon,' 'The opinions of Martin Bucer,' and 'Colasterion,' may be said nearly to exhaust all the philosophy and learning on the subject." It was two centuries and a half in advance of his day—perhaps, indeed, it will be so two centuries after our day. The subject is "discussed with surprising eloquence, learning, and freedom. . . . He pushes the Protestant license to the utmost, arrays text against text, gospel against law, and law against gospel, and ultimately decides in conformity with the suggestions of reason." That is—marriage is a civil contract for promotion of mutual happiness, and subsisting only so long as it promotes that, and no longer. Milton's religion was "a pure transcendental philosophy, which soared above texts and formularies, and rested ultimately on the eternal relations subsisting between God and his creatures." He had lofty ideas of England. Our "island was the cathedral of philosophy to France; our English Constantino baptized the Roman empire; Willibrode and Winifride were the first apostles of Germany; Alcuin and Wickliffe opened the eyes of Europe, the one in arts, the other in religion." In marriage, there must be a "conformity of disposition and affection—a mutual help to piety, to civil fellowship of love and amity, to generation, to household affairs, and the remedy of incontinence." Without these, God never united man and woman in wedlock. Each should be "a meet help against loneliness—a solace, not an adversary—a wife." Marriage is, indeed, a divine institution only in so far as it joins man and wife "in a love fitly disposed to the helps and comforts of domestic life." Milton hated "that vain, papistical distinction of divorce from page break bed and board." When either party breaks his or her part of the bond, then the dissolution of the contract is effected. The covenant is clearly conditional.
In 1644 Milton wrote a book on education. Were his idea of education realised, "there would then also appear in pulpits other visage, other gestures, and stuff otherwise wrought than what we now sit under, of times to as great a trial of our patience as any other that they preach to us."
His Familiar Letters in Latin breathe "nobleness of sentiment and lofty dignity of thought." Australasians, Americans, and even Britons should ponder over this oracular dictum—"We have never heard of any people or state which has not flourished in some degree of prosperity as long as their languange has retained its elegance and purity." Milton, like his favourite Sallust, said much in few words. He "united copiousness with brevity." Lord Macaulay, on the contrary, like Cicero, lacked this power. They had, however, "elegance of diction and copiousness of narrative," but they were strangers to brevity.
"The Christian Doctrine" is a posthumous treatise in two books. Milton, discarding scholastic and systematic bodies of divinity, compled from the Holy Scriptures a body of belief to rescue his own mind "from these two detestable curses, slavery and superstition." Tyranny and superstition he laboured to destroy. Like Locke, he felt "our inability to reconcile the universal prescience of God with the free agency of man." Still he holds to both, and makes predestination contingent, not absolute. He endeavours, with the aid of holy writ, to steer clear of scholastic subtleties and mysteries. Milton, it must be allowed, must be ranked in the same rank with Arians. They too, hold what is in Scripture a plain doctrine, but reject what they consider unscriptural terms, and a mystery founded purely on scholastic subtleties." He ascribed to the Son as high a share of divinity as was compatible with the denial of his self-existence and eternal generation, but not admitting his co-equality and co-essentiality with the Father." Milton, unlike Clarke, can scarcely be called a Semi-Arrian or Homoiousian. Polygamy too, is not unlawful, nor contrary to Holy Scripture. This treatise on "Christian Doctrine" is, according to St. John, "distinguished in a remarkable degree by calmness of thought, as well as by moderation of language." Doubtless Milton, like Pascal, was led into many absurdities by his purpose to "discard reason in sacred matters, and follow the doctrine of Holy Scripture exclusively." Like Whitby, however, he "acknowledged Christ to be verus Deus, though not summus Deus; both admit his true dominion and his God-head, though not original, independent, and underived; both assert his right to honour and worship, in virtue of the Father's gift; both deny his sameness of individual essence with the Father; and both maintain that he derives all his excellencies and power from the Father, and consequently is inferior to the Father." According to Milton, "To God the issue of events is not uncertain, but foreknown with the utmost certainty, though they be not decreed necessarily. . . The liberty of man must be considered entirely independent of necessity. . . . . . God decreed everything according to his infinite wisdom, by virtue of his fore-knowledge. . . . This foresight or fore-knowledge on the part of God imposed on them no necessity of acting in any definite way; no more than if the future event had been foreseen by any human being."
Milton goes on to prove from Scripture that "election is not a part of predestination, much less is reprobation. The ultimate purpose of predestination is salvation of believers." Clearly, then, it follows that "the apostacy of the first man was not decreed, but only foreknown by the infinite wisdom of God. Predestination was not an absolute decree before the fall of man." Herein he differs from Calvin; for both pretention and condemnation are included in reprobation, according to Calvin. Milton tries to evade the Calvinistic inference that God—who passes by the reprobate, and withholds from them the means of grace—is the author of sin and the destruction of sinners. Predestination is a general, not a particular election. In short, argues Milton, the principle of predestination depends upon a condition." God, Milton iterates and reiterates, "has predestined to salvation on the proviso of a general condition, all who enjoy freedom of will; while none are predestined to destruction, except through their own fault." Milton laboured "to discover the truth with a mind free from prejudice" And yet he could identify the Son under the name of the Logos! Nevertheless, he denies the "hypothesis no less strange than repugnant to reason, namely—that the Son, although personally and numerically another, was yet essentially one with the Father, and that thus the unity of God was preserved." He, however, asserts page 4 that "there is in reality but one true, independent, and supreme God." He adheres to the pagan idea of a mediator. Christ is "not in essence one with the Father, but only in intimacy of communion, in love, agreement, charity, spirit, and glory." Did he realty come down from heaven? Every great reformer may be called a messenger from God. Like the Arians and Socinians, Milton rejected the scholastic terms of Trinity, Tri-unity, Co-essentiality, Tri-personality, &c. Of Milton himself it might be said, "ye worship ye know not what." The Holy Spirit is only a divine influence. "God did not produce everything out of nothing, but of himself." Whence himself? Is not this paltry quibbling to evade a confession of, ignorance? Our author belives in conditional immortality. He denies the possibility of the separation of the spirit from the body at death. Both rest in the grave till the resurrection, when they shall be judged and rewarded. Consequently, purgatory is a fiction. The Sabbath is not binding upon the Christian, and "we nowhere read in Scripture of the Lord's supper being distributed to the first Christians by an appointed minister." Pædobaptism is not sanctiored in holy writ. It is, however, implied.
Dr. Sumner, Bishop of Winchester and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury, translated this treatise on "Christian Doctrine," and he asserts that Milton was indebted to Dr. William Ames and Wollebins, "both in the distribution of his subject and arrangement of his chapters." That may be so; but Milton was too original to be under any serious obligation to any "general systems of divinity." Richardson tells us that Milton "had a gravity in his temper—not melancholy, not sour, morose, or ill-natured—but a certain serenity of mind, a mind not condescending to little things." Symons also, assures us that "in his whole deportment there was visible a certain dignity of mind and a something of conscious superiority which could not at all times be suppressed or wholly withdrawn from observation." All this we might collect from a perusal of his writings.
John Milton wrote a History of Britain up to the Norman conquest. He painfully flounders on amidst fabulous traditions, and attempts to steer his path from chaos to cosmos. Our ancient progenitors were "a lewd, adulterous, incestuous race, ten or twelve men, absurdly against nature, possessing one as their common wife, though of nearest km." In this respect they were not worse than the ancient civilized Egyptians, Assyrians. Greeks, and Romans. On the disruption of the Roman empire, anarchy spread over Western Europe, even extending to Britain. From "the coming in of Julius Cæsar to the taking of Rome by Alaric," the Romans governed, but never really conquered Britain, for the space of 462 years. Then came the Saxons, that grew up "to seven absolute kingdoms." Milton sensibly felt "how wearisome it may likely be to read of so many bare and reasonless actions—so many names of kings one after another, acting little more than mute persons in a scene." I wonder how he could muster up sufficient patience "to chronicle the wars of kites and crows." To such he likens the bickerings of the Saxon heptarchy. Then came the bloody Danes, or Dacians, and lastly the Normans, as barbarous as the Saxons themselves. What were they all but the rudest barbarians? Alfred himself was "the mirror of princes." He was the glory of Saxondom. Canute was a shrewd Dane, and Norman William was a pure tyrant. The truth is, Britain first entered on a long career of peace, prosperity, and glory after the battle of Culloden in 1746.
Milton also wrote "From the writings of eye-witnesses," a brief history of Moscovia. Their reports seem to me to be unreliable, or at any rate grossly exaggerated. The Russians were then very barbarous, "great talkers, liars, flatterers, dissemblers, drunkards," &c. They realised Milton's ideas of divorce, for "it was a rule among them that if the wife be not beaten once a week, she thinks herself not beloved. Upon utter dislike, the husband divorces." The development of Moscow into the vast proportions of modern Russia would astonish Milton were he now alive.
So much for England's greatest scholar. I have called attention to him and his works, with a special design to dissipate the gross and dense ignorance of this unhappy Colony, and to raise it from the dismal abyss of degradation—social, moral, religious, political and literary—into which it is now unfortunately plunged. With this view I cast this ray of light into our Cimmerian darkness.
Fergusson and Mitchell, Printers and Stationers, Princes street, Dunedin.