Front Page Titles (by Subject) F.: Sources - The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth
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F.: Sources - 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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Scriptural Authority and Illustration
The Ready and Easy Way is not distinctively learned, argumentative, or defensive, but was written rather hastily, as a practical suggestion in an emergency. The Biblical element, therefore, is much less prominent here than it is in such treatises as the Defensio and the Tenure. However, we find that not fewer than twelve direct appeals to the Bible are made in the present work—for illustration and proof; for vindication and ridicule; for warning and denunciation. Milton’s employment of Scripture is extremely bold and effective. Old-Testament blood-guiltiness is the warning held up before backsliders from the ‘good old cause’; moreover, those who clamor for kingship may be warned of God’s anger from the case of Samuel’s sons; and let the Stuarts themselves tremble at the terrible denunciation of Jeremiah against Coniah. Unfortunately, it was not without some grounds that the critics accused Milton of wresting the Scripture to his purpose (see notes on 15. 34 and 15. 35, and p. 177).
In his proposed curriculum, as also in his own extensive reading, Milton had given a prominent place to ‘those extolled remains of Grecian lawgivers, Lycurgus and Solon.’ And while we are not to imagine him now, in his anxious haste and infirmity of blindness, as painfully groping among Athenian and Spartan constitutions, it is nevertheless true that he incorporates in his model much of their spirit, and many of their practical expedients. Milton seems to have read of the curb, or ‘bridle’-device, of the Ephori, in the charming pages of Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus. There is also an allusion to the peculiar Spartan form of election in his unwillingness to commit all ‘to the noise and shouting of a rude multitude.’ Throughout the treatise there runs an implied commendation of Spartan frugality, simplicity, discipline, and patriotic fervor.
But it was for the Athenian commonwealth, as founded by Solon and further democratized by his successors, that Milton reserved his profoundest admiration. Like Milton, Solon was a poet turned statesman, an unselfish reformer, and an unsuccessful opposer of tyrants. But, unlike Milton’s, his political ideas had the good fortune to become the basis of the constitution of the republic. Milton found these reflected in Plutarch’s Life of Solon—itself largely derived1 from Aristotle’s recently recovered Constitution of Athens. Here are set forth the ideas of a supreme and perpetual council of the Areopagus; proportionate eligibility to office; the right of appeal to living judges. Solon himself, as here described, furnishes a splendid example of unselfish public service, and of supreme contempt for royal ostentation. And Milton’s proposed combination of local and national authority—legislative, executive, and judicial—he finds ‘to have been practised in the old Athenian commonwealth.’ We may now turn to the strictly political writings of the Greeks to which our book is indebted. We have seen that Milton professed to hold in some derision the idealistic proposals of Plato—‘a man of high authority indeed, but least of all for his commonwealth.’1 Nevertheless, almost a score of Plato’s social and political ideas reappear in The Ready and Easy Way. The nature of the state, the origin of law, the purpose of government, the relation of tyranny to moral progress, magistracy as service, due liberty—these are some of the subjects upon which Milton’s thought accords with Plato’s. Most of these ideas, it is true, Milton met again far down the stream and in other forms, for we are here at the fountainhead of modern commonwealth-theory; but it is also true that he received the initial impression of these conceptions from the pages of the Republic and the Laws. Finally, Aristotle, a much more practical philosopher, is acknowledged as ‘chief instructer,’ and especially cited as authority (31. 5).
The Roman Republic and Its Expounders
Hardly less profoundly was Milton influenced by the history of the illustrious republic of Rome. The influence, however, was largely one of national character and political institutions, for in the province of original political philosophy the Roman contribution had been small. It was the history of that liberty-loving people, who, deposing their kings, flourished for five hundred years as a republic; the matchless spirit of the Romans, who were ‘in a manner all fit to be kings’; their august, perpetual senate, their check-device of the tribunes: it was these elements of Roman greatness that appealed most strongly to Milton at this time, as exemplifying the feasibility and superiority of an aristocratic republic.
But the Roman republic, although it imported its politics from Greece, was not quite without expounders. There were Cicero, with his Republic and Laws, and Polybius, and Justinian; from each of whom Milton seems to have gleaned ideas that were to reappear later in modified form in his own republic. Like Milton, Cicero had striven ‘at all hazard’ to uphold the tottering and already doomed structure of a republic, having voluntarily resigned the ‘diversified sweetness’ of his studies to oppose himself ‘almost alone to the tempests and torrents of sedition, for the sake of preserving the state’1 —an utterance that seems to have colored Milton’s own declaration of motives. Like Milton again, Cicero professed to be a practical statesman; but he openly modeled his treatises upon Plato’s Republic and Laws. Naturally, therefore, most of his ideas are of no importance as sources. Yet there is a certain remainder, peculiarly his own, which did exercise a direct influence upon the shaping of The Ready and Easy Way. For example, Milton expressly acknowledges the power of Cicero’s beautiful and eloquent statement of the law of nature (see note on 10. 40).
It is probable that Milton’s idea of ‘balance’ was derived from, or confirmed by, the exposition of the Roman system of checks and balances, as found in Polybius. The Commonplace Book shows that he took notes from Justinian on natural and civil law. We know that Milton derived from Augustine the opinion that magistrates are really servants. The De Civitate Dei left other traces upon The Ready and Easy Way. It is certain that this was one source of the idea that kings should not presume to rule over men (see note on 19. 14).
Modern Political Theorists
It has been the purpose of a preceding section to show that the mediæval contribution to The Ready and Easy Way, while very large indeed, descended by way of sixteenth-century democratic thought, and was not recognized as mediæval at all. We may therefore pass from the fifth to the fifteenth century, and next inquire as to the modern sources of Milton’s treatise. It is not a little surprising to find the first of these in the writings of Machiavelli (1469-1527), the celebrated Florentine statesman, the first, and one of the greatest, of modern politicians. There are many reasons why Machiavelli particularly interested and influenced Milton. As an embodiment of the Renaissance spirit, he stood for intellectual and religious emancipation; he eagerly welcomed the experience and wisdom of Greece and Rome; he too acknowledged Aristotle as his chief instructor, and professed himself to be—what he really was—a practical statesman and impartial inquirer after truth; his favorite model of government was the republic of Rome; his volumes were rich in information about the minor republics of Italy, such as Venice and Florence; he started from the assumption that the state, of whatever form, is to be preserved and promoted at whatever cost, and discussed with inimitable clearness and penetration the policies best adapted to that end. The fact that his attitude is unmoral and indifferentist, or nearly so, did not deter Milton—as it had innumerable narrow minds that execrated the very name of Machiavelli—from diligently reading and excerpting the Discorsi and the Arte della Guerra, as the Commonplace Book and The Ready and Easy Way prove. In spite of their usual impersonal tone, Machiavelli’s volumes contained certain bold declarations and eulogies upon freedom which, to Commonwealth-men of the calibre of Milton and Harrington, seemed to betray a republican fervor in the author. Accordingly, Harrington holds him in high repute as the ‘learn’d Disciple’ of ‘the Antients,’ and ‘the only Politician of later Ages.’1
A large part of Machiavelli’s work is, of course, a restatement of Aristotelian philosophy, and must be disregarded so far as sources are concerned, except where its connection with Milton’s thought is indisputable. Such is the case, as proved by Milton’s own citations, in those passages which amplify the thought that hereditary kings are seldom virtuous, and that good men are scarce in monarchies, but abound in commonwealths. Machiavelli also suggested to Milton, or at least confirmed him in the opinion, that God preferred to make commonwealths when given His own way about it (see note on 32. 5).
We have now arrived at the authority of whom Milton seems to have made most use during the composition of The Ready and Easy Way—Jean Bodin (1530-96), the illustrious author of the De la République. Like Machiavelli, Bodin was filled with the Renaissance enthusiasm for the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. He made eager explorations into various fields of learning, and distinguished himself by contributing to political, educational, and economic theory, and by practically originating the modern historical method of investigation. Moreover, he rendered valuable service as statesman and diplomat under Henry III. With admirable spirit he stood for liberty of conscience, mutual concessions, and peace, in the midst of the raging wars of religion. It is not surprising that his tolerance and poise brought upon him the zealots’ charges, at different times, of being a ‘Catholic, a Calvinist, a Jew, a Mohammedan, and an atheist.’ Milton himself declares that ‘Bodin, the famous French writer, though a Papist, yet affirms that the commonwealth which maintains this discipline [Presbyterianism] will certainly flourish in virtue and piety.’1
But it was in the field of political philosophy that Bodin made his most admirable contribution to knowledge and progress. The De la République appeared in 1576, and at once linked its author’s name with that of Aristotle. The treatise was written in French, but was translated into Latin by the author in 1586. It was known and read all over Europe, and was promptly made a textbook in the English universities. It passed through numerous editions, the thick, almost cubical, Latin octavo of 1641 being the ‘Editio Septima.’
Milton probably became thoroughly familiar with Bodin’s Republica during his university days, and later, during the period of strenuous controversy, he did not forget this veritable mine of political wisdom. Page 112 of the Commonplace Book has the following note in Milton’s own hand: ‘Pro divortio vide Bodin. repub. l. 1, c. 3.’ This note-book also contains a large number of direct quotations from Bodin, but as they are in Lord Preston’s hand instead of Milton’s, no use will be made of them as sources. Fortunately, the Republica itself is sufficiently convincing as to Milton’s direct obligation. The most remarkable case of borrowing may be set forth here in some detail, as it possesses both historical and biographical significance.
On page 24 of this edition, Milton covertly refers to Bodin as ‘they who write of policie,’ and further distinguishes him above all other authorities by quoting a considerable passage in support of a perpetual senate. This conclusion, that Milton is here disingenuously helping himself to Bodin, is based primarily upon the evidence of the following parallels:
It is apparent that the second and third of these parallel passages are largely equivalent in thought, and very similar in sequence and phraseology; and one might reasonably conclude that the English version was Milton’s source. But a careful comparison of the parallels in English and Latin, and especially of the italicized passages, proves that such was not the case. It is sufficient here to state the conclusions to which one must come after such an examination: (1) Bodin was ‘they who write of policie’; (2) Milton drew from the Latin, rather than from the English, version of the Republica; (3) indeed, Milton’s quotation is his own faithful and adequate, though not slavish, rendering of the Latin original; furthermore, (4) Milton’s translation is far more coherent, dignified, and faithful than the English version of 1606.
Two interesting queries are suggested by Milton’s use of Bodin. First, why did Milton, the staunchest of the republicans, appeal at all to Bodin, a royalist, a Frenchman, and a ‘Papist’? Questions of the intrinsic merit of the author aside, the answer seems to be found in the historical situation in England at the time, and in Bodin’s peculiar adaptability to Milton’s political proposals. At the time Milton was writing, the Rump Parliament was again sitting in authority, and the great question of settlement was uppermost in all minds. It was Milton’s central idea that a commonwealth should be established by perpetuating the existing Parliament as a grand council of the nation. He was sorely put to it to fortify with authority this generally odious principle of perpetuity in office. Plato was, upon the whole, for rotation; Aristotle had decided that life-tenure would never do among equals; Cicero had declared for succession; there was certainly nothing to hope for from Machiavelli. Fortunately, Bodin had spoken out loudly and unmistakably for a perpetual council, or senate. Here, then, was the prop for Milton’s doctrine; and not only a prop, but a tower of strength. It must have been with no little joy that Milton bethought him of this formidable ally in his time of need. One can almost hear him asking amanuensis or friend to read to him the well-remembered chapters, or at least choice extracts stored away in his note-books. Most certain it is that he swallowed for once his disinclination toward Frenchmen, royalists, and Papists, and set Bodin in the place of honor in his treatise.
The other question is: why did Milton withhold the name of his chief authority? Probably for two reasons: the educated among his readers would instantly recognize the familiar passage without such assistance; and, on the other hand, it would be awkward to have the ignorant multitude discover that John Milton, of all men, was citing a Frenchman, a Papist, and a royalist as an authority.
Several minor obligations remain to be mentioned briefly. We know from Milton’s own citations that he was familiar with Hotman’s Franco-Gallia (1574), and certain of its bold assertions seem to have left their mark upon The Ready and Easy Way (see note on 17. 23). Another and still more famous Huguenot book that Milton read, and made use of here, is the Vindiciæ contra Tyrannos (1580), which develops the theory of contract, or covenant, between people and king. Buchanan, whose remarkably bold and able treatise, De Jure Regni apud Scotos (1579), contributed so largely to Milton’s Tenure, exerted a general influence by declaring in vigorous language the sovereignty of the people and the justice of tyrannicide, and possibly suggested to Milton one or two specific ideas (see notes on 15. 6 and 16. 37). To Luther and Calvin are to be referred certain expressions of the treatise concerning liberty of conscience. There is a direct reference to Camden’s History of Elizabeth. The Commonplace Book shows that Milton made use of the following historians also: Holinshed, Stow, and Speed; De Thou, Girard, and Gilles; Sleidan; Costanzo. Many of the ideas here set forth may be found in the author’s earlier pamphlets, or in the Commonplace Book. There is some obligation to contemporary usage, particularly in the matter of Cromwellian and Puritan phraseology, or cant (see note on 14. 27). And, finally, even Milton’s bitter pamphleteering opponents contributed a slight element to The Ready and Easy Way.
[1 ]Sandys, Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, Introd., p. xxiv.
[1 ]Areop. (Bohn 2. 71).
[1 ]De Republica, tr. Barham, 1. 148.
[1 ]Oceana, ed. 1737, p. 38.
[1 ]Reason of Ch. Gov. (Bohn 2. 490).