Front Page Titles (by Subject) I.: Mediæval Republican Thought - The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth
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I.: Mediæval Republican Thought - 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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Mediæval Republican Thought
Milton entertained no very high opinion of scholasticism, and the present work shows no appeal whatever to mediæval authorities. Nevertheless, he belonged to a school of political thought that had had its origin in the heart of the Middle Ages; indeed, the radical doctrine of The Ready and Easy Way is in large measure an unacknowledged inheritance from the republicanism of the mediæval church. One should remember, of course, that Milton was debtor also to the Greeks, and to all the learning and political experience of antiquity—as were in some degree the mediævalists themselves. However, in this pamphlet not only did he base his opinions concerning covenant, resistance, and tyrannicide upon sixteenth-century revolutionary thought, which itself was derived from the Middle Ages; but his three fundamental conceptions—sovereignty of the people, government by supreme representative council, and federation—have, in the form in which they came down to Milton, distinctly mediæval beginnings.
The doctrine of popular sovereignty was a political expression of the belief in the intrinsic importance of the individual—a belief peculiar to Hebrew and Christian philosophy. Man had been created in the image of God, and endowed with immortality and the possibility of direct communion with his Creator. A tradition prevailed that in the far-off beginning, before the advent of sin, men had lived together in a state of nature, as free and equal sons of God, and under His direct guidance. This body of thought was augmented by the revelations of Christ, who clearly taught the fatherhood of God, and the immortality and infinite worth of even the humblest soul. From such teaching arose the Christian conceptions of universal brotherhood and equality; and from the practice of the apostolic church descended even a tradition of the community of goods. St. Augustine, in the De Civitate Dei, which, of all books, next after the Bible, most profoundly influenced mediæval thought, cordially embraced the new philosophy, and declared that God ‘did not intend that His rational creature should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation—not man over man, but man over the beasts,’ and that those who are in authority should really ‘serve those whom they seem to command; for they rule not from a love of power, but from a sense of duty they owe to others.’1 And Milton further notes that ‘ad subditos suos scribens, Constantinus Magnus non alio nomine quam fratres appellat.’2
It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the sovereignty of the aggregate of individuals, each of infinite worth, was recognized in the great world-empire which arose under the inspiration of the Christian philosophy. The earliest form of this doctrine, however, was very different from its radical development as found in Milton and the extremists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The mediæval conception of popular sovereignty was by no means incompatible with loyalty to kings and popes. These were upheld by the people as necessary heads of the temporal and spiritual orders of life in the great quasi-mystical empire over which God himself reigned supreme. But they were nevertheless regarded as servants. John of Salisbury (1120-80), that most interesting and modern of twelfth-century Englishmen, pupil of Abelard, and friend of Thomas à Becket, in his famous book, the Policraticus (4. 1-3, 5), speaks of a king as ‘minister populi,’ and ‘publicæ utilitatis minister.’ A century later, Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) is still more explicit: ‘Principes terrarum sunt a Deo instituti, non quidem ut propria lucra quærent, sed ut communem utilitatem procurent’ (De Regimine Judæorum 6).3 The pope himself, although nominally supreme, was also a chosen servant, and subject to the council of the church.
While there was pretty general agreement as to the fact of popular sovereignty, there were two opinions as to its transference to rulers. Some held that the transfer of supreme authority to king or pope, made voluntarily by the people or their representative, was irrevocable. But the more dominant idea was that the investiture of rulers was a delegation of sovereignty, to be valid only as long as the terms of the contract were observed. This mediæval doctrine of contract, which flows down the centuries in a strong and unbroken stream, carrying with it tremendous significance as a justification of popular revolts against tyrants, kings, and popes, found formal expression in the writings of the Abbot of Admont, Engelbert of Volkersdorf (1250-1311). In the De Ortu, Progressu, et Fine Romani Imperii Liber (c. 2) he shows the origin of all regna et principatus to have been in a pactum subjectionis. These idea of delegated sovereignty and contract are very prominent in Milton’s treatise. ‘Sovrantie,’ he affirms, must not be ‘transferrd, but delegated only.’
As kings and popes were public servants, instituted by the sovereign people for its own welfare, it followed that they were also subject to the will of the people. The law of God and the law of nature alone were absolute; and when regal or papal decrees ran counter to these higher mandates, they might, and must, be disobeyed. Even Thomas Aquinas, a powerful supporter of the papal power, clearly recognizes the supremacy of the higher law. God is to be obeyed before the pope (Summa Theologiæ 2. 1. 96. 4). William of Ockham expresses the same idea with reference to the emperor, who is only to be obeyed ‘in licitis’ (Dialog. 3. 2. 2. 20). The statement is made general by Philippus Decius (1454-1536) in the Consilia (72. 2): ‘Superiori non est obediendum quando egreditur fines sui officii.’
But popular sovereignty implied more than the possibility of passive disobedience. As early as the eleventh century the doctrines of active resistance and tyrannicide were being taught by Manegold. In the following century John of Salisbury boldly wrote On The End of Tyrants, and in the Policraticus he justifies every means of tyrannicide except poison.1 In the hands of the pope, during the papal supremacy, this became an effective instrument for reducing arrogant emperors to a proper subordination. In the sixteenth century we shall find the church, through the Jesuit writings, attempting to wield once more this ancient weapon against her imperial foes; while in the seventeenth century the whole Puritan revolution may be expressed in terms of these mediæval principles of popular sovereignty, resistance, and tyrannicide.
The mediæval idea of popular sovereignty did not extend so far as to grant participation to the people individually in the administration of the empire or church. In fact, they were pretty generally excluded. It was understood to mean the supremacy of the people collectively; hence it found its expression in a supreme representative council, popularly chosen, and, theoretically, exactly equivalent to the whole sovereign people for which it stood. Nothing exactly like this—a supreme assembly perfectly representative of the entire people—had ever been known, and its developments were destined to be of the utmost consequence. In the direct line of descent are the modern representative parliament, and Milton’s supreme ‘general Councel of ablest men, chosen by the people.’ The authority of this mediæval council was limited by nothing except the law of God and the law of nature. To it the senate of cardinals and the pope himself were subject.
But to realize the completeness of this mediæval conception, one must turn to the writings of Marsilius of Padua (d. after 1342), the famous rector of the University of Paris. In the Defensor Pacis (c. 1324), which has been called ‘the most original political treatise of the middle ages,’1 he clearly sets forth the principle of a representative council. Chapters 20-1, pp. 256-63, are thus summarized by Poole: ‘The supreme power in the church is the church itself, that is, a general council, formed of the clergy and laity alike, and convoked not by any pretended spiritual authority but by the source of all legislation and jurisdiction, the civil state. Thus constituted a general council may not only decide ecclesiastical questions but even proceed to excommunicate the temporal ruler and place his land under an interdict, just because it represents the authority of the universal church and speaks the voice of the entire community, in both its spiritual and its temporal capacities. That it has power over the pope follows necessarily from the principles already laid down.’2
But while there was recognition of the worth and rights of the individual, and of the sovereignty of the people as a whole; and although this found its highest expression in a representative council under the nominal leadership of the papal and regal authority, the most remarkable and unique achievement of mediæval policy was the building of these manifold elements of government into a unified whole. The genius of the mediæval mind, in fact, was chiefly its unparalleled capacity to achieve unity out of multiplicity. One God, one authority, one world-wide empire, one human brotherhood, one goal of life—such were the ideals that wrought themselves into unworldly monasticism, into the Holy Roman Empire; into cathedral and Divina Commedia; and into a system of federated government which articulated and fused into a whole the successive units of sovereignty from the individual to the papal throne. In order of magnitude, these units were the individual, the family, the village, the city, the province, the nation, the empire. Each part was an individual organism having its end in itself, reflecting in miniature the constitution of the whole, and yet at the same time forming a subordinate element in the successive higher unities. Dante well expresses this conception of world-wide and race-wide unity in discussing ‘what is the end of human society as a whole’: ‘In order to discern the point in question more clearly, observe that as Nature fashions the thumb for one purpose, the whole hand for another, then the arm for a purpose differing from both, and the entire man for one differing from all, so she creates for one end the individual, for another the family, for another the village, for still another end the city, for another the kingdom, and finally for an ultimate end by means of His art which is nature, the Eternal God brings into being the human race in its totality.’1
Although this vast system of graduated sovereignties, united in one grand empire under the rulership of God, was soon to disintegrate, still the principle of federation—of preserving the identity and independence of the separate groups, yet binding all together into a unity—was to persist, and to exert a profound influence in modern times. The disintegration of the mediæval scheme of federated groups was largely due to the spread of Greek political ideas. Especially powerful was the influence of the Greek conception of a sovereign, nonuniversal state; indeed, this idea completely shattered the vast mediæval empire, and laid the foundations of modern European states. The state at one end of the mediæval chain, and the individual at the other, became the two antagonistic supremacies, and the intermediate links—village, city, and province—practically disappeared politically.
More and more the state came to mean the king; and, striving against regal absolutism, individualism developed into the rebellions and revolutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Throughout this long struggle for political rights, the church, true to mediæval traditions, consistently championed the sovereignty of the people, and wielded the doctrine as a weapon against the pretensions of the temporal power. On the other hand, the supporters of the Reformation movement (itself an expression of individualism on its spiritual side) generally asserted the divine right of kings, in return for royal protection against the power of the pope. This was the alignment during the sixteenth century. Luther and Calvin—although the latter betrays some signs of a democratic, or at least aristocratic, preference—were outspokenly royalist. But the doctrines of disobedience, resistance, and tyrannicide were accepted by the later Calvinists, and were boldly proclaimed by the writers of the Huguenot and Jesuit schools. The sovereignty of the people and government by a representative council were reasserted, and justified historically, by Francis Hotman in the Franco-Gallia (1574). A still more powerful Huguenot presentation of liberal mediæval ideas is to be found in the Vindiciæ contra Tyrannos (1578). In the Politica Methodice Digesta of Althusius, the German jurist who wrote in praise of the United Provinces, we find a most remarkable return to the mediæval idea of federated groups—families uniting to form communities (villages, parishes, towns, etc.), and these combining into provinces, which in turn unite to form the state.1
But the most complete revival of mediæval political ideas is to be found in the writings of the Jesuits, a society which originated just before the middle of the sixteenth century. The Catholic principles of unity, of subordination of the temporal to the spiritual power, of popular sovereignty, and of government by a representative council are reaffirmed with admirable clearness and force. The Spanish Jesuits, Molina and Suarez, even revived the theocratic conception of a perfect state, over which should reign the law of God and the law of nature. The dominating tyranny of kings, while it made impossible the realization of this ideal, all the more stirred the zeal of the Jesuits in its behalf. Not only did they justify disobedience, resistance, and tyrannicide; but when the horror of St. Bartholomew’s came to be laid at the door of Henry III, they were ready to assert and justify the right of private individuals to assassinate tyrants and heretic kings. The De Rege et Regis Institutione of Mariana, another Spanish Jesuit, is perhaps the boldest and ablest exposition of the radical antimonarchical doctrine ever written. The book produced a tremendous impression, and passed through many editions. Not only did it bear immediate fruit in the assassination of Henry III, but it became the authority and chief support of regicides for two centuries. Jesuit emissaries and Jesuit books crossed over into England in the latter part of the sixteenth century, and exercised no small influence in preparing the way for the extreme measures taken against the Stuarts.
Milton’s writings give evidence of his intimate acquaintance with the Franco-Gallia, Vindiciæ, De Rege, and other revolutionary utterances of the preceding century. In a very true sense their championship of popular, as against monarchical, ideas—derived, as we have seen, from the Middle Ages and the heart of the Roman church—they handed across the Channel to Milton, the apologist of the Puritan revolution and republic. Especially is this apparent in the present treatise in regard to its fundamental ideas of popular sovereignty, government by a representative council, and unified confederacy. Milton, in his political ideas, had vastly more in common with Catholic republicans than with Reformation royalists. In fact, as we shall see in the study of sources, Milton surreptitiously incorporates as authority in The Ready and Easy Way a generous portion of the De Republica of Jean Bodin, whom he elsewhere expressly styles a ‘Papist.’
[1 ]De Civ. 19. 14-5.
[2 ]Commonplace Bk., p. 181.
[3 ]Gierke-Maitland’s Political Theories of the Middle Age has generally been followed in references to mediæval works that were not accessible.
[1 ]Poole, Illustrations of the History of Mediæval Thought, p. 238.
[1 ]Poole, Illus. of Hist. of Med. Thought, p. 265.
[2 ]Ibid., p. 273.
[1 ]De Monarchia tr. Henry, 1. 3.
[1 ]Dunning, Political Theories, Ancient and Modern 2. 62.