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Why did Milton write his theology in Latin?

By John Hale

John Milton wrote his systematic theology, De Doctrina Christiana, his “dearest possession,” in Latin — usual for a theological work, but with many unusual aspects.

Language was a choice, not a foregone conclusion. Continental theologians could be rendered into English (for instance, the work by Johannes Wolleb); English theologians could write in Latin (William Ames); and English philosophers could write in both tongues (Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes). So Milton chose Latin in addressing Universis Christi Ecclesiis (“the universal churches of Christ”).

The choice says much about his milieu. European education and culture were bilingual. Just as Dante used Latin to say why he wrote the Divine Comedy in the vernacular, one of the King James Version (KJV) Bible translators took his notes of their discussions of the English in Latin. Latin was the air they breathed. Milton sought a European reputation through his voluminous Latin, half his total output. When he speaks of “liberty’s defence, my noble task, / Of which all Europe talks from side to side,” that’s thanks to Latin.

The choice entails things he can and can’t say. He can avail himself of Roman eloquence and pagan allusion, or exploit the sententious brevity of Latin, its permanence and marmoreal dignitas. However, Latin can’t convey the difference between perfective and imperfective aspect (between “I write” and “I am writing”). Unlike Greek or English, the classical form of humanist Latin precludes using definite or indefinite articles. Besides being a headache for translators, Latin lumps unsubtly where splitting would be clearer and convey nuance; the same is true of patristic words.

For a theology which admits into its belief-system “solely what scripture attests,” the choice of the Junius-Tremellius-Beza (JTB) Bible needs inspection. Did he, for example, regard it as more accurate or scholarly or close to the original tongues? One teacher, Sutcliffe in 1602, recommends it for those who can’t read the original Hebrew or Greek, but stipulates that the Latin glosses and commentaries not be used. Did its voluminous notes recommend it to Milton? He does use them, and ad occasionem the Latin rendering of the Syriac. Come to think of it, why didn’t he quote directly from the original tongues?

Is this about readership? Did he expect his readers to read his work with the artillery of exegesis alongside? Using a later edition of the JTB (as he seems to have done) would assemble more of the full biblical materials, which indeed are the authoritative half of the evidence. The KJV provides less material, and the Geneva Bible’s materials are prejudicial.

Why didn’t he write in English? After all, he translated other people’s Latin theologies into English, for a learned clergy and many other questing spirits. These, whether within or outside the churches, are exactly the readers to whom Milton addresses himself in his ringing superscription.

So Milton’s choices include paradoxes and cross-currents. He proclaims the priesthood of all believers, in a Latin which most of them can’t read. Protestants ransack a Latin Bible, while Catholics read the Douai Bible in English. A full new edition of De Doctrina Christiana with transcription of the full and extraordinary original manuscript provides some new clues and insights.

Besides the humdrum and generic reasons, there is the negative merit of “the decent obscurity of a learned language.” Whatever “decent” means in Gibbon’s dictum, “obscurity” means it won’t get the readers it doesn’t want. This is not being artful or anachronistic. “I am writing in Latin not English because I do not wish my words to be understood by the common people” (Latine potius scribo quam Anglice … quia quae vobis dico a vulgo nollem intelligi). Written in 1625 to attack clergy pluralism, and addressing the bishops en masse, this remark by one Theophilos Philadelphos throws a curious sidelight on De Doctrina. It was a dangerous epoch for theologians.

The waning of Latin keeps modern readers from reading Milton in his own original, chosen — often exciting or violent — words. This unlucky development deprives him even now of his “fit audience though few.” So our dearest wish is that our new edition may induce readers to venture across from the right-hand pages of the translation to the left-hand pages of the actual words of Milton, dictating to his scribes. The translation is literal and full, hence boring in itself, to encourage readers to glance across and read between. They are in for a good time. Milton is in top form, on unparalleled subjects, voicing strong opinions eloquently. In one word: enjoy!

John K. Hale holds degrees from the Universities of Oxford, Durham, Edinburgh, and Otago. He taught at the University of Manitoba before settling at the University of Otago. Besides his books and essays on Milton and Shakespeare, he has published on Aristotle, Dante, Spenser, Herbert, Bentley, Austen, and Hopkins. He writes a weekly newspaper column on language matters, ‘WordWays.’ Edited with introduction, commentary, and notes by John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington, The Complete Works of John Milton: Volume VIII: De Doctrina Christiana is part of a Milton literature series and is due out in September 2012.

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Image credit: John Milton, in public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Kar

    > perfective and imperfective aspect (between “I write” and “I am writing”)

    doesn’t that refer to the difference between ‘I wrote’ and ‘I have written’ (which Latin can express)?

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