Paradise Lost: John Milton’s Politics
Milton was a man who wanted nothing but the best for his nation. A prolific polemicist, Milton had many ideas about how to improve the United Kingdom during the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, his ideas of what was best for the nation became unpopular. Eventually, his position in the political sphere landed him in prison, blind and waiting for death, with the restoration of the King he had so zealously opposed. Thankfully for modern scholars, Milton managed to avoid the death sentence under King Charles II. He went on to create the most profound, inspiring and politically minded poem of early-modern England: Paradise Lost.
This epic poem was a culmination of Milton’s life. He infused the work with his ideology, his theology and his political thinking and writing, using the greatest Kingdom of all time as allegory- Heaven. God, the all-powerful monarch, and Satan, the Archdemon and orchestrator of the Fall of Man, play out the celestial tug of war over man’s soul. This created interesting insights into Milton’s views of monarchy, democracy, freedom and subjugation. Most importantly, Paradise Lost strongly reflects Milton’s political writing, in particular The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, in its examination of the dangers of monarchy in a world of rational and free creatures.
With such a strong reflection, Milton’s ideas on monarchy are driven home in ways that provoke thought and discussion by purposefully forcing the reader to question God, to investigate the Fall of Man, and to really try to understand Satan’s motivation. Milton examined the flaws in placing faith in one being, no matter how powerful, the uselessness of monarchy and the degradation and danger presented in such a flawed system of government.
One of the most stunning points that Milton made over and over again is that monarchy is stupid. He saw it as useless, superficial and false in a nation of thinking individuals. In Ready and Easy Way, Milton said that a monarch “will have little else to do but to bestow the eating and drinking of excessive dainties, a pompous face upon the superficial actings of the state,”(p 1119). Milton thought that a monarch is simply an arrogant, shallow piece of government with no productive purpose. This idea is expounded in Paradise Lost, Book III. God gives a speech to his angels, foretelling the fall of mankind, and stating that someone must sacrifice in order to save his beloved creatures from eternal damnation. Jesus then volunteers for the dirty work. God praises Jesus, and himself for being so very clever, then abruptly “The multitude of angels with a shout/ Loud as from numbers without number, sweet/ As from blest voices, uttering joy, Heav’n rung,” (ln 345-47).
The poem then goes on for another seventy lines describing Heaven in gaudy and frivolous terms. In telling the story this way, Milton slyly provokes the reader to consider just what exactly the point of having a monarch, especially one who delegates the dangerous tasks of leadership to his underlings, and the silliness of exalting such a ruler in often times extravagant, pompous ways.
In addition to his rejection of the intelligence of a monarchy, Milton actually expressed the idea that anybody who willingly installs a monarchy over themselves is insane. Ready and Easy Way ends with the dedication “But I trust I shall have spoken persuasion to abundance of sensible and ingenuous men[…] justly and timely fearing to what a precipice of destruction the deluge of this epidemic madness would hurry us, through the general defection of a misguided and abused multitude,” (p 1136). He was placing faith, or hope, in a nation of readers that he felt had gone astray from what they naturally and rationally would choose, having been misled to support the restoration of King Charles II.
Milton, we know, was ignored, and the restoration went on despite his protestation. He was imprisoned and eventually set free, leading to the context in which he constructs Paradise Lost. It is in this poem that he illustrated the way he believed true leaders should act, and how they should be selected, through the actions and speeches of Satan in Hell. In Book I of Paradise Lost, Satan stands in the newly constructed palace, surrounded by the new republic of Hell, and says “Me though just right, and the fixed laws of Heav’n/ Did first create your leader, next, free choice,[…] Established in a safe unenvied throne/ Yielded with full consent,” (l 18-24). Satan then explains the logic behind his being chosen as leader, having the greatest share of pain and responsibility and thus the greatest share of power, as opposed to Heaven, where God is left to be thought of as ruling without the consent of his subjects, shoving the hard work and sacrifice off to others.
Milton presents Hell as a persecuted yet far more rational, intelligent place than Heaven when, in Satan’s speech, he writes “With this advantage then/ To union, and firm faith, and firm accord,/ More than can be in Heav’n,” (l 35-37). This representation of Satan speaking to the demons of Hell is important. Cast into eternal torment for their actions against what they viewed as tyranny, the reader is forced to consider the question of how and why a leader is put into power. Milton is asking the reader ‘what is better, a powerful ruler demanding loyalty, or a loyal ruler given power?’
With such attributes as stupidity and insanity representing Milton’s views of those who support monarchy, it is not surprising to find that a major source of his opposition is that Milton found living under a monarch to be degrading. The degradation of a people is intrinsic to having a king, as stated in Ready and Easy Way on page 1119 when Milton describes that a monarch has little to do but “…pageant himself up and down in progress among the perpetual bowings and cringings of an abject people, on either side deifying and adoring him for nothing done that can deserve it.” It has already been established that Milton found monarchs useless, but now he asserts that a monarch by nature results in an unpleasant and demeaning situation for the people being ruled.
In Paradise Lost, Milton was able to bring this idea to mind in a way that causes some second-guessing of the nature and adoration of monarchy. In Book IV, lines 947 through 967, Gabriel confronts Satan. Gabriel condemns Satan in lines 957 through 960, saying ” ‘…thou sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem/ Patron of liberty, who more than thou/ Once fawned, and cringed, and servilely adored/ Heav’n’s awful Monarch?'” This scene in Paradise Lost is very interesting because it can be read in many ways. On one hand, Gabriel could be mocking Satan by repeating Satan’s own view of “cringing” and adoring servility in Heaven, angry at Satan because of his rebellion. This view would allow little power to this section and simply be an iteration of how very bad Satan is. On the other hand, this could be reflective of Gabriel the Archangel’s own internal thoughts and emotions.
With so much commentary on the negative aspects of monarchy, the text better supports the idea that this scene reflects Gabriel’s own inner thoughts and emotions, showing a negative view of the Kingdom of Heaven from one who fought to protect it. This contradiction of emotion and action is one source of Gabriel’s anger in his speech to Satan, playing off of the humiliation of Gabriel for his position within God’s kingdom as well as the failure of Satan’s revolt. Milton drew out exactly the emotional state he believes England to be in after the restoration- that of subjugation and fiery adherence to an emotionally abrasive position of servility.
Decidedly, it is safe to say that Milton disliked the reformation. His political essay The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth was his immediate reaction to the growing opinion for reinstating the monarchy. Eventually, after failing to convince England that this was a mistake and suffering the ensuing imprisonment, he came to reiterate his political ideas and philosophies through the epic poem Paradise Lost. The connections that can be made between these works bring out Milton’s ideas in a thought-provoking and inspirational way.
The most interestingly examined ideas are his doubts as to the intelligence and sanity of those who would install a monarch as their ruler, as well as the degrading position this puts them in. By using Satan as the protagonist of his ideas he automatically prejudices people against the ideas being explored. This strange flip of characters, with Satan being the hero of the story and God the “awful Monarch,” allows for a full exploration and expression of Milton’s views while forcing the reader to think critically of everything being said and done.
Milton wanted England to realize what a monarchy truly means and to answer for the decision they made, if not to him, then to themselves, in perhaps the most elaborate, inspiring and beautiful ‘I Told You So’ in all of early modern England.
1. Kerrigan, William, John Rumrich, and Stephne M. Fallon. “The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton.” New Your: Modern Library, 2007. Print
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