Schooling Milton: Monism and Social Ontology in Milton’s Educational Prose, Jeff Gore, University of Illinois at Chicago
In the years after the outbreak of bubonic plague in the late 1630s, John Milton started a school in his home to provide education and care for his recently orphaned nephews. As a self-driven learner, Milton notoriously struggled with schooling as a collective experience, but as word spread about his teaching, he began to imagine his work as an educator on a grander scale: he wrote textbooks based on Lily’s Grammar and Ramus’s Dialectic, and he proposed to the social reformer Samuel Hartlib a national model of schools for “a hundred and fifty . . . as shall be needfull in every City” throughout England.
Scholars have well explained how the classical texts in Milton’s curriculum fit within the history of ideas, but much less attention has been given to the relationship between Milton’s experience as an educator and the development of his imagination, theology, and political commitments. In this presentation, I argue that Milton’s monistic understanding of body and spirit, which played a prominent role two decades later in Paradise Lost and Christian Doctrine, emerged when he was a London schoolmaster in the 1640s. Drawing from writings on the social ontology of habit, I demonstrate that the monist orientation of these later masterpieces plays a prominent role in Milton’s earlier writings on social institutions: Of Education, The Reason of Church Government, and Areopagitica. The social ontology of habit, as it appears in the works of both ancient and modern philosophers, challenges the “negative liberty” focus of Milton’s politics and reveals his early monistic vision of collective life in the post-monarchical English republic.