Satan, Enlightenment, and Milton’s Politics in Paradise Lost
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most scrutinized texts in the western canon. Of frequent interest is how Milton was attempting to, as he wrote in Book I of the poem, “justifie the wayes of God to men” (26). Most critics agree that the character of Satan is one of the most dynamic and compelling characters in the poem with his charismatic speeches and grand posturing. Modern readers, as well as Romantic writers such as William Blake, are drawn to the character of Satan because of his appeals to reason and against tyranny. Readers who had been exposed to enlightenment ideals can find the Satan’s notions of liberty from tyranny and consent of the governed all throughout Satan’s rhetoric, particularly in books I and II. However, it certainly was not Milton’s intention to make Satan the hero of the text. Satan’s appeal was meant to represent the temptation of sin, and Satan’s role as a leader of the other fallen angels falls in line with Milton’s hierarchical perspective, that no one person is to hold themselves higher than their fellow man. The character of Satan functions as a means by which Milton comments on political turmoil of his day.
In Milton’s time, the Elizabethan era, England was filled with political and religious turmoil stemming from when Henry VIII established the Anglican Church. With the monarch being handed religious power, conflict ensued between Catholics and Protestants. Something of a compromise was reached with the Elizabethan Settlement, which tries to make a protestant church that would be acceptable to Catholics. However Protestants were never fully satisfied. Thus into the 17th century there were numerous political upheavals, notably the English revolution in 1641 where parliament overthrew the Monarchy.
During the height of the civil war in 1644 Milton published his Areopagitica where he argued for freedom of speech and from censorship, writing “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (Areopagitica). This notion of free speech is an Enlightenment ideal that is familiar to those who have read the First Amendment. Milton later wrote in his The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates of his notion of the consent of the governed, that a King’s power is only given to them by the people, writing “It being thus manifest that the power of Kings and Magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferr’d and committed to them in trust from the People, to the Common good of them all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be tak’n from them, without a violation of thir natural birthright” (Kings and Magistrates). This echoes John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government where he states “Every man being, as has been shewed, naturally free, and nothing being able to put him into subjection to any earthly power, but only his own consent; it is to be considered, what shall be understood to be a sufficient declaration of a man’s consent, to make him subject to the laws of any government” (Locke 291). What connects Milton to enlightenment ideals is his reverence of reason, writing in Areopagitica “When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose.” In his seminal enlightenment work Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? Immanuel Kant wrote “This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called ‘freedom’: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (Kant 62). Milton’s politics of reason, freedom of speech, and government consent, are all considered to be key elements of the Enlightenment movement.
In Paradise Lost, Satan makes many of these similar appeals to reason. In making what appears to be a reasonable case, readers often feel empathetic towards Satan. In book I of the poem Satan’s words after the defeat in heaven exude confidence and an eagerness to exact revenge on God. Satan believes that they were very close to defeating God. Satan makes excuses for their loss, reasoning that they had no idea God was so powerful. Satan’s main argument to Beelzebub is an argument against what Satan believes is God’s tyranny. Satan says that it is better to be in hell than in heaven under God’s dictatorship, stating in lines 245-251:
Be it so, since he
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell (Milton 245-251)
He also reasons “Here at least / We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built / Here for his envy,” meaning that God has no use for Hell and it is a place they can be safe (258-259). Satan further states in line 263 “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. “ Satan’s appeals for freedom from God’s tyranny resonates in those exposed to enlightenment thinking, particularly the notion of the consent of the governed. Satan and his followers had no choice in whether to be under God’s reign. This again reflects the writings of John Locke in the Two Treatise of Government where he writes “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to; and this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage.”
Satan further argues that God does not have this “right” that Locke spoke of. In book V Satan questions God’s authority when rallying his followers to battle, saying
Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchie over such as live by right
His equals, if in power and splendor less,
In freedome equal? or can introduce
Law and Edict on us, who without law
Erre not, much less for this to be our Lord,
And look for adoration to th’ abuse
Of those Imperial Titles which assert
Our being ordain’d to govern, not to serve? (794-802)
Satan is questioning what right God has to impose his laws on them. Satan believes that he and the angels are God’s equal. Satan is following the notion of hierarchy and that one on the same level as another shall not hold themselves to be greater than their equal. Abdiel responds to Satan correcting him on placing himself and the other angels on the same level as God saying
But to grant it thee unjust,
That equal over equals Monarch Reigne:
Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom (831-835)
Abdiel is saying that while Satan is right in saying that it is not right for an equal to rule over an equal, it is absurd to belief that he is on an equal plane as god. To relate back to the political context in which Paradise Lost, Milton believed it was the Monarchy who was holding themselves over their equally created human beings. With Abdiel’s response to Satan, Milton is saying only God can reign over humans without the consent of the governed.
Abdiel furthers this point in book VI before he strikes Satan, saying
Apostat, still thou errst, nor end wilt find
Of erring, from the path of truth remote:
Unjustly thou deprav’st it with the name
Of Servitude to serve whom God ordains,
Or Nature; God and Nature bid the same,
When he who rules is worthiest, and excels
Them whom he governs. This is servitude,
To serve th’ unwise, or him who hath rebelld
Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,
Thy self not free, but to thy self enthrall’d; (172-181)
Satan had just accused God of being a slave master. In this quotation, Abdiel is calling Satan a fool for believing so. Abdiel says that there is no one more worthy to reign over the angels in heaven than God, and if anyone were a slave, it would be Satan’s followers, making Satan the tyrant. Ultimately, Satan is a slave to his own misconceptions. It is in this point Milton makes his argument through Abdiel against the old divine right of kings mentality of the English monarchy. Satan becomes representative of the monarchs who claim power over their equals. The only being with a divine right of power is God.
Milton drives this notion home in book XII when the angel Michael is showing Adam the future of man. Michael describes how there will be a new generation of people after the flood, who for generations will behave as they remember what would happen if they made God angry. Michael then speaks of a man who attempts to reign over his fellow man.
till one shall rise
Of proud ambitious heart, who not content
With fair equalitie, fraternal state,
Will arrogate Dominion undeserv’d
Over his brethren, and quite dispossess
Concord and law of Nature from the Earth,
Hunting (and Men not Beasts shall be his game)
With Warr and hostile snare such as refuse
Subjection to his Empire tyrannous:
A mightie Hunter thence he shall be styl’d
Before the Lord, as in despite of Heav’n,
Or from Heav’n claming second Sovrantie;
And from Rebellion shall derive his name,
Though of Rebellion others he accuse.
This is describing the biblical character King Nimrod. According to Michael he ended the time of peace. He killed anyone who did not accept him as his or her ruler and he wanted to be God. Nimrod and his followers built a tower to reach heaven and in response God made everyone speak different languages. Adam responds to this story in a manner that directs the poem’s audience, saying “O execrable Son so to aspire / Above his Brethren, to himself assuming / Authoritie usurpt,” (63-66), calling Nimrod a fool for thinking he could reign over his equals. Adam further argues that God is the only one who can rule over people, saying
He gave us onely over Beast, Fish, Fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but Man over men
He made not Lord; such title to himself
Reserving, human left from human free. (67-70)
In contrast to Satan’s attempts at revolution to become like God and rule over his fellow angels, Adam acknowledges that one cannot hold power over their equal. As Milton argued in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a leader’s power is only legitimate if those who are governed consent.
Satan’s confusion of servitude and serving is a key to understanding Milton’s politics as they relate to the Enlightenment. In Paradise Lost Adam and Eve are punished for not obeying and serving God, just as Satan is cast from Heaven for not obeying God and revolting. This recalls the Enlightenment ideal of the contract theory of government. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract he wrote, “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (Rousseau 55). The contract theory of government states that individuals must give up some of their rights in exchange for the protections given by a sovereign government. Adam and Eve, as well as the Angels in Paradise Lost have free will, but must make the right decision in order to receive God’s grace. They all must be willing to give up their right to do as they wish in exchange for God’s favor. Satan does not receive this favor because he was not willing to cede his liberty. This reflects the contract theory of government.
While Satan is a charismatic figure whose ideals do reflect those of the enlightenment, Satan is portrayed in books I and II as being a victim of God’s tyranny, and therefore is the subject of pity of many readers. But Satan is mistaken according to Milton because God is above the angels, and Satan is the one claiming power over his equals by trying to replace God. Moreover, in Paradise Lost Milton’s message on the subject of government is one the begs for the use of right reason, the concept of the consent of the governed, and the contract theory of government, all Enlightenment ideals which are carried through to today.
Kant, Immanuel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Modern World. The Asheville Reader. Acton, MA: Copley Custom Group, 2003. 61-66. Print.
Locke, John. Two Treatises on Government. R. Butler, 1821. Google Books. Web.
Milton, John. Aeropagitica. Dartmouth, 1644. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
Milton, John. Milton: The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Dartmouth, 1650. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
Milton, John, and John T. Shawcross. “Paradise Lost.” The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1971. 249-517. Print.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. “The Social Contract.” The Modern World. The Asheville Reader. Acton, MA: Copley Custom Group, 2003. 52-58. Print.