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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

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.

Other quotes about Presidents, Kings, Tyrants, & Despots:

6 September, 2010

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

Read the full quote in context here.

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.****

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

Which enterprise, though some of the eminent persons in our commonwealth have prevailed upon me by their authority to undertake, and would have it be my business to vindicate with my pen against envy and calumny, (which are proof against arms) those glorious performances of theirs, (whose opinion of me I take as a very great honour, that they should pitch upon me before others to be serviceable in this kind of those most valiant deliverers of my native country; and true it is, that from my very youth, I have been bent extremely upon such sort of studies, as inclined me, if not to do great things myself, at least to celebrate those that did,) yet as having no confidence in any such advantages, I have recourse to the divine assistance; and invoke the great and holy God, the giver of all good gifts, that I may as substantially, and as truly, discourse and refute the sauciness and lies of this foreign declamator, as our noble generals piously and successfully by force of arms broke the king’s pride, and his unruly domineering, and afterwards put an end to both by inflicting a memorable punishment upon himself, and as thoroughly as a single person did with ease but of late confute and confound the king himself rising as it were from the grave, and recommending himself to the people in a book published after his death, with new artifices and allurements of words and expressions. Which antagonist of mine, though he be a foreigner, and, though he deny it a thousand times over, but a poor grammarian; yet not contented with a salary due to him in that capacity, chose to turn a pragmatical coxcomb, and not only to intrude in state-affairs, but into the affairs of a foreign state: though he brings along with him neither modesty, nor understanding, nor any other qualification requisite in so great an arbitrator, but sauciness, and a little grammar only. Indeed if he had published here, and in English, the same things as he has now wrote in Latin, such as it is, I think no man would have thought it worth while to return an answer to them, but would partly despise them as common, and exploded over and over already, and partly abhor them as sordid and tyrannical maxims, not to be endured even by the most abject of slaves: nay, men that have sided with the king, would have had these thoughts of his book. But since he has swoln it to a considerable bulk, and dispersed it among foreigners, who are altogether ignorant of our affairs and constitution; it is fit that they who mistake them, should be better informed; and that he, who is so very forward to speak ill of others, should be treated in his own kind.

If it be asked, why we did not then attack him sooner, why we suffered him to triumph so long, and pride himself in our silence? For others I am not to answer; for myself I can boldly say, that I had neither words nor arguments long to seek for the defence of so good a cause, if I had enjoyed such a measure of health, as would have endured the fatigue of writing. And being but weak in body, I am forced to write by piecemeal, and break off almost every hour, though the subject be such as requires an unintermitted study and intenseness of mind. But though this bodily indisposition may be a hindrance to me in setting forth the just praises of my most worthy countrymen, who have been the saviours of their native country, and whose exploits, worthy of immortality, are already famous all the world over; 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. Let me therefore enter upon this noble cause with a cheerfulness, grounded upon this assurance, that my adversary’s cause is maintained by nothing but fraud, fallacy, ignorance, and barbarity; whereas mine has light, truth, reason, the practice and the learning of the best ages of the world, of its side.

[More works by John Milton (1608 – 1674) and on The English Revolution]