Milton and the Epochs of International Law

This article suggests the need for a richer intellectual history of seventeenth-century international law than that typically on offer—one more sensitive to humanist methods, literary texts, and aspects of embodied vulnerability that tend to be obscured as “law of nations” is too easily equated with “international law.” Specifically, it contends that a robust history of the law of nations in the seventeenth century would profit from engaging with literary texts like John Milton’s Paradise Lost head on. The article starts from a significant claim made about John Milton, poet and Latin Secretary to the English commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, in William Grewe’s The Epochs of International Law that has not been sufficiently been assessed by either literary scholars or historians of international law. As Grewe puts it, “even if it did not attract much attention in the theory of the law of nations, the final turning point in the history of [the principle of discovery as a title for the acquisition of colonial territories] was Milton’s polemic against this ‘imaginarius titulus’ in his memorandum of 1655.” With attention to Milton’s discussions of the law of nations in prose but especially to his major epic Paradise Lost (1667), the paper begins the task of re-evaluating what “epochs” (if any) Milton might be said to represent in the history of international law. Through a reading of Paradise Lost, the article suggests ways that Milton’s “law of nations” is far stranger than the idea usually conjured by the term “international law” in modern contexts yet that Milton’s law of nations emphasizes precisely those material, embodied, and affective aspects of the law of nations that have tended to be obscured since Bentham coined the term “international.”
*Please note: This paper was published in the European Journal of International Law, Volume 24, issue 2. It can be found on the EJIL website.