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John Milton's Views on Authority - "The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates"

Updated on June 30, 2011
John Milton
John Milton | Source

In a society where kings boasted divine right, yet acted in the opposite way of God’s character, John Milton had quite a challenge. In “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates”, Milton attempts to put the power back in the people’s hands, where it belongs. Milton makes a bold statement in his essay by pointing out that the only time in Scripture that God anointed a king was when the people chose him (283).

We were created in the image of God, but I am awakened to new meaning quite frequently. On how we mirror God with regards to authority, Milton proposes: “No man who knows aught can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God himself, and were, by privilege above all the creatures, born to command and not to obey” (277). In the garden, God gave Adam and Eve dominion over all the earth. The animals were placed under them and they were told to cultivate the land. We were born free, and born with authority.

Unfortunately, because we live in a fallen world, that authority has become skewed. In Milton's day, people began to abuse that God-given authority and tried to turn everyone into their slaves, rather than mutually sharing the power. There was a need for communities to form for self-defense because of the sin in his world. Milton believes there is “no other end or reason” for the necessity to appoint a king or magistrate but to protect the rest of the people’s rights and to make sure that no one is trying to take each individual’s freedom. The people are given the power to choose a fitting “commissioner” that will uphold this duty without becoming a tyrant himself (Milton 278).

If however, this ruler does become a tyrant and oppresses rather than liberates the people, then the people have the power to dispose of him. On having the authority to overthrow a tyrannical king, Dzelzainis in his essay “Milton’s Politics” says, “Milton… treats this power as human in origin, since it belonged to each individual in the state of nature. But although this power had been entrusted to ‘their Deputies and Commissioners’, it was still open to anyone to punish those who degraded themselves” (80).

Certain kings have recognized their duty to protect the freedom and authority of the people. Milton commends such rulers as King James who had coins at his coronation bearing a sword with the inscription “Against me if I deserve” (290). According to Milton, even though God has ultimate sovereignty, He has placed it in each individual to exercise. If an individual chooses to use this power unjustly and oppresses the just, the people have every right to dispose of him.

Works Cited and Additional Readings

Dzelzainis, Martin. “Milton’s Politics.”The Cambridge Companion to Milton.Ed. Dennis Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 70-83.

Milton, John. “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.”John Milton: The Major Works.Eds. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. 273-307.

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