Milton argues that a Monarchy wants the people to be prosperous only so it can better fleece them (1660)

John Milton

In the year that the English Commonwealth was replaced by the restored monarchy of the Stuarts (1660), the poet and revolutionary politician John Milton (1608-1674) contrasts a Commonwealth, which wants its people to flourish for their own sakes, with a Monarchy, which wants them to be prosperous so it can fleece them:

[F]or of all governments a Commonwealth aims most to make the people flourishing, vertuous, noble and high spirited. Monarchs will never permitt: whose aim is to make the people, wealthy indeed perhaps and wel-fleec’t for thir own shearing , and [for] the supply of regal prodigalitie; but otherwise softest, basest, vitiousest, servilest, easiest to be kept under; and not only in fleece, but in minde also sheepishest.

This is another quotation celebrating authors or books which enjoy a significant anniversary this year. John Milton wrote this defence of a free Commonwealth just as the English Commonwealth was being replaced by the return of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 after nearly two decades of political upheaval known as the English Revolution. Milton makes the point that a Commonwealth is based upon the merit principle in which anybody with talent can rise to the top of their profession, and that the lack of centralised political power means that local communities can exercise control over things like the law and education. What is striking in this piece is the language he uses to liken the powers of the monarch to those of a rapacious shepherd, whose only interest in the well-being of his people is so he can fleece them all the better. The analogy probably comes from Plato’s Republic. Milton takes it one step further by saying that there is also a psychological aspect to this submissive behavior by the people in a monarchy, namely that the king wants a political system where it was “easiest [for the people] to be kept under; and not only in fleece, but in minde also sheepishest.” Milton feared that in a monarchy the people would be shorn not only of their fleece but also of their independent thinking.