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    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    My Apologies to John Milton: It Seems I Misjudged You

    March 9, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]T[/dropcap]he summer I was 15, I grabbed a copy of Paradise Lost from our town’s local public library. I’m not exactly sure why I did it. Had I heard of Milton before? Possibly; maybe his name sounded vaguely familiar. I don’t know what it was that caused me to be so adventurous, but I checked it out, took it home, and spent time up in a tree, trying to figure it out.

    I failed.

    I could tell that it was beautiful and amazing, but I couldn’t read it. I was frustrated, and unsure what was wrong. I know now that it wasn’t a deficiency in me, but in my education. Because I hadn’t learned much in the line of Greek or Roman myths, most of the language was incomprehensible to me. If you’ve read Milton, you know what I’m talking about — you can’t hardly read a line of Paradise Lost without encountering a reference to these great stories of the past.

    This isn’t to complain about my education — it was what it was. In some ways deficient, in other ways, a blessing. But this experience with Paradise Lost never left the back of my mind, and I always admired the book — kept it elevated in my mind as something unreachable for me.

    On learning to appreciate John Milton's thoughts on education after hasty judgments earlier in my life.

    When we began homeschooling our children, and I began reading Greek myths — some of them for the first time — I loved not only the myths, but the possibility that somehow, someday I would be able to read Milton’s masterpiece for myself.

    And this year, while I am still very incompetent, I look on with pleasure as my 13-year-old gobbles it up with ease.

    Paradise Lost, however, was not my only encounter with Milton. Somehow, when this same teen was only a little guy, I stumbled across Milton’s essay Of EducationIt was filled with such beauty and hope. I will never forget the part where he says that the goal of education is to “repair the ruins of our first parents.” I felt almost frozen in time when I first read that — it captured my imagination as well as my heart.


    As time went on, I began to learn a bit of history as well, and I found myself with a distaste for Milton that I hadn’t expected. His alliance with Oliver Cromwell and public defense of regicide seemed to ill-fit one who had written such beautiful things. Rather than repairing the ruins, he appeared to me to be one that made them worse.

    I could still appreciate his essay, but I mentally classed it in the same category as Dorothy Sayers’ essay — interesting, even rich at points, but nothing to build a curriculum around. Like Sayers, I assumed that Milton had no experience with children, had never taught a child anything, and who, while well-educated himself, was hardly an expert on these points.

    It seems I was hasty in my judgment. Or so I am increasingly convinced as I read the slender little volume by Grant Horner that Classical Academic Press was kind enough to send to me.

    It all started when I read in the first chapter that Milton had taught a cottage school when he was in his 30s.


    Between that and the fact that he had a number of children, it seems that it was unfair to class him with Sayers on that point.

    I had never really forgotten about Comus {the source document for one of my favorite children’s books}, but the brief biography in chapter one also brought to my attention Milton’s powerful defense of a free press and free speech, Aeropagitica.

    And so it goes.

    I’ve decided that Milton, like all of us, is a mixed bag. {And he’s probably a better bag than, say, me.}

    Grant Horner’s theory that Milton’s views on education are not only encapsulated in his essay, but sprinkled throughout all his body of work is news to me, and proof that I have a lot to learn {not that I ever doubted it}.

    And so, needless to say, I’ll probably be mentioning John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue around here for a while. It’s a short book, and I’m excited to get into the next chapter.

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  • Reply Amanda November 1, 2016 at 7:53 am

    Help, please, friend! I could as easily ask this under your post about not letting our students quit the book…. After 2 weeks of struggling through Paradise Lost, my 15yo wants to know WHY he has to read it. “Couldnt I just read the Bible?” says he. Did you and E finish it, and what got you to the end (besides innate stubbornness 😉 )?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 5, 2016 at 10:34 am

      We finished it and stubbornness definitely helped. 🙂 With that said, I’m wondering: is it general dislike, or something else? It was WAY easier for E than for me because he knows so much more mythology. When I tried to read it as a teen, I remember thinking that it sounded so beautiful but I had no clue what it meant. 🙂

      Anyhow, I’m wondering if a commentary would help IF it’s something like that. I have no clue how much mythology you have done. With that said…why read it? The number one reason is, of course, that it is Great. So there’s that. 😉 But I think also it’s a great example of plundering the Egyptians, as Wes Callihan said in this week’s Scholé Sisters episode — Milton took all the treasures of the Greeks and Romans and put them to Christian use. Maybe some of the CiRCE Milton-related posts would offer some inspiration?

  • Reply Cameron March 10, 2016 at 6:33 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. You make some thought provoking points. It makes me want to study this period further. I can see your issue with Milton regarding his treatise on regicide. And there are many, as you said, mixed bags in history. Although it is only through the lens of freedom that we view all these histories, freedom that was purchased on our behalf by many who have gone before us. So many events have both good and evil making the judging of them difficult. And the Lord turns the hands of kings and rulers to accomplish His purposes. We only see part of the bigger picture. I am not sure I would classify Cromwell as a tyrant, but then I will claim your disclaimer that I may indeed be wrong! I know that John Owen was his chaplain and he sought after the rights of the people to be free from the monarchy. I don’t think he is any worse than the Kings before him. I also know that he was working within a system that had never known the freedoms and rights that we enjoy today and so there was quite a bit of figuring it out as he went along. I agree with you and think you are wise to be wary of revolution, communist revolutions being a case in point. But I do think there are times when the just thing to do is revolt, and this is difficult to do without bloodshed. Looking back the rule of law that was established may well have saved many more lives than were lost in fighting for such freedoms. I will be studying Cromwell’s life further now and reading Milton’s treatise so thanks for getting me thinking! I hope I haven’t been too off topic from your original post. I think it is good to think about theses matters, especially as we endeavor to teach our children these historical events. I know as we read Children of the New Forest my kids kept wondering which side was the ‘good’ side. It is not a simple answer to be sure as there were gross abuses on both sides, but I guess I fall on the side of the rights of the people to be free as Jefferson so carefully delineated in his writings. Sorry to ramble on…. I really appreciate your blog and your thoughts on so many matters!

  • Reply Dawn March 9, 2016 at 9:05 am

    Sigh. Yet another book clearly worthy of reading. Siggghhhhh.

  • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog March 9, 2016 at 8:54 am

    I just began reading Paradise Lost this past weekend. Whew….I feel like the first book kind of went over my head…not all of it of course….but a good bit of it. And I *am* familiar with Greek and Roman myths. I am intimidated by epic poetry. But I’m tackling Paradise Lost anyway….

  • Reply Ashley March 9, 2016 at 8:00 am

    I love Paradise Lost, but I never knew about Milton in a biographical way. Sometimes, I’m glad I don’t know about authors’ lives. Learning about Hemingway tainted his already not my favorite style of writing for me.

    Jeff ordered me the Milton book for a stocking stuffer this past Christmas. I’ll have to pull it out and peruse it. You’ve got me interested!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:33 am

      Sometimes learning about the bio can be dangerous! 🙂 I can see what you mean about Hemingway. I try to keep myself in the dark sometimes, but with Milton it was difficult because he had a position in Cromwell’s government, so in reading history his connections to the murder of the King are unavoidable.

      I think your husband gave you a lovely little stocking stuffer! It’s slim, but so far I think it packs a punch. 🙂

  • Reply Angelique March 9, 2016 at 7:39 am

    Interesting. This is one I’ve always thought I ought to read and never got around to…maybe this summer…

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:34 am

      I think it’d be a great summer read, Angelique! 🙂

      • Reply Cameron March 9, 2016 at 7:38 pm

        I am curious to understand your distaste for Milton based on his alliance with Cromwell. John Bunyan was a soldier in the war in support of Cromwell. Milton was also outspoken in his support of the Puritans wanting to break from the monarchy and the government church. This is a precursor to the sentiment that many had as Americans in our revolution. Not to suggest that killing the king was the answer, but his views on monarchy seem very much in line with Protestant and/or the views most Americans hold dear. King George called the American Revolution the Presbyterian Revolution because he saw the similarities between the values of the English civil war and the values of the American Revolution. Is it just that he was in support of the death of the king that troubles you? I always thought the impulses behind the parliamentarian/puritans were the same as those that drove our American founding fathers. Just trying to understand your sentiment since I really value your opinion.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel March 9, 2016 at 8:50 pm

          Well, first, Cameron, I will say that I do not know for sure that I am right on this! So consider yourself warned. 🙂

          I don’t think King Charles was a good king — not at all. I don’t really pretend to know, had I been there, what “side” I would have been on. But, David’s refusal to “touch the Lord’s anointed” has always stuck out in my mind, and coincided with what I’ve read in the New Testament about God being the originator of all governmental authorities — even *bad* ones. The killing of the king was also a breach of the law. And like most revolutions, the result was the establishment of a new tyrant (Cromwell). I think what bothers me about Milton is that he actually wrote a lengthy article in defense of regicide — so he wasn’t, like Bunyan, a mere soldier. He was actually setting up a philosophical argument for such a thing, and I found that really distasteful.

          I have often wondered about the American Revolution, and what side I would have chosen had I been there. I *love* my country, and I’m so grateful for our inheritance, but I am wary of revolutions, even well-intentioned ones. Perhaps especially well-intentioned ones. I think I’m just glad I wasn’t there and didn’t have to choose! 🙂 I do think that one thing the Americans had going for them was their attempt to establish the rule of law — British common law, really. At some point, the English Civil War seems to have deteriorated into establishing Cromwell rather than Law.

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