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Paradise Lost: A Revolution In Retrospect

November 9, 2011

            It can be stated quite clearly that media of any time period, whether television and movies in today’s age or the long epic poems of old, reflect the time period and the opinions of the author.  Sometimes this a purposeful act, and other times it is just an effect of the author’s situation.  When reading through Milton’s Paradise Lost, an audience can see that it is clearly a religious piece, yet at the same time, many areas can be viewed, if looked at appropriately, as a reflection of the political situation of the time.

            It is true that Paradise Lost is a religious piece; after all, it is a work about heaven and hell, God and Satan.  It is also true that Milton intended it to be just that, without some subtle cue to take more out of it.  Milton clearly states in Paradise Lost that he wrote it to “justify the ways of God to men” (Book I, l. 26).  Yet, even if his reason for the creation of Paradise Lost was not political, and he would have no reason to state otherwise, his writing is more than just tempered with the occasional political notion.

Paradise Lost was composed 1658-1664, during a time of crisis in England.  The revolution had already occurred, but so had the restoration and people such as Milton could only mourn at how that act had negated all work of the civil war and the revolution.  It, in the most basic sense, proved the revolution to be a failure.  There is no doubt that Milton felt strongly about this, as he was a firm believer in the “Good Old Cause” and wrote a number of political pamphlets during the war.  He was, after all, the Latin Secretary for Oliver Cromwell in the government after the revolution (Ivimey 158).  His words were his weapons and he fought for liberty.  Even after the revolution he continued using his words to strive for a better political situation and was so deeply involved that after the restoration he was, in the words Kennet’s Chronicle, “are so fled, or so obscure themselves, that no endeavors used for their apprehension can take effect”  (Ivimey 279).  Even after he was let off and no longer forced into hiding for fear of execution, the restoration, or more accurately the failure of the revolution and the versatility of men, had him “retired from public life, and never again interfering with politics” (Ivimey 281).

It can be said that a man as principled and direct as Milton was forever changed by these happenings.  He no longer wrote long pieces of rhetoric to the populous about the politics, no longer clamoring for the attention of the masses.  He still wrote, though, even without his sight, and Paradise Lost is the result of his hard work.  It is the epic that cemented his stay as a great author, but it was not the work Milton himself foresaw writing in the beginning about the great land of England and the glorious deeds of Kind Author.  Instead it is an epic of divine proportions, the classic tale of Adam and Eve, and as far away as the then modern politics as he could get.  But this is only at a first glance and a more thorough look reveals a more real truth.

On examining Paradise Lost it is easy to find the central themes expressed within.  There is the clear justification of the actions of God, along with creating reasoning behind the first deeds and attempting to conclude if the situation could have gone any different.  This is the most looked upon thought by many critics.  They see the religious aspects that Milton parades and discuss the meaning behind them.  They even see the somewhat more subtle philosophical thought behind much of this debate, such as the importance of free will and censorship, but there is more to it than that.  Even as Milton proclaims the piece to be simply theological in content, anyone can discover the political aspects of the issues described, along with the somewhat parallel circumstance of a somewhat dictatorial rule and the subsequent rebellion.

In the very beginning of Paradise Lost, in Book 1, the audience is witness to the aftereffects of the rebellion against God.  It is not necessary to read the story to know that God can be likened to any great ruler because he is, simply, just that.  The One God, Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth (and Hell), and his will is not to be tested and his rules are not be broken.  God is quite clearly the leader of all of heaven and when Satan is in disagreement to this rule, he gathers others and wages war.  This is a very easy parallel to Milton’s own situation in England if examined closely.

Milton is a firm believer in the idea that a government is formed of the people, by the people, and for the people, or at least of the magistrates.  The argument of when it is right to go against a King has been discussed for years in his time period and, according to Michael Bryson in his article “The Tyranny of Heav’n: Milton, Magistrates, and the Rhetoric of Satan’s Protestantism in Paradise Lost” Milton seems to believe that “so-called “private-persons” may themselves take no action whatsoever against either a king, a prince, or an inferior magistrate; these magistrates and/or princes may resist, and may even depose, a king or other superior ruler, if that ruler is behaving in a grossly unjust and violent way toward his subjects” (Bryson).

Of course, many will conclude that the wars were to different, Satan being the rebellious one and also the one in the wrong whereas Milton would have perceived his side to be rebellious and right, along with the detail that Milton’s side won and Satan’s lost.  A look at the timeline of this piece provides an explanation.  Most of the political issues in this piece could have very easily been sublimation or even a very subtle notion, but Milton went into with the basic premise already set up.  It is already known who is the villain and already known how it all ends, it is Milton’s job to take these known facts and turn them into a story and the way he does so is very telling.  When writing, he turned Satan from the well known perpetrator of all evil into an underdog the audience guiltily wants to root for.  He is charismatic, as can be seen when he gather up the being of Hell in Book 1 and 2, and we see his sneaky underhandedness and lack of morals when he coerces Eve into action in Book 9.

In Satan’s speech to the people, he is using Satan as a mouth piece for the many protestant ideals.  In Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrate, he says that “since the king or magistrate holds his authority of the people, both originally and naturally for their good in the first place, and not his own, then may the people, as oft as they shall judge it for the best, either choose him or reject him, retain him or depose him, though no tyrant, merely by the liberty and right of freeborn men to be governed as seems to them best” (Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, 757).  Even if he does not associate his war with Satan’s war, he still has Satan spout protestant arguments to his fellow beings.   Bryson states that Satan uses, “Protestant rhetoric of legitimate rebellion by “princes” or “inferior magistrates” against a king and transforms it into a rallying cry for the overthrow of God himself” (Bryson).

The fact the underdogs lose in the war is also easily understood when given a second thought.  The time of this story was after the restoration, an event that decided that Milton’s group had actually been defeated.  While it may seem like they won the war, the crowning of Charles II would lead to a defeated feeling in all the rebels, especially when an order for execution is hanging over his head.  So it only seems natural that Milton would associate himself and his cause, even if only on a subconscious level, with the defeated rabble rouser.

Another similarity that can be discovered between the two, though, is that charisma and power cause change between Milton and Satan.  While there is little doubt that Milton did not see himself as the leader in their revolution, an honor that would be much more likely to go to Oliver Cromwell, he did make use of his skill in rhetoric with his many political, and vitriol, works during the time of political upheaval and greatly affected the public by doing so.  Satan, similarly, is able to band an army of hellish being together in a common goal and convince them into a common plan and then use his words to create a convincing argument that persuades Eve to eat the fruit.

Beyond that, though, what is it that Satan is eventually arguing for.  It can be said that his war against Heaven is, at least in his mind, a battle for freedom from a totalitarian and for equality and natural rights.  He fights for his own government and creates an arena that is formed of the people with a freedom to speak their own proposals and then decide together what the correct course of action is.

Satan’s dealing with Adam and Eve bring them in on the rebellion.  He may manipulate them into action, but the action is still willfully and knowingly against the rules of God, technically making them apart of this revolution.  The issues that they are fighting for are different, though.  There is still a fair bit about equality and freedom, but, closer to Milton, it is the issues of freewill and censorship that stand out.  Here it is apparent that, in regards to good and evil, Adam and Eve are said to be innocent in that they do not understand the concept.  One can pick a variety of meaning from this, but at the very least, we can see it as a censorship.  Even in Eve’s actions to separate from Adam for a while show her yearning for more freedom.

“If this be our condition, thus to dwell
In narrow circuit straitened by a Foe,
Subtle or violent, we not endued
Single with like defense, wherever met,

How are we happy, still in fear of harm?

(Book 9, ln.321-326)

            Her freedom is being stripped limited and Eve fears that they can never truly be happy if they are not able to act as they wish.  This action can also be seen as a quest for equality to Adam.  She longs for more individual power and the ability to be seen able to take care of herself, without having to worry about Adam’s control over her.  Satan is able to coerce Eve into eating the fruit by appealing to this quest for freedom and she folds because she understands the censorship, “In plain then, what forbids he but to know,/Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise?” (Book 9, ln.758-759).  She recognizes that knowledge is being withheld and the eating of the fruit shows a clear defiance of this withholding.  Milton, according to Cathrine Gimelli Martin, believes that the “goal of promoting free experimentation, exchange, and competition of ideas is conducive to greater social participation and harmony, not personal profit” and actions of Eve, though leading to the falling from grace, show this (Martin).

This action, the eating of the fruit and the effect it causes, show a victory to Satan.  He may not have taken over Heaven, but he has accomplished his goals and rules over Hell.  Yet, like the English Revolution, this is not as sweet a victory as it seems.  All his work is for naught with work of Jesus and those in Hell suffer their own punishments.  Adam and Eve also have gained nothing for their actions, but must learn to live on their own and do the best with what they have.  It is here that we can see the effect that the lessons of the revolution and subsequent restoration have on Milton.  He was not happy before rebellion, nor is he happy afterwards, but at the very least he is more knowledgeable about his actions and the actions of those around him and, though he failed, he still has the ability to try to not fail in the future.

In Book 2, there are four plans of action suggested in the face of defeat.  Moloc has the plan of open war and risk further punishment rather than accept that they are “…condemn’d/
In this abhorred deep to utter woe” (Book 2, ln.86-87).  While Milton describes this act as a desperate revenge, he then calls Belial, who proposes with a reasonable tongue the action of inaction , “…ignoble ease and peaceful sloth/ not peace…” (Book 2, ln.227-228).  This is also portrayed as less then admirable as Belial is called false and hollow, even as he seems fair and composed.  The two milder options are given, lying somewhere in the middle.  Mammon speaks next, with no preamble, to counsel making the best of the situation they were in and to not fight against it, while Beelzebub, speaking for Satan, proposes the plan familiar to all.  The action that won was option four and was met with victory and further punishment.  Adam and Eve have very similar options after their actions, yet, as is common knowledge, they choose to carry out option three, the same course Hell would have chosen if not for Satan.  This seems to be for the best for them, as they receive no further punishment, unlike the being of Hell.  It can also be said, that in the eventual defeat of the revolution, Milton has learned a lesson and chooses his own version of option three.  He no longer perpetrates war, nor does he give up and take his punishment without resisting.  He removes himself from the problematic situation and continues to make what he can out of his life, a lesson he could accept only after a final defeat.



Works Cited

Bryson, Michael E. “The Tyranny of Heav’n: Milton, Magistrates, and the Rhetoric of Satan’s Protestantism in Paradise Lost.” Presentation. Renaissance Society of America. 1999. Web. 14 Dec. 2009. <;.

Ivimey, Joseph. John Milton His Life And Times, Religious And Political Opinions. Grand Rapids: Kessinger, LLC, 2007. Print.

Martin, Catherine Gimelli. “Rewriting Cromwell: Milton, Marvell, and negative liberty in the English Revolution.” CLIO. 36.3 (Summer 2007): p307. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Slippery Rock University-Bailey Library. 16 Dec. 2009 <;.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost, Book 1,2,9. 1674. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume B The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 1831+. Print. The Sixteenth Century/ The Early Seventeenth Century.

Milton, John. Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Merritt Hughes, ed. John Milton: Complete Pomes and Major Prose. New York: Macmillan, 1957.



From → Essays

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