February 5, 2016 by Harnessing Chaos
[Part 1 available here, Part 2 available here. Part 4 available here. All Hill posts based on the chapter, ‘Christopher Hill’s World Turned Upside Down’, in Crossley, Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 (2014, new edition coming soon)]
The World Turned Upside Down would appear to be Christopher Hill’s most obvious reaction to the radicalism or the 1960s but this is not the end of the story. Two major books—Milton and the English Revolution (1978) and The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (1984)—are again, obviously about the seventeenth century while also telling us something about the British Left as Thatcherism and neoliberalism were taking on the language of freedom and individualism which might alternatively have seemed to have belonged to the generation of 1968. Marxism’s influence was on the wane as postmodernity witnessed a shift from revolutionary dissent to playful cultural subversion. From the perspective of someone like Hill, 1968 was a failed revolution. And Hill’s narrative of the shift from the 1640s to the 1660s (or 1668) is also about his experience of the shift from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Experience of Defeat, and Milton and the English Revolution before it, looked at how people dealt with the failure of the revolution against the backdrop of the Restoration and the rise of capitalism and the bourgeois Protestant work ethic. It looked at how people were understanding how their god let this failure happen after such dramatic successes. As Hill put it with reference back to his most famous book: ‘knowing that many good and intelligent people believed this may help us to understand the elation of the fight and the desolation of defeat when they realized that the world was not after all to be turned upside down’ (Experience of Defeat, p. 28). The misery was also clear from the titles of the first two main chapters (i.e. chapters 2 and 3): ‘The First Losers, 1649-1651’ and ‘The Second Losers, 1653-1660’. Chapter 9, incidentally, has the subsection, ‘Other Losers’. We can also compare the strikingly different tone of the endings of World Turned Upside Down and Experience of Defeat. World Turned Upside Down can hardly deny that capitalism and empire did not happen but it ends with a qualified optimism and something worth celebrating: ‘’Yet nothing ever wholly dies…Our story ends by pointing towards the Age of Reason rather than the upside-down world. But the English Revolution’s “teeming freedom” did liberate the imagination as Christ rose, however briefly, in sons and daughters’ (pp. 379, 414). By contrast, Experience of Defeat ends more gloomily: ‘In 1644 Milton saw England as “a nation of prophets”. Where are they now?’ (p. 328).
Experience of Defeat focuses on various topics relating to the experience of revolutionary defeat. It looks at ideas about the illegitimate church, the origins and longevity of apostasy, and the establishment of the state or official church, which may even last until the Second Coming, whenever that might have been thought to come. Such issues were deemed to be important for those experiencing the failed revolution and were part of the necessary patience in exile required of those claiming to be the true, and sometimes persecuted, church. Truth exiled was nothing new and so the failed radicals need to brace themselves for further exile and traditions about the ongoing rule of Antichrist (again, no definite article) continued to be of some interest. But, still, Hill’s thinkers needed to explain why the wicked flourished and even put their god on trial.
Hope has not been banished forever in Experience of Defeat but the victory for truth will in some unspecified distant future. For such rebels, the Everlasting Gospel will outlast the corrupt established church. For Hill’s Milton this context of defeat meant taking his role as poet and prophet even more seriously. But, for Hill, defeat really was defeat and so to the fore come the long term implications of his Marxist reading of the English revolution: the revolutionary universalism and millenarianism of the 1640s and 1650s get transformed into English imperialism and the combination of revolution and restoration would smooth the way for eighteenth-century Whiggery with ‘a sense of England’s destiny to rule the world’ (Experience of Defeat, p. 325). Another comparison with earlier book is worth making in this respect. When ‘survival’ is discussed in World Turned Upside Down it is more about how revolutionary ideas would not die out and would be seen in the American Revolution, English ‘plebeian radicalism’ of the 1790s, Blake, the rise of biblical criticism, and so on. And, of course, the 1960s:
Even more important, perhaps, for our generation, were their glimpses of a possible society which would transcend the property system, of a counter-culture which would reject the protestant ethic altogether…Again and again in this book we have noticed the seventeenth-century radicals shooting ahead of the technical possibilities of their age. Later Biblical scholarship and anthropology make better sense than they could of the mythological approach to the Bible; cheap and easily available contraceptive devices make better sense of free love (World Turned Upside Down, p. 383).
In the section of ‘survivors’ in Experience of Defeat, the theme is more about those who were able to adapt and conform to the developing capitalist world and the restoration of state church power.
Hill continued his interest in the Radical Bible, this time in the context of post-revolutionary disappointment, including discussions of uses of biblical stories to understand the revolution as part of divine necessity, purification, reform, and the necessity of tolerance. There is also discussion of the transformation of the Radical Bible into the Bourgeois Bible and how sects could now place a ‘heavy emphasis’ on reading the Bible and biblical literacy while excluding the illiterate and thus having ‘little appeal for the very poorest classes in the community’ (Experience of Defeat, pp. 291-92).
The Radical Bible survives in the guise of the Cultural Bible, notably in Hill’s focus on Milton. Hill’s Milton was partly a bourgeois elitist but one who remained influenced by, and to some extent perpetuated, the Radical Bible, even in its optimist form. Hill’s Milton fits Hill’s pattern well. He was confident that good would defeat evil even though the reign of Christ was pushed into the distant future. Hill read Milton’s use of Samson as a type of Christ in Samson Agonistes. It starts with connotations of heroic failure but ultimately looks to with the hope of a future divine intervention. Turning to Milton’s favourite—Martin Bucer—Samson and Christ represent the beginning of the divine liberation and history will someday reveal the purposes of their god. Hill stressed that the history revealed to Adam in Paradise Lost (Books XI and XII) appears to be a series of defeats but, as with Samson Agonistes, hope remains. Hill’s Paradise Lost (so to speak) also provides a challenge laid down for the present and the hope of breaking free from the cycle of failure and defeat. From Comus to Samson Agonistes, Hill’s Milton presents characters standing alone in the face of the power of evil.
As with World Turned Upside Down, the Cultural Bible provides protection for the survival of, and hope for, the Radical Bible. And for Hill in the face of Thatcherism-in-the-making.
Next time: the English Radical Bible