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We are very pleased to have David Williams, author of upcoming Spring 2017 release Milton’s Leveller God, as our guest blogger. His new book takes a look at political evolution in Milton’s epic poems, from feudal monarchy to Leveller-style democracy in heaven and on earth. In his guest blog post, Williams discusses The Crisis of Liberal Democracy.
Academic friends have asked me why I spent eight years writing a book on Milton’s God. Did I not get the memo that God was dead? Invariably I have answered (patiently, I hope) that religion in the seventeenth century was a synonym for politics, and that I was merely translating Milton into a language that could still be understood: the forgotten origins of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy may be under siege these days, but the struggles of Milton and the Levellers to enshrine its values during the English Revolution demonstrate why those values are timeless and why its enemies are likely to fail in the longer term.
A century ago, however, it seemed that liberalism might not survive. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey had poignantly remarked on the eve of the First World War, “and we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” He was not mistaken. Despite the collapse of four empires in the wake of the Central Powers’ defeat, and the enfranchisement of women after the war, and the creation of a new security structure in the League of Nations, the slow but steady advance of liberalism ever since the European “concert” in the Congress of Vienna (1815) was obstructed by the rise of hard men on both the political left and right. From Stalin’s ethno-peasant cleansing in the Holodomor, to Franco’s assault on Spanish democracy, to the Japanese imperial army’s rape of Nanking, to Hitler’s Final Solution, the world descended in less than a decade into a darkness visible where exclusive nationalisms and brutal tribalism nearly obliterated the government of Reason and the Rights of Man.
Seventy years on, the lamps of Enlightenment are flickering again. The present liberal order, built upon the ruins of a second global war, is gravely threatened by new perils: the challenge of Islamist extremism to open societies; the global refugee crisis emanating from Syria and Africa; the rise of populist nationalisms and racial intolerance in Europe; the angry chauvinism of Brexiteers in their decision to leave Europe; and the blatant demagoguery of a presidential election campaign in the U.S. that promised to build walls, tear up trade deals, and “Make American Great Again,” the latter a chilling reminder of Benito Mussolini’s campaign to “Make Italy Great Again.” Perhaps the most urgent threat to a declining liberal world order is the new president’s admiration for the strongman Vladimir Putin, signalling potential retreat from the project of globalization and the free movement of goods, people, capital, and ideas, and dividing the world once again into Great-Power spheres of influence, where eastern Europe is left to Russia’s sphere of influence, the Western hemisphere to America, and Asia to China. Worst of all, the current crisis of liberal democracy is self-inflicted. For a widening gap in incomes and deepening social inequality in Western countries has followed from the winner-take-all style of globalization that underlies much of the populism and angry nationalism. For the current crisis of liberalism is due in large part to its neglect of universal principles.
Crisis, however, has also been the abiding core of the liberal project, rooted in the etymology of krisis (from Greek ‘decision’), since liberalism is founded upon liberty of choice, the decisions of individuals and liberal societies to challenge the status quo. We too easily forget that liberalism was born in the English civil wars of the 1640s, first out of opposition to royal absolutism, then in resistance to parliamentary tyranny, and finally in the fight against Cromwellian authoritarianism. Those nicknamed Levellers by Cromwell for seeking to “level men’s Estates” were the true architects of liberalism. Among their key principles was the right of citizens to choose their rulers and to change them often; the necessity to decentre and disperse power as widely as possible; the right of a people to reserve certain powers, such as freedom of conscience, from the governors they chose; the right to free speech and equality before the law; the right of freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and military impressment; and the right to enjoy property and change one’s social station. Insisting on the universality of rights in continuing attacks on hereditary privilege, the Levellers evidently included gender equality among those rights.
In his powerful postscript to The Free-Mans Freedom Vindicated (1646), the Leveller leader John Lilburne claimed that God had not only created man “after his own image,” but had made “Adam, a male, or man … out of the dust or clay,” and “out of his side … made a female, or Woman cal’d Eve, which two are the earthly, original fountain … of all and every particular and individual man and woman.” What is revolutionary in Lilburne’s reading of the biblical story is the social levelling that follows from that “original fountain”: “For all who ever breathed in the world since are, and were by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority, and majesty, none of them having (by nature) any authority dominion or magisterial power, one over or above another, neither have they, or can they exercise any, but merely by institution, or donation, that is to say, by mutual agreement or consent, given, derived, or assumed, by mutual consent and agreement, for the good benefit and comfort each of other.” As Lilburne envisioned it, the original equality of “our first parents” had not ended in the Fall of man, but had for him extended unbroken, as it did for another Leveller pamphleteer who concluded in Vox Plebis (1646): “For as God created every man free in Adam, so by nature are all alike freemen born; and are since made free in grace by Christ: no guilt of the parent being of sufficiency to deprive the child of this freedom.” As one historian of the Levellers has characterized this argument, “By denying that any were predestined to damnation, and by insisting that even sinners could be saved,” the doctrine of free grace “opened the way to a new sense of the equality of all men in God’s eyes, and thus made a democratic political theory plausible” (David Wootton).
While the Levellers appealed like everyone else in the seventeenth century to biblical texts for their authority, they also cited classical authorities, like the Roman philosopher Cicero whose government of reason and universal rights was founded upon “the law of nature,” which Cicero took to be of divine origin. For Nature itself was for the Roman Stoic an emanation of the “gods,” a spirit of divine reason permeating the entire universe. Likewise for the Leveller Richard Overton, whose Mans Mortalitie (1643) profoundly influenced the poet John Milton, nature was literally the body of God. With Overton, Milton believed that matter was thus instinct with divine life, and that soul does not exist apart from body, so that creation amounted to the liberation of the creature from the god-stuff of the Creator. The liberty of every human being was therefore a gift from God to choose as reason taught to live and to worship as each saw fit, to govern and to be governed as was just, and to prevent the encroachment of unjust power on natural right.
The story of the Levellers, like the story of the republican Milton, is nonetheless the story of this original lamp of liberalism going out, first in the accession of Cromwell to Lord Protector, and then in the impotence of the second republic to prevent the king’s “coming in again.” Lilburne died in 1657, still imprisoned by Cromwell, and Overton and the rest of the Levellers lapsed into silence for much of that decade. But new evidence strongly suggests that Milton, along with his “crony” Marchamont Nedham, the Leveller sympathizer and most popular journalist of the age, had brazenly attempted in 1651-2 to depose Cromwell, and that both, with “the last breath of expiring liberty,” continued to write throughout the bitter winter of 1660 against the imminent restoration of the king.
While Marchamont Nedham would turn coat again and write in defense of monarchy after the Restoration, Milton remained true to his early Leveller sympathies, constructing in his two epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain’d, the greatest defense imaginable of human liberty and universal rights. Instead of retreating, as is usually thought, from politics into eternal verities, Milton turned once more, like the Levellers in extremis, to the printing press in order to create a new communion of readers and community of citizens who, “by things deemed weak subverting worldly strong,” would bring to its fulfillment the intrinsic logic of print culture to do away with the mediation of hierarchs in Church and state, and to establish the right of every individual to pursue his or her own good within a new community of readers. Indeed, the larger story of Milton as a closet Leveller proves that the greatest strength of liberalism has been its intrinsic ability to respond to crisis, to choose among competing options and thus to reinvent itself at every new turn to authoritarianism or return of “royal” absolutism.
Learn more about Milton’s Leveller God.