Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Milton, heresy, toleration

The latest issue of the Journal of the History Ideas includes my article on Milton and toleration: “‘Following the Way Which Is Called heresy’: Milton and the Heretical Imperative,” JHI 69:3 (2008), 375-93. (If you’d like a copy, just email me.) This is part of a larger project I’m currently working on, exploring the theological basis of the secularisation of politics in the 17th century. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“If the underlying basis of a free society is the practice of individual religious choice, what then becomes of those who refuse to engage in this practice? What becomes of Roman Catholics, who simply refuse to become heretics in Milton’s (positive) sense – that is, they refuse to make the individual conscience the locus of religious authority? In Milton’s conception of English society, such persons are clearly excluded: their refusal of individualistic choice is tantamount to a repudiation of the entire social order, so that the possibility of their toleration by the state cannot even be entertained. In other words, Milton’s relativization of heresy, if carried out as a social program, would lead to precisely the same impasse as Locke’s theory of toleration: the practice of subjective Protestant piety gives rise to the right to toleration, but the resulting construction necessarily excludes those who do not practice such piety, or who practice the wrong kind….

“I am not suggesting that Milton’s conception of toleration is merely ‘inconsistent,’ or that his otherwise rational theory of toleration is hampered by an unfortunate remainder of religious prejudice. On the contrary, Milton’s theory of toleration is theological through and through. The right to toleration is grounded on a specific Protestant understanding of the nature of faith; and the exception to this right is inextricably connected to the whole logic of toleration. Indeed, the normative ‘centre’ of Milton’s theory is constituted precisely by its exception, by its exclusion of certain groups who are declared incapable of moral participation in the sphere of politics, and who thus forfeit the right to toleration.”

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