John Milton: Postmodern Hero?

Author:Howard, William L.

John Milton: A Hero of Our Time, by David Hawkes. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2009. 354 pp. $28.

Instead of putting John Milton in the context of his own time, David Hawkes proposes in this study to put him in the context of ours. He refutes the anticipated charge that such an attempt would be anachronistic by pointing out that Milton thought of himself as a prophet who was speaking to the future. Hawkes believes that the great poet and political writer's life and work offer solutions to our own predicament. A prophet not honored in his own country or time, Milton was often considered an extremist in his political views--he not only favored deposing the king of England but justified his execution--and his private ones: he wrote several tracts arguing that divorce on the basis of incompatibility was justifiable. That the citizens of his own country failed to adopt his views he attributed to their slavish mentality, a state of mind natural to human beings but which the poet thought could--and should--be resisted. Hawkes agrees, and he enlists Milton as an ally in his own iconoclasm regarding perceived evils of the present day.

If there is a salient characteristic that organizes Milton's life and work, Hawkes believes it is that he stood for an "ethics of signification." By this he means that images, including those created by words, law, religion, and customs of all kinds, should be truthful representations of reality. If they are not, then they must be reformed lest they enslave humanity to various falsehoods. Hawkes finds that this principle governs Milton's views of politics, religion, and personal conduct. For example, King Charles I, Milton felt, had become an idol that attracted an undeserved reverence, and his true nature and the true nature of his relationship to the English people had been lost in the unreality of a fetish. Likewise, Milton and his fellow Puritans thought the Church of England, which had recently re-instituted icons in its liturgy, was fostering the worship of idols rather than of God. Finally, Milton believed that the law, which made adultery the only legitimate grounds of divorce, privileged the physical relationship over the intellectual and spiritual one. Outworn custom essentially made an idol of the physicality of marriage at the expense of more important aspects of the relationship. To Hawkes, Milton's writing acted as "the antidote to idolatry." He cut to the truth, and that characteristic, Hawkes believes, makes his work even more essential to our times than to his.

A motif related to idolatry in this study is usury. Chapter one, in fact, is entitled "The Fruit of Usury." Hawkes is at his best as he establishes the importance of money-lending and, more generally, an emerging market economy in Milton's time. Milton's father was disinherited from his family's landed estate because he became a committed...

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