Sunday, 17 August 2008

Milton and the problem with rights

I’ve been running a Milton symposium here in Brisbane over the past couple of days. My own paper was on Milton’s political theology, and on the theological basis of his concept of “rights.” Here’s an excerpt:

“In Milton’s view, not all members of a society are fit to participate in the political sphere. In spite of everything he says about the irrevocable rights of all individuals, Milton’s theological understanding of ‘nature’ carries with it the belief that human nature has been corrupted since the fall. Here, I think an irresolvable problem arises from the way Milton maps his political doctrine on to his theological narrative of creation and fall. For Milton, politics is defined not by the actually existing condition of human societies, but by a mythological condition of primal harmony and perfection. It is man’s original nature in the Garden of Eden which forms the basis of his rights, his liberties and his political responsibilities. This means that the fall into sin – the fall from primal perfection into the messiness of human society as it actually exists – introduces a rupture with the very basis of political order.

“Indeed, sin can become so corrosive that it divests human nature entirely of its rights. Where this occurs, the individual is no longer fit for participation in the political sphere. As Milton says, citizens then become ‘unserviceable … to the Common-wealth’ through their spiritual corruption. The benign theological conception of innate created rights thus passes over into the ominous political legitimation of a division between those whose innate rights remain effective and those who have forfeited their rights through sin. The regenerate – those who are returning from their fallen state towards the state of perfection – are now grouped politically over against the masses....

“Milton believes unreservedly in the innate rights that belong to human nature as a result of creation. But because of his corresponding theology of the fall, his conception of political order is always the vision of a regenerate few who embody the proper natural liberty of all.... The commitment to a normative human nature, then, is at bottom a theological commitment, grounded in a specific (and inherently problematic) narrative of creation–fall–regeneration.”

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