The Spirit of Liberty in “Paradise Lost”

The capital difficulty of understanding Milton today is manifest in the great profusion of sects and opinions surrounding the interpretation of Paradise Lost. Among these, the most intriguing view is perhaps the Romantic school’s identification with Satan as the embodiment of revolutionary freedom, and with Milton as a poet “of the devil’s party.” In my estimation these Romantics are quite mistaken, but they are not totally without reason. Certainly Milton was a republican, a revolutionary, an overthrower of the monarchy, and even a defender of regicide; certainly Satan is the same—so it appears—against the monarchy of God. It follows, then, that Milton is with Satan, who must be the true hero.

But how can this be? The very argument of Paradise Lost, not to mention Milton’s plain and sincere religious beliefs, abhor such an interpretation. And yet the figure of Satan rising up against all heaven and hell looms so large over the whole work that it is hard not to see him as the hero–or, at the very least, as the protagonist. We have arrived at an impasse. If Milton is with Satan, he will seem to contradict the principle of Christianity, which he professes, but on the other hand if Milton is with God, he will seem to contradict the principle of liberty, which he also professes. In the following, therefore, we shall examine the role and beliefs of Satan, whether he is hero or tyrant, and, proceeding in an orderly fashion, come to some understanding of Milton’s idea of freedom.

The Dramatic Significance of Satan

The first error that we must disabuse ourselves of is the notion that Milton wrote an allegory. For a reader of our day, it is very easy to treat Paradise Lost as mere mythology and consequently not take it seriously, or only take it seriously insofar as it really depicts something else—some kind of social commentary disguised with a veil of religion. The somewhat obvious point to the contrary is that nobody who writes allegories thinks that the events therein really happened, but Milton clearly believes that the Fall is a real event, as real as execution of Charles I. Even without the clarity of external knowledge, in Paradise Lost itself the poet maintains a clear distinction between the classical elements and the biblical, between “those gardens feign’d/Or of revived Adonis, or renowned/Alcinous, host of Laertes’ son,” which are in fact just poetic figures, and “that [garden], not mystic, where the sapient king/Held dalliance with his fair Egyptian spouse”—the garden of Solomon.[1] These expressions would make little sense if the classical and the biblical are equally myth. The invocations found at the beginning of the Books VII and IX, also stress the true nature of the Hebrew or Chirstian narrative. The nine Muses are “an empty dream,” but Urania the muse of Horeb is real; the jousts of “fabled knights” of the medieval romances are “feigned,” but the War in Heaven is real.[2]

By this, I do not intend to say that artistic licence in no way exists in Paradise Lost—a writer of serious historical fiction may very well invent things which did not happen, embellish things which did, and employ symbolism. But the characters in historical fiction are symbolic not by being abstract metaphors, as in allegories, but by being individuals with some pre-eminent and representative characteristic. Considered this way—and not counting certain irregularities[3]Paradise Lost shares more with modern psychological masterpieces such as The Red and the Black, or with Shakespeare’s historical plays than with Pilgrim’s Progress or Gulliver’s Travels. Satan is no more an abstraction of Rebellion than Julien Sorel or Henry Bolingbroke. Milton’s intention seems rather to cast Satan as a preeminent rebel, the Rebel of Rebels. By the representative power of his great sin, he could be considered an archetype for fallen humanity. In the words of Lord Macaulay, the characters of the Miltonian demons are “marked by a certain dim resemblance to those of men, but exaggerated to gigantic proportions, and veiled in a mysterious gloom.”[4]

Pandemonium of Despair

It should not surprise us that the Romantics are so much in love with Milton. Though his style is classical and dignified, Paradise Lost breathes forth an agitated spirit unknown to the works of classicists, which caused Hugo (the glory of French Romanticism) to say, “Paradise Lost is a drama before it is an epic.”[5] It is, first and foremost, a drama of Man.

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree [...]
Sing heav’nly Muse [...] (I.1-2)

—these are the first lines, the great argument of the Christian epic. Why then does Milton begin in Hell with Satan as the main character? The magnificence of the Archfiend, the sympathetic distress of the fallen angels, elements which strike a chord with the melancholic nineteenth-century poets, are too often met with bafflement or repulsion by the generality of Christians who have never courted despair. But the condition of the fiends is very real and close to us, although their despair is magnified to infinitude by the absolute nature of their sin. This heightening of agitation is precisely what a Romantic seeks, and what makes him so well-fitted to embrace the emotional exhilaration of Paradise Lost. And we must follow in their path, if we wish to understand the mind of Satan and his nearness to the human condition.

The tragedy of the angelic rebellion is that it is entirely absurd. If God is omnipotent, as Milton holds, then the devils are merely deluding themselves if they think they could actually prevail. Beelzebub comes to the same conclusion a hundred and fifty lines into the poem,

What can it then avail though yet we feel
Strength undiminished, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment? (I.154-156)

To which Satan raises the possibility that although they cannot win against God, they may yet strive to “grieve” him, and bring evil out of good, if Satan does not fail. Beelzebub seems to accept this plan, and, as the mouthpiece of Satan, bills it to the demons in Pandemonium. Such a plan is manifestly more realistic than Moloch’s proposal for self-destructive war; Belial’s proposal to sit around and hope that things do not become worse, and Mammon’s proposal to build a capitalist utopia. For, as Beelzebub points out, there is nowhere they can escape the dominion of God:

[...] For he, be sure,
In height or depth, still first and last will reign
Sole King [...] (II.323-328).

Thus, covert and malicious revenge, without hope for any positive gain for themselves but purely for the destruction of the happiness of others, is the only recourse. But upon a most elementary exercise of reason we will find that this plan is no more tenable than the other ones. How is it possible that Satan’s plan to turn good into evil will not fail, when his opponent is quite literally the Supreme Being on whom all being depends? This too is an absurdity. And does Satan not know? Unlike the lesser fallen angels, he holds no delusions about the finality of Hell, and reveals something of this even in the celebrated lines of his initial speech:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. (I.254-255)

Satan’s only real recourse and comfort is not even in the hope of frustrating God, as he communicates to Beelzebub, but simply in persisting. He has made up his mind for Hell, and Hell it must be, even if there is no advantage to be gained at all. Again he declaims in Book IV:

Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell (IV.73-75).

Satan is quite the existentialist in this passage. To exist in infinite misery is preferable to submission, because only by affirming the validity of his own choice, a pure assertion of the will over right reason and against any higher power—“Evil be thou my good” (IV.110)—could he find any meaning in existence.

The Descent from Rebellion into Tyranny

In the foregoing we have shown, with some literary psychoanalysis, that Satan acts less from reasoned consideration for the good of his party than from a need for existential validation. Nonetheless, we can also see why he is so compelling, and why all the obsessively introspective Romantic poets and the young, gloomy aspirants to Nietzschean super-manhood find it so easy to understand the Fiend. The question now is, does Milton commend this pure assertion of one’s will as the ultimate act of freedom? Is Satan a selfless republican hero, or is he a despicable egotist who dragged down a third of Heaven by his own pride? If the former, then the Romantics are right: God is a tyrant and, though Satan cannot overthrow God, he nevertheless did a praiseworthy thing. Otherwise, Satan is neither republican nor a hero, but in fact a tyrant himself.

There is a certain egalitarian appearance to the Satanic party. During the infernal council, all the major demons, the “Seraphic Lords”, rise and speak in turn, and then they vote on the course of action. At least, one feels that that is what is supposed to happen. For the theory of egalitarianism is in reality greatly spoiled by the fact that Satan sits on an elevated golden throne and is described as a monarch throughout the entire scene.[6] In the end the effect comes closer to a cartel than a senate, closer to a one-party conclave than a free parliament. Everything is painfully contrived: Satan has already communicated the course of action to Beelzebub, and when the latter suggests a plan he is merely stating the official position. A volunteer for the critical mission is needed, and of course nobody but Satan is fitted for such greatness. He accepts with an air of condescending superiority:

[...] Wherefore do I assume
These royalties, and not refuse to reign,
Refusing to accept as great a share
Of hazard and of honour [...] (II.450-452)

In this speech we hear the echo of every Caesar, every Napoleon, and every twentieth-century dictator who in a time of crisis was elevated to First Citizen, who was offered supreme power, and who hesitated not to reach for empire and seize it. Is this republic indeed? Yes—the People’s Republic of Pandemonium.

The fallen angels end the council by kowtowing to Satan, their new emperor by popular vote, and “as a god/ Extol him equal to the Highest of Heav’n” (II.477-479). Yet how did they begin? The initial argument, put forth, of course, by Satan, is that the angelic powers cannot suffer to bend the knee to the Son, as he is their equal. And nor are they obliged to obey the commands of God, as they must presume self-creation. Very soon, this initial hostility to the Son evolves into a full-blown skepticism of God’s omnipotence, and from there on a fanatical commitment to “Win the mount of God, and on his throne,/To set the envier of his state […]”—that is, Satan (VI.87-88). The true aim of the angelic revolution, therefore, is not to achieve equality but to replace one hierarchy with another, and Satan himself admits: “orders and degrees/Jar not with liberty, but well consist” (V.792-793). He is truly the deft Deceiver. First he rouses the pride and private passions of the angels, by declaring them uncreated gods, thereby luring them into a futile rebellion. With these firmly in his hold, he makes them feel their lesser stature, so as to assert his own superiority over them, and all the while intimating that he alone can overpower God. What is this, if not a prime example of the Art of Tyranny, appearing time and time again on the stage of history, a spell cast by ambitious men over a decadent and fearful people?

True Liberty and the Miltonian Republic

It has been established, I hope, that Satan is no sincere republican, and no hero of liberty, but a tyrant and a usurper, to whom the host of Hell would bend in servile prostration after they have just refused to serve God in Heaven. Well and justly, then, has Milton portrayed this Enemy of Mankind. But what are we to make of God? If we cannot find republican values in Satan, much less do we find it in God, who is a thorough divine-right monarch. But it will be seen that Milton’s conception of the republic does not necessarily contradict the monarchy of God. To bow to God is not servility, but not so to bow to Satan, or to Charles for that matter, simply because God is God and these others are not. This line of argument is presented by the angel Abdiel, when Satan has just put himself forth as the champion of freedom from God’s arbitrary power:

 [...] God and nature bid the same,
When he who rules is worthiest, and excels
Them whom he governs. (VI.176-178)

Meaning, that everyone is obliged to obey their natural superior and rule over their inferior. God is everyone’s natural superior, whether in wisdom, in power, in eminence, or in priority of causation, and therefore his power is not arbitrary, but reasonable and natural. In the same way the Son is said to rule “by merit” (III.309)—which could certainly be read as a heterodox doctrine on Milton’s part, but I take it to only mean “by natural superiority.” Even Satan is not entirely mistaken when he tells the fallen angels that he is their leader by “just right” and “the fixed laws of Heav’n” (II.18). If not for the fact that he is rebelling against God, his own superior, he would be the natural superior to all angels.

In fact, the principle that enjoins absolute obedience towards the monarchy of God is the very same principle that justifies tyrannicide. If an earthly monarch is in rebellion against God, it is no crime to overthrow him. From this axiom, Reformed resistance theory was born, and by the English Civil War it had become almost commonplace. The Puritan, comments Macaulay with the admiration of a true Whig, “prostrated himself in the dust before his Maker; but he set his foot on the neck of the king.”[7] Very agreeably to this revolutionary spirit, then, Milton’s Abdiel continues:

[...] This is servitude,
To serve th’ unwise, or to him who hath rebelled
Against his worthier, and thine now serve thee,
Thyself not free, and to thyself enthralled (VI.178-181).

But here Milton goes beyond the resistance theory. Not only does Satan’s rebellion deprive him of the obedience of other angels, but he himself is said to be “enthralled.” It is exactly this enslavement of his will to his passions, as we have earlier shown, that distinguishes him as a tyrant. As with angels, so with men, who enjoy freedom and just rule only through excellency of virtue. At the very end of Paradise Lost, Michael tells the fallen Adam of the effect of man’s servility to passions: as true liberty dwells with right reason, with the obscuring of reason comes the loss of inner freedom; from thence, nations also lose their outward freedom, and—

[...] tyranny must be,
Though to the tyrant thereby no excuse. (XII.95-97)

Whether liberty or tyranny, Milton seems to say, each nation and each person has justly deserved their external states by the interior determinations of their souls. Satan in his blindness and pride has no choice but to be a slave to his own Hell. The fallen angels, with their folly and self-importance, cannot but be ready to grovel before Satan. Likewise, a servile, vain, and pleasure-loving people, their hearts darkened to reason, cannot but give up their primordial equality and fraternity for the dominion of unworthy and depraved kings like Nimrod in Michael’s prophecy or Charles II of Milton’s day. Only free men can live in a free Commonwealth, and the people must first rise to the corresponding moral stature before they could establish a Republic of Virtue, where men are governed inwardly not by disordered desires, but by obedience to God and natural law, and outwardly not by arbitrary rules of inheritance, but by the natural excellence and dignity of their superiors.[8] So says the Poet himself:

“For indeed none can love freedom heartilie, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but licence; which never hath more scope or more indulgence then under Tyrants.”[9]

Shuyuan He is a student of the liberal arts in the United States.

  1. John Milton, Paradise Lost. Book IX 439-443; emphasis mine.
  2. PL VII 39; PL IX 30-33.

  3. True that Sin, Death, and Chaos are personifications of abstract concepts. However, it is notable that they are vestigial aspects inherited from Milton’s earlier drama Adam Unparadis’d, which was purportedly more allegorical.

  4. Thomas Babbington Macaulay. “Essay on Milton,” Macaulay’s Essays on Addison and Milton. Edited by Herbert Smith. Athenæum Press, 1900. pp. 26.

  5. Victor Hugo, Cromwell. Edited by Little, Brown and Company; translated by George Burnham Ives. pp.20.,_tr._Ives) Accessed 11/19/2023.

  6. PL II 428 “monarchical pride,” 446 “imperial sov’reignty”, 467 “monarch”, 510 “Hell’s dread emperor.”

  7. Macauly, “Essay on Milton,” 53.

  8. See Milton’s panegyric to Cromwell in his Defensio Secunda for his opinion on the rule of men who are “fit to rule” through natural excellency.

  9. John Milton, “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,” John Milton Prose: Major Writings on Politics, Religion, and Education. Edited by David Loewenstein. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. pp.246.


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