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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

Milton as a Protestant

Above I have referred to this poem as the great Protestant epic, and Milton is the first great Protestant writer we encounter in this course. By this I do not mean that Milton is the first writer who was a Protestant in his religion, but rather he is the first great writer we meet who puts his Protestant religion right at the centre of his poetic imagination. Since we going to be spending a good deal of time on this poem and since we are going on to read the great prose Protestant epic, Pilgrim's Progress, it might be appropriate here to say a few things about what this term Protestant means. This is a highly complex issue which I cannot avoid misrepresenting in such a short discussion. But I would like to make some key point about it.

The term Protestant is immediately associated with the term the Reformation (the two words often occur together in the phrase the Protestant Reformation). This was an attempt launched by Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century to rid the Roman Catholic Church of some of the flagrant abuses which he and others perceived in the hierarchy and in the practice of the Roman Catholic religion. Luther, who was an Augustian monk, demanded a return to what he perceived as a much truer vision of Christian life based on the Bible and an immediate end to the economic abuses of the clergy (of the sort we encounter in Chaucer's General Prologue). Luther was unsuccessful in launching a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church, and he was excommunicated early in the sixteenth century. This launched a decisive split within the unity of Christian Europe, so that now there were two rival camps, the Roman Catholics and the break away Protestants.

It is important to note that the Roman Catholic Church had, from its earliest beginnings, been subject to large internal strains between those who wished to foster the Church's growing prestige, political power, and wealth and those who saw the essence of Christianity as a spiritual discipline which renounced earthly powers and devoted itself to contemplation or service. The growing wealth, power, and extravagance of the Papacy (to say nothing of its often scandalous political behaviour) had launched repeated reform movements for centuries.

Typically the Roman Catholic authorities had dealt with pressures for reform in one of two ways: they had made adjustments to the Church in order to accommodate the demands of the reformers (for example, by creating the mendicant orders of monks and friars for those who wished to dedicate their Christian lives to contemplation or to service, especially among the urban poor) or they had resorted to often harsh discipline, when the reformers proved adamant (e.g., some heretical movements). But the key principle for all the decisions of the Roman Catholic Church was that to be a Christian one had to be a member of the Church: as the traditional saying established, ex ecclesio nulla salvatio [no salvation outside the Church]. To be a devout Christian, one followed what the Church had established as appropriate behaviour, and one referred to the Church authorities any and all disputes over religious matters.

Luther was by no means the first to challenge the authority of the Papacy and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but he was the first to succeed in breaking the power of that hierarchy in matters of faith. He succeeded where others failed for three key reasons: first, he was an uncommonly brilliant, courageous, and stubborn adversary; second, he had the incalculable assistance of printing, so that his views could not be regionally isolated and dealt with but could spread almost instantly; and third, he had strong secular support from some political rulers who were alarmed at the economic drain caused by so much money being siphoned off southward to Rome for the expensive projects of the Papacy (like the building of St. Peter's). The immediate cause of Luther's movement was the sale, by officials licensed from the Vatican, of indulgences (i.e., days off purgatory) for money. The greed of this practice disgusted Luther, and the cost to the local economy alarmed the secular princes.

The break with Rome launched one of the bloodiest wars in European history (the Thirty Years' War, from 1618 to 1648) in which Catholic princes sought to reimpose Catholicism on the break away states and the Protestants fought amongst themselves for which of them had the one true version of an alternative to Rome. After some of the most devastating military campaigns Europe had ever seen (which left large parts of Europe, especially in Germany, totally destroyed), peace was concluded, with no clear winners and losers, and the principle was adopted throughout Western Europe that the ruler of any particular region would determine the religion of the people (the cuius regio eius religio princple). The period we call the Enlightenment which followed marked the beginning of a turning away from religion as the basis for European life. Since people no longer agreed about religious matters and there was no authority to rule on disputed questions, the search was on for a new authority in reason and science.

The Protestants, however, were by no means united in anything other than two things: hostility to the Roman Catholics (especially to the insistence that the Church must determine all matters of faith), and the belief that Christianity was essentially a matter of an individual relationship between the believer and God. The only essential material needed in this relationship was the holy text of the revealed word of God. Hence, Protestants really stressed the importance of translating and printing the Bible, distributing it as widely as possible, and justifying one's religion with constant references to it (rather than to any prescriptions from a Church hierarchy). The key concept in Protestantism (which is going to be such a marked feature of Pilgrim's Progress) is "grace," the free gift of God to the believer. Grace, according to Luther, comes only from one thing: from faith. It does not come from good works and certainly not from any external form of obedience to a particular church.

Attaining a state of grace is a radically individual experience which cannot be guaranteed. The only appropriate way to attain it is constantly to pray for it and to live all one's life awaiting some sign that one has achieved it. The spiritual life thus becomes a constant act of inward will, driving oneself forward in hopes of attaining grace and shunning anything that might get in the way (like physical pleasures or too many consumer goods). This is in marked contrast to the vision of religious values we get in Chaucer's General Prologue, where the emphasis is all on public virtues (i.e., our dealings with others). The ideal characters there are celebrated for their good works.

A prominent group of Protestants took this concept of divinely given grace to its logical extreme in the doctrine of predestination. Since there are no restraints on God and since He is omniscient, then everyone is predestined to receive grace or not to receive it, and thus to enter heaven or hell, no matter what they do in this life. This became the central claim of the Calvinists, a particularly stern and well disciplined version of Protestantism developed by Jean Calvin; Calvinism established a theocratic state in Geneva and developed a strong foothold in Scotland and (later) in North America.

There were literally hundreds of versions of Protestantism; sects multiplied over matters of scriptural interpretation and levels of authority, and wars were fought over questions of whether the communion wafer was the body of Christ or represented the body of Christ. As the Roman Catholics had long predicted, if once the one true Church lost its control over matters of doctrine and people were left to interpret the Bible as they saw fit, people would no longer agree and would kill each other over their disagreements.

Broadly speaking, in England three general groups of Protestants emerged, and one needs to keep these in mind as an important background to English literature from now on. First, there were the Anglicans. These were the most conservative Protestants. The Anglican Church was a political creation of Queen Elizabeth which kept most of the Roman Catholic liturgy and hierarchy, but which adopted Luther's theology. The Anglican Church has thus never been a grass roots, fire-and-brimstone, passionately popular version of Protestantism; it has been, by contrast, as the saying has it, "The Tory Party at prayer." It was made the official religion of the country, and anyone who wished to enter university or a licensed profession or (in some cases) get married, had to formally subscribe to Anglican doctrine.

Queen Elizabeth created the Anglican Church to keep at bay, not just the Roman Catholics, but the radical Protestants. At the extremes, Protestantism was extremely dangerous politically largely because of its extreme insistence on individualism. It takes no great leap of imagination to see that once one has overthrown the authority of the Church in religious matters, one can easily move to wanting to overthrow the authority of the traditional political hierarchies in political matters. And so radical Protestantism spawned a number of highly charged, fiercely democratic, egalitarian, and often communal sects--the Anabaptists, the Fifth Monarchy Men, the Diggers, the Baptists, and so on. These often enjoyed strong popular support and were constantly getting in trouble with the authorities who were only too happy to break with Rome but who wanted no such manifestations of religious individualism creeping into political life. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Methodists were the largest body of organized opinion in England, and the authorities were rightly alarmed at the enthusiastic following the Methodist preachers attracted. A really significant point in English political history is that the Methodists had no radical political agenda (although the authorities were not sure about that); if they had been as revolutionary as some of their Protestant brethren, the French Revolution might well have caught fire in England. Even Cromwell, the leader of the Protestant revolution in England, treated the radical fringe of the Protestant movement very sternly (although he used their energies to win his battles). Cromwell might be a Protestant, but he was also a gentleman and a landowner, and he had little patience with the democratic yearnings of many of his followers.

Between the Anglicans and the radical Protestants stood a very significant group generally called the Puritans (the non-Anglican Protestants were commonly called the Dissenters). This group was particularly prominent among the business classes, largely because (it has been argued) their version of Protestantism saw success in business (i.e., making money) as one sign of God's favour. The Puritans were, in general, law abiding, but often hostile to the traditional structure of authority based on titles and land ownership. They welcomed reform and innovations in science and business. In effect, they formed a powerful nucleus for what was to become the Whig (or Liberal) party in the eighteenth century. The traditional authorities viewed them with suspicion and banned them from higher education and many professions (e.g., medicine). Puritans were, especially in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, harassed and discriminated against. The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower were Puritans who felt so persecuted in England that they wanted to put the Atlantic Ocean between them and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Puritans went on to create one of the most formidable wealth generating groups the world has ever seen, the early capitalists. Because their faith demanded untiring efforts in work, sanctioned profit making as a sign of one's spiritual success, and yet denied the religious person the right to spend the profit on himself, the Puritans created astonishingly successful business men, who worked constantly and reinvested all their amazing profits into the business, adapting themselves quickly to accelerating changes in technology and always emphasizing the importance of practical education. These are the people who had more to do with the successful exportation of English culture to North America than anything else, and they were absolutely decisive in the development of Canada as a nation. For a powerful sense of the union between Puritan faith and money, you cannot do better than read the great classic by Defoe, Robinson Crusoe.

Milton associated himself closely with the Puritan cause led by Oliver Cromwell, under whom he held an official post as Latin Secretary. In many ways, Milton was a tireless Protestant, constantly attacking all versions of unjust authority, not just in religion. He advocated liberalizing restrictions on speech and wrote one of the first great tracts on divorce. He turned his anger against the attempts of Protestants to establish new structures of authority. Again and again in a number of writings Milton demonstrated that he was a tireless champion of liberty from unfair domination in matters most important to human life: in faith and politics. Once the monarchy was restored, Milton was in considerable danger for his life, given that his superior, Cromwell, had executed Charles I. But the intervention of other poets and his own rapidly deteriorating condition spared him. It may be (and some have suggested this point) that in Paradise Lost we can feel the weight of his massive disappointment with the return of all those ancient authorities he had spent his lifetime combating. In a sense, we might view this poem as Milton's attempt to reveal to the English reader what the Protestant revolution, which they have evidently betrayed, is all about.

This brief review is all too short and unsatisfactory. But any student of English literature needs to be aware of the significance of the Protestant Reformation and of some of its varieties, because the Protestant vision of life now becomes an important feature of imaginative writing--not simply in the works of those who make it central to their vision of life (like Milton, Bunyan, and Defoe) but also to those who take time to stand up against it, who see it is as a threat to the joys of life (as Shakespeare does in Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure and Dickens does repeatedly). An excellent place to start your exploration of Protestantism in its various manifestations is Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, one of the justly famous classic texts in the history of ideas.

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"Lecture on Milton's Paradise Lost"

Author: Ian Johnston

Site: johnstonia


Paradise Lost As an Epic Poem

Milton as a Protestant

The Critical Debate over Paradise Lost: Some General Comments

Some Initial Interpretative Considerations: Will and Imagination

Some Narrative Considerations

Justification of God's Ways: Part I

A Digression: The Problem of "Philosophical" Poetry

Justification of God's Ways: Part 2

The Opening Drama



Adam and Eve

Some Final Observations

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