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’.

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