Paradise Lost

By John Milton

Characters, Part II

The Parliament of Hell

The debate in Hell has been interpreted by critics in political terms and it is likely that contemporary readers would have drawn comparisons with recent political events. The Victorian critic Walter Bagehot construed the poem in this way claiming that the "great experience" of political affairs Milton had developed as a servant of the Republic meant that his mind was always interpreting things in this manner.

In Of Reformation (1641) Milton extolled the idea of parliamentary system of government, a guarantee of representative against autocratic or tyrannous rule by king and bishop. Milton supported the rule of Parliament against a return to monarchy in The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660) as a key element of the struggle to attain liberty for the people. A parliament under a monarchy for Milton is illusory. The reason for this is enacted in Pandemonium; Satan develops the control over the parliament of Hell Milton had feared the English Parliament would once again become, suppressed as an instrument of royal power and interests, under a restored monarchy.

The parliament of Hell is one of united evil gathered in the darkness of Hell rather than the "one globe of brightnesse" Milton hoped the English Parliament could become. The corruption of this parliament is apparent from the beginning. There is no place for egalitarianism; only four of the devils speak, and the proceedings are brought to a closure once Satan has achieved what is for his own ends the raison d'etre of the assembly. The reference to "A thousand demi-gods on golden seats" in Book I recalls a proposal made during the debates of 1659 for a "popular assembly upward of a thousand" people which Milton rejected in The Readie and Easie Way. Milton's argument against this proposed system is realised in the Pandemonium of Paradise Lost. Hence as Milton feared such a system would give way to an effective oligarchy, in the parliament of Hell it is only Satan, Belial, Moloch, Mammon and Beelzebub that speak. Contemporary political radicals the Levellers had also been wary of the dangers of too large a Parliamentary membership, as advanced in Foundations of Freedom and the second Agreement of the People.

Thus the contradiction between the appearance of representation and the de facto reality of power in the parliament of Hell is striking. Satan and Beelzebub control the parliament, using debate as a mere window-dressing for decisions they had previously decided. Milton deploys blocks of rhetoric for speeches, yet there is no discussion. In Book II (ll. 466-75), when the parliament is dissolved before its members could voice their opinions, the autocratic and tyrannical nature of Satan's rule is clearly exposed. As the Stuarts used their parliaments to extract tax grants, after Satan wins the assent of his assembly for a mission to the World his dismisses the representatives. The parallel between the conduct of the parliament of Hell and that of the late Caroline Parliaments is strong. After eleven years of ruling without Parliament, Charles I called the Short Parliament in 1640 with the ad hoc purpose of continuing war against the Scots Covenanters. As Charles was defeated in the Bishops' Wars, in Paradise Lost Satan was overwhelmed in the war against God.

In contrast stands the example of discussion in Heaven between God and the Son in Book III, where there is an evolving dialectic, a progression of alternative ways of addressing matters, such as the debate about the fate of man. This is not to assert that Heaven is a democracy. It is clearly a monarchy, the only effective monarchical system that Milton can acknowledge. The parliament of Hell is more like the façade that stands over earthly monarchies, particularly those of the early Stuarts: Satan rules without recourse to 'proper' parliamentary government.

Milton was seeking to explain what had been missing in the 'good old cause' during the period between Oliver Cromwell's death in 1658 and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. The Readie and Easie Way (1660) lamented on the failure of the Republic to build lasting foundations; towards the end of that text Milton identified what he believed to be the cause of this - the failure to reform the people of England and provide the Truth of the true church. In Paradise Lost that is what Milton is in attempting to promote./p>

The Politics of the Biblical Subject

As a young prose writer Milton on several occasions argued issues such as divorce or the Presbyterian form of church government had Scriptural foundation. However in Paradise Lost Milton does not search Scripture for precedent, rather he reads with a view to its rational interpretation.

Milton offers a course of political education through interpretation of biblical texts. The paradigm of Milton's Bible-based political education is Solomon's advice "Go to the ant" that appears in The Readie and Easie Way. The test (derived from Proverbs) is interpreted as supporting Milton's commonwealth with an argument derived from observation of nature, not scriptural law. In Book VII of Paradise Lost the ant enters and predicts the argument, thus upholding the value of natural law. As the Bible records, developments in matters of faith - if read correctly - it can illuminate on political matters. Hence even the negative instances of Hell can be illuminating. All of the biblical kingdoms are shown in Paradise Lost as scenes in history. They allow lessons on liberty and order to be drawn.

Milton's depiction of God as King in Heaven is largely taken from Ezekiel and Daniel, though Arthurian romance is a prominent source. The divine monarchy of Heaven, however, is not meant by Milton to be a model for humans to imitate on earth. The kingdom of God and the second kingdom of Christ (that will be raised at the Apocalypse) are the only monarchies Milton believes the godly are alleged to. The Son is instated on merit; his hereditary right is rejected. By insisting on the vice-regency of the Son Milton eradicates resemblance to and sanctification of monarchy on earth. The Son's merit is his willingness to die for mankind in Book III:

"[Thou] hast been found

By merit more than birthright Son of God,

Found worthiest to be so by being good,

Far more than great or high."


Milton's hierarchy is distinctive because of its individualistic, voluntaristic and meritocratic foundations.


Religion and politics were so intertwined in early modern Europe that it is appropriate to include Milton's anti-prelatical ideas in a discussion of the political aspects of Paradise Lost.

Under Charles II Milton did not have the same 'freedom' of discussion he enjoyed under the rule of Parliament in the 1640s and the Republic and Protectorate of the 1650s. As with the political environment of the 1660s, religion was a dangerous issue for Milton to openly discuss in Paradise Lost. Thus Milton's most powerful anticlericalism is most eloquently expressed by what he excludes. For example, Arminianism is sharply delineated from Laudianism by the exclusion of ritual and the role of mediators from Adam and Eve's devotions and from their spiritual regeneration. A further division between contemporary Anglicans and puritans surrounded prayer. Milton valued the power of inner light for the call to prayer, claiming that without this interior prompting prayer was futile. Hence Adam and Eve pray in the evenings spontaneously, without the kneeling rituals (of the Book of Common Prayer), but standing up

"This said unanimous, and other rites

Observing none, but adoration pure

Which God likes best"


What is Milton's purpose in implicitly articulating all of this? If Adam and Eve can experience spiritual regeneration without the ritual and sacraments of the Church, so too can Milton's fallen contemporaries. It is part of Milton's thesis concerning liberty. Just as civil liberty is found in the republican form of government not an earthly monarchy but only that of God and of Christ, so too spiritual liberty is in the individual believer's freedom to chose his or her faith in God, and when to receive the inner light.

p align="justify">Milton's Republicanism and

Paradise Lost

It need not be illustrated here that Milton was an ardent republican. Paradise Lost is littered with numerous 'small-scale' allusions or insinuations of republicanism. During the debate in hell Mammon argues

"Let us not then pursue

By force impossible, by leave obtained

Unacceptable, though in heaven, our state

Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek

Our own good from ourselves, and from our own

Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,

Free, and to none accountable, preferring

Hard liberty before the easy yoke

Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear

Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,

Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse

We can create"


His concept of self-sufficiency is derived from Aristotle. Mammon's vision of the future runs along Sallustian lines: adversity gives way to prosperity, "great things" develop out of "small". The contrast of "Hard liberty" against "easy yoke" also comes from a speech in Sallust. The proposal is flawed however. The fallen angels are of course accountable to God. Beelzebub reverses the 'popular vote' to favour Satan's own "bold design" to subvert Mammon. Furthermore, Mammon does not mention what could only give his scheme any chance of success, the virtues. The outcome is that a republican 'moment' gives way to the adventure of an individual. This part of the debate in Hell is a reenactment of events of the 1650s when Cromwell become Lord Protector after acceding to the constitutional blueprint, the Instruments of Government in 1653. It has thus been interpreted as Milton's verdict on the experiment with classical republicanism in England.

However, Satan's ungodly republicanism is to be differentiated from that of the godly saints of the English Revolution, who were adamant that God alone is king. Satan and his following in hell are identifiable however (as discussed above) with the abuses earthly kingship.

Anti-Monarchical Views in

Paradise Lost

Recently the critic William Myers wrote "It makes… sense to see Milton as an unconscious monarchist … and adherent without knowing it, not of the Devil's, but of the king's party. There are certainly passages in Paradise Lost which invite a royalist interpretation." This line of interpretation of governmental forms in Paradise Lost is by no means new; long ago critics were deliberating over the interpretation of political allusions in the poem.

On the contrary, Milton's treatment of God's kingship and Satan's rebellion are complementary elements in his republican strategy, i.e. monarchy in Heaven justifies republicanism on Earth. It is hardly a novel observation that for Satan's justification of the rebellion in Books V and VI, Milton used arguments he had made in earlier political tracts. It is his consideration of monarchy that military heroism is given political expression in Paradise Lost.

Satan's ambition "To set himself in glory above his peers" is the very aspiration to monarchy that Milton derided in The Readie and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660). The opening of Book II tells us that, "High on a throne of royal state. . . Satan exalted sat". The heroic attribute of Satan's pride is identified with "monarchical pride" during the course of the parliament in Book II. This pride is the very quality, a precondition, that leads the classical heroic warrior to be brave and courageous, and thus to victory. The cloistered devils of Pandemonium pay idolatrous homage Satan

"Towards him they bend

With awful reverence prone; and as a God

Extol him equal to the highest in Heav'n."


This recalls the argument against monarchy in The Readie and Easie Way of what would happen to England if the Restoration was allowed to proceed. The tyranny of Satan in hell is likened by Milton to the despotism of the "great Sultan" (l.348) in "great Alcairo" (l.718), itself analogous to the perceived tyranny and arbitrariness of Charles I's reign. Satan's size, strength and his heroic accoutrements are all used for evil ends - for destruction and corruption. His followers also have their noble attributes, yet they are all described with contempt.

Satan's speech to his troops (V.772-802) is based on Milton's most esteemed civil principles, dignity and liberty. Milton asserted in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates that divine right monarchy is incompatible with the liberties of the subject. Satan refuses to pay "knee-tribute" (V.782)

Paradise Lost

and Empire

Though denied by Samuel Johnson, Paradise Lost is - in part - an epic of empire. The opening of the poem, though not Virgilian or Homeric, places the text as an imperial epic. More precisely, Paradise Lost is a poem concerning exploration and colonial plantation; hence the invocation of du Bartas's "Les Colonies", in which Milton describes his epic as "mine adventurous Rime".

With only two exceptions "adventure" in Paradise Lost is used by Milton for the designs of Satan and his followers, designs which are the enterprises of fallen pride. Though Milton's own design to produce "things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme" is itself "adventurous". Satan's voyaging, in other words the story of his colonization of the New World, took inspiration from Camoens' Lusiads (the only ten-book epic before Paradise Lost in its initial form). The prose additions of 1668 clarified Milton's allusions to the conquest and expansion in the New World.

After the expulsion from Heaven, Satan's most immediate promise to his followers is of new territory. In the first part of Book II the fallen angels debate in Pandaemonium the wisdom of such expansion: it is in Machiavellian terms: viz. whether Hell should be a commonwealth of expansion or one of preservation.

Mammon proposes, in a speech littered with classical republican rhetoric, that Hell should become a Sparta, "preferring | Hard liberty before easy yoke | Of servile pomp" and arguing for "the settled state | Of order" (II.255-7; 279-80). This counters Moloch's previous advice that the fallen angels should attempt to storm Heaven, "Armed with hell flames and fury all at once | O'er heaven's high towers to force restless way" (II.61-2).

Beelzebub takes the cold Machiavellian line and argues that if it were possible to build an empire from Pandaemonium, it would eventually be consumed by the forces of Heaven, that it was inevitable that God would "over hell extend | His empire" (II.326-7). Beelzebub argues for Hell to remain a commonwealth would invite disaster, thus the moment should be seized and expansion pursued. As it is realised that Heaven is too dangerous an arena for conflict, Beelzebub reasons that the fallen angels should take the conflagration into "another world, the happy seat | Of some new race called Man" (II. 345-6).

The debate in hell can be read with direct allusion to the political developments of the mid-1650s, in which republicanism was renounced for the quasi-monarchism of the Protectorate. Under Cromwell's rule Britain faced the dilemma of whether to become a 'Sparta' or a 'Rome': a commonwealth for expansion, or for preservation. The republican James Harrington in Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) attempted to resolve this dilemma with a vision that re-imagined Britain; however this was less a utopian formula than an attempt at political persuasion.

Machiavelli warned of the danger for the republican form of government regarding expansion; and Sallust demonstrated that although in the short term expansion might bring greatness to the republic, over a prolonged period it breeds ambition, luxury, destruction and then tyranny.

Perhaps the clearest evidence that Milton was considering Cromwell when composing his account of satanic expansion in the New World is Satan's appeal:

"And should I at your harmless innocence

Melt, as I do, yet public reason just,

Honour and empire with revenge enlarged,

By conquering this new world, compels me now

To do what else though damned I should abhor.

So spake the fiend, and with necessity,

The tyrant's plea, excused his devilish deeds.


Assessment: Politics and

Paradise Lost

How is the student of Paradise Lost to interpret all of these political allusions within the text, place them in the context of Milton's own political ideas, and relate them to the poem as a whole and the times in which it was published? What is Milton's purpose, in a political sense, of making allusions about political forms?

We must be aware of the importance of the political issues that Milton brings forward in the poem. In 1660 England reverted to monarchy after a failed eleven-year experiment in government without a king. In 1660 Charles II regained many of the powers his father had exercised as king of England, and soon enough began to immerse his reign in many of the very abuses that had caused so much grievance among the political nation between the 1620s and the 1640s.

In a political context, what does Milton mean in writing Paradise Lost? When taken together and interpreted with Milton's last political tract, The Readie and Easie Way, the 'epics' of the 1660s and 1670s provide a coherent argument.

What Milton argued prior to the Restoration was that the experiment in republicanism had failed. He offered an interpretation of this. For Milton, political and spiritual liberty and freedom were, if not synonymous, complementary. Cromwell's efforts at "healing and settling" England had failed; Milton realised this by the late 1650s and argued that it had been because of the failure of the godly reformation to capture the English people. Martial force such as the Major Generals was therefore futile, as the Commonwealth had failed to establish a firm base of support. Political allusions in Paradise Lost are thus concerned with the nature of government, the political experience of the Charles I, the Civil Wars and the Republic, and the future of this under a Stuart monarchy restored.

However, Milton declared early on in his life his desire to compose an epic, and the literary considerations should not be ignored. To achieve a full understanding of the poem, Paradise Lost must be considered or interpreted along various lines such as religious or theological, political-constitutional discussions, autobiographical aspects, and literary aspirations of the poet.