- Donald E. Hester
Unleashing the Riches of John Milton: My Insights
Have you ever felt intimidated by the reputation of John Milton, one of the greatest writers in the history of English literature? Perhaps you've come across references to his works in other books or conversations, but never had the chance to dive into them yourself. If so, you're not alone. Milton's poetry and prose can be challenging, but they're also deeply rewarding for those who take the time to engage with them.
I recently listened to The Life and Writings of John Milton by Seth Lerer, The Great Courses (Publisher). This course provides an introduction to Milton's works and achievements, regardless of whether or not you've read his works before, it serves as an accessible starting point for anyone interested in learning more about this towering figure of English literature.
As someone who had only the barest knowledge of Milton and his works before taking this course, I found it to be an eye-opening experience. Professor Seth Lerer helped me better understand the richness and depth of Milton's poetry and prose by examining Milton's life and career and the context in which he wrote.
In this blog post, I'd like to share a few takeaways from the course, highlighting some of the key insights I gained from studying Milton's life and works. Whether you're a seasoned Milton scholar or just starting to explore his writings, I hope that this post will inspire you to dive deeper into the world of John Milton.
“He who reigns within himself and rules passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.” - John Milton
One of the most fascinating aspects of John Milton's life and work is his engagement with the political and social issues of his time. While he is primarily known as a poet, Milton was also a prolific writer of prose, tackling topics ranging from religious freedom to divorce.
In fact, Milton's writings on divorce were particularly groundbreaking for his time. As Professor Lerer notes in the course, Milton believed that marriage was a divine institution intended to benefit human life. However, he also recognized that not all marriages were successful, and that divorce could be a legitimate option for couples who were incompatible.
This was a surprisingly progressive view for a Puritan England that placed a strong emphasis on the sanctity of marriage. Milton's own difficult first marriage may have influenced his perspective on the issue, as he personally experienced the challenges of a marriage that was not fulfilling for either partner.
Of course, it's important to note that Milton's language on this topic, as with many issues, can be problematic to modern readers. His views on the role of women in marriage and society were shaped by the cultural norms of his time, and may not align with contemporary notions of gender equality.
Still, Milton's advocacy for divorce as a means of addressing marital difficulties was a significant contribution to the discourse on marriage and family in 17th-century England. It demonstrates his willingness to challenge prevailing attitudes and norms, and to think deeply about the role of human relationships in promoting individual and social well-being.
Coming from a conservative Christian background and having gone through a difficult divorce, I feel a certain affinity with Milton. While I may not agree with his views on gender roles, I do appreciate his less rigid approach to divorce.
“as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itselfe, kills the Image of God, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.” - John Milton
In his prose tract Aereopagitica (1645), Milton makes a major statement on the need for a free press and the dangers of censorship. The title is derived from an oration of Isocrates in the 4th century B.C. Milton argues that pre-censorship limits the liberty of both writers and readers and concentrates power in the hands of a few individuals. However, he is not completely against censorship and supports post-publication censorship as a way for readers and society to determine if a work is slanderous or scandalous.
After studying Aereopagitica, I was struck by the concept that we have the right to read what others have written. It's not just the freedom to speak, but also the freedom to listen. This idea was eye-opening for me, as I had always known that communication required at least two parties, but I had never considered that the right to express oneself should also apply to the right to receive information. Milton's argument highlights the importance of protecting the freedom of speech and the press, while allowing society to decide if what is written or said is worth anything. You have the freedom to say what you want, within reason and I have the right to listen to you and I have the right to not listen.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” - Evelyn Beatrice Hall (summarizing Voltaire’s thinking on freedom of speech.)
I believe Milton did not address an important point: freedom comes with responsibility. As the saying goes, "with great power comes great responsibility." For instance, one cannot shout "fire" in a crowded theater. Therefore, there are limits to freedom. People are responsible for being mindful of what they say, read, and listen to. It is also important for individuals to fact-check information before spreading or accepting it as true. Sorry, I am a bit off-topic. ;-)
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’
Paradise Lost is so rich, so vast, and so long, that it can be approached in many ways. The poem tells the biblical story of the fall of man, starting with Satan's rebellion against God and his temptation of Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. The poem explores themes such as free will, temptation, sin, and redemption. Milton's portrayal of Satan is complex, as he is depicted as both a tragic figure and a villain. Paradise Lost has had a lasting impact on English literature, inspiring countless writers and artists over the centuries.
One quote that resonated with me was when Satan stated, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." This quote emphasizes the significant impact of our thoughts on our lives. Regardless of our circumstances, having a positive mindset can lead to happiness, whereas a negative mindset can lead to unhappiness. Our thoughts control our emotions, not the situation. This concept has been taught since ancient times, with the Stoics being a prime example. Today, cognitive behavioral therapy also uses this idea through "reframing." Changing our perception of a situation can change our emotions. I found this quote to be insightful and saved it for future reference.
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” - Charles R. Swindoll
In conclusion, this course on Milton's works and achievements was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that Milton was not just a poet but also an influential writer on political and social issues. His views on divorce and the need for a free press are still relevant today. Additionally, his quote on the power of the mind has inspired me to take control of my own thoughts and emotions. Overall, I highly recommend this course to anyone who wants to learn more about Milton and his works. And who knows, maybe after taking this course, you might be inspired to read Paradise Lost or other works by Milton.
The Life and Writings of John Milton by Seth Lerer, The Great Courses (Publisher) https://amzn.to/3lPTfF4