Journal Article

John Milton and the Epochs of International Law

Christopher N. Warren

in European Journal of International Law

Published on behalf of The EJIL

Volume 24, issue 2, pages 557-581
Published in print May 2013 | ISSN: 0938-5428
Published online June 2013 | e-ISSN: 1464-3596 | DOI:
John Milton and the Epochs of International Law

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For the historian of international law William Grewe in his controversial opus, The Epochs of International Law, it was the English writer John Milton who offered the death blow to an entire epoch, one founded on the principle that discovery brought legal title in international law. Yet John Milton’s Paradise Lost is rarely considered alongside the history of international law. In this article, I contend that a robust history of international law in the 17th century would profit from engaging head on with literary texts like Paradise Lost. Milton’s understanding of the law of nations provides legal scholars with a richer intellectual history of 17th-century international law than that typically on offer – one more sensitive to humanist methods, literary texts, and embodied questions of vulnerability. Approaching the intellectual history of the law of nations dialectically, I suggest that a full reckoning of Milton’s law of nations in Paradise Lost requires a careful balance of presentism and openness to alterity – presentism in the sense that we might appreciate how strongly Milton’s law of nations resonates with debates about international law in our own time, and alterity in the sense that Milton’s law of nations encompassed much that many of today’s readers would hardly recognize as ‘international law’. A full intellectual history of Milton’s law of nations, then, may require us partly to estrange that term – to set aside a priori definitions of the ‘international’ and resist easy transhistorical transpositions from Milton’s late Renaissance world to our own – but it also requires a paradoxical domestication of the law of nations, a making familiar, a bringing into one’s home.

Journal Article.  13900 words. 

Subjects: Public International Law

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