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    The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, by John Milton

    John Milton (1608 - 1674) was the great English "prince of poets", renowned for writing the greatest epic poem in the English language (Paradise Lost) as well as a sequel (Paradise Regain'd), a closet drama (Samson Agonistes), two youthful companion poems (L'Allegro & Il Penseroso), a pastoral elegy (Lycidas) a Masque (Comus) and several sonnets (which Hazlitt considered superior to those of Shakespeare*). Besides his poetic output, however, he also wrote several tracts and non-fiction pieces, among them the famous Areopagitica -- a defense of free speech. He wrote four tracts in total in defense of divorce: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Tetrachordon, and Colasterion.

    The first and largest of them, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he uttered "a doctrine, if ever any other, though neglected or not understood, yet of great and powerfull importance to the governing of mankind," earned him the label of "heretic". Herbert Palmer called it "a wicked booke ... abroad and uncensored ... deserving to be burnt" in a famous address to Parliament. Milton believed every man deserved a second chance in marriage, and found a scriptural basis for this belief. He was animated in this by personal grief, as he married the 17 year-old Mary Powell in 1642, when he was 33. She left to return home soon after the marriage, leaving Milton alone and unhappy. In Tetrachordon, he defined a failed marriage as "a wearisome life of unloving & unquiet conversation with one who neither affects nor is affected." Marriage required a "unity of mind and heart" and "intimate conversation". Too often marriage becomes an unhappy union of two people who "live as they were deadly enemies in a cage together." He recoils against the protection a bad wife has from the Church and State: a man in such a situation "is not still bound to be the vassall of him, who is the bondslave of Satan: she being now neither the image nor the glory of such a person, nor made for him, nor left in bondage to him; but hath recours to the wing of charity, and protection of the Church; unless there be a hope on either side; yet such a hope must be meant, as may be a rationall hope, and not an endless servitude."

    It should be noted that, though Milton realized the flaws of marriage, he was still greatly in favor of it: in fact, "he who wilfully abstains from marriage, not being supernaturally gifted, and he who by making the yoke of marriage unjust and intolerable, causes men to abhorr it, are both in diabolicall sin, equall to that of Antichrist who forbids to marry." In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, there is a definitive clash between his idealism of love and marriage and his knowledge that marriages were frequently unsuccessful. One hopes that after bad experiences with four wives, and two ungrateful daughters, he learned his lesson in the end.

    The text below is an extract from the preface, attached to the second edition published in February 1644. The original was published on August 1, 1643, anonymously and without license.
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    The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce:
    Restor'd to the good of both SEXES,
    From the bondage of CANON LAW, and other
    mistakes, to the true meaning of Scripture
    in the Law and Gospel compar'd.

    Wherin also are set down the bad consequences of
    abolishing or condemning of Sin, that which the
    Law of God allows, and Christ abolisht not.

    Now the second time revis'd and much augmented,
    In Two BOOKS:
    To the Parlament of England with the Assembly.
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    TO THE PARLIAMENT OF ENGLAND, with the ASSEMBLY.

    If it were seriously askt, and it would be no untimely question, Renowned Parlament, select Assembly, who of all Teachers and Maisters that have ever taught, hath drawn the most Disciples after him, both in Religion, and in manners, it might bee not untruly answer'd, Custome. Though vertue be commended for the most perswasive in her Theory; and Conscience in the plain demonstration of the spirit, finds most evincing, yet whether it be the secret of divine will, or the originall blindnesse we are born in, so it happ'ns for the most part, that Custome still is silently receiv'd for the best instructer. Except it be, because her method is so glib and easie, in some manner like to that vision of Ezekiel, rowling up her sudden book of implicit knowledge, for him that will, to take and swallow down at pleasure1; which proving but of bad nourishment in the concoction2, as it was heedlesse in the devouring, puffs up unhealthily, a certaine big face of pretended learning, mistaken among credulous men, for the wholsome habit of soundnesse and good constitution; but is indeed no other, then that sworn visage of counterfeit knowledge and literature, which not onely in private marrs our education, but also in publick is the common climer into every chaire, where either Religion is preach't, or Law reported: filling each estate of life and profession, with abject and servil principles; depressing the high and Heaven-born spirit of Man, farre beneath the condition wherein either God created him or sin hath sunke him. To persue the Allegory, Custome being but a meer face, as Eccho is a meere voice, rests not in her unaccomplishment, untill by secret inclination, she accorporat her selfe with error, who being a blind and Serpentine body without a head, willingly accepts what he wants, and supplies what her incompleatnesse went seeking. Hence it is, that Error supports Custome, Custome count'nances Error. And these two betweene them would persecute and chase away all truth and solid wisdome out of humane life, were it not that God, rather then man, once in many ages, cals together the prudent and Religious counsels of Men, deputed to represse the encroachments, and to worke off the inveterate blots and obscurities wrought upon our mindes by the suttle insinuating of Error and Custome: Who with the numerous and vulgar train of their followers make it their chiefe designe to envie and cry-down the industry of free reasoning, under the terms of humor, and innovation; as if the womb of teeming Truth were to be clos'd up, if shee presume to bring forth ought, that sorts not with their unchew'd notions and suppositions. Against which notorious injury and abuse of mans free soul to testifie and oppose the utmost that study and true labour can attaine, heretofore the incitement of men reputed grave hath led me among others; and now the duty and the right of an instructed Christian cals me through the chance of good or evill report, to be the sole advocate of a discount'nanct 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.3 ...

    Mark then, Judges and Lawgivers, and yee whose Office is to be our teachers, for I will utter now a doctrine, if ever any other, though neglected or not understood, yet of great and powerfull importance to the governing of mankind. He who wisely would restrain the reasonable Soul of man within due bounds, must first know himself perfectly, how far the territory and dominion extends of just and honest liberty. As little must he offer to bind that which God hath loos'n'd, as to loos'n that which he hath bound. The ignorance and mistake of this high point, hath heapt up one huge half of all the misery that hath bin since Adam. In the Gospel we shall read a supercilious crew of masters, whose holinesse, or rather whose evill eye, grieving that God should be so facil to man, was to set straiter limits to obedience, then God had set; to inslave the dignity of man, to put a garrison upon his neck of empty, and overdignifi'd precepts. And we shall read our Saviour never more greev'd and troubl'd, then to meet with such a peevish madnesse among men against their own freedome. How can we expect him to be lesse offended with us, when much of the same folly shall be found yet remaining where it lest ought, to the perishing of thousands. The greatest burden in the world is superstition; not onely of Ceremonies in the Church, but of imaginary and scarcrow sins at home. What greater weakning, what more suttle stratagem against our Christian warfare, when besides the grosse body of real transgressions to encounter; wee shall bee terrify'd by a vain and shadowy meanacing of faults that are not: When things indifferent shall be set to over-front us, under the banners of sin, what wonder if wee bee 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:4 and ours is, part not, separat not, when God and charity both permits and commands. Let all your things be done with charity, saith St. Paul:5 and his Master saith, Shee is the fulfilling of the Law.6 Yet now a civil, an indifferent, a somtime diswaded Law of mariage, must be forc't upon us to fulfill, not onely without charity but against her. No place in Heav'n or Earth, except Hell, where charity may not enter: yet mariage the Ordinance of our solace and contentments, the remedy of our lonelinesse will not admit now either of charity or mercy to come in and mediate or pacifie the fiercenes of this gentle Ordinance, the unremedied lonelinesse of this remedy. Advise yee well, supreme Senat, if charity be thus excluded and expulst, how yee will defend the untainted honour of your own actions and proceedings: He who marries intends as little to conspire his own ruine, as he that swears Allegiance: and as a whole people is in proportion to an ill Government, so is one man to an ill mariage. If they against any authority, Covnant, or Statute, may by the sovereign edict of charity, save not only their lives but honest liberties from unworthy bondage, as well may he against any private Covnant, which hee never enter'd to his mischief, redeem himself from unsupportable disturbances to honest peace, and just contentment: And much the rather, for that to resist the highest Magistrat though tyrannizing God never gave us expresse allowance, only he gave us reason, charity, nature and good example to bear us out; but in this economical7 misfortune, thus to demean our selves, besides the warrant of those foure great directors, which doth as justly belong hither, we have an expresse law of God, and such a law, as wherof our Saviour with a solemn threat forbid the abrogating.8 For no effect of tyranny can sit more heavy on the Common-wealth, then this houshold unhappines on the family. And farewell all hope of true Reformation in the state, while such an evill as this lies undiscern'd or unregarded in the house. On the redresse whereof depends, not only the spiritfull and orderly life of our grown men, but the willing, and carefull education of our children. Let this therefore be new examin'd, this tenure and free-hold of mankind, this native and domestick Charter giv'n us by a greater Lord then that Saxon king the Confessor.9 Let the statutes of God be turn'd over, be scann'd a new, and consider'd; not altogether by the narrow intellectuals of quotationists and common placers, but (as was the ancient right of Counsels) by men of what liberall profession soever, of eminent spirit and breeding joyn'd with a diffuse and various knowledge of divine and human things; able to ballance and define good and evill, right and wrong, throughout every state of life; able to shew us the waies of the Lord, strait and faithfull as they are, not full of cranks and contradictions, and pit falling dispences, but with divine insight and benignity measur'd out to the proportion of each mind and spirit, each temper and disposition, created so different each from other, and yet by the skill of wise conducting, all to become uniform in vertue.

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    Notes:
    *: See William Hazlitt, On Milton's Sonnets.
    1: Milton refers here to Ezekiel 2:8-3:3, in which God's will is revealed in a vision of a scroll which he is told to eat.
    2: "Concoction" is an archaic word, meaning "digestion".
    3: A "seventh Son of a seventh Son" is a man destined to do great things.
    4: Colossians 2:21
    5: 1 Corianthians 16:14
    6: Romans 13:10
    7: "Economical" in this archiac setting means "domestic".
    8: Milton is probably referring to Matthew 5:18-19: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
    9: Milton refers here to Edward the Confessor (c. 1005 - 1066), the last Saxon King of England.

    The text was copied from Dartmouth College, where it can be read in its entirety. The copy-text they used is from the Thomason Collection of the British Library: Thomason / E.31[5]; Wing, M2109.

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    Here added is a famous passage from Paradise Lost, in which Adam, in his despair due to the loss of Eden, denounces the female gender. Hazlitt loved the passage.

    This mischief had not then befallen,
    And more that shall befall; innumerable
    Disturbances on earth through female snares,
    And straight conjuction with this sex: for either
    He never shall find out fit mate, but such
    As some misfortune brings him or mistake
    Or whom he wishes most shall seldom gain
    Through her perverseness, but shall sea her gain'd
    By a far worse; or it she love, withheld
    By parents; or his happiest choice too late
    Shall meet, already link'd and wedlock-bound
    To a fell adversary, his hate and shame;
    Which infinite calamity shall cause
    To human life, and household peace confound.
    Last edited by Ancient Sunlight; October 5, 2014 at 2:28 PM.
    And when her lips so sweetly move
    The soul such height attain,
    You're free, yet would no longer rove
    But lay you down in chains.


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