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.”


Anonymous said...

Very nice. Considering the correspondence between Milton and Roger Williams, I am very interested in this.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly - given our recent discussions on marriage and the family - there is a pretty clear connection in Milton's thought between the conjugal and the political - and the personal and the conjugal/political. For Milton, the family is a microcosm of the state, both understood in covenantal and companionate rather than sacramental terms (no divine right of kings). Milton's own marital crisis ran metaphorically parallel to the 17th century political crisis between Parliament and King. "For husband and wife," writes Anna Beer in her new biography Milton: Poet, Pamphlateer and Patriot (2008), "read Parliament and King." But observe the tendentious analogical inversion: it is the wife who stands in loco regis, whom the husband might divorce not only on the traditional grounds of adultery but (if you like) for unreasonable behaviour; just so, Parliament might depose a tyrannical king (particularly one like Charles I, with his Catholic wife, his "popish" practices at court, and his secret diplomatic deals with the Irish).

So I wonder, Ben, if you would extend the argument, such that with the secularisation of the state goes the secularisation of the family. Furthermore, however, given the disaster of Constantinianism, while granted the excellent polemics of the likes of William Cavanaugh on "the myth of the state as saviour", is that altogether a regrettable development?

(Oh - and a copy of your paper, please!)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ben,

You might want to check out Constantin Fasolt's Sovereignty and Heresy; I pasted the citation below. Thematically, it's similar to your interests here, except its about Germany in the previous century. It might be helpful.

Constantin Fasolt
"Sovereignty and Heresy." In Infinite Boundaries: Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture, ed. Max Reinhart, 381-91. Kirksville, Missouri: Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, 1998

Evan said...

Looks like a wonderful article- I'll trek down to the periodicals room as soon as possible to read it in full.

Shane said...

"Indeed, the normative ‘centre’ of Milton’s theory is constituted precisely by its exception,"

Less Zizek, more clarity.

"they refuse to make the individual conscience the locus of religious authority?"

This sounds like the classic RC apologetic move to try to show that protestants are religious solipsists. Two objections.

In the first place, I think it is false that for the protestants the individual conscience is the locus of religious authority. It is the locus of responsibility, yes but that is a different claim. The individual is the locus of responsibility because God judges each individual according to his own actions, and "I was just doing what the Pope told me" doesn't count as an excuse for doing wrong (according to Luther, personally I'd allow a bit more latitude).

But of course responsibility and authority are different things. To have authority in the relevant sense for this debate is to the power to establish a norm of faith and practice.

On my understanding of Luther and Calvin, the Bible and the tradition of the church were the only "authorities" in that sense (and the Bible was the more important one).

To say that the individual conscience of a man is his own moral authority is Kant (rational self-legislating autonomy), not Luther ("faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God"). Luther isn't worried about heteronomy, he's worried about divine judgment.

In the second place, I don't think the RC can can claim to be less "individualist" than the protestant, at least in context of a pluralistic, religiously tolerant society.

Sure, a serf in Paris in 1100 probably wouldn't have had to think too hard about the religious options open to him: go to mass or go to prison. Today, however, no one is here to compel your obedience. By your actions you choose to remain catholic, to do what a catholic does. So, you are as an autonomous* individual agent being a catholic, just as much as the protestant is being a protestant by his individual autonomous* actions.

But if this is right, then there isn't any exception in Milton's proposal, because the RC and the Protestant are both in the same boat.

Paleoconservative catholics don't like the boat just because the Pope isn't steering and not because they possess a religiously superior non-solipsistic epistemology.

*"Autonomous" has come back here for a reason. I think autonomy is important, but I think we need to do some work to wrench the word from Kant's clutches and develop a bit more subtle account of autonomy that does not preclude listening to the advice of others and which recognizes important parts of the self about which one has no control, such as the language one speaks and so forth.

JKnott said...


Thanks for reminding us of what I had feared was being left out of this discussion, as well as much contemporary theological discussion: namely, that we need not and should not see self-assertive autonomy and communitarianism as the only options. In fact, at least in our current context, it is as good as inevitable (and experience bears this out) that accepting this dichotomy means constant, willy-nilly vascillation between the two, for one option can never survive long without becomming the other. "My country tells me to be an individual, but I choose not to!"

Anonymous said...

Great rumble, Shane!

Ben Myers said...

Hi Shane! Couple of quick responses:

"Less Zizek, more clarity"
Agamben, my boy, Agamben. (Who is, you'll be dismayed to hear, infinitely less "clear" than Zizek!)

As for your general point about authority/responsibility: this particular article is a piece of intellectual history, not normative theology. So it's not talking about what Protestants ought to believe, but simply what Milton actually believed. And on religious authority, he's a million miles away from the view you ascribe to Luther and Calvin. For Milton, religious authority resides in the individual conscience of the regenerate Protestant aristocrat (illumined by right reason). That's why, among other things, he feels perfectly free to criticise and correct the Bible itself when it fails to measure up, or to pit some biblical authors against others.

My article isn't interested in any normative theological critique of this view (or in a normative account of what makes a good Protestant). Instead, I'm trying to show a connection between this construction of subjective piety and the emergence of a specific kind of politics — a politics which is ostensibly peaceable, rational and tolerant, but which is actually constituted by an already-violent decision about which kinds of people are fit to participate in the peaceable sphere of politics.

Shane said...

Hi Ben,


Mea culpa, I get all my raving lunatics confused.


If it's a specific claim about Milton, I've got no quarrel. I never said the guy wasn't a dick. (Of course, in his defense, Guy Fawkes, Bloody Mary and the tradition of political theology à la the Papal states, might make it a bit easier to think Catholic are all traitors in a perfectly straightforward political sense.)

Here's a worry though--about your claim that the exception "constitutes" the normative center of the whole view. And that seems like an odd thing to say--does the exception constitute the view in the same way that eggs, flour, milk and sugar constitute a cake? Or the way that three lines constitute a triangle? What exactly do you mean by "constitute" here?

And now a second worry that builds on the first. If we take your word "constitute" seriously, then it seems like what you are saying is that the exception is somehow a condition of the possibility for toleration. And presumably this could generalize beyond Milton's own case to apply to all notions of toleration. (Because in what relevant way is Milton's view different from our own? If he had the problem and we aren't different, don't we have it?)

There are two ways of interpreting the idea that the exception somehow constitutes toleration:

**Weak Version**
Any community has limits, which exclude others. For instance, if a person within our society commits a crime, they are excluded from society for a period.

**Strong Version**
The exclusions upon which a society is built are fundamentally irrational and therefore all society is built on irrational acts of violence.

The Weak Version doesn't seem particularly interesting. Yes, the state employs violence to exclude certain "others", but using violence isn't bad when it's done for a rational reason. (for instance when we lock away a murderer.) Indeed, it seems that modern society has made great progress precisely because it has discovered that the exclusion of women and gays from society was fundamentally unreasonable. ("Why is it that women can't vote?" "They aren't as smart as men." "Well, see here, that's ridiculous . . .)

The strong version, is much more interesting one. If the strong version were true, then all our notions of "toleration" are really a lie--we are all at heart ruthless barbarians trying to protect our own clan. Which would be interesting if true, because it would put to the lie all the delusions of 'moral progress' and such that you get from the old liberals. All such notions are necessarily built on concealed violence. This sounds like Stanley Fish's neo-con post-modernish epistemobabble.

Fortunately, I don't see much evidence to suggest that the strong interpretation is true. There is lots of evidence that societies are occasionally irrationally exclusive, but not much empirical evidence that they are necessarily so.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Shane.

"If we take your word 'constitute' seriously, then it seems you are saying that the exception is somehow a condition of the possibility for toleration. And presumably this could generalize beyond Milton's own case to apply to all notions of toleration."

Yes, that's exactly where I'm coming from. I have no interest in defending either modern or early modern ideas of toleration (or "tolerance").

Daniel Barbeau said...

Hi Ben

I am a high school student conducting research for my senior thesis regarding the controversial nature of "Paradise Lost" and I would very much like to read your essay. Please send me a copy via email if you can or if not I would be happy to pay for you to send it to me by regular mail.

thanks very much
Daniel Barbeau

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