- Habermas Goes to Hell: Pleasure, Public Reason, and the Republicanism of Paradise Lost
I am concerned here with what counts, for Milton and for us, as the legitimate use of public reason. Specifically, I ask whether linguistic vulnerability—our capacity for being affected, altered, and even taken in by words, especially when they offer pleasure—can be part of a discipline that ought to be called critical; and I conclude that Milton helps answer this question in the affirmative.
As I see Paradise Lost taking part in a discussion that extends from the classical period to the present, I place the epic both in its own context and alongside the work of figures such as Plato, Cicero, Habermas, Foucault, and Michael Warner. Setting out with the criticism of Miltonists such as David Norbrook and Sharon Achinstein, I show how Milton has been frequently linked with the set of Habermasian practices aimed at curbing the self’s susceptibility to words and with a public way of life defined by strict, uncompromising discipline—one focused on sifting through valid and invalid rhetorical appeals, generating uncoerced consensus, and fabricating durable futures. Such discipline becomes synonymous with a well-fortified critical distance from which public selves are impervious to pleasure.
Corresponding to this conception of Milton’s publics, I argue, is a conception of his republicanism. Most studies—both within literary studies and in the work of historians such as Blair Worden, Quentin Skinner, and Jonathan Scott—locate Milton’s republicanism in ideals that link civic virtue with bounded selfhood, the public exercise of positive liberties with the maintenance of negative freedoms. These studies, in other words, presuppose the value of a res publica that cultivates bounded, discrete, essentially autonomous actors—a space within which judicious individuals could, as in Habermasian public sphere theory, employ a reason unclouded by irrational passion and so remain unmoved by the offer of coercive, [End Page 105] temporary pleasure. In doing so, ideal Miltonic selves could strengthen the structure and legal architecture of the republics of which they would be part and by which their boundaries as citizens might be guaranteed.
While such readings find their warrant in Milton’s writings, they are by no means exhaustive, especially when it comes to Paradise Lost. His portrayals of Paradise and Pandemonium, for instance, find value in joining rational disputes and sensual caresses; in the therapeutic pleasures of public argument; in the enjoyable, transformed world made by vulnerable subjects within the space of conversation; and, finally, in forms of “republican” selfhood that do not depend on the republic’s support. Early on, a Foucaultian context will be of most use to me, since Foucault, unlike Habermas, advocates publics that couple pleasure and critique; in analyses of the cynic Diogenes of Sinope, for example, Foucault advocates practices of rational argumentation aimed not at uncoerced agreement but at immediate enjoyment. Such coupling, largely ignored in contemporary public sphere theory, offers a provocative linkage of critical stances with susceptibility to pleasure, of rational discipline with what Milton calls rational delight, a delight explored in his depictions of the first couple and the fallen angels. Considering in both cases what it means to constitute a “public,” Milton shows sympathy for interaction defined by an indistinction between ostensibly public and ostensibly private spaces and behaviors—coffeehouses and gardens, the giving of reasons and the taking of pleasures—whose separation permits Habermasian forms of modern, public selfhood to emerge.
To discuss the connection between this form of public being and an alternative form of republicanism in which Milton shows interest, I draw not just on Foucault but also, in what makes for an unlikely grouping, on the oratorical treatises of the classical republican Marcus Tullius Cicero. Parting from Platonic tradition by endorsing public pleasure and salutary sociability that take place after the republic’s collapse, Cicero’s treatises highlight the reality, felt intensely by Milton, that to be republican often meant to live without a republic and so meant turning to interactive therapeutics for what a more strict discipline could never offer. And here resides an important but neglected component of Milton’s insights into reason’s place in public life, as well as...