Realism, Contemporary Politics, and John Milton

CategoryGuest Articles.

University College Cork PhD student Andrea Di Carlo discusses the importance of political realism. Why, in some circumstances, it’s politically just to go against your moral principles.


What present day political commentators find unsettling is the re-emergence of fascism and far-right parties or movements. This article aims to address this issue by relying on the notion of political realism and, in order to make my point more effective, I will propose a case study, John Milton’s shifting political allegiances.

Political realism and why it matters 

“Political realism,” refers to a political style where decisions are influenced by it’s context. As a result, political undertakings are not based on pre-established moral categories, but they have to address  real problems with real solutions, taking into account the context around us. Niccolò Machiavelli, Raymond Geuss, and Carl Schmitt are the major proponents of this approach. Machiavelli was of the view princes (a shorthand term for ‘people in charge.’) had to take key decisions on the basis of the context, not on the basis of religious or moral categories. Raymond Geuss refutes what he terms as an ‘ethics-first’ approach to politics: if political philosophy is to be contextual (i.e. context-dependent), then ethical considerations prevent leaders from taking decisions. Despite his short-lived experience in the Nazi party, Carl Schmitt is frowned upon, but his approach to politics is no different from Geuss’. His notion of the ‘state of exception’ is telling; in his terse style, Schmitt believes the sovereign (by ‘sovereign’ he means any political figure in charge) is the only one who is in charge in exceptional circumstances (e.g. terrorist attacks, floods or economic meltdowns). Machiavelli, Geuss, and Schmitt’s lodestar is context: politics cannot be divorced from reality because politics is part of reality. The importance of context has significant bearings on today’s politics: what most political commentators often say is the lack of responsiveness from progressive or liberal parties. Their sticking to rules and ethics in politics is spectacularly backfiring on them, they should abide by Geuss’ political lesson, and be more daring.

A case study: John Milton’s shifting political allegiances

Intellectuals are occasionally critiqued because of their volatile political views. I am aware of the fact that choosing John Milton as a case study challenges the general consensus on him and on his oeuvre, but he perfectly fits the bill in this context. And that is because his endorsing different political views from his usual republicanism helps me strengthen my point.

The liberal Milton 

In both literary and philosophical circles, Milton is considered to be a ‘proto-liberal,’ somebody à la Nelson Mandela, who fights for human rights and basic liberties. And it was during the fight against the autocratic and tyrannical Charles I, during the English Civil War, that Milton clearly articulated his political points. In Areopagitica, he attacked Charles I for crushing freedom of expression: the royal Star Chamber (the Anglican version of the Roman Catholic Inquisition, called this way for its ceiling decorated by stars) had initiated a crackdown on books and imposed publishing licences on writers. Milton, like any present-day intellectual, voiced his dissent in the House of Commons by delivering the powerful line ‘give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.’ With his fiery tract Eikonoklastes (Greek for ‘The Image-smasher.’), Milton clearly signalled his republican tendencies. Eikonoklastes is the sarcastic rebuttal to Charles I’ pamphlet Eikon Basilike (‘The King’s Image’), where he portrayed like a Roman Catholic martyr ready to face his fate. So far, we’ve portrayed the ‘liberal’ Milton: he is the one stand against tyrannical kings (and vocally calls for their execution), and his defence of a basic liberty, like free speech, is quite powerful and riveting. But there is a point worth stressing: Milton had been a keen reader of Machiavelli, and his case for republicanism in his Discourses clearly resonated with the would-be English republican. But like any other student of Machiavelli he was soon to learn a very important lesson from his teacher: keep the door open. Don’t be too dogmatic. I would like to think that Milton read the passage where Machiavelli praised Romulus for killing Remus. Founding Rome was more important than your brother, so the context justifies your questionable action. And I am sure Milton shifted his political allegiance after this.

The royalist Milton, or why context is vital 

The Civil War disillusioned Milton. His country was going through anarchy and cruelty, circumstances which would put off creating a republic. Thus, Milton started to consider writing a book, a chronicle of England. Hence The History of Britain. This book is a survey of England’s political circumstances from the Roman invasions up to the Norman Conquest. Milton’s description of England is rather bleak: his fellow citizens have never been able to retain liberty. What Milton is expounding in his book is the impossibility of teleology. By ‘teleology’ it is meant any decision that is taken to achieve a goal; whatever you do is based on the achievement of a goal, in this case liberty. But there is no teleology in Milton’s England. The English cannot achieve liberty, because they are always dragged into slavery. They are like the Jews and their never-ending wanderings. But there comes the English Moses. During the Viking raids a powerful figure emerges: Alfred the Great. Alfred repelled Viking raids, authored new laws, and educated England. There is no doubt that a reader of Machiavelli made up his mind: though he is a republican at heart, Milton acknowledges the fact that even kings achieve things. And Alfred was able to attain the best for England, even though he was a monarch. Always keep the door open, Machiavelli suggests doing. And Milton kept the door open, and sided with a monarch. Milton is a realist, not a turncoat, because he realises that a powerful king can save his country from destruction.

Conclusions: Realism is healthy

What we have explored is the central role realism should play in politics. Machiavelli and Geuss stress a vital point: there should be no ethical considerations in politics. This is so because politics amounts to competition, not to negotiating principles. So leaders have got to take decisions that may run counter their own ideology, because it could be the case in specific circumstances. This is why context counts. And this is why Milton ended up endorsing a king: Alfred the Great was the only who could help England achieve liberty. And Milton realised that, like Schmitt tersely writes, in exceptional cases exceptional decisions are required. 

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5 thoughts on “Realism, Contemporary Politics, and John Milton

  1. Hey Bob,

    Thanks for your comment. The whole Brexit thing isn’t easy to deal with from a realist point of view. I think Machiavelli would hate both Cameron and May for their behaviour, but this is an issue up for debate.




  2. Geuss’ realism is not implicitly normative in the way you suggest. That is to say he is not making an injunction that political action ought not inhere to antecedent moral categories or principles. Rather, he is concerned with the nature of political analysis. Here he thinks that theorizing and evaluating politics should not be ‘applied ethics’. He is not prescriptive about political action (a la Machiavelli), but thinks – as Adorno does – that critique should be a strictly negative, non-constructive affair.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jonathan! Sorry for my late reply, and thanks a lot for your comment! I’ll take it on board in my future lectures/articles.


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