ISSN: 1086-6523


Dowling, Paul M. Polite Wisdom: Heathen Rhetoric in Milton's Areopagitica. Lanham:Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. 113+xxxii. $21.00

Reviewed by John M. Thomson
March 15, 1996

The particular species of liberty for which Milton argues in Areopagitica, according to Paul Dowling's careful dissection of the pamphlet, is not the liberty of unlicensed printing, or the liberty to engage in unfettered civil or religious discourse, but the liberty of philosophic speech in the tradition of the "heathen" philosophers--Socrates, Plato, and Isocrates, in particular. Dowling agrees with earlier commentators that Areopagitica is a thoroughly ironic piece of prose, the irony made necessary for Milton's own protection against possible retribution from the Long Parliament, should its members perceive his true purpose. To learn that "philosophic freedom" is what made necessary the rhetorical complexities--the disguised allusions, the deliberate errors, the omissions, the obliquities--that Dowling explicates in Milton's tract was for me a bit of an anti-climax. But I anticipate.

Dowling has two purposes in this book. He first argues for two levels of meaning for Areopagitica, one intended for the "vernacular" audience, the other for the cognoscenti. This purpose is supported by a detailed rhetorical analysis of the tract. His second, and overarching purpose, is to argue for a way of reading Milton historically, one that assumes that "thought is absolutely conditioned by history" (xi). Dowling is an intentionalist whose stated purpose is to restore the writer to the central position that has been usurped, as Dowling sees it, by the historicist critics of the twentieth century, all of whom, in his view, assume that they understand Milton's writings better than he does himself. Dowling seeks to carve out a position for himself differentiated on the one hand from Arthur Barker's Milton and the Puritan Dilemma (1942)and on the other from such recent critics as Christopher Kendrick (Milton: A Study in Ideology and Form [1986]) and Catherine Belsey (John Milton: Language, Gender, Power [1988]). Barker's reading of Milton is skewed, he finds, by Barker's insistence on seeing Milton's "writings as the product of the religious orthodoxy of his day" (xxvi), while Kendrick's and Belsey's post-structuralist readings find Milton incapable of controlling his own text. Both ways of reading Milton are condescending.

The two parts of Dowling's title suggest the two levels on which, according to his reading, Milton intended his pamphlet to be understood. Like his classical model, Isocrates, Milton brings philosophy to the marketplace; he makes wisdom polite. But the "heathen" rhetoric in the speech functions as a code for the specialists, the "fit . . . though few," who will perceive its real meaning. He defines the "so-called Heathens" as "university men who in the 1640s opposed monarchy, not on religious, but on philosophic grounds" (xx). Dowling uses the term "heathen" because he wants to start with "the history the poet gives" (xxx), but the word is problematic because he doesn't offer any evidence that Milton ever used the word to apply favorably to himself. That there were students at Cambridge who took their study of ancient philosophy sufficiently seriously to apply it to the institutions of their own day, and that Milton was among them, is not news, and I wouldn't niggle over the use of the word except that Dowling makes a claim to have discovered a truer Milton, and a truer, more historically accurate, interpretation of Areopagitica, than previous twentieth-century critics. But he adduces no evidence that either Milton or his contemporaries referred to those who looked at the world from the standpoint of ancient philosophy as Heathens. In fact, for Milton the term was always derogatory, and was the one he chose in Eikonklastes to characterize Pamela's Prayer, plagiarized in the royalist apology Eikon Basilike from Sidney's Arcadia, and therefore non-Christian.

To the extent we can trust Milton's description of his career as a polemicist in the self-aggrandizing rhetoric of the Second Defence, he there assigns Areopagitica to the category of writing in support of "domestic or personal liberty" (4.624). Of course, it would still have been necessary during the period of the republic to disguise any "heathen" leanings. The contemporary writers Dowling cites--Thomas Hobbes, John Aubrey, and John Toland--certainly were aware of Milton's lack of affiliation with any particular Christian sect and his admiration for ancient philosophers; but, at least according to the evidence cited by Dowling, none of them actually used the word "heathen" to refer to Milton. Nor does the word find a place in Christopher Hill's accounts of the era's intellectual, religious, and political factions, or in Parker's biography or in the Milton Encyclopedia. Dowling might say that is exactly the point. The only non-twentieth-century writer whose use of the word Dowling actually cites is also a non-seventeenth-century writer, Macaulay, who refers to a "party . . . distinguished by learning and ability" composed of men "whom Cromwell was accustomed to call the Heathens," (cited by Dowling, xxiv). I don't know how Macaulay knew that or why Victorian historicism should be preferable to that of more recent years. I expect that Dowling's real reason for using the term is as a substitute for "humanist," in order to dramatize the difference between his Milton and Douglas Bush's Milton.

Dowling organizes his book according to the formal, four-part partition Milton provides for the "Homily" (Milton's word) he intends to lay before Parliament, with a chapter for each section as well as for the introduction, digression on the nation, and peroration. Milton's first argument against licensing is that "the inventors of it [are] those whom ye will be loath to own" (Yale Complete Prose 2.491), namely the "Popes of Rome engrossing what they pleas'd of Politicall rule into their own hands" (501). The censorship exercised by the popes contrasts, in Milton's account, with the practice of the primitive Christian community that seventeenth-century English Protestants took as the model for their reformation, and even before that, with the practice of Athens, Lacedaemon (i.e., Sparta), and Rome itself. Neither in those famous cities of the ancient world nor in early Christian times was censorship or licensing seen as desirable, necessary, or good.

As Dowling would have it, however, the argument I have just summarized is the "vernacular" reading. Like Joseph Wittreich in his 1972 Milton Studies article ("Milton's Areopagitica: Its Isocratic and Ironic Contexts" 4: 101-15), Dowling posits a bifurcated readership to explain his ironic reading. Whereas Wittreich's fit audience is superior to the ordinary reader only by its ability to discern certain ambivalences and an "ironic inversion" in the peroration to Areopagitica, Dowling's fit readers have mastered and remembered detailed knowledge of ancient and church history. "The real teaching," he asserts, "is hidden in the interstices of the rhetoric to be ferreted out by a few fit readers" (26). What such readers discover when we have done such ferreting, according to Dowling, is that Milton has manipulated his account of classical history to make the Athenians, Lacedaemonians, and Romans appear more tolerant and open-minded than they actually were. For example, Milton omits mention of the trial and execution of Socrates in his account of Athens. Not only does Milton expect fit readers to notice such an omission, he also expects them to notice the hidden critique in his (deliberately) inaccurate history of the primitive church--as Ernest Sirluck did in his introduction to the Yale edition (2.158). Milton seems to say that such censorship as took place in early Christian times was relatively insignificant. The only writings censored "were plaine invectives against Christianity" (2.501) such as Porphyrius and Proclus. The vernacular reader, including, I expect, most Milton scholars, passes over the two relatively unfamiliar names without suspicion, but the reaction of the fit reader to the statement that Christianity "only" censored Porphyrius and Proclus is akin to the reaction a modern reader would have upon learning that America only censored James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence--or so Dowling claims. Despite the esteem in which Milton allegedly held Porphyrius (according to Dowling), there is no article on him in the Milton Encyclopedia, and Purvis Boyette, the author of the article on Proclus, asserts that Milton couldn't have read either of them. The conclusion Dowling draws from Milton's manipulation of history is that Milton was really arguing that only the cities of ancient Greece and Rome--not the polity of early Christianity--should serve as the models for seventeenth-century English society and law.

Dowling's method of laying bare Milton's "true" intention in the historical argument is the model he follows for the remaining three parts of the partition. In the second, the argument regarding the value of books, Dowling says, Milton, through deliberate distortion, makes the writers of the Hebrew Bible appear more receptive of learning than in fact they really are, and he "distorts Paul" (34) to suggest that the apostle saw no need for restraints on knowledge when in fact the opposite is true. For Dowling, Milton's famous Faerie Queene error regarding the presence of the Palmer together with Sir Guyon in the Cave of Mammon is "one of a number of such deliberate mishandlings of sources" whose purpose is to contrast "Christian and pagan understandings of virtue" to the advantage of the latter (39). In the third and fourth arguments, that the licensing act "avails nothing to the suppressing of scandalous, seditious, and libellous Books" and that "it will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth" (2.491), Dowling identifies further misreadings, distortions, misquotations, and ambiguities, all of them designed by Milton to placate the vernacular reader and enlighten the specialist. In his analysis of the third argument, the argument of the licensing act's insufficiency, Dowling interestingly uses Plato's Laws as a guide and gloss, concluding that Milton's focus is primarily on the licensing act's effect on the English people's "manners," which Parliament is trying to shape by means of law. Instead, following the precepts of the Athenian Stranger in the Laws, Parliament should recognize that law must grow out of the customs and manners of society.

In the Digression on the Nation, Dowling finds that Milton's praise of England is riddled with irony--irony whose existence "historicist scholars" have been unwilling to admit. They, Dowling notes, have been puzzled by Milton's optimistic outlook for England's future, in apparent denial of the military disasters suffered by the Parliamentary army in the year of Areopagitica's publication. He also observes that Milton's praise of England is directed at its nurturing of knowledge and its concern for religious reformation, but that--in contrast, for example, to Of Education--Milton does not praise his country or its people for their skills in or attention to the military arts. The fit reader will rightly understand Milton's withheld praise as implied criticism, for rather than education and religion, the English people in this time of crisis should primarily concern themselves with military preparedness. Here as elsewhere I find Dowling's argument strained. Areopagitica's subject, after all, is the licensing of printing, and if Parliament were to enforce its licensing legislation it would adversely affect not treatises on military strategy, but pamphlets like Milton's on divorce, published in defiance of the licenser. A writer may refrain from mentioning a particular subject simply because it is not germane.

In the short chapter devoted to Milton's peroration, Dowling attempts to account for, if not reconcile, the variety of interpretations that have been offered by other critics as well as the various contradictions he finds here by saying that Milton has switched into a dramatic mode: "I suggest we begin by doubting that every statement in the conclusion is Milton's--any more than we assume that every speech in a Shakespeare play is the poet's" (93). He finds, for example, that Milton's "cry" for liberty of conscience contradicts his own suggestion in the Digression that only a "moderate" range of religious opinion can be tolerated--certainly not including Catholics, whom Milton explicitly excludes. Dowling's insistence on logical consistency is too severe for a peroration, whose listeners (or readers), rather than dissecting every clause for hidden meanings, were supposed to be caught up in its emotionally heightened language.

I find Dowling's analysis of Areopagitica provocative, and certainly he is in agreement with most critics in finding ambivalences and inconsistencies in the tract. Its ironic nature is fairly well accepted. Scholars do not see it as general readers do, as a clarion call for freedom of speech. Furthermore, I am even sympathetic with his intentionalist stance. But taken in all of its detail, the analysis requires too long a reach, and the central conclusion is unpersuasive. For me, the book's weakest aspect is its reliance on fit readers, this supposed coterie of "heathens" whom Milton was addressing--in pamphlet form, no less. Even if such a reader, or group of readers, existed, he or they would not only have to notice all of the twisted allusions and omissions, but the allusions would have to lead them, through a complex series of steps and associations, to very particular conclusions; and they would have to fill in the omissions "correctly." And yet, by their very nature, polemical pamphlets are to be read and understood as they were written--quickly. As Dowling's book itself demonstrates, the reading process he demands is slow, and the conclusion, once one reaches it, does not truly satisfy the effortexpended. One imagines a sort of George Smiley of the Civil Wars realizing that the pamphlet, because it was written by John Milton, is actually encrypted, and sitting down for several evenings to decode it (and without the benefit of the notes in the Yale edition, either). At last he is finished. Astounding, he exclaims, smacking his palm on his forehead. Mr. Milton is here advocating, not general freedom from licensing or other government censorship, not toleration for the various Christian sects that inhabit our land in these days, but freedom of philosophic speech!

John M. Thomson
U.S. Naval Academy

Library of Congress Information

Author:        Dowling, Paul M., 1940-
Title:         Polite wisdom : heathen rhetoric in Milton's
                  Areopagitica / Paul M. Dowling.
Published:     Lanham, Md : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1995.
Description:   p. cm.
LC Call No.:   K3255 .D69 1995
Dewey No.:     323.44/5 20
ISBN:          0847680525 (cloth : alk. paper)
               0847680533 (pbk. : alk. paper)
Notes:         Includes index.
Subjects:      Milton, John, -- 1608-1674. -- Areopagitica.
               Milton, John, -- 1608-1674 -- Style.
               Milton, John, -- 1608-1674 -- Political and social
               Freedom of the press.
               Censorship in literature.
Control No.:   95008664