Milton’s ‘Divorcive’ Liberties: Ecclesiastical, Domestic or Private, Civil and Cosmological [1]

W. Scott Howard
University of Denver

Howard, W. Scott. "Milton’s ‘Divorcive’ Liberties: Ecclesiastical, Domestic or Private, Civil and Cosmological". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 5.1-12 <URL:>.


    When the bishops, at whom every man aimed his arrow, had at length fallen, and we were now at leisure, as far as they were concerned, I began to turn my thoughts to other subjects; to consider in what way I could contribute to the progress of real and substantial liberty; which is to be sought for not from without, but within, and is to be obtained principally not by fighting, but by the just regulation and by the proper conduct of life.  Reflecting, therefore, that there are in all three species of liberty, without which it is scarcely possible to pass any life with comfort, namely, ecclesiastical, domestic or private, and civil; that I had already written on the first species, and saw the magistrate diligently employed about the third, I undertook the domestic, which was the one that remained. (71)

  1. Milton’s ideas and arguments about reforming the Church, the subject and the state are systematic only in hindsight, as this oft-cited passage from “Pro populo anglicano defensio secunda” illustrates with characteristic aplomb.  Milton published “The Second Defense of the English People” in 1654, eleven years after the first edition of “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce” (1643), yet asserted foresight: that his pamphlets on the subject of divorce would constitute a comprehensive critique of “a species of bondage of all others the most degrading” (72); and that he would present his interpretation according to “the divine law which Christ has never abrogated” (72)—i.e. Matthew 19:9—as well as in agreement with “the whole law of Moses” (72)—i.e. Deuteronomy 24:1.  Such false prolepsis has worried some critics who see Milton’s bravado here as an anxious attempt to evade responsibility for the early collapse of his marriage to Mary Powell.  Annabel Patterson, for example, writes recently that it “is a grave irony, none the less grave for being slightly comic, that Milton left us his thoughts on marriage primarily in four pamphlets advocating divorce” (“Milton, Marriage and Divorce,” 279).[2]

  2. As a counter-point to such concerns, I would like to offer two reflections.  First of all, Milton hardly avoids the matter of his troubled first marriage, but often (in “The Second Defense” and especially in “The Doctrine and Discipline”) exaggerates the situation, fictionalizing autobiographical vignettes in order to transcend self-interest while also underscoring a key point: that “real and substantial liberty; which is to be sought for not from without, but within”, rests upon the domestic or private sphere, which Milton strategically posits as the fulcrum of ecclesiastical and civil liberties.[3]  Indeed, Milton reflects further on this latent formulation of the “three species of liberty,” more precisely defining the “domestic or private” sphere according to three matters: “whether the affair of marriage was rightly managed; whether the education of children was properly conducted; whether, lastly, we were to be allowed freedom of opinion” (“The Second Defense” 72).  These reciprocal liberties of marriage, education and intellectual inquiry thus form a microcosm, within Milton’s notion of domestic or private liberty, of the public spheres of agency granted to the individual.  Milton’s model for commonwealth subjectivity—a topic to which I shall return in a moment—neither separates private from public realms nor simply elides their divisibility, but posits a rather paradoxical, inverse formulation: that domestic liberty, as the nexus of both ecclesiastical and civil liberties, is always already socially contingent.[4]

  3. This epistemological inversion charges Milton’s “species of liberty” with transgressive energy and consequently grants the imagined subject of the early prose tracts increasing authority to reform public laws of custom on the basis of private apprehensions of unwritten divine laws of grace and charity as well as in accordance with the individual’s apposite faculties of conscience and reason.  I will argue in this essay, therefore, that Miltonic liberty is inherently divorcive—free, that is, to overturn institutional laws that impede the subject’s ability to engender and engage the inward, civil implications of their domestic liberty.  Milton often strikes this ground in “The Doctrine and Discipline,” for example: “Yet thus much I shall now insist on, that what ever the institution were, it could not be so enormous, nor so rebellious against both nature and reason as to exalt it selfe above the end and person for whom it was instituted” (131).

  4. This brings me to my second reflection: that we should be neither surprised nor ironically amused to realize that Milton’s thoughts on marriage should be encompassed by his ideas about divorce because a key principle of liberty inflects the crux of the four divorce tracts’ arguments, which emerge from a larger context of Milton’s early writings on ecclesiastical and civil reform.  In his pamphlets from the 1640s—in particular: “Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline” (1641), “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce” (1643/4) and “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” (1649)—Milton’s epistemology of the new forms of liberty that should be granted to Protestant English subjects resonates most strongly when placed within a cultural context of early seventeenth century debates about covenant theology and commonwealth government.  Just as Milton’s species of liberty are inherently divorcive, his reformation of the relationship between covenant and community hinges upon the inward ordinance of individual acts of nearly prophetic interpretation—i.e. the spirit of the law—that must not be subordinate to institutional practices, or custom—i.e. the letter of the law.  Milton’s notion of commonwealth subjectivity therefore grants ecclesiastical and civil liberties on the condition that domestic liberty be made manifest according to the individual’s private judgment of their duty to act within—and, if necessary, against—the public sphere.[5]

  5. Within the scope of the tracts noted above, the principle of divorce consequently functions as a master trope in Milton’s arguments about commonwealth liberty, and even extends to his far-reaching premise, in “The Doctrine and Discipline,” that “the world first rose out of Chaos” by God’s “divorcing command” (147).  Paradise Lost offers the most ambitious articulation of Milton’s ideas touching upon what I would hazard to call cosmological liberty, which in turn provides an elegant solution to the aporia at the heart of his prose works that devise and defend a framework for the divorcive liberties.[6] If the “inward and irremediable disposition of man” (“The Doctrine and Discipline” 171) must serve as the fulcrum of private acts of interpretation concerning the reformation and regulation of the Church, the subject and the state, then how and under what circumstances might that inward and irremediable, private faculty be represented—i.e. re-mediated—or made known within a public discourse informing the institution of law?  While Milton’s early political tracts repeatedly encounter (and do not resolve) this paradox of irremediable private agency and irrevocable civil duty, his “higher argument” (Paradise Lost 9: 42) achieves a more dynamic accommodation of the spirit to the letter.

  6. Individual acts of interpretation figure prominently in Milton’s understanding of the new covenant, which grants to true believers a keen, singular insight to the spirit of the law.  In “Christian Doctrine,” for example, Milton holds that “all true believers either prophesy or have within them the Holy Spirit, which is as good as having the gift of prophecy and dreams and visions” (523-4); he accordingly affirms that “on the evidence of scripture itself, all things are eventually to be referred to the Spirit and the unwritten word” (590).  If reading Scripture thus verges upon prophetic sight, then, for Milton, the work of interpreting and upholding the laws of existing social institutions turns upon an ethical imperative: that the individual subject must be granted the liberty of reforming social discourse in accordance with their own reading of the spirit of the law.

  7. Whereas Luther and Calvin both opposed matters of spirit to civil affairs, some seventeenth century English reformers, including Cornelius Burges, Stephen Marshall, Henry Parker and Thomas Goodwin, for example, were formulating new ecclesiastical and political contracts that installed civil liberties within the scope of the commonwealth subject’s private, spiritual agency (Witte 165-93).  In his “Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians,” which Milton cites in “Christian Doctrine,” Luther insisted that “in civil policy . . . nothing must be known as concerning the Gospel, conscience, grace, remission of sins, heavenly righteousness, or Christ himself, but Moses only, with the Law and the works thereof” (Milton 538).  Calvin, in book three of Institutes of the Christian Religion, offered the following precaution for upholding distinctions between spiritual and civil law: “we are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching on spiritual freedom, as if Christians were less subject, as concerns outward government, to human laws, because their consciences have been set free in God’s sight” (chapter 19, section 15).  Milton and the reformers, however, articulated a new epistemology in which the commonwealth subject’s inward covenant with God may—especially during times of religious and political crisis—supersede their covenant with either church or state in order to redeem those institutions that must uphold the spirit of the law for the common good.

  8. This framework of covenants turns upon Milton’s key principle of liberty; while ‘divorcive’, as I’ve asserted above, such an understanding of religious, domestic and civil transgression must accord with a constellation of faculties dwelling within the individual subject: grace, charity, conscience and reason among the most pivotal.  For example, in the following celebrated passage from “The Doctrine and Discipline,” which I will quote at length, the idea of divorce serves as a master trope that bridges all of Milton’s major concerns with relationships between liberties (ecclesiastical, domestic and civil), covenants, subjectivity and commonwealth government:
    He who marries, intends as little to conspire his own ruine, as he that swears Allegiance: and as a whole people is in proportion to an ill Government, so is one man to an ill mariage.  If they against any authority, Covnant or Statute, may by the soveraign edict of charity, save not only their lives, but honest liberties from unworthy bondage, as well may he against any private Covnant, which hee never enter’d to his mischief, redeem himself from unsupportable disturbances to honest peace, and just contentment: And much the rather, for that to resist the highest Magistrat though tyrannizing, God never gave us expresse allowance, only he gave us reason, charity, nature and good example to bear us out; but in this economical misfortune, thus to demean ourselves, besides the warrant of those foure great directors, which doth as justly belong hither, we have an expresse law of God, and such a law, as whereof our Saviour with a solemn threat forbid the abrogating.  For no effect of tyranny can sit more heavy on the Commonwealth, then this household unhappiness on the family.  And farewell all hope of true Reformation in the state, while such an evill as this lies undiscern’d or unregarded in the house. (119)
  9. In “Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline” and “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” Milton also figures the subject’s liberty to contribute to the reformation of society in terms of divorcive agency.  In opposition to prelacy, which (to follow Milton’s metaphors) tyrannizes the subject’s marriage to the Church, common spiritual liberties must be defended first within the private sphere: “Well knows every wise Nation that their Liberty consists in manly and honest labours, in sobriety and rigorous honor to the Marriage Bed, which in both Sexes should be bred up from chast hopes to loyall Enjoyments” (“Of Reformation” 97).  In opposition to the abuses of monarchic power by Charles I, common civil liberties must be guaranteed fundamentally within the domestic realm; without the liberty of divorce at home, subjects suffer tyranny: “as wanting that power, which is the root and sourse of all liberty, to dispose and oeconomize in the Land which God hath giv’n them, as Maisters of Family in thir own house and free inheritance” (“The Tenure” 280).

  10. Upon what grounds does Milton ultimately justify these arguments for divorcive liberty?  How exactly does he devise and defend his epistemology of covenants?  The divorce tracts, as noted earlier, each repeatedly encounter a hermeneutic conundrum: only the “inward and irremediable disposition of man”—that is, socially contingent domestic or private liberty—governs the transgressive interpretation of covenants; but neither that inward disposition nor the reader’s comparative and apposite acts of interpretation may be prescribed—that is, re-mediated (as such)—within forms of discursive reasoning.[7]  Although Milton takes great effort, in the divorce tracts, to demonstrate his own critique of Matthew 19:9 in light of his singular insight into the spirit of Deuteronomy 24:1, his revaluation of divorce law remains a highly personalized view; his comparative methodology verges (at times) upon mysticism.  What manner of exegesis does Milton actually theorize?  In “The Doctrine and Discipline” he writes:
    Thus at length wee see . . . that there is scarce any one saying in the Gospel, but must bee read with limitations and distinctions, to bee rightly understood; for Christ gives no full comments or continued discourses, but as Demetrius the Rhetoritian phrase it, speaks oft in Monosyllables, like a maister, scattering the heavenly grain of his doctrine like pearl heer and there, which requires a skilfull and laborious gatherer, who must compare the words he findes, with other precepts, with the end of every ordinance, and with the general analogie of Evangelick doctrine. (164)
  11. In book seven of Paradise Lost, Milton achieves a more precise articulation of this paradox through Raphael’s narrative about God’s creation of the universe.  Milton’s God, of course, exercises the most transgressive and transformational freedom of cosmological liberty, which is simultaneously omnific and divorcive.  After God and Christ—“The king of glory in his powerful Word / And Spirit coming to create new worlds” (208-9)—view together “the vast immeasurable abyss” (211), they speak as one: “Silence, ye troubled waves, and thou deep, peace, / Said then the omnific Word, your discord end” (216-17).  Chaos obeys.  The universe is circumscribed; the bounds and circumference of Earth are established:
    Far into chaos, and the world unborn;
    For chaos heard his voice: him all his train
    Followed in bright procession to behold
    Creation, and the wonders of his might.
    Then stayed the fervid wheels, and in his hand
    He took the golden compasses, prepared
    In God’s eternal store, to circumscribe
    This universe, and all created things:
    One foot he centered, and the other turned
    Round through the vast profundity obscure,
    And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
    This be thy just circumference, O world. (220-31)
  12. Consequent to and yet coincidental with these acts of universal creation without separation, Milton’s God infuses “vital virtue” (236) and “vital warmth / Throughout the fluid mass, but downward purged / The black tartareous cold infernal dregs / Adverse to life” (236-9) and “then founded, then conglobed / Like things to like, the rest to several place / Disparted, and between spun out the air” (239-41, my emphasis). Disparting: divorcing to create whole things wholly inseparable between the letter and the spirit of covenant and cosmos.

1.      This essay informs part of a differently focused, more extensive discussion of Milton’s arguments for divorce within the context of his tracts’ occasions for publication between 1643-45.  See: van den Berg and Howard (“Introduction”).

2.      For studies that acknowledge the difficulty of Milton’s marriage to Mary Powell with consideration to autobiographical vignettes in the divorce tracts, see, for example: Fallon (2000); Patterson “No Meer Amatorious Novel?” (1992); and Cable (1981).

3.      Milton’s idea of liberty embodies the inward-turning temper of the times; see, for example: Palmer (1644); and Robinson (1643).  Whereas Robinson celebrates the liberty of conscience as “The sole means to obtaine peace and truth” (i), Palmer denounces “ungodly toleration pleaded for under pretence of liberty of conscience” (ii).  Palmer’s sermon, in this regard, singles-out Milton’s 1643 edition of “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce” as a “wicked booke” (57).  Milton’s “Tetrachordon” (1645) replies directly to Palmer (among other detractors).

4.      For more extensive analyses of Milton’s formulations of liberty vis-à-vis his early political tracts, see: Parry and Raymond (2002); Norbrook (1999); Lewalski (1998); Armitage, Himy, and Skinner (1995); Mueller (1995); and Shawcross (1993).

5.      In addition to the three tracts just noted, which are central to this essay’s brisk investigation, Milton’s remaining pamphlets on divorce also devise and defend this transgressive principle of liberty.  Milton safeguards the “liberty of unpromising” (445) in “The Judgement of Martin Bucer” (1644); accommodates the “liberty we have in Christ” to the just deliverance “from calamitous yokes not to be liv’d under without the endangerment of our souls” (601) in “Tetrachordon” (1645); and, during a gloss on Deuteronomy 24:1 in “Colasterion” (1645), justifies the wife’s “liberty to depart from her fals accuser” (731).

6.      For studies of Milton’s ideas on marriage and divorce within the context of Paradise Lost, see, for example: Turner (1987); and Halkett (1970).

7.      Raphael’s discussion of intuitive reason, in book five of Paradise Lost, offers a vital remedy to this aporia: “ . . . whence the soul / Reason receives, and reason is her being, / Discursive, or intuitive; discourse / Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours, / Differing but in degree, of kind the same” (486-90).

Works Cited

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