Le Droit du Plus Fort: Lawas Metaphor and Morality in Milton's Samson Agonistes

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This study explores the emergence of legal language as the salient language for social relations in early modernity, through its prominence in the last, most personal and most passionate work of John Milton, the dramatic poem Samson Agonistes (1671). In this extraordinary work, law functions as a secularized order of obligations on different levels of metaphor. In each of the poem's major parts some legal construction is introduced metaphorically in such a way as to render coherence, meaning and unity to its central argument. The source of normative obligation is transformed from divine command (or grace) to a secularized paradigm of legality. Through their distinctive and developing voices, the characters reveal their relations as framed by mutual expectations grounded in reciprocal rights and duties, conveniently arranged in the several forms of legal relations. Likewise, claims of transgressions are arranged and presented in recognizable social-normative forms, i.e. along legal lines of English family law, property law, and the law of trusts and bonds. With Hobbes, political theory became grounded in a normative framework independent of religion, and the legal metaphor of “social contract” became the prevalent metaphor in political theory. This study - dealing not so much in law and literature as in the history of legal language - traces how Milton, the generation's foremost humanist, cast law both as an internal grammar for social relations and as an interpretative principle of action. Albeit a religious author, Milton's last work's extensive use of legal language anticipates one of modernity's most recognizable structures, namely the emergence of law as the salient normative field.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)440-469
Number of pages30
JournalLaw, Culture and the Humanities
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Law


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