Johnson on Milton

Taking time out to meditate on Samuel Johnson’s “Life of Milton” (Lives of the English Poets, 1779-81) was a well-earned holiday treat. This particular biography is rich in Johnsonian wisdom. Consider this comment on the poet’s mercurial religious allegiances:

From this time it is observed that [Milton] became an enemy to the Presbyterians, whom he had favoured before. He that changes his party by his humour is not more virtuous than he that changes it by his interest; he loves himself rather than truth.

Milton’s tenets were frequently shaped by moods and prejudices. Johnson is not slow to censure the man’s beliefs and his frequent opportunism even as his praises his literary accomplishments. Yet, speaking of Milton’s generosity, the biographer adds that it would be “injurious to omit” the fact that during the English Civil War he took in his wife’s father and many Royalist family members despite his vehement anti-monarchist views.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable passages is the one discussing Milton’s famous Areopagitica (1644) in which the poet advocated “unlicensed” (or uncensored) printing. As Johnson observes:

The danger of such unbounded liberty and the danger of bounding it have produced a problem in the science of Government, which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil authority shall have previously approved, power must always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every sceptick in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion. The remedy against these evils is to punish the authors; for it is yet allowed that every society may punish, though not prevent, the publication of opinions, which that society shall think pernicious: but this punishment, though it may crush the author, promotes the book; and it seems not more reasonable to leave the right of printing unrestrained, because writers may be afterwards censured, than it would be to sleep with doors unbolted, because by our laws we can hang a thief.

Johnson captures all the nuances and paradoxes of the issue without dumbing-down his argument or indulging in cant, which unfortunately has colored the discussion of “free speech” from Milton’s time to our own. Such analysis is typical of the writer. It says not only a great deal about the biographical subject; it remains philosophically pertinent to readers over two centuries later.

For more Johnsonian biography, see past comments on Sir Thomas Browne, Alexander Pope, and Edward Cave.

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