Milton on the ease with which tyrants find their academic defenders (1651)

John Milton

A few months after the execution of Charles I in January 1649 the French protestant classicist Salmasius leapt to the defence of absolutist monarchy. In February 1651 John Milton (1608-1674) penned a witty and devastating chapter by chapter refutation of Salmasius’s views and defended the right of the people to overthrow a tyrannical king. He lamented the fact that tyrants always could find scholars like Salmasius to spring to their defence, whilst Liberty sometimes had to struggle to find its advocates:

… yet I hope it will be no difficult matter for me to defend them from the insolence of this silly little scholar, and from that saucy tongue of his, at least. Nature and laws would be in an ill case, if slavery should find what to say for itself, and liberty be mute: and if tyrants should find men to plead for them, and they that can master and vanquish tyrants, should not be able to find advocates. And it were a deplorable thing indeed, if the reason mankind is endued withal, and which is the gift of God, should not furnish more arguments for men’s preservation, for their deliverance, and, as much as the nature of the thing will bear, for making them equal to one another, than for their oppression, and for their utter ruin under the domineering power of one single person.****

Underneath the witty and clever veneer of this devastating criticism of the French classicist Salmasius' “Defence of the King” (1649) John Milton poses a key question: namely, why are there so many ready and willing academics and scholars who will defend a tryrannical government, and at the same same time relatively few scholars who can or will defend Liberty (he uses a capital L)? Milton was charged with this task by the Parliamentary forces but as he explains in his preface he was ill and weak, which made extended periods of work difficult, and he had contempt for “this silly little scholar” who, in Milton’s view, was insolent and saucy, and had “little [Latin] grammar”. You can almost hear him sigh as he picks up his pen and observes that “nature and laws would be in an ill case, if slavery should find what to say for itself, and liberty be mute: and if tyrants should find men to plead for them, and they that can master and vanquish tyrants, should not be able to find advocates.” So once again Milton felt obliged to defend the republican cause from its enemies.