Against Gentilism: Milton and the Politics of Jesus from Regicide to Restoration

John Coffey, University of Leicester

Paradise Regained is often set against Milton’s political tracts. After the Restoration, it is suggested, the poet withdrew from politics to faith, from Cromwellian militancy to Christ-like pacifism. This paper, by contrast, argues that Milton’s late poetry dramatised a concept that first emerged in his regicidal and republican prose - the idea of political Gentilism (a common synonym for heathenism or paganism). The concept crystallised as Milton reflected on a key passage in the Synoptic Gospels, Christ’s warning to the sons of Zebedee against imitating the princes or kings of the Gentiles (Matt 20:25-28; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:25-26). Milton first cited it in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), noting that Christ regarded the ‘absolute authority’ of ‘Tyrants’ as ‘no better than Gentilism’. In the First Defence (1651), the text was presented as the Messiah’s programmatic political statement, designed ‘to impress upon all Christians what kind of right of magistrates and civil power he wanted to set up amongst them’. It demonstrated that Jesus was opposed to ‘the proud rule of kings’. Milton returned to the sons of Zebedee in A Readie and Easie Way (1660), declaring that this ‘precept of Christ’ placed ‘the brand of Gentilism upon kingship’. In each of these works, the Gospel text was linked with Old Testament warnings against imitating the ways of the heathen, in particular with Deuteronomy 17 (where kings are commanded not to exalt themselves above their brethren) or I Samuel 8 (where the Israelites are condemned for choosing a king like their heathen neighbours). In Milton’s mind, the history of God’s people (Jews and Christians alike) showed that they were often guilty of ‘Gentilish imitation’ and ‘gentilizing’.

This preoccupation with Gentilism finds sustained expression in Milton’s great poems. In Samson Agonistes, the protagonist is a gentilizing Israelite, who first fights ‘heathen’ ‘idolists’, ‘the unforeskinned Philistines’, then succumbs to the charms of Delilah, and finally unmasks and overthrows pagan tyranny. In Paradise Lost, Satan is depicted as the prototype and progenitor of Gentile politics. The fallen angels long to usurp Heaven’s throne, to be worshipped and idolised, to exercise dominion. They are compared to the pagan potentates whom they themselves have inspired. As Michael explains, alluding to Luke 22:25, such rulers want ‘to be styled great conquerors/Patrons of mankind, gods, and sons of gods’ (11:695-96); Nimrod violates the principle of Deuteronomy 17 by arrogating ‘dominion undeserved/Over his brethren’ (12:26-27). Finally, in Paradise Regained, Milton dramatises the confrontation between the politics of Satan and the politics of Jesus. Once again, there is a clear allusion to Luke 22, as the Son denounces militaristic conquerors who ‘swell with pride, and must be titl’d Gods,/Great Benefactors of mankind, Deliverers,/Worship’t with Temple, Priest and Sacrifice’ (3:81-83). Unlike Satan and the heathen emperors, the Son is prepared to humble himself and take on the form of a slave.

Thus Milton’s great poems represent the culmination of an assault on political Gentilism begun in 1649. They offer a fully realised exposĂ© of idolatrous, domineering rule. They confirm John Beale’s suspicion (voiced in reference to the Nimrod passage) that Milton ‘holds to his old Principle’, republicanism. At the same time, they offer a bitter reflection on the Puritan Revolution, and the propensity of the saints to imitate Gentile politics.