Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Reason and Authority in Milton and Hobbes

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Packet of readings for our class can be found here. In reading Hobbes, concentrate in chapter 5 on the definition of reason; the discussion of wit and fancy in chapter 7 (as well as the discussion of inspiration at the end of the chapter); all of chapters 13 and 17 (we will look at important parts of chapters 14 and 18 together in class).

For next time we will continue our readings of Milton's prose. We will be reading from Milton's Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and Hobbes' Leviathan. Though I have placed texts on reserve, both works are available on the internet - so we will be working with those versions for the purposes of our class discussion. The internet text of Milton's work is unpaginated - we will be reading from the beginning through the paragraph which begins: 'But of these I name no more, lest it bee objected they were Heathen....' In Leviathan, we will be looking at Part I, chapters 5, 8, 13, 14; Part II, chapters 17 and 18 - available here. We may also look at the Putney Debates - discussions among radical groups on the nature of authority and government. Background to those debates are available here; the transcription of the debates here (take a look if you have the time). We also hope to read Andrew Marvell's Horatian Ode. For cool stuff about the trial and execution of Charles, check here.

Some questions:

1. Why does Milton write the Tenure? How does Milton explain that his countrymen are not pursuing the path of 'reformation'?

2. How do Milton, Hobbes and the Levellers of the Putney tracts constitute authority differently? How are the Hobbesian and Miltonic conceptions of authority related to their corresponding conceptions of reason? Do Hobbes and Milton share a conception of 'right reason'? In what ways are their conceptions different?

3. Following our discussion of Areopagitica, how do Milton and Hobbes differ in their relationship to multiplicity? Does the discussion of wit, fancy and judgment in chapter 8 have a bearing on the conception of political compact in chapters 17 and 18? How is the Hobbesian individual different from the Miltonic individual? Does Hobbes also entertain a notion of discordia concors? If so, how is it different from that of Milton?

4. How do different accounts of history lead to differing conceptions of authority?

Stay tuned for possible amplifications and revisions.


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  2. Here is a link to a talk by Quentin Skinner from a 2008 conference at Christ's College, Cambridge. The talk is on "John Milton as a Theorist of Liberty" and is relevant to what we've read. It's about 50 minutes long and - or should I say but - very lucid.


    The main conference page is:


    This site links to many others, including an appealing resource for Paradise Lost, created by young students: