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Paradise Lost and the forms of government

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In his epic poem, Paradise Lost, Milton does not, as many critics have recently claimed, repudiate monarchy and recommend republics; he rather asserts that the legitimacy of any particular form of government in any particular situation depends upon what he refers to as the ‘merit’ or ‘worth’ of the rulers and the ruled. On a strict definition of republicanism as a position grounded in the repudiation of monarchy and the recommendation of republics, this poem would thus fail to qualify as a republican text. However, neither Livy's History nor Machiavelli's Discourses unconditionally repudiates monarchy and recommends republics; both texts claim that the legitimacy of any particular form of government in any particular situation depends upon many things, including the merit of the rulers and the ruled. Given that both of these texts fall within the tradition of republican thought, it follows that Milton's teaching on the forms of government in Paradise Lost is consistent in important respects with some of the central texts of this tradition, and that the poem may thus reasonably be understood as a republican text. But this teaching is also consistent with Milton's Protestant commitment to evaluating all human works and forms on the grounds of the spirit in which they are produced and administered.

Keywords: Aristotle; Blair Worden; Discourses; J.G.A. Pocock; Livy; Machiavelli; Milton; Paradise Lost; Polybius; Quentin Skinner; Stanley Fish; antiformalism; forms of government; history of political thought; monarchy; republicanism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of English, Morven Brown Building, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia..

Publication date: February 1, 2001


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