‘Reason is but choosing’: freedom of thought in the life and work of John Milton

‘Reason is but choosing’: freedom of thought and John Milton

From his politics and religious writings to Paradise Lost, Roberta Klimt traces how the life and work of John Milton was guided by the principle of freedom of thought and how in doing so he challenged fundamental aspects of 17th-century society.

John Milton, best known today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, was radically committed to the idea of intellectual liberty. This commitment manifested itself throughout his life, and across his widely varied written works, which included poetry, tracts, speeches, and unpublished, private writings. Politically, it was expressed through Milton’s support of republican, rather than monarchical, forms of government. In his religious writings, too, the concept of free will is always at the forefront. His poetry challenges readers to negotiate moral and aesthetic dilemmas, a learning process designed to enable them, ultimately, to choose more wisely between good and evil. This essay will explore some of the books and documents that display Milton’s political convictions, religious beliefs, and poetic practice – all of which were frequently entangled – in light of this guiding principle of freedom of thought.

Portrait of John Milton, c. 1629

Portrait of John Milton, c 1629

This oil painting shows John Milton (1608–1674) when he was about 21 and studying at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

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Private reading: Milton’s Commonplace Book and his family Bible

Scholars of Milton are unusually lucky to be able to view and study several books that were personally owned by the author. Held in the British Library, Milton’s Commonplace Book – the notebook in which he kept notes and quotations from what he had been reading – helps us trace his intellectual interests and development. Containing notes on subjects ranging from kingship to divorce, the notebook demonstrates how broad Milton’s interests were and how deep his intellectual enquiry went. Much of the reading recorded in the Commonplace Book visibly finds its way into Milton’s published works, especially his polemical writings on religious and political matters, such as his anti-royalist pamphlets which defend regicide and promote a republican government. Sometimes more obliquely, this reading can be seen to inform Milton’s poetry, which was no less a product of its author’s vast researches into ancient and modern history, philosophy, mathematics, literature and the natural sciences.

John Milton's commonplace book

John Milton's commonplace book

In sections headed ‘Republica’ (republic), ‘Leges’ (laws) and ‘Rex’ (the king), Milton weighs up different concepts of monarchy and commonwealth, and considers whether the king should be bound by the law.

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Another key text for Milton was, of course, the Bible. His calls in prose for reform in the Church of England, and his epic retelling in poetry of the story of the fall of man, are backed up by extraordinarily thorough knowledge of chapter and verse of the King James Bible, as well as a deep familiarity with the long history of biblical commentary and interpretation. The pages of the Milton family Bible bear physical evidence of frequent reading, but its flyleaf also contains personal notes, many of them written by Milton himself, on the family’s history: the birth dates of Milton and his brother Christopher, those of his nephews Edward and John Phillips, and then the births of Milton’s own children: three girls, Anne, Mary, and Deborah, and one boy, John, who died in infancy. This shows the centrality of the Bible to Milton’s family life, but perhaps also its centrality to family life in general in a period where almost everyone in England was officially a member of the Church of England. It is worth remembering therefore that though Milton was a free thinker, and called into question many of the orthodoxies of the church, he nevertheless did so from a devoutly Christian perspective. As a strict Protestant, perhaps even a Puritan, Milton’s concern was to strip away what he saw as the unnecessary customs, rules and paraphernalia that centuries of Catholicism had accrued to Christianity. He believed in confronting the original text of the Bible, as plainly and directly as possible.

John Milton's family Bible

John Milton's family Bible

This Bible book reveals signs of regular use, with torn and worn-down pages, and the flyleaf contains Milton’s handwritten notes on births and deaths in his family.

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Public writing: polemical Milton

Antiprelatical tracts (political-religious arguments against the Church of England)

Apart from a few poems individually printed in the 1630s, the first substantial published works by Milton were his polemical prose tracts in the early 1640s, dealing with the necessity of reforming the Church of England. The first three of these – Of Reformation, Of Prelatical Episcopacy and Animadversions (all 1641) – critique religious hierarchy. According to Milton, episcopacy – the government of the church by bishops – was inherently corrupting and should be abolished. He writes in Of Reformation that anyone who ‘steps up into the chair of pontifical pride, and changes a moderate and exemplary house for a misgoverned and haughty palace … then he degrades, then he unbishops himself’: i.e., someone who would be prepared to exchange religious authority, honestly won and humbly maintained, for personal power and wealth, would no longer be worthy of the title of bishop. In these works, Milton combines sophisticated rhetorical manoeuvres with a wealth of supporting evidence from literary and other sources (including repeated quotations from the Italian poets Dante and Petrarch, and the English poet Chaucer).

Just as he would go on to suggest in Areopagitica, a few years later, that there was no need for censorship because the public could make up their own minds about what to read, so he argues here that scripture is accessible to all people – ‘not only the wise and the learned, but the simple, the poor, the babes’. It does not need to be handed down and explained by senior church figures who claim greater authority: all mankind has been given ‘the ability of searching, trying, examining all things, and by the spirit discerning that which is good’. Milton warns too against religious officials intruding on worldly affairs, arguing, in effect, for the separation of church and state. Although these early antiprelatical tracts, as they are known, are not explicitly republican works, they share with Milton’s anti-monarchical writings an emphasis on the idea that a leader, whether religious or secular, should foster intellectual freedom rather than blind obedience in their followers.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

William Blake was deeply critical of traditional religion but greatly admired John Milton. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell includes references to Milton and Paradise Lost and the book ends with 'A Song of Liberty', which calls for revolt against the tyrannies of church and state.

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Divorce tracts

Milton also energetically argued for reforms in the laws around the dissolution of marriage, composing his four so-called divorce tracts in 1643–45: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), The Judgement of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce (1644), Tetrachordon, and Colasterion (both 1645). In Milton’s time, a full, legal divorce – one that permitted both parties to remarry – would only be granted if the marriage could be proved to be unconsummated, or invalid because the wife was previously betrothed to another man. Under canon law (the law of the Church), husband and wife could obtain a legal separation on other grounds, such as desertion by either party, but neither would be free to remarry. Milton writes that it is absurd, and unnatural, for an incompatible husband and wife to be bound together by law.

Consistent with his overall advocacy for greater personal freedoms, Milton wanted divorce to be a private matter, administered neither by Parliament nor by the Church, and able to be granted on the grounds of mutual incompatibility. If that human, companionable aspect of marriage is not recognised by law, he points out, then that union is little better than ‘a brutish congress’, a coming-together not of humans but beasts, bound by nothing more than carnal compulsion. This idea would appear in Paradise Lost, in the form of Adam and Eve’s perfect, ‘unfeigned / Union of mind’ before the Fall. There was, too, a personal element to Milton’s pleas for a change in divorce law: his first marriage was an unhappy one – indeed, his much younger wife Mary deserted him in 1642, not returning until 1645 – and although the couple were later reconciled until Mary’s death in 1652, it is likely that if the law had permitted them to divorce, they would have done so.

John Milton's commonplace book

John Milton's commonplace book

Milton's notes on ‘Divortio’ (divorce).

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William Strang's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1896

William Strang's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1896

An illustration of Adam and Eve.

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Freedom of the press: Areopagitica (1644)

In a time of enormous social and ideological upheaval, with heavy censorship from the state, Milton advocated for freedom of the press, suggesting that it should be left up to the individual, rather than some authority-approved censor, to decide if their reading material was a corrupting influence or not. In Areopagitica, published in 1644, Milton connected this capacity for choice with man’s original sin, Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge in Eden; this, of course, would become the subject for Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (first published in 1667). He writes:

Many there be that complain of divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress, foolish tongues! when God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions.

Milton’s point is that without freedom to choose, the decisions we make are meaningless – nothing to do with intelligence or virtue, and born only of compulsion. He calls ‘foolish’ those people who complain that God ‘suffered’ – that is, allowed – Adam (and Eve) to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, reminding his reader that without that freedom, God’s human creations would not have been fully rational beings. For Milton, if God had not granted mankind ‘reason’ – which means the ability to make their own decisions, even bad ones – then these human creatures would have been little more than puppets, going through the ‘motions’ of autonomy but in reality not free. This is the animating idea behind every one of Milton’s works.

Areopagitica by John Milton, 1644

Areopagitica by John Milton, 1644

Milton says that we should be trusted to read different ideas in print and use reason to choose between them, rather than having temptation removed through censorship: ‘What wisdome can there be to choose … without the knowledge of evill?’

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Regicide tracts and republican defences

As the English Civil Wars (1642–51) mounted, Milton became more outspoken on behalf of the republican side. In particular, he began to argue explicitly that Charles I should be deposed and, ultimately, executed for his misrule of his kingdom. In the regicide tracts, as they are known, Milton continues to connect the health of public life with the intellectual and ideological health of the individual citizen. At the beginning of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1650), for instance, he remarks that those who continue to support ‘the Tyrant of a Nation’ – a none-too-subtle reference to Charles I – are nothing more than ‘slaves within doors’. Instead of being ‘governed by reason’, they have ‘give[n] up their understanding to a double tyranny, of custom from without and blind affections within’. They no longer think for themselves or interrogate their own political situation; they blindly accept the status quo rather than seeking to change it.

Print of scenes from the first English Civil War

Series of scenes of the first English Civil War, progressing from a meeting of conspirators to the execution of the king

This image depicts a failed Royalist plot to seize London from the Parliamentarians and its aftermath in May 1643.

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Print of the execution of Charles I

Black and white print showing the execution of Charles I, entitled [in German] 'Abominable unheard of execution'. It depicts Whitehall, the executioners block and masses of crowds filling the streets to witness the event.

On 30 January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. This German engraving was made that same year.

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In his anti-monarchical writings, Milton emphasizes that the first duty of a good king (or magistrate) is to the people he serves; so if a king starts to act in an irresponsible, self-serving way, he forfeits the right to be thought of or treated as a king. On the basis of his staunch support for the republican cause, Milton was appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues in Oliver Cromwell’s government, after Charles I had indeed been deposed and executed. Milton continued to work for Cromwell and publish prose works in support of the republic until it was no longer safe to do so, as it had been determined that the monarchy would be restored. After the return from exile of Charles II, Milton was forced into hiding and was briefly imprisoned, and some of his books were publicly burned. The political system he had worked hard to establish had fallen apart. He was now blind, having lost his sight in the early 1650s, and publicly disgraced, ‘in darkness and with dangers compassed round’ (Paradise Lost, Book 7, l. 27). It was these circumstances that produced Milton’s greatest work, perhaps the greatest poem ever written in the English language: Paradise Lost.

Portrait of King Charles II

Portrait of King Charles II

This portrait celebrates King Charles II’s coronation and the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy.

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Royal proclamation banning books by John Milton, 13 August 1660

Royal proclamation banning books by John Milton, August 13 1660

This royal proclamation, intended to be displayed in public, condemns the ‘Traitorous’ books which justified Charles I’s ‘Murder’, and demands that they are surrendered and ‘publicly burned’ by the hangman.

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Justifying the ways of God to men: Paradise Lost (1667)

Milton had been writing poems since his teens, and had published a volume of poetry in 1645, Poems by Mr John Milton, Both English and Latin, which gathered those very early works, many of them school or university exercises, with more recent commissions and compositions. These include ‘Lycidas’ (1638), his memorial for a drowned university friend, and ‘Epitaphium Damonis’ (1639), a Latin elegy for his dearest friend Charles Diodati. In many of his early poems, particularly the Latin ones, and in prose works from the same period, Milton expressed his intention to one day write an epic poem that would glorify his nation and cement his own reputation for generations to come: ‘That what the greatest and choicest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I in my proportion with this over and above of being a Christian, might do for mine’ (The Reason of Church-Government, 1642). Originally, it seems, Milton intended to write his epic about the ancient history of Britain. The library at Trinity College, Cambridge houses the notebook in which Milton drafted ideas for that British epic, and also sketched out the possibility of telling the story of the Fall of Man, ultimately the subject matter of Paradise Lost, in a five-act play. Milton’s final decision was to tell a universal story, that of the Fall, in a form, the epic poem, that had been made great by the ancient Greek and Roman authors he so admired – but, crucially, to write it in the English language.

John Milton's early notes on Paradise Lost as a play, c. 1640

John Milton's early notes on Paradise Lost as a play, c. 1640

On this page of the notebook, Milton jots down several cast lists for a biblical drama about Adam and Eve’s fall and gives a brief outline for five acts.

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The only surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost, c. 1665

The only surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost, c. 1665

Milton, blind and ageing, had to rely on others to record Paradise Lost for him. This is a fair copy of Book 1, written by a professional scribe.

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Usage terms The Morgan Library & Museum. MA 307. Purchased by Pierpoint Morgan, 1904. Image: © The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Paradise Lost has an enormous scope – the poem moves freely between Earth, Eden, Heaven and Hell, past, present and future, across a range of topics and registers – and yet, in many ways, Milton’s terrain is the individual reader’s mind. The narrator announces very early that he is aiming to ‘justify the ways of God to men’ (Paradise Lost, 1.26): to make cosmic mysteries comprehensible. In that sense, the interpretative challenges posed by Paradise Lost – a difficult, intricate, very long poem – are a kind of training-ground. Milton wants his readers to struggle, even sometimes to feel lost, precisely so that we can sharpen our critical faculties, making the understanding we emerge with all the greater. As Milton sees it, this is also why God gave mankind free will, creating them ‘Authors to themselves in all’ (Paradise Lost, 3. 122). If there were no temptation, and no possibility for Adam or Eve to make the choice to sin, then their obedience would be meaningless. God asks, ‘Not free, what proof could they have given sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith or love’? (Paradise Lost, 3. 103–104). Milton presents us with a complex moral universe in Paradise Lost. Satan, the villain of the poem, can also be read as a republican hero; God, infallible and omnibenevolent, can also be seen as a tyrannical monarch of the sort we know Milton to have despised. He requires his reader to make constant, careful judgements about a story we think we already know inside out. In his best-known poem, then, as elsewhere in his work, Milton is fundamentally committed to the principle of intellectual freedom.

Milton's publishing contract for Paradise Lost

John Milton's publishing contract for Paradise Lost, 1667

This is the earliest known example of a contract between an English author and their publisher. It records John Milton’s agreement with his printer Samuel Symmons or Simmons (1640–1687), about the sale and publication of Paradise Lost.

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  • Roberta Klimt
  • Roberta Klimt has a PhD from University College London on the eighteenth-century reception of John Milton’s 1645 Poems. She has taught early modern literature at several universities, most recently King’s College London. She is currently preparing her first monograph for publication, and completing journal articles on Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. She is also a frequent book reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and the American journal Philip Roth Studies.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.