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.”


Anonymous said...

Ben, could you briefly outline some of Milton's "innate rights that belong to human nature as a result of creation"? I'm finding it difficult to see how a doctrine of human creatureliness could issue in 'rights' per se (even an emphasis on the imago dei would tend towards a concept of 'dignity' rather than 'rights'). But then, my knowledge of Milton is woefully superficial!

Anonymous said...

Well, I think Milton's main argument (he has several different arguments about this) is that Adam and Eve were created to rule over creation. They're created with an irrevocable "right" to command and rule. So this isn't "human rights" in the modern sense; it's a specific political right of self-determining government, etc.

Unknown said...

Are we sure that by "spiritual corruption" (author's words) Milton meant mere unregeneracy, or might he have had seriously impeding degeneracy in mind?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Chris. No, he doesn't mean anything like "degeneracy in mind". He's talking about the vast majority of the English people (the "rude multitude"), and his point is that they've become so spiritually degenerate that they want to elect the wrong kind of government. So the political rights of the masses are now forfeited, and it's the duty of the regenerate few to enforce the liberty of all through violent coercion.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Ben.

I did mean "degeneracy," but not "in mind" (as opposed to action). (What's that about nations divided by language?)

I meant, might he have had in mind seriously impeding degeneracy, manifested in, for example, their desires to elect the wrong kind of government?

I guess what I'm curious about is: does Milton's conception of the "rude multitude"=unregenerate, unsaved persons? Or are they simply callous, and thus the enlightened (unrelated to soteriology) few are obligated to overrule them?

Anonymous said...

Ben, you should really expand on this, if you have more publishable material. This looks like excellent stuff.

Anonymous said...

Chris: Oh, sorry for the misunderstanding (which is very funny now that I see it!). Anyway, I understand your point, but it's important to note that the categories you're using here aren't the kind of categories that Milton could have ever used. For Milton (as for many of his contemporaries), these questions of political fitness are entirely about soteriology and theology. For Milton's, it's unthinkable that there could be a state of personal "enlightenment" in distinction from "soteriology". This is one of the central points of my current project on Milton's politics: his politics is theological all the way down; there's no point (not even in the vocabulary) at which you can isolate his politics from its driving theological commitments.

So anyway, to answer your question more simply: for Milton, the "callous" and "unenlightened" simply are the unregenerate. Or to put it another way: fitness for participation in politics is entirely about grace and soteriology. And that's exactly why this politics ends up being irresolvably violent.

Unknown said...

Fascinating, Ben.

My studies have somewhat myopically focused on the systematic theologies of the period. It's very interesting to see how some of this shakes out into political practice, etc.

I've also always wondered what the theological or philosophical catalyst was for supposedly God-fearing men to commit regicide. Maybe this highlights at least part of what was lurking behind the scenes in the late 1640s.

Anonymous said...

Can you have a christian burial for someone of dubious baptism?

I say no!

I recently go this entitled "A Moral-Theological Conclusion On The New Modernist Rite of Baptism,":

I must say I was very skeptical, but it seems the Novus Ordo Baptism is very suspect in regards to validitiy.

I am not saying anyone's baptism is null and void, but I have my doubts.

Anyone like Fr. Harrison written on this topic? I Like to read about it.

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