Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: Classical Precedent - The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth
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II.: Classical Precedent - 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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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).
[1 ]Sandys, Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, Introd., p. xxiv.
[1 ]Areop. (Bohn 2. 71).
[1 ]De Republica, tr. Barham, 1. 148.