Category Archives: Early Modern

John Donne, Erasmus, and Religious Warfare


he work of John Donne has traditionally been subdivided into that of “Jack” and “Doctor” Donne, based in the topical breach that occurs over Donne’s career from the bedroom to the pulpit. Yet as Richard Strier remarks in his article “Radical Donne: ‘Satire III,’” critics have recently sought to find the underlying themes that find vitality in Donne’s work from early to late. One such theme is religion and religious conflict. Donne’s conversion experience is the autobiographical catalyst in the distinction between Jack and Doctor Donne, yet critics such as Strier seek the shared anxiety, tension, and ambition in Donne’s religious thinking throughout his career. Strier makes a compelling case in “Radical Donne” that Donne’s early Satire III (composed at the end of the 16th century) shows a radical coexistence of Catholic and Protestant theology and scholarship. In this essay I want to suggest further that not only does “Satire III” show the marks of an author versed in both Erasmus and Luther as Strier suggests; it also shows a radical desire for peace on a continent fraying and eventually breaking at the seams over the course of Donne’s life, a peace evoked in “Satire III,” the Holy Sonnets, and the Meditations in opposition to the imagery of war. Thus, another critical facet of Donne’s “radicalism” is his desire for peace forged in dialogue with chivalric and classical militarism, Erasmus’ calls for peace, and contemporary martyrology. Donne argues throughout his poetry and satires for a  Christian valiance in opposition to bravery, war, and corrupt princes.

The nature of Donne’s radicalism as defined by Empson and Strier is worth considering further in the context of the language of war and peace in the Satire itself and Donne’s later poems and poetry. For Empson, Donne was a rung in the ladder up to modern political thought, an author that “-[gives] an inherent argument for freedom of conscience” (Empson). Strier is right to suggest that this concept alone was hardly radical for the time period, at least in itself; and Empson’s rendering does suggest a mechanistic view of the relationship between literary project and history that is less prevalent in contemporary criticism.  Empson’s argument is Strier’s springboard though, and the latter does base his own project on the general desire to read Donne as aspiring religiously and politically for a radical harmony between Protestant and Catholic. Strier elucidates, “Donne can be seen to have shown…the perhaps surprising compatibility of three of the most radical notions of the European sixteenth-century: Erasmus’ “Philosophy of Christ,” Castellio’s vindication of doubt, and Luther’s conception of conscience” (Strier 312-3). For Strier, Donne’s radicalism is markedly his own in that it is constructed of conflicting Catholic and Protestant theologies. Such tolerance was a radical notion in the period leading up to the Thirty Years War, an era historian C.V. Wedgewood described as “thick with the apprehension of conflict” (Wedgewood 12).  Strier convincingly makes the case that Donne seeks to synthesize these contradictions in the Satire. Yet there is some merit in Empson’s original critical project to seek not only the hermeneutical, epistemological, theological, and philosophical in Donne’s Satire but also the historical. The historical threat and reality of religious war emerges again and again in the text, making the conclusion of Donne’s Satire not only a call for theological and philosophical coexistence but also an anxious interaction with the threat of religious war.

From the very first lines of the Satire, Donne invokes the language of martial battle and then vanquishes its value with a rhetorical equivalency between Protestant and Catholic that Strier highlights. Donne begins, “Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids / Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids” (ll. 1-2) It is disquieting that we begin this Satire that so ardently argues for radical tolerance with imagery of paralysis. Pity chokes, while “brave” scorn forbids (like a King) tears to flow from his eyes. Catholic and Protestant talking points are immediately invoked in these opening lines. Donne summons the physical, the source of Protestant anxiety, and suggests that kind pity emerges from his body and mind (the spleen representing both) (Strier 286) as well as despair. Such a description complicates a more radical Protestant reading of the body as an instrument of declination and corruption, a complication the early Donne pursues in several of his love poems. With the next stroke of his pen, Donne rejects the notion that authority may assuage the moisture that rises to our eyes, a markedly Protestant critique of Catholic bureaucracy. Authority forbids us only from visibly crying and cannot vanquish the tears “which swell my eyelids.” This is much in line with Strier’s project to find coexistence in the Satire, but I think Donne’s use of the concept of bravery in these opening lines is also significant. Brave scorn, that which prevents us from “weep[ing] sins,” has decidedly martial social connotation to it. Bravery and honor, cornerstones of chivalric nationalism (and what Donne famously attacks in “Death Be Not Proud”), are what enable sin through “forbidding” the poet from ridding himself of that sin.

Only a few lines later, Donne pursues the inability of the martial to absolve sin and the theological differences of the day. Donne continues, “Is not our mistress, fair Religion, / As worth of all our souls’ devotion / As virtue was to the first blinded age? / Are not heaven’s joys as valiant to assuage / Lusts, as earth’s honor was to them” (ll. 5-9)? Donne asks a provocative question that seeks to challenge contemporary readers with a historical equivalency between the classical and the present. Strier is right to suggest that this is not a condemnation of the classical by Donne. Donne questions, as Strier states, how “faire religion” has failed to inspire similar devotion (Strier 288). Yet that very question as Donne has constructed it seeks to blend these eras and to see the tendrils of influence between them. What Donne invokes from the classical is markedly martial – bravery and virtue (the latter word rooted in the Latin vir, which Donne plays with in “Death Be Not Proud”). Donne offers an alternative to that bravery, virtue, and honor that defined the classics and that now prevent the poet from ridding himself of sin. He suggests that to seek the synthesized, general Christian project is true valiance, a surely martial concept. But the rhetorical necessity of the question denotes the anxiety that underlies much of the Satire. Donne desires a radical valiance for peace, but his era is steeped instead in the martial bravery and honor of the classical age. Both sides are accused in this opening section, the “Spanish fire,” and the “courage of straw” that serves as kindling. There is certainly a desire here for religious synthesis, but there is also a profound anxiety over the martial realities of these questions. When Donne writes lines later, “O, if thou dar’st, fear this; / This fear great courage and high valor is” (ll. 16), he is interacting with the martial reality of the day at the turn of the 17th century, where bravery and honor prevent reconciliation and actively push Protestants and Catholics towards war. For Donne, fear is the truly valorous and courageous act, fear of a culture of martial courage, and fear to follow “tyrannous rage” (ll. 105) towards disastrous ends.

The ending of the Satire incorporates much of this martial imagery and the nature of the ending in light of this imagery divides critics. Strier, for example, reads the end as a positively ambivalent one. Strier writes in the conclusion to his own piece, “The integral soul, standing still, refusing to be bound, waiting for a personal revelation that may or may not come, is the final positive image of Satire III” (Strier 312). For Strier, the poet is ultimately not tied down with “fetters,” and the end of the Satire expresses an ideology of coexistence. The martial imagery here, as it does in the opening sections, evokes an underlying anxiety that needs further exploration. In concluding, Donne writes,

“As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell / At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and prove well, / But having left their roots, and themselves given / To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven / Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost / Consumed in going, in the sea are lost. / So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust / Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust” (ll. 103-108).

Donne’s conclusion complements the poem’s opening emphasis on tears with Christian imagery of water. It is now tyrannous rage (instead of bravery or honor) that drives the water with haste away from less destructive paths. The image of consumption through a process of movement is undeniably militaristic. Like a war, the river courses through the countryside and destroys as it moves through. This destruction is tied on the sentence level to an abandonment of “roots” located in a “calmer” section, a section without tyrannous rage and “unjust Power.” I think Strier is right to suggest that these roots are not specifically Catholic (as could be inferred by an abandonment of tradition). Donne is instead suggesting a more general Christian ancestry, an ancestry he endeavors in the opening of the Satire to describe as valiant. But here as before in the face of that valiant cause is the threat of tyranny and incorrect choice. Donne’s inclusion of choice in these final lines complicates Strier’s claim that the ending optimistically looks to religious coexistence. Donne undeniably desires such an accomplishment amid the commingled worlds of religion and politics in the late sixteenth century, but the idea remains just that:  a desire. Like the kind pity and deeply felt sorrow of the introduction, this ultimate desire remains challenged by the threat of religious conflict rooted in classical notions of bravery, courage, and anti-tyrannical rebellion.

Before turning to Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Meditations, I want to explore further the nature of Donne’s peace and the intellectual influences and precedents for Donne’s interaction with the threat of religious warfare. Strier cogently argues that a main facet of the religious synthesis at the heart of Satire III, that I argue is put into crisis by the threat of war, is the work of  Erasmus. Erasmus, as critic Robert Allen suggests in his book The Better Part f Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vivies, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535, wrote at great length on what Strier terms “pacifism” (Strier 291). I will argue, though, that Donne’s utilization of Erasmus is not merely one that invokes Erasmus’ universal pacifism but rather a pointed political, historical critique of the religious warfare of the 16th and 17th century – a distinction that can be found in Erasmus’ own critique of corrupt government and chivalric courage. Erasmus’ philosophy of Christ is fundamentally a reaction to the secular, warring, and political machinations of the late Medieval church, and the dialectical and often directly involved shadow of the threat of war in Erasmus is reflected repeatedly in Donne’s Satires and later poetry. Adams describes Erasmus’ conception of war in the following terms, which is a useful entry point to the influence of Erasmus on Donne’s poetic depiction of peace: “His (Erasmus) practical proposal is that leaders on both sides, as rational men pursuing self-interest , should count in advance all war’s costs. When this is done, wisdom will dictate settling disputes quietly by arbitration… when full accounting is made of costs, all military triumphs turn out to be Cadmean: everyone suffers ruin” (Adams 101). Donne’s thesis in Satire III is markedly similar to Adam’s summation of Erasmus’ objection to war. Donne brings the cost of war repeatedly to the center of the Satire, and the central moment of contrast between mistress and faire religion relies on the imagery of chivalric idealism and religious persecution (the courage of straw and fires of spain, for example). While Erasmus, like Donne, ultimately does make a transcendent conclusion that war is anti-Christian and ruinous for all participants, the avenue through which Erasmus makes this meta-critique is specifically late Medieval and Renaissance religious strife. Like Donne, Erasmus aims not only at the abolition of all conflict but also a specific political and historical peace. Donne and Erasmus share a Humanist desire to reform the social and cultural ills (often associated with ignorance in Humanist discourses) towards the end of manifesting a more just society. The consummate Humanist, Erasmus spends much of Erasmus Against War making a an argument that relies on this rhetoric of moving from social ills to transcendent, spiritual solutions and conclusions.

Erasmus’ rhetorical structure in Erasmus Against War strongly mirrors Donne’s own in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations and it is a structure that suggests the connection between Erasmusian peace and the political origination of Donne’s own peace. In the opening argument of the treatise, Erasmus asserts the following about war, “War, what other thing is it than a common manslaughter of many men together, and a robbery, to which, the farther it sprawleth abroad, the more mischievous it is? But many gross gentlemen nowadays laugh merrily at these things, as though they were the dreams and dotings of schoolmen, the which, saving the shape, have no point of manhood, yet seem they in their own conceit to be Gods” (Erasmus 23-24). The last part of the quoted section strikingly mirrors the end of Satire III and Sonnet 10, and the general rhetorical thrust of Erasmus’ description demands further exploration. He begins with a general reflection on the sinful nature of killing, but then returns to the secular in the middle section with his allusion to the chivalric gentleman of the age before ultimately returning to the fact that war makes men conceive of themselves as God. This stop on the secular in the median of a rhetorical thrust towards transcendental synthesis is one that Donne will repeatedly do in his Holy Sonnets and Meditations, and it introduces an anxiety that I highlighted in Satire III and that is at play in Donne’s later work. Resting rhetorically between theological condemnations of religious violence is the anxious rendering (if only to attempt to vanquish the threat with a final, universal coup de grâce) of chivalric bravery and martial courage that Adams is right to suggest is the subject of many early 16th century humanist projects. Like Donne in Satire III, Erasmus must reckon the threat of secular, martial culture in his generalizing rhetoric against war. This rhetorical structure is the one I will highlight in Donne’s later work, and its a rhetorical structure that is for Donne further contextualized with the question of martyrdom in a period of religious war.

The concept of martyrdom for both Erasmus and Donne played a significant role in the way religious warfare was understood, and Donne’s specific interaction with the concept of martyrdom lends further context to the nature of peace in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations. Critic Susannah Monta in her article “When the Truth Hurts: Suffering and the Question of Religious Confidence” usefully places Donne in the environment of 16th and 17th century martyrology in response to religious persecution and war. Monta begins, “Donne’s preordination prose questions common martyrological assumptions, arguments, and rhetoric. His poetry explores the psychological effects of the notion that suffering could confer religious confidence, while his sermons postulate alternative, spiritualized forms of agonistic struggle that both honor intense spiritual quests and confer the benefits of religious confidence without the actual shedding of blood” (Monta 118). As I have argued before, Donne’s alternative agonists are not merely spiritual or escapist theology but rather a specifically political and historical reaction to religious war. Yet, Monta gives a provocative further vocabulary for Donne’s interaction with the threat of spilt blood. Religious confidence, a confidence in election in Monta’s argument, could be conferred without martial struggle. This is a passivity that we found in Erasmus and Donne’s rejection of men who would be gods. Donne’s opposition to Martyrdom, as Monta cogently summarizes, is one that opposes agonizing one’s own death. This is something Donne will satirize and interact with in Pseudo-Martyr and Biathanatos, and it is a central concern that finds life in Donne’s sonnets and meditations. War for Donne is institutionalized martyrdom, the replacement of a valiant faith with a courageous death – a break from providence towards grim, rushing waters.

Monta makes a second important distinction in Donne’s reaction to emergent martyrology. Donne, as the evasive rhetoric of Satire III suggests, is ultimately unwilling to ascribe himself to either Catholic or Protestant notions of martyrdom in the period. Monta writes, “But rather than simply celebrating Protestant and/or Foxean versions of martyrdom instead –  Donne often posits alternative forms of interior, spiritualized suffering and argues that those forms of suffering may confer all of martyrdom benefits – Donne’s persistent engagements with martyrdom undergird his reconciliation of his conformity to the Church of England with his family’s sufferings for Catholicism” (Monta 119). Donne rejects throughout his career the martyrdom of Foxe and Southwell, instead offering a nominally Protestant third partyism in opposition to martyrdom. Yet the autobiographical criticism often offered in response to Donne’s religious experience hampers our readings of Donne’s interaction with historical and political circumstance. Donne’s ambivalence towards martyrdom shares many of the themes outlined in Satire III in his critique of martial valor. Monta accurately suggests that Donne’s discomfort with martyrdom is rooted in his ambition to procure the benefits of martyrdom without violence – to, put differently, have a peaceful martyrdom. I argue that the ambivalence of Donne to Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, when rendered next to his invocation of Erasmus’ commentary on war, is rooted more significantly in a desire for peace between the two splitting religious factions rather than Donne’s personal experience with conversion. It is a hegemony of two currents that are undeniably connected in Donne’s thought, yet that former fear of religious war hampering transcendent peace is represented to a significant degree in the poetry and prose in Donne’s later work. In the Holy Sonnets and Meditations, we find a markedly similar rhetorical structure to that of Erasmus in response to war and Donne in response to martyrdom, and it is a rhetorical structure based not merely in the theological and autobiographical respectively, but also in the historical and political.

Donne’s tenth Holy Sonnet is perhaps his most canonical poem, and has long been read as a reflection on the temporary death associated with chivalric courage and the permanent life associated with “faire religion.” Yet Donne also implements a rhetorical structure found in Erasmus of interrupting a transcendent image with war and chivalric ideology, leading to an ultimate vanquishing of temporary martiality with transcendent spirituality at the end of the rhetorical arc. Donne begins the poem, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreaful, for thou art not so; / For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 1-4). The poem begins with a spondee (in opposition to its generally iambic form) that calls attention to the declarative nature of the poem, and the stresses then hit “proud”, “some”, and “call(éd),” all words that undermine the addressee. The metric form remains important in Donne’s effort to undermine death and establish a dichotomy in the poem between true religion and false “pictures” (ll. 5). Importantly, though, Donne begins with a general retort against death; one that seeks to vanquish the power of death just as Erasmus sought to diminish war to institutionalized petty crime (“manslaughter”). Like Erasmus in Erasmus Against War, the poet differentiates himself from those who would ascribe a greater meaning to death or war. Though others might “call” death powerful, he is not, and the main conceit of the poem is undermining death’s power in this way. Donne’s own rhetoric, though, continues to mirror Erasmus’ as the specter of those would “call” death powerful emerges to the narrative center of the poem.

In separating himself from those he is rhetorically opposing himself to, Donne invokes the threat of religious warfare in the minds of those who call death powerful, and like Erasmus, he must address this issue before getting to his transcendent anti-war conclusion. Donne reflects of the men who march off to war, as he once did, “And soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 7-9). The stresses in this section are also critical, as Donne includes a spondaic section where “slave, fate, chance, kings, men, poison, war, and sickness” are all stressed. The section is not simply a rejection of martial courage or soldiers who go to war. Instead, Donne ambivalently suggests that England’s “best men” go off to war and are led astray and ultimately killed by the string of stressed syllables. Like it was for Erasmus, the problem for Donne is that class of “gentleman” who fancy themselves “to be gods” in “dreams and dotings” (Erasmus 24). The poem heavily mirrors Erasmus’ focus on the fraudulent narrative of death, and here, Donne movingly suggests the costs of that narrative. Poison, sickness, and war itself are all images associated with the religious conflict on the continent in the late 16th and early 17th century, as pestilence specifically killed thousands in armies made up frequently of men who were travelling for the first time (Wedgewood 28). Critically, Donne, like Erasmus, interrupts his narrative on the fraudulency of death to discourse with the very real allure of war to the “best men” of Europe. Led by corrupt princes, the topic of much of Erasmus’ writing, good men in Sonnet 10 could empower death to be that which Donne says it is not. It is a very real threat, represented in this section on the metrical and linguistic level. Donne interrupts his rhetorical thrust towards God with a narrative on those who would see themselves as God. This rhetorical construction is a direct mirror of Erasmus’ language in Erasmus Against War, and Donne’s synthetic and triumphant ending section strives for the same transcendent, though textured, peace Erasmus describes in that text.

Donne’s 10th Holy Sonnet ends in a provocative way that mirrors the rhetorical structure outlined in Erasmus. Donne concludes after his interaction with men who would be gods, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more Death, thou shalt die” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 13-14). Like Erasmus, Donne concludes by returning to divinity and a transcendent spirituality. The section, though, has divided critics. The nature of the inversion at the end does cast a shadow of ambivalence over the poem specifically in the context of the previously outlined passage on war. In the rhetoric of the poem, chivalric courage and corrupt kings empower death and in doing so die themselves. In the imagery, then, death and its earthly messengers (those kings and wars) are conflated. Thus, when Donne says “death, thou shalt die,” is the aim only the death he originally addressed himself to? Indeed, that original invocation of death is followed in the very opening couplet by those who would call it powerful. The ending puts into center view the crisis of the Humanist project for Erasmus, More, and Donne in this poem. Erasmus renders in Erasmus Against War that corrupt princes can lead men to disastrous ends, as Donne suggests in Sonnet 10, yet Erasmus spends much of the treatise suggesting ways to fix the problem. As with the issue of martyrdom, Donne remains evasive in the Sonnets and even in the Meditations as to what can catalyze the death of death. The necessity of the death of chivalric virtue and martyrdom was evident to Donne and Erasmus before him, yet at the turn of the 17th century the humanist project of More and Erasmus was becoming increasingly estranged from the reality of religious conflict. Certainly the difference can be attributed to genre (between treatise and poem), but in the ending of Sonnet 10 there is a peculiar ambivalence in subject and outcome. Donne movingly establishes the cost of war in that section that interrupts his rhetorical arc (the same rhetorical structure Erasmus uses in calling for peace), and knows it must end in peace, but is ultimately unsure as to how to secure it in this realm. He settles instead for supplicating such concerns to God, and not be a man who fancies himself as God. Yet, the poem is catalyzed by that section that opposes such a transcendental and spiritual conclusion to the very real secular threat of religious war.

The very next sonnet in the Holy Sonnet sequence deals intimately with the question of martyrdom, secular rule, and solutions. In the middle of Sonnet 11, Donne reflects of the crucifixion, “They killed once an inglorious man, but I / Crucify him daily, being now glorified. Oh let me then, his strange love still admire. / Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment” (“Sonnet 11” ll. 7-9). Donne’s description of Jesus as an “inglorious man” is telling to the countercultural persona at work in the Sonnets. Like the persona in Sonnet 10, Donne in Sonnet 11 opposes himself immediately to prevailing notions of “glory,” a central facet of contemporary martyrology. Donne establishes Jesus in this passage in opposition to those forces he had put in death’s party, and it is a distinction that is a very expected one coming after Sonner 10. Importantly for Monta’s context on Donne’s ambivalence to the question of both Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, Donne further enters into the question of kingly punishment. Very much in line with Erasmus’ description of those who seek war as men who think themselves God, Donne describes the pardoning of Kings as fraudulently conflated with true sacrifice. Donne undermines this notion by asserting instead that Jesus himself bore the punishment of mankind. This difference between active sacrifice and secular violence mirrors the distinction Donne drew between “brave men” and “kings” in Sonnet 10, and gives a provocative context to Donne’s views on martyrdom. As in Satire III, Donne evades a dogmatic condemnation of solely secular kingship or anti-tyrannical protestant martyrdom. Instead Donne suggests a third position, a position for political peace and spiritual supplication to providence.

Donne’s famous “Meditation 17,” written at the end of his life, is a suitable text to finish a discussion on the question of political and historical peace in Donne’s greater interaction with war on the continent. In it, many of the anxieties hitherto outlined come to the fore of Donne’s interaction with warfare. The question of Humanist potential to reform the chivalric, militaristic culture of the day that drove Europe actively to war as he wrote the Meditation is central, as is the general Erasmusian desire for peace in response to secular division. In perhaps his most famous written words, Donne urges the reader, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (“Meditation 17” 1305). As with the Sonnets and is Erasmus’ Erasmus Against War, Donne begins with a transcendent ambition and then interrupts it with this narrative on the threat of religious war. But the threat in the early 1620s, well into the crisis of the Holy Roman Empire that devolved into the Thirty Years War, is markedly less chivalric and classical (as it was in Satire III). Instead, we get a tenor that is thematically kindred with Erasmus in Erasmus Against War. Donne urges his reader, as Adams summarized of Erasmus, to consider the whole cost of war on estates personal and non. The lynch pin upon which he constructs this urge to reason is Europe itself, and provocatively, the water imagery of Satire III. Donne now does not address the general crisis of poor kingship and chivalric courage, but rather the immense human cost that began to soar as the 1620s advanced and Denmark and Sweden entered the war in Germany. Donne no longer wishes to differentiate himself from the militaristic other, he now writes for a radical peace begotten of a radical homogeneity amongst human beings. The influence of Erasmus on this most memorable of Donne’s passages cannot be overstated, and while the variables shift slightly away from a direct opposition to courage and war and towards a universal human kindred there is a shared rhetorical construct at play in the Meditation. Like in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets, Donne interrupts his narrative that seeks a transcendent spiritual peace with the very real threat of war. Erasmus had precedented the rhetorical move in his own treatise against war, and Donne reinvokes the rhetoric in Meditation 17 not only to argue ultimately for a transcendent spiritual supplication but also to render the very real and tragic nature of the wars in Europe as they unfolded. War had gone from a Dutch problem during the period of the Satire’s and Sonnet’s authorship to a generalized, destructive, and irresistible torrent over all of Central Europe. Donne interrupts his ambition in Meditation 17 with this mournful narrative, before ultimately framing his synthesis with the looming threat of war.

In the conclusion to the Meditation, Donne offers a provocative if/then statement on the ambition he has for the written word. Donne reflects, “-if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security” (“Meditation 17” 1306). I had suggested earlier that Donne is often evasive as to real solutions to the problem of war he so intimately deals with in the Satires and Sonnets, but here Donne reveals the fundamentally Humanist and Erasmusian ambition to fight war with rhetoric. Donne the Englishmen, a nation still only liminally involved in the war, urges his readers to partake in his process of reckoning the danger of others to proof against that danger spreading. I argue that we see this ideology at play in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets. Donne has an ambition for his poetry to interact with and counter war as it developed on the continent in the early 17th century. As before, Donne reckons a supplication as the only truly knowable solution to the problem. But as in the Satire and Sonnets, he comes to this conclusion after a rhetorical construction interrupted by religious warfare.

Following in Erasmus’ footsteps, Donne ultimately argues for political peace through a rhetorical trajectory that ends in religious transcendence. In Satire III there is a profound ambivalence at play over the question of religious war and its interference in the procurement of the religious synthesis Donne undeniably desires and as Strier highlights. In the Sonnets, I argue that this rhetoric is enacted, with inspiration from Erasmus, in the way Sonnets 10 and 11 are interrupted by the threat of  war before ultimately finishing with an ambivalent inversion of death. In “Meditation 17,” Donne is less ambivalent about his opposition to war through poetry, and specifically hopes in a Humanist fashion for the reason and reckoning of another’s grave, mortal danger to reform the world around him as it collapsed into war. Throughout Donne’s later work, though, I argue that the religious synthesis Strier is apt to highlight in Satire III is in every case placed consciously next to the threat of war by Donne. The synthesis is thus never truly complete for Donne in his poetry and prose. Donne and his poetry may very well declare that death will die, but Donne never forgets the “brave men” who perish by their thousands in following kings who may never take their own danger into contemplation.

*Note: I do not include works cited pages to impede academic plagiarism.  Let me know via email or a comment if you want the works cited entry for the articles and books cited here.

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Filed under Early Modern, John Donne, Literary Criticism, Literature, Thirty Years War, Uncategorized

Sidney’s Defense of Poesy and the Question of Poetry’s Power in the Early Modern Period

Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy is perhaps the most significant work of literary criticism in English from the early modern period. Sidney’s literary and political theses represent the synthesis in Elizabethan England of developed humanist thought and developing notions of the power of literature to move the individual, self-conscious reader. The nature of the text in general and how much critical legitimacy modern readers give to Sidney’s sprezzatura approach remains a nexus of critical attention. Some critics have focused on the Calvinist anxiety to be found in the text, or what Alan Sinfield calls a “puritan humanism.” Robert Stillman has countered this notion, suggesting Sidney renders not a limited poetry but instead a poetry that is “a vehicle of liberation”. The critical division on which Sidney is more central in The Defense of Poesy has serious implications on how we render not only Sidney’s literature, but his life and death on the battlefield of the Eighty Years war, and his influence on subsequent English poets and playwrights.

The Defense of Poesy serves as a suitable battleground for these debates on the anxiously Protestant or anti-tyrannical nature of Sidney’s body of work. In it, there is both edenic anxiety on the infection of Adam in all men, and transcendent, nearly-revolutionary depictions of poetry as a catalyst in the stooping of heaven to earth. I will argue here that these latter ambitions that Stillman is keen to highlight are hegemonically tempered in The Defense by an underlying anxiety over the potential of these ideals to be realized. This anxiety hampers a reading akin to Stillman’s anti-tyrannical one, but it also forestalls a strictly Calvinist reading of the text. The coexistence of self-creative ambition and the power of virtue to politically alter the state of affairs in England and a deep anxiety with the “profane wits” of the nation and its popular literature tempers Sidney’s aspirations of poetry away from both ends of this spectrum. As a result, The Defense of Poesy is a conflicted text that from line to line moves from lofty aspirations to an anxiety over those aspirations’ potential to be realized.

The topic of virtue is worth considering in relation to the anxiety found in The Defense as virtue underlies a major concern of early modern English thought. Stillman renders the virtuous task of poetry in Sidney as a heroic one, reading Sidney as seeking a juxtaposition between his project and the national realities of England. Stillman argues, “Unheroic nations, his logic suggests, do not value heroic arts-the best products of the muse. Sidney’s coterie audience may well have recognized in this complaint a specific political implication: unheroic times forestall English military intervention against Spanish tyranny, and such idleness is both shameful and perilous-.” Stillman reads Sidney’s frustration over England’s “hard welcome” of poetry as a reflection of an active ideological desire for English intervention abroad, and the idea can be taken further to simply say that Sidney’s frustration here, for Stillman, begets an active, specific response. Yet action seems to be of some contention in The Defense, as virtue, the mechanism Sidney identifies as a self-creative one, requires intellectual skill to attain and follow. Indeed, scholar JGA Pocock suggests in The Machiavellian Moment that virtue in early modern England was at once an ambitious tool for self-creation and simultaneously a source of much anxiety due to that self-creative nature (Pocock Chapter X). Thus Sidney’s self-creative model of virtue as understood through poetry is not buttressed by his critique of England and its relative political inaction (anti-heroism, to use Stillman’s language) in the Eighty and Thirty Years Wars; it is instead put into crisis by it. By his very invocation of poetic convention and political inaction in the latter sections of The Defense, Sidney simultaneously advocates for action and brings England’s present inaction and lack of innovation anxiously to front of the text. Sidney calls for change as Stillman rightly points out, but the text is self-conscious of the fact that this change may not occur due to the “profane wits” of the English public. It is a crisis Sidney does not defer in the argumentation of The Defense.

The aforementioned edenic reference that is the nexus of Calvinist readings can elucidate the tension I am seeking between these two poles in readings of The Defense. In quick succession, Sidney both outlines his radical ambition for the art of poetry and immediately tempers it with the image of Adam and Sidney’s own, if playful, self-knowledge of the lack of interest the anecdote will evoke in general populations. Writing lines before his reference to Adam, Sidney envisions, “Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grown in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in nature-.” This is a radical sentiment that encapsulates the simultaneously ambitious and tempered nature of poetry as described in The Defense. On one hand, Sidney renders poetry as able to surpass the natural world. Based in the limitless imagination of the author, poetry can transcend the material world and effect another nature. Yet the catalyst for this transcension is the poet’s “own invention,” a national faculty Sidney spills much “ink” to critique in the second half of the defense. That same crisis of virtue through delight (elicited by poetry) emerges even in the sections that seem to most clearly desire a politicized vision of poetry as a mechanism of liberation (as Stillman suggests).

Just lines later, this dynamic of tempered idealism continues in Sidney’s provocative characterization of humanity’s “infected will.” Adam serves as the central image, and even in Sidney’s humorous declination from the high and mighty implications of what he writes, he invokes the anxiety of the inability of poets and readers to reach his ambitions for poetry. Sidney reflects, “-of that first accursed fall of Adam, since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it. But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted.” The wit of the poet is erected, like virtue, yet hampered by a transient, inescapable infection in human will. Yet what surrounds this peculiar interlude colors the section in a less Calvinist light. Before and after, Sidney makes great pains to illustrate the earthly, material, and social value of poetry. Yet he does stop here to consider the anxiety of his rhetorical construction based on self-creation and poetic skill. If these are the two things poesy must be based on to achieve the lofty ambitions he envisions throughout, a deep sense of doubt is cast on the ability of these ideals to be realized. Like England in the wars of religion, may the English reader be paralyzed and incapable in the face of their critically important, literary task?

The eloquent and rhetorical conclusion to The Defense sheds further light on this anxiety found in critical readings of the text and the text’s early interaction with ambition and edenic limitations. Sidney repeats a set of beliefs, based from Christian authority to Greco-Roman precedent, that he hopes his readers will ascribe themselves to. When he interjects himself in this list, what he says speaks provocatively to the simultaneously ambitious and anxious dynamic of The Defense. Sidney compels his readers, “-to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused.” The mystery of poetry, that which delights in its discovery, exists in this profound admission from Sidney for the purpose of obfuscating the process Sidney has so carefully explained from corrupt interpretations. This hermeneutical crisis, the same that plagues virtue, “right reason,” and “right poetry,” is what Sidney associates with himself in the repetitive rhetoric of the conclusion. In his own historical moment (which Stillman is keen to highlight in The Defense), Sidney brings to the front of the text in its conclusion an edenic anxiety over hermeneutical incapability and error in response to poetry. Yet just on the other end of the turn of phrase is that sublime ambition for poetry to discover those mysteries and transcend that which hampers it.

The Defense of Poesy is a conflicted text that reaches with one stroke of the pen towards a transcendent poetry that can fix the ills of society, oppose continental tyrannism, and reveal personal mysteries in a delightful, pedagogical process. With the next, Sidney anxiously renders an understanding that these ambitions may fail to be realized. It is a contradiction and tension that I have argued needn’t be critically vanquished. Within The Defense we find both a deep desire for anti-tyrannical action on the continent and a Calvinistic anxiety over whether such things can be achieved in this realm. Sidney acknowledges it himself and works to think through it in The Defense. In the end, he asks his reader to “believe with me” that the mysteries of poetry can be delightfully revealed and protected from infected interpretations. Yet as illustrated by the necessity of illustrating the boons of poetry in the final lines of The Defense, Sidney knows that for each one of his readers to believe with him, there is a Stephen Gosson or a Plato.

*Note: I do not include the references to impede plagiarism. If you would like a reference to the Stillman articles, let me know in the comments or via email.

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An Introduction to Milton’s Satan, Part 1 (Critical History and Reception)

What matter where, if I be the same?

Milton’s Satan has cast an enduring shadow over literature and the tropes we use to this day to portray the fall of a character from a proverbial (or literal, if you ask Milton) heaven to hell. I’ve written previously on this blog about the modern use of Miltonic theodicy (1) in the much watched television series Breaking Bad(Scars of Thunder: Walter White, Satan and the Material Roots of Reemergent Miltonic Theodicy). Yet, a student freshly entering Milton or specifically his masterwork Paradise Lost for a survey course at the college level may be less interested in the nuances of the vitality of Milton’s theodical project, and more so on the central critical debates surrounding the epic’s most captivating character, Satan. I certainly remember fondly my first paper on Milton as an undergraduate – a four page answer to the question “does Milton support Satan?”

This introduction, then, will serve the utilitarian purpose of introducing one unfamiliar with Milton’s most (in)famous character. Below, I will cover some of the major concepts one needs to consider when they endeavor to write and understand Satan’s role in the epic by pulling on the history of criticism of the epic, Satan’s transformation, Milton’s religiosity, the mythological roots of Satan’s character, and the political implications of Satan’s depiction in illuminating the beginnings of an answer to the age-old question of just what Milton is doing with his provocative textual depiction of the arch-fiend. In this introduction I will endeavor to include as many references as I can to encourage further study, and I have also included a very basic suggested reading list at the conclusion of the blog.

Scholars in Milton will notice that many corners have been cut and some dialogues omitted. This is a product of several things. Namely that I, like Milton’s Adam, am imperfect. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the intended audience of both the medium and this post itself is better served with introductory materials. This is meant as an introduction and should be treated as such. The primary goal of this post is to help those in Milton surveys and those with some bearing in literary studies  become acquainted with the dialogues surrounding Milton, and provide avenues for further research.

For ease of use, I will break this introduction into multiple parts to be released in the future. These parts will cover the following:

  • (1) Critical History and Reception 
  • (2) Satan’s transformation in the text of Paradise Lost
  • (3) Milton’s Puritanism and Satan’s appeal
  • (4) Charles II and Miltonic Satanism
  • (5) The New Milton Criticism and Satanic ambiguity

A History of the Critical Reception of Milton and Satan:
A unique facet of John Milton’s work and specifically his epic is that it was recognized as one of the finest works of poetry every written in his own lifetime; and because of this his epic has been a lynch pin on which succeeding generations have constructed their ideal literary forms and styles. This is key in understanding Satan as critical reactions to Satan, while now relatively homogeneous, have a conflicted past. In the fourth edition (the first edition to have engravings) of Paradise Lost published in 1688, Milton is proclaimed as Homer and Virgil in one. In his essay “Milton’s Readers,” scholar Nicholas Van Maltzhan highlights the rare celebration of Milton as one of the greatest poets of all time during his life and immediately after. Quoting contemporary critics, Van Maltzhan writes, “Hobart already reports ‘the opinion of the impartial learned’ that Paradise Lost is ‘not only above all modern attempts in verse, but equal to any of the ancient poets.’ Milton’s nephew also proclaimed to continental audiences that the poem “reached the perfection of this species of poetry” (2). To the point, Milton’s characters and his epic were considered a masterpiece by a majority of his audience.

The frontpiece of the fourth edition of Paradise Lost, where Milton is described as Homer and Virgil in one – “To make a third she joynd the former two.”

Yet the admiration of Milton as a master poet began to falter even as he was being immortalized in his fourth edition. In restoration England (Charles II was restored in 1660), specifically on the stage, his epic style was satirized. Samuel Butler’s Hudibras mocks the epic tenor and biblical nature of Paradise Lost, and Aphra Benn lampooned Milton’s concept of “know, yet abstain” (Areopagitica) in her famous play The Rover.  Milton’s erudition and humanism (3) where replaced by libertinism and later moderation. Alexander Pope would famously address Milton’s own effort “to justify the ways of god to man” in his “Essay on Man” by claiming proudly “What is, is RIGHT.” Satan, and all the wordy evil that he represents (which will be discussed in a later part), was robbed of his spiritual fangs by the increasingly secular discourse of restoration and 18th century England. In his ranter-esque (a religious sect from Revolutionary England) assertion that whatever God created on earth is right (4), Pope, in directly addressing Milton’s theodicy, endeavors to undermine the necessity of Milton’s project. This is certainly demonstrative of the move away from both the epic genre and the deeply religious undertones of Paradise Lost in the long 18th century. Ultimately, Satan and all he represented was removed as a serious threat to society and rendered as a product of dogmatic and fearful puritans.

“Beside, he was a shrewd philosopher / And had read every text and gloss over; / Whate’er the crabbed’st author hath, / He understood by implicit faith; / Whatever skeptic could inquire for, /For every why had a wherefore.” -Samuel Butler, Hudbiras (5)

As bourgeois sentimentality rose to prominence on the stage and on the page as the 18th century progressed, Milton’s ideology of temptation became more prevalent. In plays such as Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers and novels such as Burney’s Evelina, the idea of being tempted but refusing began to become more important and specifically linked to Milton his work, from Areopagitica and Paradise Lost. In such sentimental projects, the epic became an orthodox one; a pedagogical tool to warn the tempted away from sin and death. Satan’s character had moved from an overly dramatic relic of a dead ideology to a character of the highest evil – one who, by deception, turned the good and wholesome to the bad and corrupted. The villains of sentimental tragedies and comedies are often keenly Satantic. They have good in them, but abandon it for evil.

Sentimentality, like the libertine dramas of the Restoration before it, faded  into disfavor as society changed in the crucible of industrialization and empire. At the turn of the 19th century, England had undergone great change economically, politically, and socially. Out of this change emmerged romanticism, and the romantics are perhaps the most famous critics of Milton’s Satan. To the romantics, Satan’s heroic struggle against the “tyranny of heaven” (PL Book I) mirrored their own antiheroes like Prometheus, Frankenstein, and the romantic poet.  Shelley claimed his Prometheus was better than Milton’s Satan, if only for the reason that he as the author was willing to allow the character to achieve its full potential.

—“The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest.” (6)

The romantics, as Shelley suggests in the above quote, saw Milton’s Satan as potentially out of the author’s control which is still a key point of criticism around the epic. William Blake, another romantic and author of the abortive twelve volume poem Milton, remarked famously that, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Many scholars still debate this very thing; is Milton’s Satan out of Milton’s control? Did Milton’s own grief over the fall of the Republican paradise (7) inhibit his ability to portray a just and kind God who could stand up to the cunning rhetoric of Satan? These are questions outside the scope of this summary, but they are questions that the romantics first raised in their desire to portray Satan as the true hero.

A main point of the romantic defenders of Satan is his Promethean quality. If, as the epic suggests, choice is the most important quality, Satan brings this power to Adam and Eve in an environment (Eden) where they have no choice. In this way, Satan emerges as Promethean; one who gives of himself to give a gift to humanity. A student looking to find reasons to defend Satan should know that this reading is almost universally denounced in modern Milton studies and with good reason, as Adam’s growing anxiety in Eden in the books leading up to the fall prove with very little doubt that Milton has intentionally established that the choice is long made clear to Adam and Eve, and they, our grandparents, chose wrongly in the end.

 photo satanparadise_zps2000234a.png

The picture adorning chapter 1 in the fourth edition of Paradise Lost (on the left), when compared to Dore’s famous 19th century engravings of Satan (seen on the right), demonstrates the impact of the romantics on our understanding of Satan. Notice that Dore’s Satan is much less demonic.

With the rise of institutions of literary criticism at universities in the English speaking world in the 20th century to today, movements in Milton criticism become less definable by era and are thus necessarily designated by critical school. In the heyday of New CriticismWilliam Empson published the famous Milton’s God in 1961 which is still used to frame the debate on the nature of Milton’s Heaven in Book III. Empson essentially makes the argument that the chief source of interest in the epic is the very ambiguity with which critics now wrestle, and to endeavor to explain away these ambiguities via Milton’s religious orthodoxy ultimately robs the epic of all its literary meat. This argument has reemerged in The New Milton Criticismwhich will be covered later.

the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you are feeling its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious. (Milton’s God)

In the same year, C.S. Lewis published his much used A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he essentially argues the exact opposite of Empson. Lewis portrays Milton as an orthodox christian spinning a tale of orthodox validation, concluding, “Unorthodoxy must be searched for.” (8) As stated above, contemporary Milton criticism celebrates rather than deflates the importance of Milton’s moments of ambiguity, and Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana is miles away from orthodox. Jesus, provocatively, is not a part of a trinity but rather appointed by merit in Paradise Lost which rather oddly gives Lewis little pause. Because of these facts and a current critical appreciation of ambiguity, Lewis and other critics’ assertions of orthodoxy in Milton have come under fire.

The concept of Milton’s orthodoxy become central to late 20th century Miltonics when Stanley Fish published his canonical Surprised by Sin, which introduced the now common notion that Paradise Lost is a pedagogical text. Satan’s character and his early heroism are but a theological trap set by the ever in control Milton. It is a development of Lewis’ search for orthodoxy, as Fish, in line with his Reader Response critical method, illuminates an orthodox message in Satan’s seemingly sympathetic nature. Instead of demonstrating Milton’s own ambiguous theology, Satan’s character demonstrates a clever textual trap by Milton; intended to ensnare the sinful and then “surprise” them with their own sin as Satan’s evil is slowly, over the course of the epic, revealed.

While the New Milton Criticism avoids such efforts to dissolve Milton’s ambiguity, Fish’s critique was central to Miltonics for the latter half of the 20th century and still holds measurable critical support at the academy. Over the course of history, in sum, Milton and his most famous character have moved freely between the usually rigid categories of hero, genius, hack, villain, and god. This is critical in understanding Satan as whether or not Milton has full control of his archdemon is in much debate to this day, and it is a debate with many sides from many eras. In the next part, I will cover the way Satan develops as a character over the course of Paradise Lost itself, and highlight some hurdles and lynch pins for those readers with “sympathy for the devil.”


Further Reading on Milton’s Satan (included in each part):

Critical editions and collections of short criticism with essays about Satan:

(1) The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter Herman, Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge UP. 2012.

(2) The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Cambridge UP. 1999

(3) Paradise Lost. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon Teskey. Norton. 2004.

(4) Milton’s Selected Poetry and Prose. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Jason Rosenblatt. Norton. 2010.

Introductory/notable critical works that are about/have sections on Satan:

(1) Milton’s God. William Empson.

(2) Surprised by Sin. Stanley Fish.

(3) Milton and the English Revolution. Christopher Hill.

(4) A Preface to Paradise Lost. C.S. Lewis.

(5) The Satanic Epic, Neil Forsyth.

(6) The Romantics on Milton, Joseph Wittreich.

(7) Representing Revolution in Milton and his Contemporaries, David Loewenstein.


(1)An explanation of evil in a universe with a god, or, as Milton put it, “to justify the ways of god to man.”

(2) From Von Maltzhan’s essay The Cambridge Companion to Milton, cited above, Page 243

(3) Reading and use of classical texts, in this context.

(4) For more information on ranterism, see Lawrence Clarkson’s “A Single Eye”



(7) The English Commonwealth, headed by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector

(8) A Preface to Paradise Lost,  C.S. Lewis

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The Importance of the Thirty Years War in Literature and Politics

The Spanish tercio stands depleted during their defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Rocroi, 1643

Few sometimes may know, when thousands err. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

hen a young John Milton sat down to write Latin poetry in his dormitory at Cambridge in the mid 17th century, many themes catalyzed his pen to put words to paper. Yet a preeminent anxiety in the formative Latin poetry of the young puritan was  the cataclysm he observed from across the English Channel (1). As his own government meandered in defending its supposed Protestant allies and advocated for peace, the Protestant armies of Denmark, Bohemia, and Sweden were progressively turned back and crushed by the catholic powers in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. James I even failed to send troops to save his own son-in-law, Frederick V, when a catholic host annihilated his dwindling host at the Battle of White Mountain.  All of this impressed deeply on Milton and his revolutionary generation; the feudal order had waged war against the estates (the growing middle class) in light of a failing legal system in the Holy Roman Empire, leaving millions dead and the core rivalries and contradictions of society unsolved. It was but years after this era that the axe fell on Charles I and a transatlantic tradition of republican resistance to monarchism was born.

In a time before Cromwell, Paine, and Robespierre, there was this most unfortunate era; where the dying feudal order rife with contradiction brought on the wings of political paralysis the deaths of millions. An era where the core contradictions of society where not dealt with but subverted by emergent nationalism (secular and non) and imperial ambition. The damage was worst in Germany, where the population would vote the war as the most devastating in the country’s history in the 1960s (2*). In many ways, the roots of 19th and 20th century German nationalism were first sewed in the disastrous fragmentation of Germany after the Peace that ended the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Despite these long reaching consequences, the war is but an afterthought for even scholars of the early modern period. Like World War I, the Thirty Years War draws less attention than its more substantive ancestors. As James Joyce proved in Dubliners (perhaps too well for some readers), paralysis can be just as meaningful as great leaps forwards and backwards. In the perilously fixed limbs of German society in the mid 17th century we find precedent for the keenly militant tone of many of our most treasured early modern authors such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton; and I will argue that to ignore the Thirty Years War is to shut out a major avenue for understanding their work. What’s more, in the history of the Thirty Years War we find remarkable similarities to our own time (some of which I will cover below) and equally remarkable warnings against the problems of imperialism, abstraction, and dedication to aged constitutional provisos.

It it for this latter reason that I have taken a break from writing my thesis (fleeing like Frederick V from the Catholic League, in other words) to write this on the 2nd anniversary (to the day) of Waiting for Putney. In that time, we’ve reached over 110 countries and collected tens of thousands of unique readers. I certainly did not expect the late night, caffeine-induced sermons about Cuba and Milton that began this blog to lead where it has, and I thank each and every reader for their attention and thought. Like a good puritan, I will celebrate this milestone by ruminating on the near collapse of western civilization and the ways in which said collapse mirrors our own time.

The Thirty Years War in Literature:

John Donne

Literary scholars of 17th century British literature find themselves in the uncomfortable position of reading literature only years apart that is rapturously different. This has resulted in the quite awkward “long 18th century” which includes the literature written during the rule of Charles II and James II. This rapture in literature was caused chiefly by the English Revolution, but the war that ravaged Europe in the time leading up that fateful struggle left indelible marks on the literature of canonical writers from Donne to Bunyan. In many ways, the necessity of the awkward “long 18th century” was brought about by the militancy and violence that loomed in the fearful caverns of British thought leading up to the English Revolution, and the Restoration’s delightful (or utterly repulsive, as it is for this author) flight from themes of religious ideology, the question of legitimate political violence, and the prospect of universal truth is a direct response to these themes transported from Europe’s tragedy to all the kingdoms of Christendom. Here, we will look at the work of John Donne to find the threads of war that separate so profoundly early and late 17th century British literature.

The specter of war in British literature can perhaps be seen most profoundly in the work of John Donne. Writing well before the English Revolution, John Donne put pen to paper in those troubling years in which the German crisis became generalized to include all the powers of Europe (the late 16th and early 17th centuries). Throughout Donne’s work we find repeated attempts to synthesize the two ever-splitting protestant and catholic factions. Scholars have justifiably attached this theme to Donne’s own struggle with conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism but his textual attempts to bring together these factions reflects a more generalized reflection on their failure to do so as Europe descended into war. “Death, Be Not Proud” and “Meditation XVII,” two of his most famous works, both reflect a desire that extends beyond the merely personal or national  to unite the warring churches of Christ. Both are written after his conversion to Anglicanism (the former a Holy Sonnet, the latter part of his much celebrated Devotions upon Emergent Occassions) (3), and both are written (~1620 and ~1623 respectively)( 4) right as the Thirty Years War emerged as a major international conflict. Let us first look at “Death, Be Not Proud” as it was written right as the Thirty Years War broke out. The poem ends,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. (Death, Be Not Proud)

The all-important “we” in the second to last line anticipates Donne’s later focus on depicting the universality of Christians and humans in general. Of note, this universality is built here on the back of a condemnation of martial force and the chivalric nationalism that accompanies wars to this day. This general fear of war created by the temporary truce between the Dutch and Spanish was a tinder box in the minds of Europeans – and Donne here remarks that Death is itself a slave to fate that dwells in war and sickness. This idea of slavery to fate and war reflects the writings of thinking men across Europe at the time, highlighted in great detail in the opening chapters of C.V. Wedegewood’s chronicle of the war. War seemed inevitable, but all wanted to avoid it. This is repeated in Spanish, German, and English literary circles. In 1620, a year after top catholic officials had been thrown out of a three story window into a pile of crap (literally), Donne here strives for reconciliation and warns against the appeal of religious war. Donne hopefully declares that death and war will die in the face of an eternal life given by Christ. It is a hope he will quickly lose as the war in Germany became more violent.

By the year 1623, the Bohemian protestant state had been crushed by the Hapsburgs and in the very year Christian the Younger (a protestant) was defeated at the cost of nearly 13,000 casualties at the Battle of Stadtlohn. We see the events of the exponentially multiplying war on Donne in his famous Meditations. In one of his most famous moments of prose, Donne writes in Meditation XVII,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)

Far from the confident declarations of the previously cited sonnet, Donne here replaces hopefulness with a universal sorrow. Ever clever with his language, Donne even fits in the term “continent,” almost certainly a reference to the events occurring “on the continent.” He continues to assert that each and every death, the bodies washed away by the tens of thousands in Germany  make “Europe (the) less.” As the bell tolled for thousands of men fighting for religious freedom, profit, and nation, Donne defiantly, if not hopefully, asserts that the war that presently rocked Europe lessened all the parties involved. This change in Donne’s tone, from one of hopeful declaration and persuasion to defiant and universal sorrow at the loss of Catholic and Protestant alike is elucidated with greater detail by the events of the Thirty Years War. Donne’s dealings with Catholicism had certainly ended by this time, but he still found himself deeply entangled in the questions that tore Europe apart.

Donne’s interaction with these themes that were anathema to restoration writers is but an example of how the Thirty Years War fractured the short 17th and long 18th centuries. In our understanding of the literature of this time period, the importance of the Thirty Years War and the intellectual environment it created cannot be overstated. To read Donne, Marvell, Milton, Winstanley, and Bunyan without an understanding of their view of the European cataclysm from across the Chanel is to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald without rendering the effects of the First World War. Let us turn now to some of the similarities to be found between our era and this tragic one, and endeavor to point out some of the pedagogical remedies for that paralysis to be found in studying the history of the era.

Constitutions and the Abstraction of Conflict:

The Surrender of Jülich, by Jusepe Leonardo (1635).

One of the more striking qualities of both the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution is that the revolutionaries and warriors in each case attempted to hold to ancient constitutions and traditions while massacring each other in heinous numbers. When Ferdinand (the Holy Roman Emperor to be) infringed upon Protestant privileges in Bohemia, they had retaliated by throwing his officials out a window. When the Bohemians went to the Protestant Union (a group of protestant German princes put together for self-defense) to ask for money and support, the Union was horrified at the Bohemian’s violation of the ancient ways of the Holy Roman Empire. Ferdinand headed the state that supposedly was controlled by these various documents, but he cared less about its provisos than his supposed enemies. While liberal Lutherans condemned the actions of radical Calvinists in an effort buy clout with the catholic institutions of power, the Hapsburgs imprisoned and killed both groups.

This confusion and political moderation born of an attachment to aged documents originating in the era of Charlemagne certainly reflects similar developments in the United States. While constitutional rights are thrown out the window by a growing surveillance state and an increasingly violent police presence across the country, leftists and rightists alike urge a return to the Constitution’s promised rights. This idea that present failures in governance are due to a corruption of some core set of rights or national values (German and American, respectively) dominated 17th century German politics. The problem with this rendering in both eras was the supposition that this set of rights and values were born in universal time. “German Values” in the 17th century were the same as the values of Arminius (the Germanic general at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and Charlemagne; and “American values” in the 21st century are the same as the values of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. When new variables were introduced (the protestant reformation, and the derivatives economic collapse of 2008) , the aging legal documents of each country came under fire. In both cases, the battle was fought in the courts, and in both cases, the results were disastrously inconclusive. 

In Bohemia, the protestants urged Ferdinand to adhere to the “Letter of Majesty” in which Rudolf II (the former Holy Roman Emperor) had promised them equal rights to practice their religion. As the militantly catholic Ferdinand began his campaign to dissolve the provisos of this letter, the case was taken to several courts across the Empire. Different verdicts were given, allowing Ferdinand to continue with his campaign while legal confusion prevailed. This lead to the militant action in Bohemia (the aforementioned defenestration), which was in turn condemned by protestants as previously mentioned. So the courts of the Holy Roman Empire ensured both militant retaliation and the recreation of the conditions that would replicate violence through paralytic moderation and adherence to outdated legal codes.

In the United States, the failure of courts to convict those responsible for the economic collapse, the War in Iraq, and those responsible for police violence created a similar sense of militancy that erupted most notably in Ferguson and Baltimore. These acts of militancy, just like that of the Bohemians, was condemned by their supposed comrades on the left and right. These activists must seek legal recourse, claimed the moderates, to a problem rooted in legal ineptitude and paralysis. Thus we see a self-replicating cycle that spins on the axis of assuring violence by legal failure and then condemning it. German intellectual circles spun on this circle while thousands of men, women, and children were butchered on the battlefield and in besieged cities. This cycle is not self-sustaining, though, and as war escalated in the mid 1620s, leaders endeavored to obfuscate constitutional precedent by the abstraction of conflict to an almost ludicrous degree.

As war escalated and moderates hurried to justify it, governments and leaders needed the constitutional organs to raise money and armies. The Hapsburg dynasty had long tasked the emerging bourgeoisie with funding its armies against Ottoman invasions, and when the dynasty asked for money to fight protestants the burghers were less than willing to cooperate. To mitigate outrage, leaders used mercenaries to an unprecedented degree. Battles of the Thirty Years War were not uncommonly fought by Spaniards (ostensibly ruled by the Hapsburgs) fighting for the French against the Hapsburgs who fielded an army of Dutchmen. In the Jülich succession crisis of the 1610s, for example, France, Spain, and the Hapsburgs all fielded mercenary armies to secure a tiny parcel of land close to the ever-warring low countries all because the leader of the tiny nation of Jülich passed away and a quarrel over who was to succeed him (and what religion that person would be a part of) erupted. Just what each individual soldier was fighting for was deeply ambiguous. In reality, kings and emperors alike were using the funds of the state for personal empowerment and political maneuvering for themselves and their families. This was a fact not lost on the emergent bourgeoisie, and the enslavement of feudal aristocracy to this set of political principles would be paid back in part at Whitehall, Yorktown, and the Bastille.

Thus the supposed guardians of the ancient German values violated them consistently and hid it through the abstraction of conflict through mercenaries and feigned religious and national fervor. In our era, conflict is abstracted in numerous ways. Armies are relatively small in number, and mercenaries are commonly used by the US and its allies in the middle east. A physical abstraction is also a luxury afforded the american ruling class. In any case, a movement for a radical remaking of the German state textured with the realities of the day may have prevented thirty years of war. Instead, moderates clung to ancient traditions as the ruling class violated them for personal gain at the cost of millions of lives. This question of the ruling class being disparate from moderate elements that continually tried to court them brings us to perhaps our clearest lesson from the Thirty Years War.

Mitigation and Synthesis:

Mercenaries put civilians to the sword (that randomly adult looking baby isn’t going down without a fight) in Sebastian Vrancx’s “Soldiers Plundering a Farm During the Thirty Years War.”

The chief lesson of the Thirty Years War for us today is one that teaches us how we should construct our movements for change in systems paralyzed by unchecked ruling classes and failing justice systems. In Germany in the 17th century, much like 21st century America, political movements cling to constitutional precedence and endeavor to find ways to best mitigate the failures of the economic system of society. Coming to the end of the Thirty Years War should help us understand where such politics lead, and should also give us a gloomy warning that holds hope in its recognition.

The end of the Thirty Years War is perhaps why it is not studied to a great degree. The outcome of so much death was essentially total ruination and utter paralysis with almost no positive outcomes. Yet as I mentioned before, in the paralysis of Germany we find potential salves for that paralysis that as we have seen is so similar to our own. As Kings and Emperors sent thousands to their deaths, a growing sense of distrust in central government understandably blossomed in war-ravaged Germany. This lead to the utter fracturing of Germany in the Peace of Westphalia (5). Small principalities were split into several land grants the size of central park in New York City. This way, reasoned German intellectuals, the privileges promised to Protestants that started the war could be secured so long as they found a neck of the woods that was sympathetic to them or had a Protestant prince.

This desire for decentralization is extremely prevalent in modern american politics. After the economic bailouts and fraudulent wars in the middle east, a profound apathy underlies a distrust in governance that is matched only in the Civil War era in American history. This relationship of failed constitutions and the growth of a desire for decentralization is a dangerous one, as the history of the Thirty Years War can teach us. In the aftermath of disastrous decentralization, Germany became an economic backwater reversed only with the growth of nationalism and militarism in the early and mid 19th century. When Germany finally came together it partook in two World Wars and was the home of unprecedented nationalism and centralization.

The problem then as it is now is not with central government. It is instead, as it was then, rooted in the failure of resistance movements to seek synthesis and not merely mitigation. By shackling the protestant cause to aged documents, resistance movements in the Holy Roman Empire were unable to reach the universality John Donne so desired. Instead, protestants were stuck in a cycle of courts and alliances that continually failed them and lead to their utter destruction at the hands of the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. In the United States, topical activism attached perilously to appeals to the ethics of the government officials and the documents by which they rule prevents a more universal critique of the capitalist system.

Modern activists must not fall for the Hapsburg lie that courts and representative diets can fully amend the contradictions of society and must equally avoid the diffusion of ruling class “justice” systems. We must instead follow in the footsteps of the bourgeois revolutionaries who succeeded in dissolving the paralysis of late feudalism left in the wake of the Thirty Years War. In England, America, and France, revolutionaries changed the question from one of constitutional precedence to one of “cruel necessity” (6) and the new life of an unburdened, revolutionary state (7). Like them, we must seek the contradictions of our day and find syntheses, imperfect as they be, for them. By seeking synthesis and shifting the questions of political resistance away from aged constitutional precedent and legal mitigation, we can achieve what the Bohemians and Germans could not. We can finally declare with John Donne that “death,” the deaths Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and so many others, “thou shalt die.”


(1) Lewalski’s biography of Milton

(2) The general facts expressed in this post are taken from Peter Wilson and C.V. Wedgewood’s histories of the event. I recommend them both.

(3) The title itself suggests his interaction with something beyond the merely autobiographical.

(4) Dates for Donne’s work are disputed, but both of these dates I secured from my Norton Anthology. Generally, these dates seem to be in the ballpark from my outside research.
(5) Germany after the Thirty Years War is, in my scholarly opinion, the first example of splatter painting.

(6) By legend, Cromwell said this after seeing Charles I’s body

(7) I’m mirroring Robespierre’s language in his famous declaration that Louis must die so that we (France) can live.

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Filed under Andrew Marvell, Early Modern, History, History of the English Civil War, Horatian Ode, John Donne, Meditation XVII, Milton, Modern, Movements, Puritanism, Thirty Years War

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Tom Paine, Common Sense

here is a rather unfortunately amusing predicament a student of bourgeois revolutions will notice upon first foraying into online research databases for primary documents. The databases you frequent, and are in many cases forced to use, hold  a noticeable connection to modern libertarianism and whig liberalism. Revolutions of peasants and merchants are now revolutions of only ingenious merchants; of Locke and Hobbes, and not Lilburne or Winstanley. A professor and I were in one particularly odious case forced to print off John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (in which Milton defends tyrannicide and lampoons the historically stagnant) from the “Online Library of Liberty” (a collection of scholarly works on individual liberty and free markets, as the header proudly proclaims), much to our own perturbation.

One finds this elsewhere, as the popularly published and circulated history of the American revolution is extraordinarily conservative and deterministic with some notable exceptions such as Zinn and Linnbaugh, amongst others. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) stands proudly in Memphis, but there is only one statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States in a small New Jersey town. The peasant rebellions subsequent to the American victory are a mere footnote in history textbooks, only glossed over in most junior high and high school level history courses while the story of George Washington and an unlucky cherry tree endures in cultural memory (in spite of its relationship with truth).

Consistent with the bourgeoisie’s own narrative of its historical finality, the fire of the 17th and 18th centuries has been turned into a stone buttress holding up modern capitalist mythos of free enterprise and personal liberty. To such gentrified narratives, Milton’s Areopagitica is a treatise exclusively on modern freedom of speech and the press, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People is merely anticipatory of american radicalism, the Diggers are an insignificant minority, the English Revolution (sorry, the English Civil War) a battle to get rid of an ineffective and catalytic king (Russel), and the Ranters didn’t even exist at all!

The gentrification, or revision as author James Holstun calls it, of the bourgeois revolutions is a two-way street, however, with many leftists rejecting the revolutionary legacy of the English Revolution (for Cromwell and Ireland), the American Revolution (for slavery) and the French Revolution (for  the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon). Such an ideological decision plays into the hands of modern counterrevolutionaries who endeavor to appropriate revolutionary history.  The history of class struggle and warfare, even if the victors are the left’s contemporary enemies, is by right (not divine, of course) the area of Marxists and Marxist critics. There is no doubt that the bourgeois revolutions advanced through crippling dialectical contradictions (between liberty and slavery, for example), and Marxists must never let bourgeois theory escape from these historically objective contradictions. Such an activity, however, requires an appreciation of the movement of these revolutions down class lines and their ultimate failure to fufill their most radical goals; requiring mass repressions of radical peasants and workers in each case.

At the heart of historically highlighting the bourgeois revolutions is the central thesis of a modern Marxist approach – revolutions are what change history. Mass movements of people, not singular heads of government, forge in the fire of violent upheaval the existing social order. The Bourgeois revolutions do not suggest the eternal triumph of the bourgeoisie, as many mainstream critics and historians have sought to prove through historical revision and post-modern diffusion, it is, instead, proof of the universality of class struggle; the power of the working classes, and the greater trend of humanity towards the democratization of production. To write off the bourgeois revolutions as historically necessary and inevitable is not only lazy Marxist analysis but it also silences the voices that actively fought against both feudalism and emergent capitalism. To ignore the struggles of peasants and workers in an era before developed capitalism and Marxism is to rob ourselves of a rich history and context for the establishment of our current struggles and dynamics. It is to chain Marxist analysis to the material conditions of the 19th century, an idea Michael Foucault and other post-modernists have endeavored to  establish for several decades; and an idea we must continue to oppose.

Let us then appropriate in this essay, as the bourgeois revolutionaries did in their revolutions, history. Just as Milton would highlight the democratic “nature” of the English people in Saxon times, let  us tell a history that leads to an understanding of these revolutions developed for many decades by Marxist historians across field and era. An understanding that renders the revolutions as a crucible where revolutionary anti-capitalist voices erupted from anti-royal struggles and were violently silenced by emergent capitalist states; revealing, in turn, the true nature of modern capitalist states and mythos.

Armed with Book and Lance: England and the Danger of Peasant Power

 “For the army are acted by their own principles; they are an army that  understands themselves.” -John Saltmarsh, A Letter from the Army, on the New Model Army

Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome of the bourgeois revolutions was the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the states that supported it. In England, in spite of the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme into Restoration England, orchestrating the dubiously titled “Glorious Revolution” when fears of James II tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in his recommendable book The Machiavellian Moment, a society where economic stability was tied to political stability, where stability was tied to the prosperity of all; a convenient ideological strand given the frightening upsurge of peasant consciousness and resistance during the interregnum.

There are two things of import in highlighting this ideological turn in the restoration era bourgeoisie in England. First, the feudal economic system was undone. No longer did a King hold the leash of a parliament, long, short or in between; parliament now held the leash of King and Queen; rather tightly, as the Glorious Revolution illustrates. Second, the economic stability of capitalist England was tied to political stability (read Pocock’s chapters “Court, Country and Standing Army” and “Virtue, Passion and Commerce”) to nurture the later blooming English fear of chaos caused by violent revolution, manifested in Alexander Pope’s rational exultation of inaction in his Essay on Man, Samuel Butler’s lampooning of puritan revolutionaries in his Hudibras, rabid anti-Jacobin tracts, and fearful early-Victorian tracts on continental upheaval (1848). Just what had happened in England during its revolution to elicit such fearful sentiments from the triumphant bourgeoisie and their culture? That, in our effort to render the bourgeois revolutions as class wars alight with ultimately snuffed out peasant consciousness, is worth answering.

The English Revolution is remarkable for its firstness in executing a king, and paradoxically, the revolution’s fairly conservative goals. The poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Milton (Marvell’s Horation Ode, Milton’s 16th Sonnet) reflect a deep anxiety with the violent revolution that killed 100,000 in a nation of five million. The political developments of the period (the Presbyterian parliament, the general unpopularity of the commonwealth government, and the ultimate betrayal of the military in the Restoration) show a keen conservative discomfort with what the revolution had uncovered; notably an English heritage of peasant revolt and consciousness, found politically in 1381 and even in literature in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The Commonwealth government, despite its enemies’ accusations, advocated itself for fairly conservative measures. Cromwell, and his fellow Grandees (landed gentry and other nobleman of the New Model Army, of which Cromwell was one, who opposed the agitators at Putney) advocated for very little past greater representation and parliamentary autonomy. That’s not to say, however, that radical and future-looking rebel voices didn’t emerge. In fact, the English Revolution is remarkable for the level of dialogue modern readers can find, be it through the Clarke Papers (which record, by quote, the Putney Debates) or the political tracts of Winstanley, Lilburne, Milton, Presbyters, Grandees, Fifth Monarchists and beyond, all of which survive to this day.

These tracts were read by an ever-diversifying populace. When John Milton was born in 1608, approximately 30% of the population in England could read, by the time he died, in 1688, nearly 50% of the society could read. What is the function of this change? Put simply, revolution and puritan egalitarianism (two connected concepts, no doubt), and what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere. Gone were the days of Latin texts read by only a handful of souls deciding the fate of an entire nation. In revolutionary England, working class New Model soldiers read and circulated texts, arguing with each other on points of organization, terror, and agitation. These texts, of course, were written in the vernacular. They were printed by the hundreds and thousands with ease. Political consciousness in peasants, women (see: Lucy Hutchenson, Anne Trapnell) and urban proletariat soared. Bibles were read by everyone in a pike battalion and everyone in a parish. The same anti-slavery verses that would so attract radical African slaves to the old testament worked unfiltered through the minds of revolutionary puritans via the Geneva Bible.

Of course, this consciousness and ideology wouldn’t be worth very much if it was not itself conscious of its own potential for realization. This potential was elicited, rather unwittingly, by the Grandee officers who gave the same peasants who had rebelled in 1381 pikes and muskets to do battle against the King. The New Model had, by its very own organization and revolution in military leadership and command, toppled one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. This experience, as James Holstien highlights with precision in his chapter “New Model Soviets” in his book Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of political, communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected there very own agitator to represent their interests. Agitators verbally acknowledge in the debates that they speak not for themselves but for their troops. This, fundamentally, was revolutionary democracy. Without the legitimacy of state and constitution, New Model soldiers struggled against what they saw as Grandee betrayal.

Predictably, Cromwell and Ireton (a frequently quoted Grandee from the Clarke Papers) responded to these agitator’s cries for universal suffrage with accusations of anarchism and banditry. Cromwell retorted to Rainsborough, the oft quoted agitator, by claiming, “No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but that the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy.” Ireton condemned the leveling ideology at the meeting by asking, “by what right may I not take your property?”

These responses to peasant power, in letter and musket, is anticipatory of the universal repressions of peasants and workers subsequent to each major bourgeois revolution. Critically, we see a keen tension between what the bourgeois revolutions produced as bi-product and what they were prepared to procure politically. Elevated consciousness in the peasants and the wars they were willing to wage to bring together ideal, both religious and political, and reality, posed a grave danger to the triumphant bourgeois state of England. It is for this reason that repressions occurred, and that even through restoration and glorious dynasty change, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme in England; in stability, profit, crushing urbanization, and growing inequality.

We must never silence the voices of these agitators because they are inconvenient to our analyses, both left and right. The bourgeois revolutions were not simply anti-feudal, inevitable struggles born of inherent contradiction, nor were they wars for universal freedom and liberty. In between lies a world of both Grandee and Agitator, where both parties battled, and the latter lost. This battle and its belligerents are not insignificant. In the battle, many aspects of modern bourgeois democracy and the mythos that supports it were forged. The martial metaphor, as will be elucidated, is apt indeed.

A Republic of Burned Letters

“-no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” -Ireton, Putney

The battles and its ultimate outcome is worth stopping upon, to illustrate how the failures of the bourgeois revolutions to meet their revolutionary ideals can be used as a catalyst in understanding the dominance and weaknesses of modern bourgeois mythos.

I had previously mentioned Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and highlighted then only the core and mostly well-respected movements of his theory; chiefly that in Early Modern Europe you see the emergence of a republic of letters (not his term, but a popularly used one) in which textual voices discoursed over vast geographical distance critical problems and issues in society, philosophy, and so on. What many Marxist critics notice upon reading Habermas (a Frankfurt Marxist himself) is that the idea is too glorified, that Habermas believes too strongly that this system actually worked in any measurable amount.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere (obviously, having used the concept previously), but I do agree with other critics that Habermas’ vision of it is too idealized. The public sphere functioned down class lines, and was, as alluded to above, working in a society where only half of the population knew to read and write. We must guard cautiously against dubiously claiming the public sphere was anything more than an inter-bourgeois mode of critique and debate. Clearly, as we will revisit and hash out below, many voices in emergent bourgeois society were crushed utterly and violently.

In England, many leveling New Model soldiers refused to go to war in Ireland, earning them jail and expulsion from the army. The Diggers, lead by Gerrard Winstanley, numbering only 50, were attacked by hired thugs of landed gentry (on whose land they lived on the outskirts of) and were eventually dissolved forcefully by Thomas Fairfax and Commonwealth soldiers, with their crops torn out, their hovels burned, and their common buildings torn to the ground. Radical preachers were thrown in prison by a parliament preaching religious freedom. Licensing of texts continued in spite of John Milton’s famous protestation Areopagitica. Perhaps most famously but least importantly, Christmas was cancelled due to peasant revelry and the associated sinning.

Clearly, this was a society much to John Milton’s liking; a society where a privileged, intellectual few men made the decisions for an entire nation, and not a society were millions discoursed on national policy free from repression. What we see in England is, as Pocock is right to trace, republican governance in the true Roman and Greek sense; as Vladimir Lenin was astute to point out, freedom for wealthy men, and not plebs, lest we find ourselves in tyranny (or anarchy, as Cromwell suggested at Putney). Indeed, this was, explicitly, what Milton and many other Commonwealth intellectuals (such as Marvell) advocated for. The rule of the rich was universally preferable to the rule of the emotional and chaotic “thralls” (as Milton called the working class in his Readie and Easie Way).

As many recent scholars have been right to point out, the American revolutionary generation inherited much from its English younger brother. Ben Franklin reflects in his autobiography reading Milton’s political tracts in his grandfather’s library. Tom Paine quotes Milton’s Satan in Common Sense, and Lilburne was widely read. Interestingly, the repression of emergent peasant radicalism was not transcended by a purely temporal shift forward (as a Whig historian might suggest). We see in the Whiskey Rebellion and more particularly Shay’s Rebellion, opposition to the failure of even the Constitutional (as opposed to the confederated) government to achieve the aims of revolutionary peasants and workers met with violent repression instead of an open republican hand or even a concession like the tribune or plebeian council.

In France we find an extremely similar story. The sans-culottes, essentially rioting urban proletariat, were originally used and championed by the Jacobins and their leader Maximilian Robespierre. It was the sans-culottes who most vigorously defended the “terror” against reactionaries and enemies. When Robespierre was executed himself and the Directorate rose to supremacy, the sans-culottes were repressed violently as remnants of a chaotic and tyrannical period. Those two words associated with peasant power should be familiar to you at this point. The offspring of Greco-Roman republicanism shared its deep fear of true democracy and the crucible of plebian control.

“The secret in freedom lies in educating the people, whereas the secret of tyranny is to keep them ignorant.” – Maximilien Robespierre

In total, studying the true, if often not recounted, nature of the bourgeois revolutions; in their deep fear of true democracy and in their brutal repression of emergent peasant power, we find a fruitful theoretical avenue for understanding the formation of modern bourgeois states and their mythos. A Marxist will be eager to use the simple fact that the bourgeois revolutionaries never attempted to provide true democracy or freedom. They never sought to hear the voices of every citizen, and this is flagrantly obvious with the tangential study of bourgeois repressions of peasant movements in each major revolution found above. In spite of capitalist mythos of unlimited freedom and a republic of letters, the history of the revolutions alone (to say nothing of imperialism) proves these to be completely false and even never explicitly desired by the founding fathers in each case.

Given what we have highlighted above, we must refute both whig and crude marxist renderings of the bourgeois revolutions that leave them a lifeless husk of nebulous progress and inevitability. What we find in a true study is quite the opposite – a period alight with bloodshed, rebellion, revolutionary discourses, and tyrannical bourgeois republicanism; where each tract and battle titled the scales of history. Critically, we find in the bourgeois revolutions as an almost unintentional bi-product the empowering of peasants past what the bourgeois leaders were comfortable with. We see peasants and urban proletariat waging war against capitalism as well as feudalism, and forming their own independent organizations with their own representatives.  Their voices are important for us now, in light of whig history coming from both left and right, we find in history that the contradictions of capitalism have not moved an inch. From 1640 to today, from Lilburne to Hampton, the bourgeoisie maintains its deep fear of a people’s tyranny, repressing violently any who would suggest something more; any who would suggest for true universality and not the universality of Rome and Athens, who would endeavor to fulfill the true promise of the revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. Such is the function of the bourgeois state from its inception as we have seen above, but in the history of its forging, what we have endeavored to reappropriate to the history of class struggle, we can find in their own deeds the means for procuring an end of true, universal “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

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Filed under Academic, American, American Revolution, Capitalism, Class, Class Conflict, Dialectics, Early Modern, English Civil War, France, History, Humanism, Imperialism, Intelligentsia, Marxism, Milton, Republic, Revolution, Whig

A Dystopian England: The Literary Imagination as a Mode of Critique in More’s Utopia

File:Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg

Thomas More’s canonical Utopia perplexes as it advances, as More weaves a tale of a magnificent civilization located in the newly discovered and mysterious “new world.” The tale is delivered by one Rafael Hythlodaeus (his last name meaning ‘dispenser of much nonsense’), a traveler and unique personality, who tells the tale to More himself in character form. A fundamental question that crosses every reader’s mind upon encountering Utopia is just what is More suggesting by outlining the lives of the Utopians. Reactions range from Karl Marx coining the term “utopian socialism” to others saying the satirical nature of the work suggests it is in fact anti-communistic as it would later be understood. By studying the legitimacy given to Raphael in Christian-Humanist terms, the criticisms Rafael expounds upon in book one and the relation between the problems in book 1 and the Utopian solutions in book 2, a greater understanding of what More was trying to achieve becomes clear. Utopia is indeed an ideal society as conceived by Thomas More, and he uses his cleverly devised world as an answer to the problems of England outlined in Book 1 by Raphael. In short, Utopia is a vehicle or a medium with which More enables himself, through a literary imagining, to critique English society. The text is not an active call for the establishment of Utopia in 16th century England as conceived in the text, but moreover a conceptualization of a truly ideal society to compare to the depravity of Early Modern England.

Before analyzing the  cases of critique in Book 1, the first issue that must be addressed is why Raphael’s voice can be taken as More’s own, or why Raphael’s criticisms of England are anything more than an idealistic romp by a long-winded ship captain. Throughout the dialogue between Peter Giles, More and Raphael, Raphael uses a large amount of evidence ranging from scripture (728) to historical evidence (741). At the end of book one, Peter Giles questions whether a better civilization than the European one could possibly exist elsewhere. Raphael refutes this claim by saying simply, “As for the antiquity of commonwealths…you could have a sounder opinion if you had read the historical accounts of that world” (741). Certainly the usage of reason, scripture and history was something More, as a Christian-Humanist, would not have disagreed with. More, who is silent in this section, would certainly not agree with Giles’ assumption that European civilization was unequivocally the most advanced in history, given More’s own classical background. Raphael goes on to say Romans and Egyptians who founded Utopia, emblems of the renaissance of classical thinking occurring in England at the time, stayed in Utopia (741). What we can synthesize from this example is that Raphael is not saying untruths and is given a significant level of legitimacy by More the author. The inability of any of the skeptical listeners, More included, to prove Raphael wrong or unsettle his consistently supported argument suggests that Raphael is more a mouthpiece of More than the character of More himself.

Raphael criticizes kings and enclosures in Book 1 of Utopia, and this is perhaps the most profound demonstration by More’s critique of England. Given the fact illustrated above that Raphael is given a high level of legitimacy within the text suggest that Raphael’s title as the “dispenser of much nonsense” is to lessen the impact of his poignant critique. Raphael first engages arrogant kingship in response to More’s own question why Raphael doesn’t attach himself to a king in service, as More later would to Henry VIII. Raphael responds thusly, “And yet, no matter what excellent ideas our forefathers may have had, we very serenely bid them a curt farewell. But if in any situation they failed to take the wiser course, that defect gives us a handle which we greedily grab and never let go” (723). Raphael is delivering nothing short of a scathing assault on reactionary kingship that justifies its past-looking ways with tradition that is, as he points out, picked and chosen instead of consistently utilized. Interestingly, More does not respond to this statement in any way, moving on to talk about Raphael’s time in England with a cardinal More himself knew outside of the text. More’s silence cannot simply be without meaning, More deliberately chooses not to respond to Raphael’s argument against arrogant kings, leaving the argument to stand for itself in the text. Raphael’s next target is the topic of Enclosure which is a common problem in England throughout its history, which impoverished many peasants. Raphael states, “They (the rich) leave no ground to be tilled; they enclose every bit of land for pasture, they pull down houses and destroy towns, leaving only the church to pen the sheep in” (726). This statement is rich with symbolism as the image of the “sheep” and the “church” illustrate the relationship More would later resent in the Church of England under Henry, devoid of faith and utterly political. The fact that Raphael is directly speaking about England in this scene as well as the usage of the terminology of “enclose”, illustrates clearly that Raphael is critiquing a negative part of 16th century England. Enclosure leaves English peasants landless, without a job, without any purpose; which, as Raphael points out, leads them to a life of crime which is unjustly punished by the English state.

Not coincidentally, Utopia addresses both the problems of arrogant kings and enclosure, along with all the other grievances expounded upon by Raphael. For the purposes of this blog the focus will remain on the issue of the importance of counsel in leadership and the economic exploitation of workers in a society. The government More establishes in Utopia is essentially an enlightened monarchy, as the “governor” reigns for life unless suspected of tyrannical behavior. The officials dubbed the trainbors and syphogrants also remain in power unless “good reason” is found to overthrow them. Interestingly, council is brought up often in the section about officials and the Utopian have made taking private council a “capital offense.” Raphael states, “their measures…is to prevent it from being easy, by conspiracy between the governor and the tranibors and by tyrannous oppression of the people, to change the order of the commonwealth” (745). The system is diametrically opposed to the machinations of royal courts of More’s time which dealt almost entirely in secret and amongst the oligarchic elite. What More has created is a direct answer to Raphael’s criticisms of arrogant kingship not listening to the council of his advisors. Here we see a trend in Book 2 of Utopia, each segment of utopian society directly addresses the issues raised by Raphael. Book 1, having been written after book 2, is essentially an introduction to the issues that Utopia will fix in More’s grand thought experiment. The issue of enclosure and economic injustice in general is dealt with in-depth by More. In addressing enclosure and economic injustice, More and his storyteller Raphael almost sound like Karl Marx in his groundbreaking 1848 manifesto. Raphael states, “Yet when these evil men with insatiable greed have divided up among themselves all the goods which would have been enough for all the people, how far they are from the happiness of the Utopian commonwealth”(783)! More directly addresses a counter argument used against Raphael in Book 1 which is why would one give up their own self-interest for a common goal? Here Raphael, More’s persona in the text, says that only by communal production and consumption can people know true happiness. More sets up the system of production and labor to maximize production and minimize negative factors, with workers only working six hours a day; yet this decrease is accounted for by More in the fact that literally all Utopians work. More states, “This phenomenon you too will understand if you consider how large a part of the population in other countries exist without working” (747). Here More again directly addresses the issue presented in book 1 about enclosure driving potential workers to crime. In short, More’s Utopians are a direct answer to the problems of England, not so that More can advocate for Utopian revolution but rather that he can criticize the court of Henry through a less threatening medium.

Thomas More’s Utopia is a profound thought-experiment on a society so very different from any that has ever existed even in our own time. Yet the Utopians represent a conceptualized ideal society, one that any person would want to strive for. By studying the legitimacy given to Raphael, Raphael’s critique of England in book 1 and the Utopian answers to each problem raised by Raphael, a greater understanding of what More was trying to accomplish emerges. Raphael finishes his narrative by saying, “But I readily admit that there are very many features in the Utopian Commonwealth which it is easier for me to wish for in our countries than to have any hope of seeing realized” (784). This is the heart of what Utopia is, a wish upon parchment for a better society in which all may work and have a purpose. By making this world, More inherently critiques England without attacking specific policy as to avoid persecution. Utopia  is not a diagram for societal reformation or even a call for reform, but rather a rich imagination of what we as humans are capable of if not in the present, then on the limitless horizon of the literary imagination.

Cited Edition:

More, Thomas. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Joseph Laurence Black. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2010. Print.

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Filed under Catholicism, Christianity, Early Modern, English, Humanism, Literature, Thomas More, Utopia

Dreaming of Another World: Revolutionary Puritanism in England

“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” -Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness

I n a damp prison cell in the Tower of London  in the year 1677, a portly Evangelist sat defiantly in his cell writing what would become, next to the bible, the most published and read book in the English language. He had been arrested countless times subsequent to Charles II’s Restoration, each time suggesting to his judge what Joey Strummer would later suggest in his 20th century punk song “Clampdown,” to double the prison sentence. The man, in a statement quoted in Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” preferred to“-stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” The book he wrote was about a dream, a dream about a man named Christian defeating all obstacles on a perilous but ultimately successful journey to the gleaming citadel of heaven. The man, of course, was John Bunyan. The book was his masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress. 

I use this anecdote of a dreamer in prison for every peer and professor who asks accusingly “why?” when I tell them my passion for literature lies in the radical puritan writings that erupted out of the English crucible that was the 1640s and 50s. Today, the perception of 16th through 18th century puritanism in the consciousness of the left and modernity at large is one of scornful amusement, and justifiably so given modern developments. The descendants of puritanism, modern day radical protestants, have been unkind to the legacy of Bunyan and his dreamer.

However, in the world of Bunyan and Winstanley the vocabulary of radical religiosity was at once religious and political, personally empowering and egalitarian. In this extraordinary time where feudalism fell to parliamentarian liberalism, revolutionary puritanism became in England a way of critiquing emergent capitalism on radically equal spiritual grounds.  In other words, the Puritan experience was congruent with Christians’ in Pilgrim’s Progress, reading a book, looking at the world around, and asking “-what shall I do?” The revolutionary generation that Bunyan was but the latter bookend was marked by a different kind of puritanism from that which we are familiar with today; a puritanism that gave voices to the voiceless, namely women, preached radical economic equality begotten out of spiritual sameness, and one that rendered property and ownership as the root of sin on earth.

Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is often seen as a text demonstrative of orthodox Calvinism, and certainly it is; yet we see even in this text the double-edged nature of puritanical thought in this period. Take this quote, for example; Bunyan writes, “What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.” (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress) On the surface of things this is a rather tropish puritanical statement, yet it highlights with precision the oft-repeated puritan resistance to “the world.” Bunyan’s puritanism is one of faith, a faith begotten from conflict with something else; a denotative quality of much of puritan thought.

For Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the famed Diggers, the world had been progressively detached from holiness through the political machinations of lords who saught to fracture the land and the people – two things that were both of God. The English Revolution for Winstanley was one that threw the shackles of historical development off, towards an unprecedented era of spiritual potential. Of import in both of these examples is the simple fact that out of conflict sprung an opportunity to engage and synthesize with the world towards something better. Puritan thought, at its root, is dialectical and born out of a conflict with an enemy, be it the Catholic Church, the unfaithful, or the King.

The dialectical nature of radical Puritan thought attacked one firmly held belief of historical import – the inherent inequality between social strata of men and women. In the radical puritan thought system, the body was annihilated and replaced with the fervent soul; a soul that suggested total equality divorced from physical and mental limitations often fraudulently ascribed to women in the period (and ours, sadly). It is no coincidence that in the English Revolution countless female political actors erupted from enforced silence to the center of movements through the avenue of spirituality. The spirituality of Puritanism, at the time, was a legitimated vocabulary that opened the door to the creation of discourses of struggle for women, namely for the purposes of this article Anna Trapnell.

A modern reader of Anna Trapnell, a fifth monarchist prophetess, may wonder if she was mentally insane. She writes fervently, like Bunyan, about hearing voices so loud as to turn her head. Yet her textual constructions (Notably “A Narrative of Her Journey Into Cornwall”) and her visions were of a dual nature. On one hand her visions were orthodox and apocalyptic, typical for the period amongst puritan radicals. On the other, they pit a woman against the highest secular powers on earth; priests, kings, lords, and land-owners to name a few. Her most famous vision came at the very location where Charles I had lost his head. It warned against the resurgence of tyranny; a vision that would find the light of day in the protectorate. She would fast for weeks on end, a radical divorcement from material reality, but she would always return to it in the visions that were produced from her periods of fasting. When she was arrested for disturbing the peace in Cornwall (preaching), she responded to her accusers with verses and parables; much like Jesus in his Roman trial. Throughout her career as a prophetess, we find keenly secular critiques in the form of visions rooted deeply in biblical precedent. (See Holstun’s chapter on Anna Trapnell in Ehud’s Dagger for more, citation below).

Anna Trapnell teaches the modern reader to dig deeper into Puritanical thought beyond the immediate facade of radical religiosity. For Trapnell as for Bunyan, Winstanley and others, Puritanism was a mechanism for critiquing society, a dialectical antithesis to a thesis of equality that formed the synthesis of the rule of the saints. These saints, as elucidated above, were without gender. This is undeniably a radical concept. Through visions and biblical citation, Anna Trapnell was able to gain a secular voice through deep religiosity, and she was able to construct a validated discourse with which to clash with the ruling class of her society; be it Charles or Cromwell. The opportunity to construct socially antithetical discourses in direct opposition to secular powers gave voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and in doing so, rendered all of society as made up of equal members. Marxist critics of the period must be vigilant, as Holstun reminds us, not to simply render Trapnell’s voice as a product of bourgeois individuality, but rather as a point in the spectrum between individual empowerment and societal equality. Holstun concludes, “If we reduce the civilian an Army radicals at Putney to possessive individualists, we overlook the democratic and collectivist currents inside seventeenth-century radicalism, which never quite died” (Holstun 256).

The legacy Holstun alludes to is a truly remarkable part of Puritan thought and revolution in Early Modern England. We have established that Puritanism gave voice to the voiceless and opened the door to the creation of discourses antithetical to worldly power, and just what they said is still apt to this day; namely that all of mankind is equal, unconditionally. Much of the radical egalitarian ideology of 1648/9 came out of the New Model Army, an army of radical parliamentarians with a significant puritan leaning. Cromwell lead this army to smashing victories over the king at Marston Moore and elsewhere; surely a sign, as Cromwell noted, of God’s favor. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the New Model knew a different kind of providence than he, one that made them all equal and members of a democracy of  God, pike and musket.

At Putney soldiers met with Cromwell and his leadership to discourse and debate over the “disunity” of the parliamentarian cause. Cromwell, in motions similar to those of modern politicians, scolded the New Model for promoting faction and disunity. His solution, of course, was to submit to New Model authorities. Each regiment elected agitators to speak for them and agitate for their goals. If one reads the Putney Debates, one finds agitators cautiously unwilling to speak on behalf of their soldiers, reflective itself of an emergent communal power in the New Model. Both of these concepts were important, both community and power, for the Putney agitators and for modern critics looking for a cast shadow on political developments in the 18th century. The soldiers were not solely a collection of individuals but something more; they were a community whose power superseded that of a single arm or pike; and they knew it.

Thomas Rainsborough, one of the more memorable agitators of the New Model at Putney, illustrated this, saying,

“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.” (Rainsborough, Putney Debates)

Rainsborough knew by his very presence at Putney that a man’s voice was not simply his own but that of his entire class. Through the Puritan creation of alternative discourses Rainsborough has moved onto something profound and historically unique; a critique of emergent, victorious English capitalism. Rainsborough and his agitators were the voice of the voiceless, a struggle opened by radical puritanical egalitarianism and taken forward perhaps most famously by New Model Colonel, Gerrard Winstanley.

The resurgence of the popularity of Gerrard Winstanley in the general public and critical circles in the wake of the Occupy movements is telling of the character of the Colonel’s ideology. Winstanley is undeniably a proto-marxist, a socialist without Marx, and a class warrior on the historical frontier of emergent capitalism. Yet, as we must not forget, Winstanley was a fervently religious man and a devout puritan. His motivation to creating a common treasury of earth through his communist Diggers was a vision. He, like Bunyan and Trapnell, heard divine voices speak to him in times of trouble.

Yet, Winstanley’s religious, critical analysis leads him to make cutting critiques of capitalism and authority; be it King or lord (or Lord Protector, for that matter). Winstanley wrote several letters to the Council of State (of which Milton was the Latin Clerk) urging them to fulfill revolutionary promises, elucidating with precision the theme I am highlighting throughout – Puritanism as a mechanism for critiquing the emergent bourgeoisie and their counterrevolution. In his famous “Declaration of the Poor Oppressed People of England, Winstanley declares, “And we look upon that freedom promised to be the inheritance of all, without respect of persons; And this cannot be, unless the Land of England be freely set at liberty from proprietors, and become a common Treasury to all her children.” Winstanley reached a new synthesis of puritanism in conflict with bourgeois society in the crucible of English revolution. Not only is he speaking on behalf of a class and not a denomination or sect, but Winstanley looks at his society (like Bunyan’s Christian) and highlights the problem – inequality. It is inequality that makes the revolutionary promises of Cromwell and his Council impossible. While Lords are left to tyrannize the working classes, no rule of the saints can truly be procured. In short, Winstanley was right. The promises of saintly equality were impossible while the land was divided and profited from by a select few.

We must guard against rendering Winstanley as a “man ahead his time,” however. Winstanley was but one man who cast a literary shadow in writing, but he was emblematic of a movement that bursts through the cracks of history at Putney, Whitehall and even Milton’s Pandaemonium. Puritanism, first through the creation of egalitarian discourses for both male and female, and secondly through the emergent consciousness of community, power and inequality in New Model struggle, became capitalism’s first resistance movement. Winstanley was not an aberrant lifestylist, as some Trotskyists have tried to claim (, but a man born from an army of consciousness and struggle.

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Winstanley and his Diggers did not only attack  inequality, however, and this is perhaps the greatest contribution of English puritanical radicalism through the precision of hindsight; they attacked what they saw as the root of all inequality – property. Bunyan’s “Vanity Faire” is a commodity market, Christian’s chief enemy Appolyn offers Christian a higher wage for him to desist form his journey to the Celestial City, Milton’s Mammon is obsessed with gold and its procurement, and Winstanley’s Biblical analysis dating back to Cain and Abel sees ownership as the root of all sin on earth.

Winstanley is perhaps the most emblematic of the puritanical impulse to see property as the root of sin on Earth. Winstanley writes, “So long as the earth is intagled and appropriated into particular hands and kept there by the power of the sword……so long the creation lies under bondage.” As Winstanley’s career advances towards the ultimate forceful dissolution of his Diggers we see a developing understanding of the violence inherent in the system (to quote the Anarcho-Syndaclist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Winstanley sees not only inequality as a problem but identifies its main cause; the ownership of property and the system built to enforce it. Inequality does not simply exist in Winstanley’s analysis, it is enforced by sword and fire. Winstanley and the agitators at Putney made class struggle central to a developing puritan understanding of saint and society; one tempered by their experiences with the property holders of their society.

Winstanley, like later Marxists, would see the specter of property as theft. Winstanley’s historical firstness is key here, and it suggests that a unique collision of material circumstances produced his forward-looking ideology; chiefly the collision of puritanical egalitarianism and the capitalist state it helped create on the battlefield. Winstanley, Rainsborough, Bunyan, Trapnell and others are evidence that the Puritanism of England was not simply a catalyst in the creation of bourgeois, humanist ideology and the republicanism that would take hold in the Americas and Western Europe. At work in the Puritan experience in the New Model and early modern English society at large was burgeoning radicalism. A radicalism that would be repressed in 1649 in England, 1786 in the United States, and 1794/5 in France. Of import is the fact that these movements were suppressed by emergent capitalism by force, and was not simply a product of bourgeois liberalism. I can say without flinching that Winstanley and his Diggers are the roots of modern British Socialism, if not international socialism; and the grounds for such a statement are in Winstanley and other radical Puritan’s rendering of property as the cause of inequality and sin. Winstanley concludes,

“For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde, friend, and foe, without exception.” (Winstanley, Declaration).

Winstanley looks to the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 as a historical lesson, that the lords attained their wealth by the sword and with the sword they will keep it. This, in short, is the experience of radical puritan elements in the English Civil War. 1649 would see the Levellers and Diggers disbanded, executed and imprisoned. The common treasury would be taken away to private cellars, Trapnell would be thrown in prison along with Bunyan, left only with his literary dreamer defeating what Bunyan could not in physical reality. Winstanley’s ideology evolves through material struggle, a pedagogical process for future generations who would carry on his work. Winstanley began with the belief that his Diggers could coexist with Lords and manors, but later, as illustrated in this quote, realized that struggle was necessary; and struggle he did, through scriptural critiques and communal living. In summary, Puritan radicalism in England must be understood as a struggle within a unique, period, and religious vocabulary that procured material struggle between newly forming proletariat and bourgeoisie. Of this struggle we find the creation of radical, inclusive discourses, emergent class-consciousness and the rendering of property as the root of all of Earth’s ills.

The historical struggle of the radical puritans in early modern England gives valuable insight to the movements of today that struggle still with lords and manors of different character but identical nature; those who would keep their property by murder and theft and deny the people their common treasury. From that which we started we shall end, as there is no finer example of the puritan radical experience than that of Bunyan’s Christian, shedding tears over the present state of things but ultimately struggling against it through dangerous adventure. To Bunyan as it was to Winstanley and as it is to us today, the common treasury is but a dream. As Bunyan proved with his prose, Trapnell with her prophecy, Rainsborough with his pike and Winstanley with his pen, to dream is a first step well taken towards the procurement of a rule of the saints.

Further Reading

Dunn, Alastair. The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2002. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989. Print.

Hill, Christopher. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution 1603-1714. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-century Revolution. London: Allen Lane, 1993. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1972. Print.

Holstun, James. Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Petegorsky, David W. Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War; a Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley,. London: V. Gollancz, 1940. Print.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Winstanley, Gerrard. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. Ed. Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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Filed under Capitalism, Class, Dialectics, Early Modern, English, English Civil War, Gerrard Winstanley, John Bunyan, Literature, Puritanism