Milton and the Martial Muse:

Milton and the Martial Muse: "Paradise Lost" and European Traditions of War

by James A. Freeman

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Combining historical scholarship with literary criticism, James Freeman provides a comprehensive study of the pro-war tradition that dominated Renaissance thought and of John Milton's rejection of that tradition in Paradise Lost.

Originally published in 1981.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available

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Combining historical scholarship with literary criticism, James Freeman provides a comprehensive study of the pro-war tradition that dominated Renaissance thought and of John Milton's rejection of that tradition in Paradise Lost.

Originally published in 1981.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Milton and the Martial Muse

Paradise Lost and European Traditions of War

By James A. Freeman


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06435-2



Public Approval of War

Throughout his life Milton heard respectable authorities from almost every age, tongue, and genre proclaim that war is noble and mere study a detriment to kingdoms. He felt that combat debases human beings since it involves a "waste of wealth and loss of blood" (Sonn 12. 14), but his typical contemporary agreed with Francis Bacon: "the Principal Point of Greatness in any State, is to have a Race of Military Men." Most ancient and modern authorities approved of war or found strong reasons to excuse it. Occasionally, some raised their voices against various abuses such as killing non-combatants or taxing citizens to support permanent armies. Cyrenaics, Epicureans, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius briefly lamented the beastliness of conflict in the ancient world; during the Renaissance, a tiny group of men like Erasmus, John Colet, George Herbert, and James I echoed their pacific notions. But when Milton examined the major traditions of Western thought in order to support his view that battle actualizes the most odious elements of human potential, he stood nearly alone.

Understandably, pagan literature makes extravagant claims for combat. Originating from and harking back to a heroic age, epics like the Iliad assume conflict presents men with a chance for some aristeia that will earn fame before black death snatches them from our bright world. Even though the tableau on Achilles' shield concerns peacetime activities, the gorgeous artifact itself has, like the poem, been necessitated by war. Virgil also tries to find a place in his imaginative world for the viciousness of battle. His Aeneid deplores death for young or innocent victims, yet he accepts it as a tool by which wise fatum manipulates history. Only after crushing the arrogant in battle, predicts Anchises, will Romans accomplish their unique goal of furnishing law to all humans. Statius, Lucan, Silius, even Petronius, sweep their strings more loudly when discussing war. Excepting only elegists like Tibullus and Propertius, who carried on a foppish duel with soldier-rivals, and atypical protestors like Euripides in The Trojan Women, most ancients probably approved of Epaminondas' truculent boast. When Pelopidas, who had a worthless son, scolded Epaminondas for not siring children, the great general replied haughtily: "I do have a son — the battle of Leuctra. Unlike your useless boy, my victory will live after me and make me immortal" (Cornelius Nepos, "Epaminondas" 10).

Early Christian writers disappointed Milton even more than heathen since their authority persisted through the Renaissance and they conspicuously drew their ideas from the Bible. Yet they too accepted war. "The idea of original sin," notes Momigliano, "made war appear even more inevitable and natural" to Milton's spiritual antecedents than to his secular predecessors. The interval between Rome's fall and London's rise hardened Christianity so that it both tolerated and advocated bloodshed. One and one-half millennia produced few bans on war. Some practical measures like the Truce and Peace of God were enacted, some praises like Boniface's "Aenigmata de Virtutibus," applauding Pax vere Christiana along with faith, hope, truth, pity, patience, humility, and virginity, were written, and some questions were raised about the possible conflict between warring well and obeying the commandments. Few statements, however, encouraged the average seventeenth-century believer to reject warfare.

Whatever vision of universal harmony these may have inspired, the early church soon blurred. Tertullian bravely attempts to explain away the many biblical accounts of war by claiming that weapons and booty are mentioned figuratively: "Who can use the sword and not contradict justice?" The most powerful two-edged sword that a Christian should wield is the Bible with its Old and New Testaments (Adversus Judaeos). Yet other early thinkers busily laid the foundation for a militant church. Lactantius scolds the Stoics for failing to distinguish just wrath from unjust. The former should be allowed in order to correct human depravity (De Ira Dei 12). We shall often meet the idea of legitimate force, even in Paradise Lost. Here it is enough to note that as the church gained power, it required excuses to use that power. Like Tertullian, Lactantius finally pulls back from involvement with real campaigns: he defends "Thou shalt not kill" since "God wished man to be a sacred creature" (Divine Institutes 6. 20).

After Constantine adopted Christianity as the official faith, the theoretical tolerance for excusable conflict grew. Observers like Ambrose look on a world reeling with visible and invisible contentions. Chiunni, Alans, Goths, and Sarmatians struggle physically while Christians fight spiritual foes such as avarice, lust, anger, and ambition (Expositio in Lucam 10. 10-11). Ambrose's pupil Augustine similarly accepts strife as one constant in a universe that includes material as well as supernatural opponents. He scatters apologies for earthly war throughout his writings. Miserable as it is — even when just — human wrongdoing causes it (The City of God 19. 7). Moreover, both bad and good men will have to participate in war. Only their attitude distinguishes them: impious men call belligerence "joy" while decent men term it "necessity" (The City of God 4. 15. Hincmar of Rheims considers this and other Augustinean maxims in Explanatio in Ferculum Salmonis 1. 7-11). Augustine further insists that when God orders a conflict, there can be no imputation of sin, even if the soldier kills (De Doctrina Christiana 1. 17, 26). Quite early in the church's history, justum helium managed to smother "non occides."

Later authorities offered little more support to Milton. Raban Maur unabashedly prefers the contemplative life: "A true soldier of Christ strips his mind of worldly quarrels" (Expositio super Jeremiam 19). He diligently lists the names of army offices and weapons, noting that the church also has deacons, but religious deacani lead men, not hurt them (De Universo 16. 3). Still, Maur admits that Jesus was right when he did not abolish war: it is not necessarily iniquum and it teaches obedience (Commentario in Librum Judicum 1.8). Other writers in the late Middle Ages speak longingly of tranquility, but acknowledge war's ascendency. Barely three centuries separate Smaragdus from St. Ivo of Chartres, although their perceptions of allowable conduct seem light years apart. It may have been simple to say in the ninth century, as Smaragdus does, "If we wish to be God's children, we must be peaceful: humble, gentle, openhearted and pure in speech" (Diadema Monachorum 12); it certainly was natural to say what Ivo did while the Crusades approached: kings may declare war without sin; soldiers may kill without sin; kings or soldiers who die in a just war go directly to heaven (Panormia 8. 15-60). The monastic ideal of harmony on any large scale apparently even embarrassed St. Bruno, who recalls with rectitude that Christ, the Prince of Peace, holds no attraction for ill-natured men or animals. But instead of listing the horrors of war, Bruno drifts into a self-indulgent speculation: did the animals on Noah's ark fight immediately after the Flood? He concludes that the survivors' descendants began to fight (Sententiae 2. 7). Less speculative opinions from the high Middle Ages are delivered by Philip of Harveng. He urges that Cain's fratricide should be censured, but, with greater fervor, he urges that spilling the blood of "barbarians" should never give us pause: God enjoins all holding public office to execute both domestic and foreign malefactors (De Institutione Clericorum 5. 38). Philip's sentiment follows those of many previous clerics who list admirable killers like Abraham, Moses, Ehud, and David. St. Bernard extends the possibility of virtuous extermination to his own day when, stung by information that Abelard has enlisted supporters, he reminds us how worthy were the persecutors of heretics like Arians, Manicheans, Nestorians, and Marcionites (Epistle 193). Ironically but clearly, Bernard signals that where war was concerned, his thousand-year-old church returned for inspiration to a philosophy more consistent with Homer than with Tertullian and Lactantius. This reversion may be symbolized by one detail from the Legend of the True Cross: after Helena discovered Jesus' cross and the instruments of his passion, she ordered the nails to be melted and refashioned into weapons.

Renaissance and Reformation authorities continued to support war. They not only accepted its utility, but searched for ways to make it more productive. Pagan and Christian works were reread for technical advice. One author studies Julius Caesar "for the better direction of our moderne Warrs" (Edmunds, Observations 1604, Title Page) while another reinterprets the Bible "For the rightly wageing of warre according to Holy Writ." Mature readers no doubt agreed with Erasmus' Querela Pacis or shuddered at Philip Vincent's Lamentations of Germany : the first reasoned that war is man's most illogical and sinful act; the second pictured atrocities like cannibalism. Anyone with eyes must have wept at Jacques Callot's grotesque series, Les Grandes Miseres de la Guerre. Alexander Leighton begins Speculum Belli Sacri with a sustained blast against "The Evill of Warre": "for war is the fruit of sin, the wages of sin, and the cause of sin; yea eve on the one part it is sin it selfe." Theology aside, "The world for the proofe of this affoords a world of woefull experience, both from sacred and profane Writ. ... let us look upon the latest warres in France, Bohemia, and the Palatinate" (p. 3). Yet Leighton proceeds to deny his premise. Diametrically opposed to Milton's method, Leighton's first condemns what he plans to support. He justifies his more than three hundred pages by chastising any "frantic" Anabaptists who might agree with sentimental pacifists like Vives: "Notwithstanding of all this, that hath been said of war; yet Warre well undertaken is not onely lawfull but also necessary" (p. 6). Although Leighton was a clergyman, few readers would have been surprised by his truculence. Divines from all sects supported belligerence. Luther calls war a "scourge" in his table talk, but the Augsburg Confession (1530) clearly obliges Christians to fight in just campaigns: "Docent quod Christianis liceat jure bellare (Article 16, the Gospels teach that Christians may participate in a just war). Catholics after Trent accept without complaint Aquinas' defense of war making, which is itself largely indebted to Aristotle and Augustine (Summa Theologica 2. 2. 40, 108). John Calvin gives aid and comfort to most Protestants when he argues persuasively,

But if it is objected, that in the New Testament there is no passage or example teaching that war is lawful for Christians, I answer, first, that the reason for carrying on war, which anciently existed, still exists in the present day, and that, on the other hand, there is no ground for debarring magistrates from the defence of those under them; and, secondly, that in the Apostolic writings we are not to look for a distinct exposition of those matters, their object being not to form a civil polity, but to establish the spiritual kingdom of Christ; lastly, that there also it is indicated, in passing, that our Saviour, by his advent, made no change in this respect.

Not only theologians speak for war: wherever Milton turns, experts assure him that "the Profession of a Souldier is allowed to be lawful by the Word of God." Furthermore,

It is needelesse ... to dispute, whether it be lawfull, either for Christian Princes to make warres, or for christians to serue in warres. Those that thinke it unlawfull, as men deuoyd of iudgement in religion and state, are declared long since to be both heretical, and phrenetical persons.

Even the deity, Milton's great taskmaster, was routinely militarized. Clement of Alexandria adumbrates a Renaissance rationale when he envisions God as "our Great General, the Word, Commander-in-Chief of the universe." He is as modern as Henry Lawrence, who reminds his readers in 1649 that "Iesus Christ" is "The great Generall of all his people." The first commandment may have prohibited images of God, but writers in the early seventeenth century often called him a military leader. In Pallas Armata, Thomas Kellie heaps up Biblical phrases to prove his point that "The fountaine of all Artes and Sciences, The Eternal Himselfe is a Souldier as the ... Scripture sayeth: The Lord is a Man of Warre." Just as Milton was preparing to travel abroad, in search, perhaps, of support for his decision to be a poet, John Ball issued the third edition of his popular Treatise of Faith. Ball reminds any pious quester that "The chief est strength of souldiers lyeth in their Captaine ...: but all our strength lyeth in Christ, the Captaine that leadeth us to salvation." Moral analogies such as these deluged Milton, assuring anyone who heard them that the godlike human being strove to become a soldier, not a poet. Lawrence Grimald exhorts his countrymen (including Milton, "the Lady of Christ's") that "Vertue is not a Ladie of solatarie or idle life, but loueth labour, reioyceth, and triumpheth in times of perill.

Perhaps most distressing to Milton, who was neither "frantic" nor "phrenetical," secular thinkers failed to suggest rational alternatives to religion's crusading mentality. The rules of war that theorizers as varied as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Gentili, and Grotius promulgated did not presuppose that reason might someday eliminate the need for conflict. Like almost all men, they accepted as their premise the inevitability of war. Milton himself follows in the footsteps of these codifiers by defending immoral but accomplished acts such as rebellion and regicide. He formulates his own requirements for a just war in De Doctrina Christiana (2. 17), thus showing he knows as well as they that faith or philosophy cannot avoid battle but must seek to understand it. Along with Castiglione, Milton realizes that in a perfectly logical world, war "is bad in itself"; but on our planet, already overpopulated with agitators, it is inescapable. "I hold," says the pragmatic Count Ludovico da Canossa, "that the principle and true profession of the Courtier must be that of arms."

Although personally longing for the time when "no War, or Battle's sound I Was heard the World around" (Nat 53. 4), Milton understands how most of his teachers hear a kind of harmony in "the odious din of War" (Paradise Lost 6. 408). To Milton's credit he does not again retreat to Horton or "a lodge in some vast wilderness" like the hermitage Cowper was to imagine,

Where rumour of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Might never reach me more.
(The Task, Book 2. "The Timepiece," 1-5)

Rather he faces up to the combined inheritance of religious and civil opinion. Sadly, but resolutely, he accepts the almost universal truism:

As the Gouvenour of this World hath apointed Life and Death, Summer and Winter, Day and Night, and almost giuen eurie thing a contrarie, so hath hee made Peace and Warre to haue an interchanging course on the face of this earth.

Milton's refusal to slink out of our human predicament brings him into a curious agreement with military authors. Edw[ard] Davies, for example, repeats the common seasonal analogy:

it is very needfull, and requisite in the Summer of Peace to forecast, and prouide against the Winter of Warres.

Perhaps this common association between a sequence in nature of antithetical seasons and the inevitability of war in human affairs accounts for the way Milton patterns his description of events following the Fall. Soon after Adam and Eve disobey, thereby guaranteeing an end to their idyll, our world alters: "Sun," "Moon," planets, seasons and "Winds," once benign, become hostile. Then, "Discord ... I Death introduc'd through fierce antipathy: / Beast now with Beast gan War" (Paradise Lost 10. 651-714). Immersed in this world of universal conflict, Adam and Milton choose different tactics to console themselves. Our Father seeks "to disburd'n [himself] ... with sad complain" (10. 719); the poet, however, decides to fight as sanely as he can against fighting.


Excerpted from Milton and the Martial Muse by James A. Freeman. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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