What does it mean to be a free person?

Quentin Skinner on Milton

After the appearance of Poems of Mr John Milton in 1645, Milton published no further works of poetry until Paradise Lost in 1667. During the intervening decades he devoted almost the whole of his literary energies to attacking the Stuart monarchy and defending the creation of the English commonwealth and, later, the Cromwellian Protectorate. As he repeatedly made clear, moreover, he took these commitments to be equivalent to furthering the ideal of a free way of life. Speaking in one of his sonnets about the blindness that finally engulfed him in the early 1650s, he proudly declared that he had lost his sight because it had been ‘overplied/In liberty’s defence, my noble task’.

When Milton examines the concept of liberty, he appears at first sight to be thinking in largely familiar terms. His fullest discussion can be found in his last political tract, which he issued early in 1660 under the defiant title The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, at a time when preparations were already under way to welcome the returning Charles II. There are two elements, Milton asserts, in ‘the whole freedom of man’, one of which he describes as civil and the other as spiritual liberty. To enjoy these twin aspects of our freedom, we must be able to choose and act as we wish; we must never be forcibly prevented from acting, and equally we must never be compelled to act against our will.

If, therefore, we are to count as being in possession of our spiritual liberty, we must be able freely to follow the promptings of our conscience without suffering any oppressive demands for conformity either from church or state. As Milton had already insisted at the outset of his Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes in 1659, the upholding of Christian freedom requires ‘that for belief or practice in religion according to this conscientious persuasion, no man ought to be punished or molested by any outward force on earth whatsoever’. Milton always presents himself as no less hostile to the control of religion by the state than to the maintenance of an established church.

The possession of civil liberty analogously requires that we should be able to voice our opinions and pursue our goals without any unnecessary restraint or coercion by the state. This is the commitment that Milton defends most forcefully in his attack on press licensing in the Areopagitica of 1644. The assault on liberty implicit in this form of censorship is said to stem from the fact that there must as a matter of natural right be ‘the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’. To which Milton adds in a celebrated passage that the acquisition of this right in his own time had brought with it unparalleled enlightenment. ‘This is that which hath rarefied and enlightened our spirits like the influence of heaven; this is that which hath enfranchised, enlarged and lifted up our apprehensions degrees above themselves.’

The maintenance of liberty requires, in short, that we should be free from any kind of external hindrance. This is the claim repeatedly made about Christian freedom in the Treatise of Civil Power. Whenever we are ‘forced by the magistrate’, the effect is to ‘take away our liberty, which is the certain and the sacred gift of God, neither to be touched by him nor to be parted with by us’. A similar claim is made about civil liberty in the concluding pages of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Wherever a people falls subject to an ‘unbridled potentate or tyrant’, he will ‘by force of arms endeavour the oppressing and bereaving of religion and their liberty . . . and turn upside down whole kingdoms of men, as though they were no more in respect of his perverse will than a nation of pismires’.

It is not surprising, then, that Milton’s vision of human freedom has so often been understood as a plea that we should be minimally impeded in the exercise of our rights. This turns out, for example, to be the prime minister’s view, as Gordon Brown revealed in the speech he delivered at the University of Westminster last October under the title ‘On Liberty’. Milton is introduced, together with John Locke, as a key proponent of the belief that liberty essentially consists in everyone’s having ‘space to live their lives by their own choices, free from the control and unjustified interference of others’.

Locke would I think have been horrified to find himself yoked with Milton in this way, but let that pass. The interpretation I want to question is the one that sees in Milton a proponent of the familiar belief that personal liberty essentially consists in absence of interference. What I want to stress is that, according to Milton, the power of our rulers to limit our freedom by impeding our choices is a mere surface manifestation of a far deeper affront to liberty. It is on the deeper affront that we need to concentrate, and it is in the hope of uncovering Milton’s more complicated and, I think, more challenging vision of human freedom that I want to focus on this aspect of his thought.

As Milton’s phraseology repeatedly makes clear, his fundamental interest lies not in freedom of action and hence in freedom from interference at all. His basic concern is with what it means, as he puts it at the outset of The Tenure, to be a free person, a member of a free society living in a free state. ‘No man,’ he declares, ‘can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free’, or to suppose that such free persons would ever voluntarily give up their birthright of liberty and subject themselves to the domination of lords and masters. This is also one of his basic preoccupations in The Ready and Easy Way, in which he contrasts the tyranny of Charles I, under whom everyone forfeited their liberty, with the rule of Parliament, which acknowledged ‘the people of England to be a free people, themselves the representers of that freedom’.

What, then, does it mean to be a free person? Deploying the strongly gendered language in which he always writes about the concept of liberty, Milton answers in The Tenure that essentially it means being your own master. Free persons are those who live and act as ‘masters of family in their own house and free inheritance’, enjoying a form of status and authority that Milton describes as ‘the root and source of all liberty’.

If you are to be your own master, two conditions must in turn be satisfied. You must first of all succeed in mastering your self. By this Milton means that you must be able to control your passions and act in accordance with the dictates of reason at all times. If you instead allow yourself, as he puts it at the beginning of The Tenure, to be governed by blind affections, then your actions will not be an expression of liberty but of mere licentiousness. To attain this degree of control is consequently the key to acting with full propriety. Hence Milton’s insistence in the same passage of The Tenure that ‘none can love freedom heartily but good men; the rest love not freedom but licence.’ The belief that virtue is a condition of liberty lies at the heart of Milton’s moral and political thought.

The other essential condition of being a free person is that you should not be mastered and therefore enslaved by anyone else. Here Milton gestures at an originally juristic understanding of civil liberty which, as he had noted in his Commonplace Book in the early 1640s, can be traced to the codex of Roman law. If we turn to that analysis, we find it said at the outset of Justinian’s Digest that ‘the fundamental division within the law of persons is that all men and women are either free or are slaves.’ There follows a formal definition of slavery. ‘Slavery is an institution of the ius gentium by which someone is, contrary to nature, subject to the dominion of someone else.’ This in turn is held to yield the definition of a liber homo or free person. If everyone in civil associations is either bond or free, then a free person must be someone who is not subject to the dominion of anyone else. To be a free person, in other words, is to be able to act according to your autonomous will in consequence of not being dependent on the will, and hence on the mere goodwill, of anyone else.

This understanding of civil liberty was held to carry constitutional implications, which had been fully explored by the leading Roman historians, especially Livy and Tacitus, long before the codification of Roman law at the end of the Imperial age. A free person, Livy and Tacitus had both assumed, must also be a legislator, someone active in making the laws by which they are bound. The crucial constitutional implication is that you can never hope to live as a free person under a monarchy. All kings enjoy discretionary and hence arbitrary power; but to live under the arbitrary power of anyone else is to live in dependence on their will, and thus in the condition of a slave. You cannot hope to live as a free person except in a self-governing republic in which you are ruled solely by laws to which you have given your active consent.

This explains why Livy writes so triumphantly at the start of his history of Rome about the expulsion of the early kings and the establishment of the republic. With this change, as he observes in a much cited phrase, the people began to be ruled by laws instead of men, and were thus able to live in liberty. This too explains why Tacitus in his Annals confronts with such despair the transition from the republic to the principate. As he puts it with a characteristic sigh, as soon as the ancient form of government was taken away the entire political class ran headlong into servitude.

It is essentially this Roman vision of libertas that Milton takes up in his major political tracts, and above all in The Tenure. At the climax of that work he finally asks whether the people of England have the right to put their king on trial for his life. He responds that, unless they possess this right, they cannot be said to have the independent power to govern themselves according to their will. But if they lack that power, then they are not free persons living in a free nation, but merely slaves of an arbitrary lord whose will they cannot contest.

That it is out of the question to think of the people of England in this way is then made abundantly clear in one of Milton’s most thundering passages:

For as to this question in hand, what the people by their just right may do in change of government or of governor . . . surely they that shall boast, as we do, to be a free nation, and not have in themselves the power to remove or to abolish any governor supreme or subordinate, with the government itself upon urgent causes, may please their fancy with a ridiculous and painted freedom fit to cozen babies; but are indeed under tyranny and servitude, as wanting that power, which is the root and source of all liberty, to dispose and economise in the land which God hath given them as masters of family in their own house and free inheritance. Without which natural and essential power of a free nation, though bearing high their heads, they can in due esteem be thought no better than slaves and vassals born, in the tenure and occupation of another inheriting lord.

We lose our standing as free persons, in other words, as soon as we subject ourselves to arbitrary power, the effect of which is to reduce us to vassalage and servitude.

These commitments are later summarised in Eikonoklastes, Milton’s excoriating attack on the rule of Charles I, which was first published later in 1649. When Milton examines the constitutional settlement proposed by the crown immediately before the outbreak of civil war in 1642, he mounts an unyielding defence of its rejection by Parliament. He does so by asking about the implications of conceding, as the crown had demanded, that it possessed a reservoir of prerogative rights, including the right of the king to veto any legislation put to him by the two houses of Parliament. Milton’s response is to offer a definition of a free commonwealth, a commonwealth consisting of free persons as opposed to vassals or slaves:

Every Commonwealth is in general defined, a society sufficient of itself, in all things conducible to well being and commodious life. Any of which requisite things if it cannot have without the gift and favour of a single person, or without leave of his private reason, or his conscience, it cannot be thought sufficient of itself, and by consequence no Commonwealth, nor free; but a multitude of vassals in the possession and domain of one absolute lord . . . And if our highest consultations and purposed laws must be terminated by the king’s will, then is the will of one man our law, and no subtlety of dispute can redeem the Parliament and nation from being slaves.

Once again, it is the mere fact of living subject to the private reason of anyone else that is said to take away our liberty and condemn us to servitude.

Although Milton’s primary concern is with what it means to be a free person, this is not to say that he is uninterested in the concept of free action. On the contrary, he is much preoccupied with the relationship between being a free person and being free to act, and he speaks of these connections in two distinct ways.

First of all, he does not in the least dispute that your standing as a free person will be lessened or taken away if you are impeded in the exercise of a choice. To be a free person is to be able to act according to your autonomous will; if you are constrained from exercising your will by force or the threat of it, then your liberty will to that degree be lost. Of greater importance, however, is the fact that it is equally possible according to Milton for your freedom of action to be curtailed even if no one subjects you to the least degree of interference. The reason is that, if you fall into a condition of dependence, your mere awareness of this predicament will have the effect of limiting your choices. This claim admittedly sounds strange, and has often been dismissed as confused. But Milton is making an important point about one of the ways in which liberty can be lost. He is asking you to reflect on what will happen if you come to realise that you are living at the mercy of someone else. As soon as you recognise your condition of dependence, he claims, this will be sufficient to cause you to censor yourself, thereby setting limits to your own freedom of action. You will now take care to do everything, however abject, to minimise the risk that your master or ruler will intervene in your life in a detrimental way, and you will at the same time take care to do nothing that might arouse their envy or rage.

These contentions about the psychological impact of living in slavery are also classical in provenance. Tacitus had illustrated them in a number of passages, always with the implication that servitude can be expected to breed servility, and that servility helps to entrench servitude. Sallust in his Conspiracy of Catiline goes still further, pointing to the baleful implications of the fact that rulers tend to be especially envious of their most outstanding subjects. The opening of Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates echoes the passage so closely as to be almost a translation of it. ‘Tyrants are not oft offended, nor stand much in doubt of bad men, as being all naturally servile; but in whom virtue and true worth most is eminent, them they fear in earnest, as by right their masters; against them lies all their hatred and suspicion.’ The consequence, as Sallust had stressed, is that such subjects find themselves condemned to curbing their most valuable talents for fear of what could happen if they were to display them too visibly.

This is one reason, Sallust goes on, why the citizens of republics always outperform the subjects of monarchs in the glory of their deeds as well as in the originality of their thought. Kings prefer flatterers and time-servers, whereas in republics the most creative spirits can soar unchecked by any craven anxieties. A further reason, he adds, is that there are few civic duties to be performed under kings, with the result that their subjects readily slide into a state of lazy and torpid acquiescence.

Sallust and Tacitus are two of Milton’s favourite authors, and he takes from them this entire way of thinking about the psychology of freedom and servitude. He already draws on their insights in his Areopagitica, in which he speaks about the visit he paid to Italy in 1638. There he was introduced to the aged Galileo, a prisoner of the Inquisition, and found the literati of Florence so alarmed at what might happen to them if they were to publish their ideas that they much preferred to remain safely silent. I was counted happy, Milton tells us, ‘to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning amongst them was brought; that this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian.’

The dismal truth that we are prone to self-censorship in the face of arbitrary power is one of the reasons why, in his Ready and Easy Way, Milton confronts with such disgust the impending restoration of the English monarchy. The outcome, he foresees, will be to make his fellow countrymen shape and adjust ‘their noble words and actions, heretofore so becoming the majesty of a free people, into the base necessity of court flatteries and prostrations’. They will soon find themselves abandoning their upright conduct in favour of ‘the perpetual bowings and cringings of an abject people’. Once this happens, we shall look in vain for any willingness to act with integrity or speak truth to power.

Milton can hardly believe that the people of England are about to make themselves ‘the slaves of a single person’ in this way, and proceeds to condemn them in one of his fiercest passages of invective:

After ten or twelve years’ prosperous war and contestation with tyranny, basely and besottedly to run their necks again into the yoke which they have broken, and prostrate all the fruits of their victory for nought at the feet of the vanquished, besides our loss of glory, and such an example as kings or tyrants never yet had the like to boast of, will be an ignominy if it befall us that never yet befell any nation possessed of their liberty; worthy indeed themselves, whatsoever they be, to be forever slaves.

To restore the Stuart monarchy, Milton is now prepared to insist, will be to tread the self-destructive as well as disgraceful path to servitude.

Nevertheless, this ignominy was duly incurred, and within a few years Milton seems to have felt that the still worse consequence of living under arbitrary power had likewise come to pass. As we have seen, Sallust had expressed the further anxiety that, so long as servility can be enjoyed with ease, people may come to prefer it to the more strenuous life of civic engagement. In Samson Agonistes, first published in 1671, Milton sometimes seems to be reflecting in just this way on the failure of the republican cause, especially at the moment when the enslaved Samson meditates on Judah’s failure to take part in a fight for deliverance:

Had Judah that day joined, or one whole tribe,
They had by this possessed the towers of Gath,
And lorded over them whom now they serve;
But what more oft in nations grown corrupt,
And by their vices brought to servitude,
Than to love bondage more than liberty,
Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty.

For Milton, as for so many later writers in the republican tradition, the price of freedom is nothing less than eternal vigilance.

So grandly does Milton express himself that it is all too easy to see in him an unequivocal champion of personal liberty, and thus as someone who shouldst undoubtedly be living at this hour. To avoid contributing to this romanticised picture, I need to emphasise that the sole question I have been considering is what it means according to Milton to be in possession of our liberty. I have not been asking how far he thinks we ought to be allowed to exercise our freedom in either the religious or the civil sphere. To raise this further question is to confront some of the more disquieting limits of his intellectual sympathies. When he refers in A Treatise of Civil Power to freedom of worship, he pleads for it on behalf of the Protestant sects, but he vehemently denies it to members of the Catholic Church, and he cannot conceive of extending it to other faiths. When he similarly refers in Areopagitica to freedom of expression, the only form of censorship he opposes is the alteration of texts in advance of publication; he remains in favour of stringent penalties for those who publish works of a seditious or a scurrilous character. Liberty for Milton may be a central value, but it is never an unrestricted right, and his equation between liberty and independence goes with an unashamed belief that the value itself can only be enjoyed by a relatively small number of prosperous and educated men like himself.

We find Milton meditating on the theme of human liberty once again in Paradise Lost, and nowhere with stronger conviction than in the speech at the beginning of Book III in which God himself is made to insist on the doctrine of the freedom of the will:

I formed them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change
Their nature, and revoke the high decree
Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained
Their freedom, they themselves ordained their fall.

Here Milton takes sides in one of the leading disputes within Protestant theology at the time, arguing that God’s foreknowledge of the Fall is fully compatible with the claim that Adam and Eve’s disobedience was not a predestined but a freely chosen act.

Milton also engages once more, especially in the opening two Books, with the question of what it means to be a free person. If we turn to these passages, however, we find ourselves confronting a deeply disconcerting feature of his argument. The language in which he had previously vindicated the cause of the English commonwealth – independence instead of vassalage, hard liberty instead of easy servility, an upright life instead of the bended knee – is now the language spoken by Satan and his most hellish confederates.

Perhaps most troubling is the moment at which Mammon speaks in the debate among the fallen angels on whether they should renew the conflict in heaven. Moloch counsels open war, but Mammon proposes that they should instead go their own way, establishing in hell just the kind of free and industrious commonwealth that Milton so much admired on earth:

How wearisome
Eternity so spent in worship paid
To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue
By force impossible, by leave obtained
Unacceptable, though in heaven, our state
Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear
Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,
Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse
We can create.

Fixing on these and similar passages, a recurrent strand of commentary has claimed to discern in the poem an element of hostility on Milton’s part towards the God whose ways, he had assured us in his opening lines, he intended to justify to men.

Satan is undoubtedly shown confronting his catastrophic loss with determination as well as fortitude, and these can be great virtues. But Milton’s emphasis on these qualities is hardly discordant with his basic purposes. It is intrinsic to the structure of the epic that Satan should be a formidable adversary: unless he is, there is no tragedy in Eve’s deception by his wiles or in Adam’s disobedience to God. Furthermore, an important distinction needs to be drawn in speaking about the place of monarchy in Milton’s thought. On the one hand, he certainly believes that earthly monarchies violate the proper relations between men and men. As he emphasises in The Ready and Easy Way, he thinks it ridiculous that kings, who are nothing but ordinary mortals singled out by an accident of birth, should be treated with fawning adoration and pomp. He also believes that such obsequiousness is bad for those who stoop to it, helping them as it does to forget the cardinal principle that everyone is created free and equal in the sight of God. On the other hand, there is no violation of the proper relations between men and God if we offer him absolute deference and obedience. This is precisely what Abdiel says in Book V in response to Satan’s outburst. We should not wish to challenge God, for we are bound to him by ties of love, but we cannot in any case hope to challenge him, for God is omnipotent and there is no evading the fact that we are his slaves:

Shalt thou give law to God, shalt thou dispute
With Him the points of liberty, who made
Thee what Thou art, and formed the powers of heaven
Such as he pleased, and circumscribed their being?

To call for freedom from God is nothing more than an instance of the sin of pride through which the angels fell.

Nevertheless, it remains striking – to say the least – that Milton’s most ringing denunciation of monarchy as a demeaning form of government, especially for virtuous men, should be placed in the mouth of Satan, as it is in Book V:

But what if better counsels might erect
Our minds and teach us to cast off this yoke?
Will ye submit your necks, and choose to bend
The supple knee? Ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know yourselves
Natives and sons of heaven possessed before
By none, and if not equal all, yet free,
Equally free; for orders and degrees
Jar not with liberty, but well consist.
Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchy over such as live by right
His equals, if in power and splendour less,
In freedom equal? or can introduce
Law and edict on us, who without law
Err not, much less for this to be our Lord,
And look for adoration to the abuse
Of those imperial titles which assert
Our being ordained to govern, not to serve?

Perhaps, as in the disputation in Book II, it is possible to hear an element of hyberbole and hence of satire in this passage. But to insist on such a reading may be to assume too readily what needs to be proved. As I have tried to show, one of Milton’s core values is the ideal of being a free person; and the essence of being a free person is to be your own man, unwilling to bend the supple knee to anyone at all. Once this consideration is given due weight, it becomes more difficult to dismiss with complete assurance the suggestion that, as William Blake wonderfully expressed it, Milton may have been of the devil’s party without knowing it.