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" hasten to be acquainted with that noble volume written by
our learned Selden, 'Of the Law of Nature and of Nations ;' "a work more useful and more worthy to be perused, who“soever studies to be a great man in wisdom, equity and * justice, than all those Decretals and sumless Sums which “the Pontifical clerks have doted on." The particular work of Selden's here referred to is his folio, De Jure Naturali et Gentium juxta Disciplinam Hebræorum, published in 1640. His work more expressly on Divorce, entitled Ucor Hebraica, sive De Nuptiis ac Divortiis, did not appear till 1646—i.e. it followed Milton's publications on the subject, and in the main backed the opinion they had propounded. It seems to me not improbable that in 1643-4, when Milton paid Selden the compliment we have quoted, he had just made Selden's personal acquaintance. Selden was then in his sixtieth year; Milton in his thirty-sixth.
After the description given of the second edition of the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and its differences from the first, it seems necessary to quote only some passages from Milton's opening address in it to the Parliament and the Westminster Assembly :
.... Error supports Custom, Custom countenances Error; and these two between them would persecute and chase away all truth and solid wisdom out of human life, were it not that God, rather than man, once in many ages, calls together the prudent and religious counsels of men deputed to repress the encroachments, and to work off the inveterate blots and obscurities wrought upon our minds by the subtle insinuating of Error and Custom : who, with the numerous and vulgar train of their followers, make it their chief design to envy and cry down the industry of free reasoning, under the terms of “humour” and “innovation”; as if the womb of teeming Truth were to be closed up if she presume to bring forth aught that sorts not with their unchewed notions and suppositions. Against which notorious injury and abuse of man's free soul to testify, and
oppose the utmost that study and true labour can attain, heretofore the incitement of men reputed grave hath led me among others; and now the duty and the right of an instructed Christian calls me through the chance of good or evil report to be the sole advocate of a discountenanced truth : a high enterprise, Lords and Commons,
a high enterprise and a hard, and such as every seventh son of a seventh son does not venture on. ... You it concerns chiefly, worthies in Parliament, on whom, as
deliour grievances and cares, by the merit of your eminence and fortitude, are devolved : me it concerns next, having with much labour and diligence first found out, or at least with a fearless and communicative candour first published to the manifest good of Christendom, that which, calling to witness everything mortal and immortal, I believe unfeignedly to be true. . . . Mark then, Judges and Lawgivers, and ye whose office it is to be our teachers, for I will now atter a doctrine, if ever any other, though neglected or not understood, yet of great and powerful importance to the governing of mankind. He who wisely would restrain th reasonable soul of man within due bounds must first himself know perfectly how far the territory and dominion extends of just and honest liberty. As little must he offer to bind that which God hath loosened as to loosen that which He hath bound. The ignorance and mistake of this high point hath heaped up one huge half of all the misery that hath been since Adam. In the Gospel we shall read a supercilious crew of Masters, whose holiness, or rather whose evil eye, grieving that God should be so facile to man, was to set straiter limits to obedience than God had set, to enslave the dignity of Mani
, to put a garrison upon his neck of empty and over-dignified precepta: and we shall read our Saviour never more grieved and troubled than to meet with such a peevish madness among men against their own freedom. How can we expect him to be less offended with us, when much of the same folly shall be found yet remaining where it least ought, to the perishing of thousands ? The greatest burden in the world is Superstition, not only of ceremonies in the Church, but of imaginary and scarecrow sins at home. What greater weakening, what more subtle stratagem against our Christian warfare, when, besides the gross body of real transgressions to encounter, we shall be territied by a vain and shadowy menacing of faults that are not! When things indifferent shall be set to overfront us, under the banners of Sin, what wonder if we be routed, and, by this art of our Adversary, fall into the subjection of worst and deadliest offences! The superstition of the Papist is "Touch not, taste not!" when God bids both; and ours is “Part not, separate not!” when God and Charity both permits and commands. “Let all your things be done with charity," saith St. Paul; and his Master saith “She is the fulfilling of the Law.” Yet now a civil, an indifferent, a sometime dissuaded Law of Marriage must be forced upon us to fulfil, not only without Charity, but against her. No place in Heaven or Earth, except Hell, where Charity may not enter; yet Marriage, the ordinance of our solace and contentment, the remedy of our loneliness, will not admit now either of Charity or Mercy to come in and mediate or pacify the fierceness of this gentle ordinance, the unremedied loneliness of this remedy. Advise ye well, Supreme Senate, if charity be thus excluded and expulsed, how ye will defend the untainted honour of your own actions and proceedings. He who marries intends as littļe to conspire his own ruin as he that swears allegiance; and, as a whole people is in proportion to an ill Government, so is one man to an ill marriage. Whatever else ye can enact will scarce concern a third part of the British name; but the benefit and good of this your magnanimous example [should they restore liberty of Divorce] will easily spread far beyond the banks of Tweed and the Norman Isles. It would not be the first nor the second time, since our ancient Druids, by whom this Island was the cathedral of philosophy to France, left off their Pagan rites, that England hath had this honour vouchsafed from Heaven—to give out reformation to the world. Who was it but our English Constantine that baptized the Roman Empire? Who but the Northumbrian Willibrod and Winifrid of Devon, with their followers, were the first Apostles of Germany ? Who but Alcuin and Wicklif, our countrymen, opened the eyes of Europe, the one in Arts, the other in Religion? Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live. ...
Milton's idea of the greatness of his enterprise, it will be seen from these passages, had grown and grown the more he had brooded on it. What if in this Doctrine of Divorce he were to be the discoverer or restorer of a new liberty, not for England alone, but actually for all Christendom? Meanwhile what opposition he would have to face, what storms of scurrilous jest and severer calumny! Might it not have been better to have written his treatise in Latin ? This thought had occurred to him." It might perhaps more fitly have been written in another tongue; and I had done so, “ but that the esteem I have for my country's judgment, and “the love I bear to my native language, to serve it first with “what I endeavour, made me speak it thus ere I assay the "verdict of outlandish readers.” Yet there might have been
a propriety, he feels, in addressing such an argument in the first place only to the learned.
And what, after all, and in precise practical form, was this tremendous proposition of Milton respecting Divorce ? Reduced out of large and cloudy terms, it was simply this,that marriage, as it respected the continued union of the two married persons, was a thing with which Law had nothing whatever to do; that the two persons who had contracted a marriage were the sole judges of its convenience, and, if they did not suit each other, might part by their own act, and
be free again; at all events, that for husbands the Mosaic Law on the subject was still in force: viz. (Deut. xxiv. 1) "When a
inan hath taken a wife and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her [interpreted as including any moral or intellectual incompatibility, any unfitness whatever), then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house." Milton avoids as much as possible such reductions of his proposition to harsh practical form, and would have disowned such brief popular summaries of his doctrine as Divorce at pleasure, or Divorce at ✓ the Husband's pleasure ; but, in reality, it came to this. The husband, in modern times, had still, he maintained, the old Mosaic right of giving his wife a "bill of divorcement,” if she did not satisfy him, and sending her back to her father's house. The right was a purely personal one. Friends, indeed, might interfere with their good offices ; nay it would be fitting, and perhaps necessary, that there should be a solemn formality “in presence of the minister and other grave selected elders," who should admonish the man of the seriousness of the step he was about to take. But, if he persisted in taking it—if " he shall have protested, on “the faith of the eternal Gospel and the hope he has of a “happy resurrection, that otherwise than thus he cannot do, “ and thinks himself and this his case not contained in that
prohibition of divorce which Christ pronounced (Matth. v. “ 31-32), the matter not being of malice, but of nature, and
“so not capable of reconciling”—then the Church had done her part to the full, and the man was to be left to his own liberty. This passage, proposing a kind of public oath on the man's part, as a formality to be required in every case of dissolution of marriage, occurs near the end of the treatise in both editions; and it indicates, I think, Milton's recoil from any rough or free and easy version of his doctrine, and his desire to temper it as much as he could. Essentially, however, the proposal mattered little. The husband was still left sole judge of his wife's fitness or unfitness for him, and whether he should exercise his right of putting her away was a matter finally for his private conscience.
With reference to Milton's own case, it is worth observing that the causes of divorce on which he still rings the changes throughout the second edition of his treatise, as throughout the first, are the unmatchableness of dispositions, the unfitness of the wife for rational conversation, her intellectual and moral insufficiency or perverseness. There is no word of desertion. I cannot but think that this confirms the view that it was not the absence of Milton's wife that caused his dissatisfaction with his marriage, but that the dissatisfaction preceded the absence and had helped to occasion it.
Narration, rather than criticism, is my business in this work; and we have not yet done with Milton's Divorce speculation. At this point, however, I may venture on three remarks :
(1.) What is most noticeable in Milton, underneath his whole conduct here, as in so many other matters, is his intellectual courage. Among men of thought there are, I should say, two grades of honesty. There is passive honesty, or the honesty of never saying, or appearing to say, what one does not think; and it is a rare and high merit to have attained to this. But there is the greater honesty of always saying, or indeed asserting and proclaiming, whatever one does think. The proportion of those who have disciplined themselves to this positive or aggressive honesty, and are at the same time socially sufferable by reason of the importance of what they