Privacy, Liberty, and the Search for Truth in Milton (Introduction)

                                                         he unobserved
Home to his mother’s house private returned
                                                         –Paradise Regain’d IV.638-9


A Note About This Blog: When I set out a bit over a year ago to write blog posts about Milton once a month or so, I had no idea how rewarding it could be. The blog post is a different genre, and one that I’m still learning. Having stuck with it for a year, I plan to continue this blog along its original premise even if I am unable to post as regularly as I might like. It is meant to be accessible to the average reader, not to professional literary scholars alone, so you may find that what I’m doing here isn’t really “scholarship” or academic writing, but instead something like a riff on a theme. That is a feature, not a bug. If my sometimes quirky connections of Milton to current events, pop culture, art, and politics can demonstrate how vital Milton’s writings remain today, if I encourage people to pick up Milton’s political prose or his poetry because of what they read here, this blog has served its purpose.  On a selfish note, it also helps me generate ideas that sometimes find their way into my academic writing and talks.


I owe the current topic to Cory Doctorow and my daughters. If you haven’t yet followed @doctorow on Twitter, you should probably do so now. I’ve mentioned Doctorow before, when I quoted his short story “Printcrime” in a conference presentation that grew out of a previous post about Areopagitica and 3D printed guns. At my insistence, my teenage daughters recently read Doctorow’s Little Brother, a young-adult novel that takes on the very adult problem of our rapidly diminishing privacy. Like Doctorow, I’m most disturbed that the surrender of our privacy is happening so damn quietly. I sense that this is because, like climate change, the problem seems too big for any one person to deal with or impact. Long before we wake up to find the planet has been irreversibly harmed by our corporate greed and individual laziness, we’ll have happily given up our right to protest it.

Queen Amidala, Star Wars Episode III

Queen Amidala, Star Wars Episode III

George Lucas was wrong: liberty doesn’t die to the sound of thunderous applause; it slips quietly away while we are busily checking our smartphones.

So after my daughters read Little Brother and Homeland (and also started playing the currently very popular, hacking-centric, video game “Watch Dogs”) I gave them a challenge for their summer break: code something. You need to know how the interconnected world works before you can understand the risks and benefits of an “internet of things.” A good way to start thinking about what the “internet of things” is would be to click on the info graphic below. As you browse the image, use your imagination about what such a world means for privacy.

An illustration of the "internet of things"

An illustration of the “internet of things”

What does all this have to do with John Milton and the English Civil War? Just about everything.

I’ve mentioned before that the first marital spat in Paradise Lost may be read as essentially a debate about balancing privacy with security. Eve, taking positions strongly inflected by Milton’s Areopagitica, suggests that security without freedom means one can enjoy neither. For the next few posts (probably over the next few months), I want to consider the role of privacy in Milton. In particular, I want to consider whether privacy is a necessary component to Milton’s soteriology. Does Milton’s writing suggest that human beings need a right to privacy in order to repair the ruins of the fall?

But this isn’t simply a question about theodicy, of course. The thing about Milton – the thing that makes him relevant today – is that his theodicy and soteriology always have consequences for politics & civic life as well. The needs of one drives the make up of the other – the state has to be organized in a particular way to allow human beings to fully realize their potential. It just so happens that the political organization this requires, in Milton’s view, is one that fosters individual liberties. I want to say “one that maximizes individual liberty,” but there are limits. Milton is writing during a time of turbulence and civil war, and even as he espouses tolerance he imposes some limits.

Milton himself, engaging in a bit of autobiographical self-promotion and spin control, suggested that his intellectual work before and during the English Civil War was concerned with three spheres of human activity. Note that Milton is writing this before he had even written his late masterpieces. Writing as “John Milton, Englishman” in the Second Defense of the English People, Milton reviews his career thus far as a political pamphleteer:

“Asking myself whether I could in any way advance the cause of true and substantial liberty…. I observed that there are, in all, three varieties of liberty without which civilized life is scarcely possible, namely ecclesiastical liberty, domestic or personal liberty, and civil liberty…” (YP IV.624).

Milton claims that he had written about ecclesiastical liberty in his earlier tracts, and that (in the 1640s at least) he felt the “magistrates” had the topic of civil liberty well in hand, so he felt called upon only to handle the problem of “domestic or personal liberty,” and especially that involving marriage and divorce. He also includes the education of children and his tract Of Education in this sphere of “domestic or personal” liberty. Of course, his retrospective look at his career thus far from the perspective of 1654 must include his writing Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Eikonoklastes, and the first Defense. It becomes obvious that, as he looks back over the scope of his publications, Milton has written significant works about all three varieties of liberty that he identified.

With this as background, it is worth asking what role privacy plays in Milton’s concept of liberty. Over the next few months, my blog posts will explore this question, from the political prose such as the Divorce Tracts, the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, and Areopagitica, to the late poetry, including Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regain’d where the final words are:

Thus they the Son of God our Savior meek
Sung victor, and from Heav’nly feast refreshed
Brought on his way with joy; he unobserved
Home to his mother’s house private returned.

Our technological advances mean we live in a world where we are rarely if ever “unobserved” unless we take active measures to be so (you may want to visit Reset the Net if you are interested in taking such measures). It is doubtful that even in our “mother’s house” we can ever be “private.” Perhaps this is why the relationship of privacy to liberty, and liberty to security, is something we might profitably revisit with no less a guide than John Milton.

My plan for future posts on this topic (always subject to whimsy and better ideas):

Privacy, Liberty, and the search for Truth in Milton

Part 1: The Political Prose
Part 2: The Shorter Poems
Part 3: Late Masterpieces

– David A. Harper
9 June 2014


Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Homeland are published by Tor Teen.

Quotes from Milton’s poetry are from the Modern Library Complete Poetry and Essential Prose edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon.

YP = The Yale Prose. The Complete Prose works of John Milton.

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