The Complicated Genius of John Milton

Title page of first edition of Paradise Lost
Seventeenth century poet, writer, and polemicist John Milton is perhaps one of the most fascinating yet complex literary figures of all time. From “Paradise Lost” to “Of Reformation”, this most cerebral of Renaissance men put pen to paper in questioning faith, politics, and the human condition in general, all the while maintaining his belief that in the arena of ideas and philosophies, some are superior to others.

Perhaps Milton’s strongest influence was his religious belief. Raised by a Protestant father who himself was disinherited for leaving Roman Catholicism, Milton intended to pursue a career as an Anglican priest. These plans altered in later years, as did his faith, when he shifted from a strictly Anglican viewpoint to a more Puritan one. Such works as “Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce” and “Of Prelatical Episcopacy” questioned the hierarchical structure of the several churches and the resulting doctrines.

Milton was also heavily influenced by politics in an age when English royalism was being resisted on all fronts. Milton believed vigorously in such republican principles as the citizen’s right to remove despots and the necessity of a free press. He was a fierce defender of personal liberty and responsibility, despising the church-state authoritarianism which attempted to control every aspect of life in England. Milton’s many polemic dissertations on government earned him an official position in Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived Commonwealth of England.

Blindness cause him to step out of the political arena, but did not prevent Milton from continuing to write. His most famous work was “Paradise Lost”, an epic poem focused on the fall of man through Adam and Eve. His theological understanding of sin, paganism, redemption and the state of the fallen world permeate the work and reveal a man who was more realist than philosopher. That realist outlook, combined with his belief that man should do the absolute best with what he had, seems to be the foundation of all his writings.

John Milton died having achieved a reputation as one of the finest minds of his day. His works were well-received and respected in the halls of government, religion, and higher education across England, and his influence is still alive wherever politics and religion are discussed.

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