Milton’s Searing Exclamation

Let’s go back to 1643 to gain a lesson for today. It was a time of great change in Western culture, especially for Christianity. The printing press had challenged the absolute authority of Rome, and Luther’s reformation was over 100 years old already. It was a volatile time of change for the faithful.

Enter John Milton, whose “Paradise Lost” vaulted him to prominence in England. When he published his tracts on divorce, advocating for a form of no-fault divorce, he was shunned and publicly rejected by the English Presbyterians. In response, Milton penned his Sonnet 12, which contains one of his most famous quotes.

Eshita Dey posted an analysis of Sonnet 12 for Beaming Notes:

The poem has specific audience as its readers and is especially targeted against the Presbyterians for redefining the rules of liberty. The poet initiates in a tone of disgust that all he did was to try to educate the people to quit the ancient norms of the society and form new laws to redefine the constitution. But no sooner does he try to help them, that the greater voice of nobles and so-called learned aristocrats, start hounding him to call out his opinions publicly and ridicule him in front of everyone.

Milton knew, as did others, that liberty only truly exists for those who are wise and good, for it serves as a form of governor for the otherwise selfish behavior of humans. Think about it. The U.S. is a society of oaths and promises, which are of no use, unless all its citizens participate willingly. Liberty provides a check against totalitarianism, because it produces a culture of willingness against which there can be no absolute authority other than God.

I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs

I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs
By the known rules of ancient liberty,
When straight a barbarous noise environs me
Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs:
As when those hinds that were transform’d to frogs
Rail’d at Latona’s twin-born progeny
Which after held the sun and moon in fee.
But this is got by casting pearl to hogs,
That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,
And still revolt when truth would set them free.
Licence they mean when they cry liberty;
For who loves that, must first be wise and good.

But from that mark how far they rove we see,
For all this waste of wealth and loss of blood.

This Sonnet today speaks volumes about the core motivations of the right wing of American politics. The silk stockings came to this land for profit as much as any other motivation, for the land was rich with resources and filled with people considered savage, ignorant, and easily manipulated by the wiles and weapons of these businessmen. Voyages to the new world were funded by governments and business people on behalf of business communities in Europe. From a religious perspective, Luther’s justification by faith alone launched the Reformation and Protestantism, but such a belief puts tremendous pressure on how we treat others, because it has to be voluntary. Faith and God’s forgiveness worked hand-in-hand to permit such believing profiteers to get away with just about anything in the way of behavior towards others. All, of course, in the name of God and King.

After all, if you make a mistake, God is always there to forgive, right? This was the “license” that enabled them to build and create wealth without a strong internal governor.

Think about it. If humankind’s right standing with the Creator God is based only on faith, then behavior takes a back seat to belief. Allegedly, such faith was expected to produce good behavior, but that runs into that nasty little show stopper called human nature. Hence, Luther viewed the book of James as “the Epistle of Straw,” because the Apostle James had the temerity to state that “Faith without works is dead.” In other words, behavior DOES matter in terms of following God’s commands, and this seems to have escaped the status quo.

So, armed with the tools of faith and forgiveness, these silk stockings bulldozed their way through the land and the native populations to do whatever they wished. Guns and a vision of profit followed them. Milton saw this kind of thinking clearly and, with this Sonnet, drove home the point that what these people called liberty was actually license, because those who shouted loudest were in it only for themselves. He calls them owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs. I couldn’t agree with him more.

This is why the Starz dramatic television series “Black Sails” so perfectly described our modern day dilemmas through the story of pirates against the government, those ground-level problems brought about by the silk stockings and their ilk. The pirates fought against the British and their attempts to “civilize” the new world, because such “civilization” meant embracing the caste systems of England (and Spain). The pirates felt this was the opposite of freedom, for the governments had little regard for the poor, those who didn’t fit into the ideals of the British “civilization.”

According to, a “caste system” is a class structure that is determined by birth. “Loosely, it means that in some societies, if your parents are poor, you’re going to be poor, too. Same goes for being rich.”

Of course, the élite here will say there is no caste system in America and that liberty prevents it. That might be true in a test tube, but it doesn’t work in practice, because human nature gets in the way. And, without a reason to behave differently, it will always be this way. You will grow up and live the life decided by your birth, because the American Dream is today a fraud. One cannot easily “rise above” her roots, because an essential role for those who have risen above their roots is to help prevent others from doing as well. Once you’ve gotten yours, your job shifts to one of defending your place, and that turns an awkward page in the lives of newly-minted success stories.

Therefore, the difference between license and liberty is a big deal, and especially as we examine current events, for human nature hasn’t changed since the beginning, and that, folks, is our real enemy.