The Use of Debates in John Miltons Poems: Rethinking the Conventions of Scholastic and Humanist Dialectics

Fernando Martinez-Periset


Echoes of two main lines of thought persist during Miltons time: Scholasticism (a theological system prominent in medieval universities and based on Aristotelian logic) and Renaissance humanism (an anthropocentric and pragmatic response to Scholasticism), both of which influence Milton in different ways as it is apparent in two of his early poetic works:LycidasandComus. By comparing both poems it will be shown that both texts share concerns with regards to the tensions produced by this dual influence, because at the same time each dialectical doctrine is committed to diametrically opposed understandings of what it means to debate. On the one hand, Scholasticism stressed the importance of the theory of proof as an epistemological tool. The theory of proof was a procedure, often used by scholastic teachers, by which to exhibit the conditions under which a given proposition is true or false. By contrast Ramism, a branch of Renaissance humanism developed by Petrus Ramus, valued the role of nature to the same end and suggested that the human subject had within oneself the capacity to access the truth.

It will be argued thatLycidasborrows dialectical tools from the scholastic method, whilstComususes dialectical principles from Ramist thinking. However, as it will be shown, that because Milton is not completely respecting the conventions of either dialectical system, he must have had a complex relationship with both traditions and he must have found some aspects of both pedagogical frameworks deeply problematic. This is why he chooses to outline the tensions and imperfections of these philosophical paradigms and distances himself from certain elements of both approaches by nuancing and even subverting some of their characteristics. Such an approach will explore how Miltons versatility to defend alternative viewpoints allows him to use the debate format, which was prominent during his university studies, to engage withthis wider philosophical and pedagogical discussion. Being exposed to a particular system inevitably influences and conditions ones worldview and realizing that one dislikes the given system is in itself an enriching experience. The way in which Milton makes use of debates in his poetic works is related to a thorough analysis of the nature of dialectics as such. This interpretation places him in dialogue with the main European thinkers of the period and in line with the larger cultural context of his time.


Milton; humanism; Scholasticism; poetry; debates; dialectics

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