Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Celebrating Milton's birthday: on Milton and politics

Four hundred years ago today, England’s great poet was born: John Milton. I celebrated privately this morning by solemnly reciting the opening 50 or 60 lines of Paradise Lost. So why don’t you pause for a moment to read it as well. To read this poem is to participate in a miracle.

By way of celebration, the New Zealand journal, The Turnbull Library Record has devoted a special issue to Milton, including the public lecture which I presented in Wellington earlier this year: “Milton and the Theology of Secular Politics,” The Turnbull Library Record 41 (2008), 3-15. The article discusses Milton’s political thought in the context of contemporary political theory (with special reference to Rowan Williams’ lecture on sharia law). Here’s an excerpt:

“If Milton’s work discloses contradictions inherent in rights-based political doctrines, it would be a complete misunderstanding to imagine that we could somehow “fix” these contradictions simply by being still more tolerant and still more inclusive. But it would perhaps be a step in the right direction if we recognised – in contrast to liberal thinkers like Rawls – that there is no metaphysical foundation for any political order, no “mere nature” which could authorise or establish that order, no value-free “reason” by which competing comprehensive doctrines could be adjudicated. Instead of searching for ideal speech-conditions or universal criteria of justice and rationality, perhaps what’s needed today is a political sphere where contests of values can be staged openly, and where political exclusions can be recognised for what they are – exclusions arising from political decision, not from any neutral “reasonableness,” much less from any “natural” or metaphysical foundation. The search for political foundations and for a rational consensus is precisely an attempt to naturalise the contingent decisions and power relations by which every political order is established. […]

“To return to Rawlsian language, whether a specific comprehensive doctrine can exist legitimately in the political sphere is determined not by whether it measures up to some universal standard of reasonableness; instead, this can be decided only in the process of political debate itself. The political is precisely the sphere in which confrontation between rival values can be staged openly. It is the sphere in which solutions can be negotiated without recourse to metaphysical foundations, or universal reason, or the righteous violence of the regenerate few.”

4 Comments:

Anonymous said...

A solemn moment, to be sure. I followed the link and for a quiet moment, read the first 20 or so lines of the Great Worke. Interesting to note the convergence between the hairstyle of the divine Milton and your good self. Coincidence? I think not.

OC.

Ben Myers said...

Hey Oliver, that's a good observation. But it looks like Milton was using a better shampoo than whatever I'm using. So next time you sketch me, you'll have to give me shiny long Miltonian locks...

Michael said...

And also today, the 40th anniversary of Karl Barth's death.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, and also my wedding anniversary: it's all happening today, folks!

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