Front Page Titles (by Subject) D.: Milton's Ideal Republic - The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth
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D.: Milton’s Ideal Republic - John Milton, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth 
The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, edited with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary by Evert Mordecai Clark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1915).
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Milton’s Ideal Republic
The ground upon which Milton was to erect his commonwealth was first cleared of all traditional rubbish. There was to be no king or duke or protector—no single person of any kind. There were to be no bishops, no House of Lords; nor was there to be any ‘distinction of lords and commoners’ that might ‘any way divide or sever the public interest.’
In the way of positive proposal he began, as he did in the Letter to a Friend, with an aristocratic council. Supreme power should be vested in a ‘full and free Councel of ablest men,’ elected by the people from such as were ‘not addicted to a single person or house of lords.’ This council should have control of the naval and military forces, manage the public revenue, make laws, and attend to all affairs with other nations. The tenure of office in this body should be for life, or during good behavior; but if this would not be accepted, then the expedients of rotation, or of submitting to the people the question whether the several members should retire or remain in office, might be adopted.
To facilitate the handling of matters requiring much ‘secrecie and expedition,’ and to act as a kind of executive head, the grand council must choose from its own members a smaller council of state. ‘No single person, but reason only,’ was to rule in all its deliberations.
Every county in England was to be constituted a ‘little commonwealth,’ of which the chief town should be the capital. Here the chief gentry were to reside in befitting palaces, and participate in the local legislative, executive, and judicial organizations, which should be subordinate only in matters affecting the national government. But even the legislative enactments of the grand council were to be submitted, by a species of referendum, to ratification or rejection at the hands of the majority of these subordinate commonwealths. Thus there were to be, not ‘many sovranties united in one Commonwealth, but many Commonwealths under one united and entrusted sovrantie’—not a loose confederation, but the largest amount of local sovereignty consistent with a supreme and efficient national authority.
Offices were to be filled by popular election; but suffrage must be well hedged about with qualifications. By no means should all be left to ‘the noise and shouting of a rude multitude.’ These qualifications were designed to restrict suffrage and magistracy to those who were ‘well affected’ toward government without single person or House of Lords. Those ‘rightly qualifi’d’ might nominate as many as they would; from these nominees, ‘others of a better breeding’ were to ‘chuse a less number more judiciously, till after a third or fourth sifting and refining of exactest choice,’ those were left who were the ‘due number,’ and ‘by most voices’ thought ‘worthiest.’ Thus ‘worth and merit,’ rather than rank or wealth, were to govern in the choice of public servants. Moreover, these worthies were to be unsalaried; for magistracy should be undertaken, not from motives of personal ambition, but solely as an opportunity for unselfish service.
The good and the wise, however few, were to rule. But ‘due libertie’—not license—and equality proportioned to merit should be guaranteed to all. In every town there should be free schools and academies. Church and state should be absolutely distinct and independent; and liberty of conscience must be assured. Finally, there were to be the fewest possible laws, in order that there might be the largest possible degree of individual freedom; one universal, divine law should prevail—the law of nature, ‘the only law of laws truly and properly to all mankinde fundamental.’
When the government was once settled on this foundation, virtue would flourish and happiness abound. The people would soon be ‘satisfi’d and delighted with the decent order, ease, and benefit’ of such a government. And the republic itself should never know decay, but should ‘so continue . . . even to the coming of our true and right full and only to be expected King, . . . the Messiah, the Christ.’
Milton vigorously resented any suggestion that his model was ideal and impracticable. Again and again he insisted that his ‘way’ was ‘plain,’ ‘open,’ ‘easy,’ ‘without intricacies . . . or any considerable objection . . . that it is not practicable.’ He professed to follow Aristotle rather than Plato, whose ‘fancied republic . . . in this world could have no place.’1 He desired ‘to ordain wisely, as in this world of evil’—not ‘to sequester out of the world into Atlantic and Utopian politics, which never can be drawn into use.’2
In Milton’s claim there was some degree of force. His plan was extremely simple. It meant merely perpetuating a body of men already in power, and further elaborating systems of local sovereignty and popular education already in existence. Many of its recommendations have long since become a part of the actual workings of modern republics. Such are its combination of local and national authority, the referendum in legislation, and the merit-system of civil service. Besides, he announced no socialistic principles of absolute equality, equal division of lands, or community of goods. He attempted, at least, to lay the foundations of his commonwealth, not upon some undiscovered Oceana. Utopia, or New Atlantis, but in the England of February, 1660.
But while Milton, in modeling his republic, endeavored to play the rôle of a practical statesman, he nevertheless remained the great idealist and poet. Hence we find that, in spite of its air of practicality, his republic has much in common with those of Plato and other political idealists. With Augustine and the mystical mediævalists, Milton loves to think of the race as a great brotherhood, and of God’s ‘governing from heaven’ as the ‘universal Lord of all mankind.’ With Plato, he conceives of office-holding as public service. The right of the wise to rule, and the obligation of the ignorant to follow; aristocracy of merit; the exaltation of spiritual interests over every other in the state—these are all a part of Plato’s republic. Like Plato, Milton saw no reason why a state, so constituted, should not endure for ever.
The impracticability and real Utopian character of Milton’s republic, however, are to be found in its most fundamental proposal—government by a supreme and perpetual council of ablest men. To Milton, who looked upon magistracy as unselfish service, and believed that ‘nothing is more agreeable to the order of nature, or more for the interest of mankind, than that the less should yield to the greater, not in numbers, but in wisdom and in virtue,’1 it seemed so easy, so desirable, so safe, to constitute the Parliament then sitting a perpetual council. As their literary champion, Milton had come to believe that these men were absolutely worthy and incorruptible—‘faithfull worthies, who at first freed us from tyrannie, and have continu’d ever since through all changes constant to thir trust.’ But by February, 1660, Milton stood practically alone in this belief. The Rump had become a national byword. No Utopian model ever dreamed could have been less acceptable to England at that time than was Milton’s proposal to perpetuate this obnoxious assembly. The Ready and Easy Way was greeted with a roar of derision. Instantly and mercilessly were its fundamental weaknesses laid bare. The Censure of the Rota is typical: ‘Though you brag much of the people’s managing their own affairs, you allow them no more share of that in your Utopia, as you have ordered it, than only to set up their throats and bawl, instead of every three years, which they might have done before, once in an age, or oftener, as an old member drops away, and a new one is to succeed,’ etc. (see Appendix B. 3).
So far as the adaptability of Milton’s model to then existing conditions was concerned, there can be no doubt that the critics were right. Had there been infallible means of finding out who were the best and wisest; had all men looked upon magistracy as unselfish service; had officers, once chosen for life, been absolutely incorruptible, then, and then only, could Milton’s scheme have been successful. But notwithstanding twenty years of participation in public affairs, Milton seems to have been unable to perceive the utter impracticability of his proposal, or to realize, as did Sir Thomas More, that ‘except all men were good, everything cannot be right.’
[1 ]Areop. (Bohn 2. 72).
[2 ]Ibid. (Bohn 2. 74).
[1 ]Sec. Def. (Bohn 1. 265).