Page images

to our literature from the study of their original and nervous eloquence. On their first appearance, indeed, they must inevitably have been received by some with indifference, by others with dislike, by many with resentment. The zeal of the author in the cause of the Parliament, and the bitter personality with which he too frequently advocates his civil and religious opinions, were not calculated to secure him a dispassionate hearing even from his most candid

opponents. But in happier times, when it is less difficult to make allowance for the effervescence caused by the heat of conflicting politics, and when the judgement is no longer influenced by the animosities of party, the taste of the age may be profitably and safely recalled to those treatises of Milton which were not written to serve a mere temporary purpose. respect indeed they will be found to differ very materially from the work now published. The latter is distinguished in a remarkable degree by calmness of thought, as well as by moderation of language. His other writings are generally loaded with ornament and illustration bordering on the poetical, rather than the argumentative style, and such is the vehemence with which he pours out his opprobrious epithets against his antagonists, that he seems to exhaust the powers of language in the bitterness of his invective. These are the characteristics in particular of his earliest works, and especially of his declamations against More and Salmasius. The contrast which this volume presents is singular, and if, as is probable, it was composed during his declining years, it affords

In one

a pleasing picture of a mind softened by the influence of religious principle, and becoming gradually more tolerant of the supposed errors of others, as the period drew near when he must answer for his own before an unerring tribunal. Milton pursues his plan, not indeed without an occasional sally against academical institutions and ecclesiastical privileges, but without a single glance at contemporaneous politics, or a single harsh expression against religious opinions at variance with his own. His language, even where the arguments themselves are least convincing, is almost uniformly plain and temperate, and his metaphors are sparingly and judiciously introduced. It would seem as if he recognized the propriety, on so grave a subject as religion, of suffering his mind to pursue its contemplations undisturbed by the flights of that vivid fancy, to which, on the ordinary topics which employed his pen, he prescribed no limits.

Milton has shown a partiality in all his works, even on subjects not immediately connected with religion, for supporting his argument by the authority of Scripture. This practice, though agreeable to the spirit of his age, is not unfrequently carried to an extravagant length; as when he defends indiscriminate reading by the examples of Moses, Daniel, and Paul, who were skilful in heathen learning.* To a theological treatise, however, illustrations of this kind properly belong ; and it is gratifying to see the unbounded imagination of Milton deferring, with the simplicity

* Areopagitica. Prose Works, I. 296.

of a Pascal, to the infallible grounds of Scripture.' * *Let us,' says he in the present work, discard reason in sacred matters, and follow the doctrine of Holy Scripture exclusively.’t Indeed its peculiar feature, in the opinion of the author, appears to have been its compilation from the Bible alone. Not that he undervalued the Fathers, for in the course of his argument he alludes to the opinions of several, and frequently with commendation ; nor does he refuse to notice the criticisms of modern commentators, among whom Beza, whose interpretations he often follows, seems to have been an especial favourite. See especially his explanation of Rev. i. 4,5. vol. I. p. 223. and of Philipp. iii. 15. vol. II. p. 161. Even in the title of his work, however, he refers to the Bible as his sole authority, with an emphasis indicative of the importance he attached to this circumstance. The same particular is again prominently alluded to in the preface, where an interesting account is given of the manner in which he qualified himself for the execution of his task. •Whereas the greater part of those who have written most largely on these subjects, have been wont to fill whole pages with explanations of their own opinions, thrusting into the margin f the texts in support of their doctrine, with a summary reference to chapter and verse; I have chosen, on the contrary, to fill my pages even to redundance with quotations from Scripture, that so as little space as possible might be left for my own words, even where they arise from the context of revelation itself.'

* Prose Works, II. 71.

I. 115. | Milton speaks in the most contemptuous terms of these marginal stuffings,' in The Reason of Church Government, &c. Prose Works, I. 123. See also An Apology for Smectymnuus, Ibid. 247. And elsewhere he says of Prynne, that he may be known, by his "wits lying ever beside him in the margin, to be ever beside his wits in the text.' Likeliest Means to remove Hirelings, &c. III. 336. See also II. 241.

In the course of so long a work, embracing such a variety of topics, many opportunities would often occur for allusion to the politics of the times, in which religion bore so important a part. To have abstained from any reference to these subjects, is no ordinary proof of discretion in one who had dedicated his time and talents with such unwearied zeal to promote the objects of his party. Scarcely a sentence, however, will be found, in which local or temporary interests can be suspected of having influenced the mind of the author. Sometimes indeed he lays a stress on certain particulars, to which the subjects then in dispute between the conflicting religious parties gave more importance than they now possess. of the keys, for instance, claimed by the Pope, was then a familiar topic of discussion. Hence he takes occasion to bring proof from Scripture, that the administration of ecclesiastical discipline is not committed exclusively to Peter and his successors, or to any individual pastor specifically, but to the whole particular church, whether consisting of few or of many members.* The subjects of Episcopacy and Covenants might have furnished him with opportunities not only of lashing the Royalists in general, but

The power

* II. 205.

[ocr errors]

of renewing those attacks which he had formerly directed so pertinaciously against King Charles himself. It may be worth while to contrast his manner of treating the subject of Covenants in his political tracts, with some corresponding remarks in the following treatise. He says in his Eiconoclastes, • Neither was the "covenant superfluous, though former engagements, both religious and legal, bound us before ;' but was the practice of all churches heretofore intending reformation. All Israel, though bound enough before by the law of Moses “ to all necessary duties,” yet with Asa their king entered into a new covenant at the beginning of a reformation : and the Jews after captivity, without consent demanded of that king who was their master, took solemn oath to walk in the commandments of God. All Protestant churches have done the like, notwithstanding former engagements to their several duties.'* Compare with this passage the observations to the same effect, in the beginning of the chapter on Church-discipline in this work, where, although the events of his own times could not but have been present to his mind during the composition of a passage so similar, he nevertheless entirely abstains even from the remotest reference to them.

• It is a prudent as well as a pious custom, to solemnize the formation or re-establishment of a particular church by a public renewal of the covenant, as was frequently done in the reformations of the Jewish church, Deut. xxix. 1. The same took place under Asa, Ezra, Nehemiah, and others. So also,

* Prose Works, III. 28.

« PreviousContinue »