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John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an allegory condemning the political situation in England throughout his lifetime. Milton held Puritan beliefs and was strongly opposed to any government in which power is given to a single individual, as is the case in a monarchy, and was especially opposed to Charles I and, later, the restoration of Charles II.
Milton felt “suspicious of the human icon, whether of Cromwell, the regicides, Charles I, or Charles II and felt that the Restoration was undeniably a personal and political defeat.
Through Paradise Lost Milton provides his readers with an incite into his personal ideology by critiquing society, as well as the political and religious institutions of his time in a fictional story that depicts a hierarchical society modeled after the current government with a king as the supreme ruler, uncontested by the people.
In 1656, John Milton began writing an epic poem which, after being released in 1667, would become a masterpiece arguing against the politics of his time.
Paradise Lost describes Satan’s rebellion against God, as well as “man’s first disobedience” leading up to the fall from Eden.
In order to truly understand John Milton’s strong political beliefs, one must first understand the affairs of state under which he lived. Charles I was crowned King of England in 1625 and within a few years chose so rule with his own absolute prerogatives, dissolving Parliament for the following eleven years.
Ruling his three Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland from a distance, Charles used the common belief of the divine right of Kings to justify his behavior.
Milton wrote in Paradise Lost,
For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone,
By his permissive will, through heav’n and earth.?
This is not truly what Milton believed, but it is a direct parallel to the affairs of state in the English monarchy. In his eyes, the King desired an unconditional obeying of his every wish and would not put up with any challenge put forth by the people.
For this reason, he must be fought against in the same manner that Satan wrestled with God. This detachment from his people caused them to develop much distrust in their ruler, which in due course led to their questioning of his right to the throne and ultimately caused his execution.
By the late 1630s, after years of petitions from the people being ignored, ideas of rebellion began to arise. Charles was using Parliament’s powers of taxation to continuously raise money for wars but Parliament felt they deserved more say as far as monetary distribution went In 1645, after a long Civil War between the New Model Army (Parliament’s army which was led by Oliver Cromwell) and the King’s army, the King surrendered to Parliament.
At this point many people did not know what to do next, as a situation like this had never come about before. At this point in time, Cromwell, who would later play a crucial role in English government, thought the monarchy to be “a very necessary part of social order and a protector of property rights”), causing him to be worried about the demands his soldiers were making for a populist rule.
Charles I continued to compromise with Parliament in an effort to buy himself time, but in the end he was tried for treason against the throne and executed. John Milton was one of the many active writers arguing in favor of beheading the King.
The epic opens with a civil war in Heaven between God and the rebel Angels, a parallel to the Civil War in England. The battle led to the banishment of Satan and the rebels, similar to the banishment of Charles I’s son, Charles II. Nine years later, he wrote,
Though perhaps till now no protestant state or kingdom can be alleged to have openly put to death their king, which lately some have written and imputed to their great glory, much mistaking the matter, it is not, neither ought to be, the glory of a Protestant state never to have put their king to death; it is the glory of a Protestant king never to have deserved death. And if the parliament and military council do what they do without precedent, if it appear their duty, it argues the more wisdom, virtue, and magnanimity, that they know themselves able to be a precedent to others; who perhaps in future ages, if they prove not too degenerate, will look up with honour and aspire towards these exemplary and matchless deeds of their ancestors, as to the highest top of their civil glory and emulation; which heretofore, in the pursuance of fame and foreign dominion, spent itself vaingloriously abroad, but henceforth may learn a better fortitude – to dare execute highest justice on them that shall by force of arms endeavour the oppressing and bereaving of religion and their liberty at home: that no unbridled potentate or tyrant, but to his sorrow, for the future may presume such high and irresponsible licence over mankind, to havoc and turn upside down whole kingdoms of men, as though they were no more in respect of his perverse will than a nation of pismires.
Milton wrote The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates to support and explain his political opinion of the execution. As this quote shows, he feels Parliament deserves the utmost respect for realizing where their duty lies and taking unprecedented actions accordingly.
The execution of a major monarch was, for all intents and purposes, “an earthquake on the political landscape,” and it in turn led to an unusual period of British history, the only time England has ever been run as a republic, which was known as the Commonwealth. Immediately following the beheading of Charles I, Cromwell was named the undisputed leader of English Parliament, mostly due to his military prowess.
Cromwell’s main intent as head of Parliament was to forge a unified Protestant society in England. His beliefs in “divine mission” had become similar to the beliefs of the monarchs in earlier years.
Although Milton saw this as tyrannical behavior which would lead the English nation back to the problems that caused the Revolution, many others agreed with Cromwell’s new policies and their closeness to the monarch they had trusted for years.
As time went by, Cromwell experimented with various forms of Parliament in an attempt to find the one most suitable to run the country with himself in charge, and in due course was offered the Kingship. Seeing it in his best interest to turn this offer down, Cromwell was declared Lord Protector of England.
This did not alleviate Milton’s concerns that Cromwell accumulated too much “Kingly” power. The next few years brought much opposition from Royalist parties who did not like Cromwell’s policies. John Lilburne, a Leveller imprisoned by Cromwell in 1649, wrote him a letter expressing these views.
He made such statements as “We have much cause to distrust you; for we know how many broken promises that you have made to the kingdom,?” but this did not seem to affect Cromwell who responded with such comments as “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman.
You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces,” and he continued to try to form his ideal Puritanical government until, in 1658, he died of pneumonia. John Milton, as well as the other Puritans did their best to prevent a restoration of the old monarch, publishing many pamphlets and essays, making such arguments as,
If we prefer a free government, though for the present not obtained, yet all those suggested fears and difficulties, as the event will prove, easily overcome, we remain finally secure from the exasperated regal power, and out of snares; shall retain the best part of our liberty, which is our religion, and the civil part will be from these who defer us, much more easily recovered, being neither so subtle nor so awful as a king reinthroned.”
Unfortunately, this effort was unsuccessful and two years later these ideas were forgotten as Charles II was restored to the throne. As Milton says in the opening, Paradise Lost was written to “assert the Eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men.”
However, a more in depth analysis of the text provides a less perceptible metaphor of Milton’s political beliefs. The poem includes many biblical references starting with Satan’s banishment from Heaven. There are two basic schools of thought arguing over whom Satan represented in the epic: Charles II or Oliver Cromwell.
Either one can be supported by looking at what Satan does when he tempts Eve with the forbidden fruit. God created mankind with free-will, which means the ability to do as they please rather than be his “drones.” In the claim that these new creatures are extraordinary because of their ability to reason, and then commanding them to obey him above all others, God contradicts himself.
This ability to decide whether or not to obey him means risking the loss of power if they choose to “sin,” something that God will not tolerate. This is a manipulation of his people and an abuse of power.
By enticing Eve, and therefore sending Adam and Eve into a world of knowledge, although full of pain and suffering, Satan is proving that God may be power hungry, reigning effectively with his infliction of fear much like Charles I during his reign and Cromwell during the later stages of the Inter Regnum.
Paradise Lost was intended as a political statement, in which, by using Satan as the unlikely hero trying to rise up against the one who is all powerful, Milton was denouncing the Monarchy then in power while painting himself and the other dissenters in a positive light.
Through this reversal of roles between God and Devil as well as between good and evil, Milton is able to justify his political beliefs, through the use of an extremely political Heaven and Hell, Milton proves that England could continue its successful existence without the support of the King, just as Satan was able to stand alone without the aid and support of God.
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