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Paradise Lost’ and the Republican Tradition

from Aristotle to Machiavelli


William Walker


Turnhout / Tournai : Brepols, 2009

Cursor Mundi Series, vol. 6. Hardback. xii+332 p. 70 €

ISBN: 978-2-503-52877-9


Reviewed by Freyja Cox Jensen

Christ Church, Oxford



William Walker’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Republican Tradition from Aristotle to Machiavelli boldly sallies forth into the battleground of republicanism and the classics in the seventeenth century. In demonstrating how Paradise Lost relates to the dominant ideas within the tradition, Walker takes arms against a sea of historians and literary critics who have sought to claim Milton’s poem as “an expression of his commitment to English republicanism” [1]. Walker sees Paradise Lost as primarily a work of heterodox Protestant ideology, which, he argues, Milton “presents as being incompatible with both ancient and Machiavellian republicanism” [8].

This rather controversial thesis is presented in a clear, thorough and logical manner over five self-contained chapters. These provide a framework for Walker’s analysis, each dealing with one of what the author considers to be the key components of the republican tradition: human nature, virtue, forms of government, civil liberty, and history. In every chapter, Walker first examines how the chief authors of the tradition present the idea, before considering how it is addressed Paradise Lost. As a method, it is not the most elegant, but it is admirably easy to follow. Indeed, much of the book’s not inconsiderable value lies in the clarity with which Walker explains his interpretation of the fraught term, ‘republican’. Given the problematic nature of republicanism in early modern scholarship, where republican and ‘neo-Roman’ discourses are discerned and discussed from a wide variety of positions, it is refreshing to see so direct a response to the problems of defining exactly what is understood by these terms.

Walker’s ideas about what it means to be republican are sometimes idiosyncratic, but are firmly based on common sense and satisfyingly located within their original classical context. By going ad fontes, Walker displays a sensitive appreciation of the complexities of the ancient world and its writers, the texts which comprise the ‘classics’ and the authors whose works become the ‘republican tradition’. His treatment of the classical sources is painstaking, and although he confesses to giving “what may seem to some to be an excessive amount of attention to Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, Sallust, Livy and Machiavelli”, this is by no means a problem [9]. Such an overview is crucial if the reader is to locate Walker’s understanding of ‘republicanism’ in any meaningful context; indeed, if I have a criticism of this part of the book, it is that I would have liked to see more attention given to some of the complexities of the political thought of the ancient authors. I wonder, for example, whether it is really possible to do justice to Cicero’s views on human nature in slightly under seven pages, or to his political thought more generally without an index entry for ‘scepticism’.  

 “It is reasonable and fruitful to think of the republican tradition as a family”, we are told, and this is a subtle conceit which allows for the varying degrees of (dis)agreement between the authors [293]. Unquestionably, the six chosen by Walker deserve a place in the ‘republican family’ he constructs, but so do others, and Walker admits that it would be interesting to see how a consideration of authors such as Plutarch or the medieval political theorists could modify some of his conclusions [300].  Similarly, there is little exploration of the changing reception of the authors’ ideas, or how they might be read from different perspectives, at the time of composition, in Milton’s time, and at any point in between. Walker himself pre-empts another main point of criticism, acknowledging that the way in which he has explored ideas of republicanism does not fully show how the writers in the tradition engage with and inform each other [299].

But these qualms aside, the reader will find in this monograph a redefinition of what the words ‘republican tradition’ actually mean. Given the vehemence of arguments on the topic of republicanism, this is no small contribution to the field. And after all, Walker does not seek to provide a comprehensive analysis of the philosophy of the various authors whose work he explores; he simply wants to clarify the grounds on which his arguments concerning Paradise Lost rest. His main aim is to present a reassessment of Milton’s epic, reclaiming his heterodox Protestantism as the dominant influence upon the work, and historicising “in a way that does not favour the socio-political at the expense of the religious” [311].

Walker finds the abiding question of why the politics of Paradise Lost differ from those espoused in the prose works to be easily answered, because he has redefined what republican politics are. Paradise Lost represents a break with the traditions that inform Milton’s prose. The poem is written in a different context, for a different purpose, and therefore Milton assumes a different voice. Walker moderates Worden’s suggestion that the work is purely one of faith – he certainly believes that it engages with political issues – but agrees that it is not a work in the republican tradition [306]. In short, when he writes Paradise Lost, Milton’s cause is no longer that of the ‘English Republicanism’ of the 1650s, grounded in the philosophy of the ancients; therefore the work in no way reaffirms the ideologies of the commonwealth men [306, 2]. For Walker, although Paradise Lost explores some of the same ideas about “politics very broadly conceived” as do the republican authors, Paradise Lost is “merely a distant relative in the republican family at best, and a hostile one at that” [14, 301].

Indeed, for Walker, Paradise Lost is, in many ways, explicitly ‘anti-classical’, in that it breaks conclusively from the tradition of Aristotle and Cicero. It is therefore not ‘republican’ in any of the ways scholars have previously sought to define it. Walker sees Milton consciously repudiating the ancients and working with a clearly heterodox Protestant vision of the world. Nor is this rejection of the pagan, ‘republican’ authors incidental, but “the disagreements are fundamental and systematic” [305]. Israel, not Rome, is Milton’s template, and Paradise Lost is more Christian than classical. The Milton of Paradise Lost is a “heterodox Protestant who has stopped trying to incorporate, or make it appear as though it is possible to incorporate, the major ancient pagan teachings about the ends of man with his religious faith” [306]. 

Despite the firmly-stated conclusion, this is not a book about the Protestant nature of Paradise Lost. Nor is it really about Paradise Lost and the tradition of republican thinking, or neo-Roman politics. It is a book about republicanism and the various meanings this term might have in the field of early modern studies, combined with an exposition of why this is nothing to do with Paradise Lost. In fact, Paradise Lost almost appears to be of secondary concern… But this is not to say that the work is in any way inadequate. Far from it. This is an important contribution to a dense and involved area, and in its open and unapologetic redefinition of a perennially problematic theme, it is a breath of fresh air in a crowded, heated debating chamber.




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