Living Texts: Interpreting Milton

By Kristin A. Pruitt; Charles W. Durham | Go to book overview
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A Preliminary Study of Informed Consent
and Free Will in the Garden of Eden: John
Milton's Social Contract

LYNNE GREENBERG

Anthony Fletcher has described “[t]he master theme of seventeenth-century political theory” as “the great battle between patriarchalists and social contract theorists.”1 Patriarchal theory, the dominant ideology of this transitional period, supported several principles—the divine right of kings, monarchical absolutism, and female subordination—all of which derived support from biblical exegesis of the Fall. The alternative construct of the social contract, an emerging hegemony that would not gain full expression until later in the century, arose as a revolutionary response to patriarchal theory. The social contract model vindicated liberal constitutionalism, religious liberty, and freedom of choice. It, too, found its origins in the Genesis story.

John Milton's work, both his prose and poetry, resides in a liminal space in which the realm of patriarchal obedience and subordination vies with a simultaneous vision of a contractbased, egalitarian society. While critics have recognized the tension in Milton's work between two conflicting visions of society and have defined the former as patriarchal in nature, few have characterized the emerging world view as determined by contractarian principles.2 This paper will provide a preliminary overview of the infusion in selected works by Milton, and crucial passages in them, of such a vision, one deeply indebted to contemporaneous legal, political, and religious theories of the contract.3

The contract emerged in seventeenth-century law as the predominant archetype for articulating the perimeters of individuals' associations with each other. The trope of the covenant also infused the rhetoric of political theory and religious discourse as a means of conceptualizing man's relationship with his govern

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