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Michael Bryson
Professor of English
California State University, Northridge

My most recent book project (Ashgate Press, 2012) is called The Atheist Milton. But in calling the book The Atheist Milton, and in arguing that Milton was an atheist then, and would be an atheist were he alive today, I am trying to make a fairly nuanced case, despite the deliberate provocation of the title.

“Atheism” meant different things in Milton’s day than it does for us today. Essentially, the word has become narrower in scope for us, less flexible in its capacity to carry shades of meaning. “Atheist” tends to mean one thing today: someone who does not believe in God. In Milton’s time, the term “Atheist” was used in a much more wide-ranging way: it could refer to someone who did not believe that God existed, but more commonly it referred, not to unbelief, but to variations in belief that were regarded by the accuser (and the word is almost always an accusation rather than a self-chosen label) as straying from orthodox belief, what I refer to in the book (with all due irony) as correct belief as opposed to the incorrect belief of the “atheist.”

My argument is two-fold: based on his association with Arian ideas (denial of the doctrine of the Trinity), his argument for the de Deo theory of
creation (the idea that the universe is created, not from nothing or ex nihilo, but from the essence of God, which puts him in line with the materialism of Spinoza and Hobbes), and his Mortalist argument that the human soul dies with the human body, Milton was an Atheist by the commonly-used definitions of the period. And as the poet who takes a reader from the presence of an imperious, monarchical God in Paradise Lost, to the internal—almost Gnostic—conception of God in Paradise Regained, to the absence of any God whatsoever in Samson Agonistes, Milton is the poet of the Atheists, pushing harder against that old “task-Master” than any poet before or since.

My research and teaching often focuses on questions of authority and its construction. I have special interest in how those questions and constructions are manifested in the early modern era, but my interest (even passion) transcends period. My first book, The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King, focuses this interest on John Milton and the English 17th century, a place and time in which questions of freedom and authority eventually brought a nation to revolution, civil war, and a failed attempt to permanently overthrow a centuries-old tradition of monarchical government.

Other recent projects include an essay on Negative Theology and Samson Agonistes in the March 2008 issue of Milton Quarterly. This is based on my seminar presentation at the Newberry Library Milton Seminar in Chicago, May 2005, and a shorter form of that essay that was presented at the International Milton Conference in Grenoble, France in June 2005. I also have recently contributed a chapter on the 1667 edition of Paradise Lost for a book edited by John Shawcross and Michael Lieb for Duquesne UP, and in April of 2010, I also have an essay, “From Last Things to First: The Apophatic Vision of Paradise Regained”, in a collection entitled Milton and the Visionary Mode: Essays on Prophecy and Violence. Eds. Peter E. Medine and David V. Urban. Duquesne UP.