Incisive in his writing and contentious in his time, John Milton, through his prolific publications, provides his readership with a moral outline that extends from the soul to the politic. Given such understanding, one can use Milton and his works to nuance one’s conception of the human condition and the governmental forces that either enable or disable it. The latter idea, that a government can restrict its citizens’ activities, is one of contemporary relevance with which Milton takes serious issue. Politically vocal, Milton fought for the notion of liberty, believing that freedom of choice and of voice is integral to the human experience. So, when the British Parliament enacted the Licensing Order of 1643—whereby authors must submit their works for approval before publication—Milton took to writing, publishing Areopagitica, a dynamic work of prose arguing against the restriction of liberty. (Kerrigan 923). Empowered by its order, the government could monitor all books, ultimately enabled to arbitrate and to control the flow of knowledge. In this work, Milton implores Parliament to revoke its law and thereby restore the rights of the British population, demanding, “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience…” (960). While the work’s most overt purpose is to ensure freedom of publication for all authors, irrespective of the content of their work, the essence of his argument extends beyond books: liberty is the freedom of choice. Books, and the restrictive laws that surround their distribution, seem only to serve as a microcosm for this broader argument, for they are “not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are…” (930). Milton’s reader, in light of this definition, must treat books as equal to humans, understanding that to restrict the book is to restrict the individual. Keeping this in mind, one can apply it to others of Milton’s works, namely, Comus: A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, wherein the protagonist, Lady Alice, must confront vice and choose virtue instead. In her self-temperance, Alice proves herself as Milton’s “warfaring Christian,” ultimately reflecting the fundamentals of Miltonian liberty.
Before unpacking Milton’s ideas of virtue, one need first understand his ideas surrounding the existence of good and evil. A religious man himself, Milton believed in the existence of both, going as far to say that the two “grow up together almost inseparably” (938). Such a realistic perspective differentiates Milton from his political opponents, whose regulation of literature assumes the expulsion of evil from society. By asserting the codependence of good and evil, Milton forces the individual to actively choose between the two, aligning herself with one, but not both. Outside of their inherent connection, Milton believes that the two forces bear a practical application, each being a lens through which to identify the other: It was from out of the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say, of knowing good by evil. (939) To substantiate his argument that evil is essential for the knowledge of good, Milton traces it back to its Biblical roots, specifically to the Book of Genesis, wherein Eve, tempted by Satan, eats the forbidden apple and in so doing releases evil into the world, ultimately resulting in original sin. Of course, the purpose of his allusion is to clarify the birth of evil, to prove that, throughout human history, good and evil have existed simultaneously. Literal implications aside, Milton hopes his readers understand that, without a evil to balance it out, goodness is nothing other than an amorphous word that lacks moral consequence. To be truly good requires active abstinence from evil, the eradication of which would entirely undermine the value of good. By restricting certain books, Parliament deprives individuals of their liberty, their choice, thereby preventing any true realization of goodness within them. So, to oppose such a deprivation of liberty, to right Parliament’s wrong and to unshackle freedom from its chain, Milton wrote Areopagitica.
Having contemplated Milton’s liberty, proving it to be the freedom of choice, one should understand virtue as the driving force behind that choice. Now, harmoniously combining liberty with virtue in a hypothetical individual, Milton articulates to his reader the notion of a “true warfaring Christian,” who can, “apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better…” (939). By assigning a female pronoun to vice, Milton personifies it, prescribing it a seductive human form with which to tempt the individual; now incarnate, she roams the earth, seeking to spread her seed and to infect those of virtue. Such personification, it should be noted, is almost misogynistic, for it immediately associates the female form with moral corruption. Yet, to embody Milton’s “warfaring Christian,” one must interact with vice and repudiate her; after all, one cannot truly succeed unless given the chance to fail. Perhaps hampered by his political motives, Milton doesn’t fully explore this Christian figure in his Parliamentary invocation; however, one can locate it in another of Milton’s work, performed a decade before Areopagitica. Commissioned by the Early of Bridgewater, Comus features his children: Lady Alice, his 15-year-old daughter, and her two little brothers, one 11 and the other nine. (Kerrigan, 61-62). To antagonize these children–situated alone together in a forest–Milton chooses Comus, traditionally associated with the Greek god whose presence brings anarchy and chaos, but here a wily sorcerer whose “many baits, and guileful spells/…inveigle and invite th’ unway sense/Of them that pass unweeting by the way” (Milton, 82). An agent of corruption, Comus deceives and takes advantages of innocent passersby, hoping to corrupt their virtue with temptations of vice.
More than corrupt, he appears to be the physical manifestation of vice, entering the scene with, “ a charming-rod in one hand, his glass in the other, with him a rout of monsters headed like sundry sorts of wild beasts…” (Milton, 67). Here envisaged as smooth and casual, he leads his followers, all of which having once passed, “unweeting by the way,” only to be infected and debased by sorcery. Yet, for the masque’s purpose, Comus targets Lady Alice, the young virgin whose chastity foils his depravity. Interestingly, when informed by Areopagitica, one understands Comus’ evil as the source of his fascination of with Alice. Good and evil, as previously established, are inherently connected, which linkage allows Comus to, “feel the different pace of some chaste footing” (69). Embodying evil, Comus is empowered to sense the presence of good, here manifested in the virgin Lady. So, enraptured by the Lady’s purity, Comus sets off for her, eventually finding her alone, having been separated by her siblings. Comus, a master of deceit, plays the part of a local shepherd, convincing the young woman that he can reunite her with her brothers. Naïve and unsuspecting, she accepts his offer, only to be taken to his palace and magically paralyzed in a chair. Yet, his sorcery, it would seem, is limited to her body, impotent to her soul: “Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind/With all thy charms, although this corporal rind/Thou hast immancled, while Heav’n sees good.” (86). Aside from establishing the Lady’s resilience, Milton dichotomizes body and soul, an important distinction that allows the Lady’s virtue to remain untouched despite the enchantment of her body.
Comus, it would seem, does not possess magic enough to influence the Lady’s mind, so offers her a drink whose consumption would bestialize her, transforming her into one of his inhuman followers: “And first behold this cordial julep here/That flames and dances in his crystal bounds/With spirits of balm and fragrant syrups mixed” (86). Although the drink’s effect is never realized, its purpose in Milton’s masque is a figurative one, meant to symbolize sexual temptation and to foil the Lady’s chastity, which Comus categorizes as a self-inflicted cruelty. Unmoved, the Lady abstains: Were it a draft for Juno when she banquets, I would not taste thy treasonous offer; none But such as are good men can give good things, And that which is not good, is not delicious, To a well-governed and wise appetite. (87) Through hyperbole, she conveys her absolute conviction, relating that even if the drink belonged to Juno, a Roman goddess, she still wouldn’t touch it. The Lady, by employing diction associated with eating, relates goodness to sustenance, almost implying that her nourishment comes not from food, but from virtue.
Lastly, in calling her appetite “well-governed,” she implies the involvement of a force greater than herself that shields her from temptation. From this force—presumably one of a divine nature–she derives meaning and strength of will, both of which render her immune to corruption. Soon, the Lady’s brothers arrive at the castle, accompanied by a magical spirit whose wisdom empowers them to defeat Comus. Yet, in spite of Comus’ fall, the Lady remains paralyzed in her chair, unable to overcome the magic. To free her, the spirit sings a song that conjures the soul of a water nymph, Sabrina. Having died a virgin, Sabrina embodies chastity in its purest form, purposed, “to help ensnaréd chastity…” (94). Given this, it is the Lady’s virginity that saves her life, for it proves her worthy of saving. Chastity, then, is understood as both vulnerability and of self-defense, for it both attracts Comus and enables salvation. The Lady, through her defiance and temperance, proves herself to embody the characteristics of Milton’s, “warfaring Christian,” who similarly abstains from vice to assert virtue. Although deprived of physical liberty, magically paralyzed, she never loses freedom of mind, combatting Comus’ evil with her good. In Areopagitica, Milton stresses that, to substantiate one’s goodness, one must confront vice and, “prefer that which is truly better.” (939). So too in Comus does the Lady not just confront vice but abstain from it and ultimately defeat it, exemplifying the Christian morality and temperament that Milton so lionizes.