John Milton is a titan amongst the English literary canon. His greatest work Paradise Lost follows Lucifer as he fails to overthrow God, is cast out of heaven and becomes the malevolent Satan. Undertaking a new path, but retaining his revolutionary instinct, Satan ultimately tempts mankind to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge and inflict death upon humanity for its sin. The popular imagination of Satan now more closely resembles this poetry than scripture. However, Milton’s work extended into political philosophy, most notably joining the republican movement against King Charles I, earning him an epitaph from Fredrich Engels as “the first defender of regicide”.
Milton’s depiction of Satan has puzzled many other literary giants, ranging from C.S. Lewis to William Blake. Why would a republican choose to depict Satan — the literal embodiment of evil — as a vanguard against “Heaven’s King”? Milton was a devout man, yet served in Cromwell’s republican government, so when Satan decries the “awful” princely throne of God, it seemingly places these two instincts into conflict. These writers are mistaken in their simplistic treatment of Milton, they are not treating him as a thinker with his own individual philosophy and beliefs which changed over time. This conflict can be resolved if we look to the fact that Milton became increasingly disillusioned with Cromwell. As a result, we should see Milton’s Satan — a figure who wraps himself in the language of liberty, but ultimately acts with a monarchist instinct — as an allegory for Cromwell.
In his earlier 1659 work A Treatise of Civil Power, Milton outlines his case against monarchy. Crucially, he argues that monarchs are not a “master”. He lambasts the lovers of vice as lovers of “licence”, not of “freedom”: they saw freedom as chauvinistic sanction to impose their will on others, not accepting mutual tolerance for all. To Milton, this is sin. Man was fashioned by God “not to obey”, but to have “command” over his life. As such, the power of monarchs is not to have licence to enact their will, but to be a custodian and guarantor of people’s freedoms. They are “intrusted” by society to enact a law which is “set from above”, a law where the monarch’s own opinions are irrelevant. The monarchy exists only to protect people from one another, protecting their divine rights. Given that whoever occupies that role utilises the collective “intrusted” power of the people, it can be reclaimed if abused.
Satan stands lofty and magnanimous, but yet a King
Enter Cromwell, a man who banned the public worship of Catholicism and increasingly moved to suppress other sects like the Quakers. Whilst the degree of his tolerance compared to his peers is debated, for Milton any interference with non-violent actors is antithetical to his philosophy. Cromwell was yet another leader not being a custodian of the public will, but an imposer of his own beliefs. Milton himself stated in his Areopagitica that such religious freedoms were “above all liberties”; thus his rationale for opposing King Charles I would have also applied to the figure Cromwell became. It is no wonder then, that his defences of Cromwell became increasingly tepid, arguing upon the Lord Protector’s death that there was now a chance for a “free commonwealth”. Whilst Milton’s attitudes to Catholicism are more nuanced, as he saw it too as promoting violent coercion, he did state that any suppression should only occur after “compassionate” attempts to persuade them away from this violence had been tried “first” — in no way aligning himself with Cromwell’s immediate and genocidal prohibition.
Satan stands lofty and magnanimous, but yet a King. Peppered by spiteful embers, he speaks the most infamous lines of the poem: “it is better to rule in Hell, than serve in Heaven”. At first, he does not sit on the princely throne openly, instead using the mask of reason and debate to seem a peer to the wretched and dazed, but in actuality the entire debate has been engineered with his minion Beelzebub. Milton’s description reveals him for what he is: “a monarch”. Like Cromwell’s England, debate exists as a veneer, but the outcome is already predetermined. Despite having just committed the first ever sin, Satan remains committed to his vice and ensures that his sinful arrogance will unleash many more.
For him and Cromwell both, what matters is not what power should bring — virtue, peace and flourishing — but the conceited idolatry of status. He is happy to disrupt a peaceful order, for others to live their own lives in pain and worse, purely for the pursuit of “glory” greater than his “peers”. Cromwell in minting himself on coins and adopting royal titles, elicits stark parallels, as he too perused reverence and recognised symbols of status. Such cynical motives have shamed revolutionaries and leaders both throughout time, from Napoleon wreaking continental havoc in his self-aggrandising pursuit of legacy, to many of the social activists of today: more motivated by their wish to be recognised as part of something significant, rather than a genuine care for the issues themselves. So often motivated by arrogance and belief in their superiority to established wisdom, they stumble into literal hell.
Milton’s Satan is not unique; narcissism is the root of sin and suffering across all of his work. Remember, Milton’s political writings critique those who seek the “licence” to attack free speech, which is something that can only be possible if they believe themselves the superior of their peers. Their fellow citizens do not have equal judgement, values or rights, but are their inferior. The same attitude prevails in Paradise Lost. Satan’s plot is timeless in its horror. It is the desire not to reduce one’s own suffering, but to inflict it on others: not of hate for them, but from envy that someone else could be happier than oneself, that one can be surpassed by anyone else. It is this which causes him to seek Eve’s fall. Even though she elicits “pleasure” and “delight” in him in her grace, he would rather revoke that in her, revoke his own newfound happiness, if it means knowing someone else is not his greater.
Likewise Eve, despite her charms and virtues, upon eating the forbidden fruit speaks of being “more equal” than her husband (Orwell is not original in use of the phrase). In so doing, she joins Satan’s original sin, a false belief in one’s own superiority. It is an incoherent statement, a mirror of how the Parliamentarian’s rhetoric of liberty was as empty as the Rump Parliament’s chambers.
So should end this literary debate. Milton’s supposed competing instincts are nothing of the kind. In equating Cromwell and Satan, Milton rebukes not the initial plot against the King nor the evil of Satan, but Cromwell’s own treason against the English people.
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