All revolutions are, at bottom, driven by a religious commitment. Every major movement for radical change in the social order seeks to realize a vision for human flourishing. The Cuban Socialist Revolution in 1953 and the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 may be worlds apart ideologically, but both have their inspiration in the belief of a better world. The question is: What sort of kingdom does a revolution desire? Whose sovereignty, ultimately, is being sought?
Groen van Prinsterer had the French Revolution in mind when he argued that unbelief and revolution go hand in hand. In writing about earlier political visions grounded in the Christian faith, such as the sixteenth-century resistance to Spanish rule by William of Orange in the Netherlands or the seventeenth-century rejection of Charles I by Parliament in England, Groen identified freedom of religion as the ground motive of these struggles for a Dutch republic and an English commonwealth. Regarding the English revolution against Stuart absolutism, Groen wrote: “Religion was the cause, the efficient cause; that is to say, it is that without which all the other causes were not able to bring about the crisis, and that, by itself, was sufficient to bring it.”
But the French Revolution was categorically different: it emerged in a context of unbelief, and its principal feature, in the words of Edmund Burke, was “fanatical atheism.” On Groen’s account, the French Revolution was the necessary consequence and full expression of the eighteenth-century choice of “the Sovereignty of Man independent of the Sovereignty of God.” The trajectory of the Revolution in France demonstrates, says Groen, that a misplaced faith in human reason leads not to true freedom but to radicalism and despotism.
I believe this insight by Groen van Prinsterer is central to John Milton’s project in Paradise Lost. Like Groen, Milton sees the human heart as the source of declarations of independence. Also like Groen, Milton looks to the human heart for evidence of the ultimate allegiances that motivate the desire for personal, social, or political autonomy. No author in the English language has provided sharper insight into the relationship between reason, liberty, and revolution than John Milton.
Not All Boundaries Are Prison Walls
In Paradise Lost, Milton recast the biblical account of the creation, temptation, and fall of Adam and Eve into the idiom of his late-Renaissance context. Together with the pressing personal circumstances in which the blind poet composed and published Paradise Lost (1669, 1674), the cultural moment in England was one in which the ideals of a godly commonwealth were held in tension with those of a restored monarchy. There are several ways to characterize the political dimensions of Paradise Lost, but fundamentally the poem is an invitation to the reader to experience, through the perspective of the narrator and in the words and actions of the principal actors, the temptation to be independent of God. The real political impact of Paradise Lost comes when the reader feels, on an existential level, that freedom from God is no freedom at all.
This realization in Paradise Lost comes as the culmination of more than twenty years of considering what Milton in The Second Defence of the People of England (1654) called the “three species of liberty which are essential to the happiness of social life—religious, domestic, and civil.” In 1641 and 1642, Milton wrote four polemical tracts on the subject of religion in England in which he argued for the separation of ecclesiastical from civil power, for the government of the church by presbyters rather than bishops, and for the protection of independent ministers from prosecution. Milton’s case for freedom from the tyranny of bishops, archbishops, and church courts is similar to Presbyterian and Independent arguments against “lording it” in the church. What is less conventional, though, is the fact that the proofs for his argument derive equally from Scripture and from reason, from the church fathers and from ancient philosophers. He writes in An Apology: “I resolv’d . . . to stand on that side where I saw both the plain authority of Scripture leading and the reason of justice and equity persuading.”
Something similar can be said about Milton’s method in four prose works on a far less conventional subject: divorce. In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), Milton reasons from Scripture and natural law that marriage is the union of rational souls “in a meet and happy conversation.” Anything less than that would render the physical union “invalid, unkindly, and even unholy against the fundamental law of nature, which Moses never thwarts, but reverences.” How so? “God and nature signifies and lectures to us not only by those recited decrees, but ev’n by the first and last of all his visible works.” Against the suggestion that condoning divorce necessarily turns liberty into licence and licentiousness, Milton responds that sexuality is truly free but only within the bounds of Scripture and nature.
While Milton’s writings on ecclesiastical polity and divorce do not have a direct bearing on the eighteenth-century revolutions in America and France, his writings on civil liberties certainly played a role. Milton’s most profound argument for liberty comes in Areopagitica (1644), where he uses biblical, historical, and logical proofs to call for the abolition of prepublication censorship by church and state. Made in the image of God, human beings are reasonable creatures and are themselves able to discern truth from error: “God trusts him with the gift of reason to be his own chooser. . . . When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing.” Milton appeals again to the “image of God” proof in what is perhaps his most forceful statement for a commonwealth governed by delegated representatives.
All men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God himself. . . . [The] power of Kings and Magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferred 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 taken from them, without a violation of their natural birthright. (The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, 1649)
If Rousseau’s famous statement in 1762 that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” sounds like an echo of Milton, it is a decidedly secular version of Milton. Rousseau’s natural liberty is independent of God, whereas human beings for Milton are reasonable and free (or reasonable, therefore, free) insofar as they resemble God. What Rousseau sees as chains, such as belief in God and adherence to creeds, Milton sees as the liberating conditions of being human. In Rousseau’s version, humans are only free when they reflect themselves; in Milton, humans are only free when they reflect their maker. Liberty as narcissistic autonomy rather than creaturely dependence.
The Diabolical Desire for Autonomy
As a program for social and political reform, these pamphlets and treatises from 1640 to 1660 represent Milton’s conviction that real change is possible when godly character drives rational action individually, corporately, and nationally. The belief that human beings are rational and free is at the centre of Milton’s program for religious, domestic, and civil liberty, and is grounded in biblical theology and supported by natural law. Despite some misgivings about demagoguery and the fickleness of public opinion, Milton was optimistic that appeals to Scripture and God-given reason could bring about and maintain a free commonwealth. Paradise Lost, however, tells a different story.
Earlier I described Paradise Lost as the story of the creation, temptation, and fall of Adam and Eve. It would be more accurate to describe Paradise Lost as an epic about the fatal consequences of challenging the sovereignty of God. It is thus a cautionary tale about the worst kind of revolution. Everything in this vast, sprawling epic poem contributes to this central thread: The fallen angels’ debate in hell (books 1–2), the heavenly council of Father and Son (book 3), the unfallen beauty of Eden (book 4), Lucifer’s attempted military coup in heaven (books 5–6), and the divine provision for creation (books 7–8) all drive home a point that Groen van Prinsterer reiterates in Unbelief and Revolution: that autonomy from God, “under the name of Freedom, must lead to Radicalism and Despotism.”
The brilliant and dramatic opening of Paradise Lost plunges the reader directly into the profound reality of ultimate separation from God. The scene reveals rebel angels, expelled from heaven, suffering torment in the flaming dungeon that is hell. Before anything else, the reader encounters the poem’s most dynamic character, Satan, who defiantly proclaims:
Here at least
We shall be free. Th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence.
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. (1.258–263)
The reader is incredulous. In very short order, Satan has redefined imprisonment in hell as a weird sort of liberty, a state of mind rather than a physical reality. Milton leaves no doubt that the war in heaven is about sovereignty, with Satan exerting a Nietzschean will to power against God. Ambition for sovereignty is Satan’s tragic flaw; rebellion against God is his hamartia. Autonomy is here construed as diabolical.
Later in the poem, when the angel Raphael relates to Adam the war in heaven, he quotes Lucifer’s stirring revolutionary speech about the newly promoted Son of God.
Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchy over such as live by right
His equals if, in power and splendour less,
In freedom equal?
Much less for this to be our lord
And look for adoration to th’ abuse
Of those imperial titles which assert
Our being ordained to govern, not to serve? (5.794–802)
This time the reader’s incredulity comes from the realization that Satan here has taken a page directly from Milton’s own argument against monarchy in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Milton may have deplored the restoration in 1660 of the libertine Charles II, but he seems in Paradise Lost to endorse a Christlike model of servant-kingship that was not on the bargaining table in the 1640s. Satan’s egalitarian zeal is merely an illusion and is nowhere to be seen when he elevates himself above his peers in the pseudo-parliamentary debate in hell, which some read as an infernal parody of Milton’s erstwhile hero Oliver Cromwell. Enframing the temptation of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost is the powerful example of Satan’s rebellion, which leads to fanaticism and despotism.
The Condition of Freedom Is Virtue
When we recall Milton’s faith in human reason to discern truth from error in Areopagitica, we are struck by how easily both Adam and Eve are misled in Paradise Lost. As a work of creative historical fiction, Paradise Lost adds significantly to the sparse narrative of the fall in Scripture. At the beginning of book 3, for instance, the narrator reports that God the Father created Adam and Eve with a sufficient will and reason to obey. Speaking in the eternal present of the future fall into sin that will have happened, God the Father explains to the Son (and, thus, to the reader) the freedom Adam enjoys.
He had of Me
All he could have. I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood though free to fall.
Such I created all th’ ethereal pow’rs
And spirits, both them that stood and them who failed:
Freely they stood who stood and fell who fell. (3.97–102)
In what is perhaps the most significant addition to the biblical account, God the Father commissions Raphael (“the sociable spirit”) to forewarn Adam. This commission turns into a long symposium-like dialogue between Raphael and Adam, in which Adam repeatedly pushes against the boundaries of acceptable knowledge. In addition to the explicit warning about Satan, Raphael provides Adam with an instructive example of freedom in obedience. The angel Abdiel rejects Lucifer’s temptation to rebel against God by challenging Lucifer’s depiction of heaven as “servitude.”
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 rebelled
Against his worthier as thine now serve thee,
Thyself not free but to thyself enthralled. (6.174–181)
Just as the narrative of Paradise Lost as a whole is for the reader a cautionary tale about independence from God, the embedded narrative of the war in heaven is for Adam and Eve an antetype of the temptation about to befall them.
What Rousseau sees as chains, such as belief in God and adherence to creeds, Milton sees as the liberating conditions of being human.
Despite being created in God’s image, with the freedom to will and to reason, and despite being forewarned through Raphael’s affective narrative, Adam and Eve rebel against God. Eve fails to detect the faulty logic and fallacious rhetoric with which Satan appeals to her sensual appetite. In turn, Adam rationalizes his choice to join Eve in transgressing the command. The immediate result is the loss of reason and temperance, described by the narrator in metaphors of civil power.
For Understanding ruled not and the Will
Heard not her lore, both in subjection now
To sensual Appetite who from beneath
Usurping over sov’rein Reason claimed
Superior sway. (9.1127–1131)
The unforeseen consequence of rebellion against God is that Adam and Eve each experience an internal insurrection of the lowest over the highest part of the soul (appetite against reason).
If the reader does not yet grasp that Paradise Lost balances on the point of sovereignty, the final two books of the poem make it abundantly clear. Before being expelled from Eden, Adam receives a vision of the future in which the appalling effects of his sin are presented in their hideous reality. The nightmarish vision brings into stark relief the evil that Adam and Eve unleashed by their rebellion, especially in civil polity. Adam is taken aback by the tyranny of his grandson, Nimrod, to which the archangel Michael responds in terms reminiscent of Milton’s earlier anti-royalist writings.
Justly thou abhorr’st
That son who on the quiet state of men
Such trouble brought, affecting to subdue
Rational liberty. Yet know withal,
Since thy original lapse true liberty
Is lost which always with right reason dwells
Twinned and from her hath no dividual being.
Reason in men obscured or not obeyed
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart passions catch the government
From reason and to servitude reduce
Man till then free. Therefore since he permits
Within himself unworthy pow’rs to reign
Over free reason God in judgement just
Subjects him from without to violent lords
Who oft as undeservedly enthral
His outward freedom. Tyranny must be,
Though to the tyrant thereby no excuse.
Yet sometimes nations will decline so low
From virtue, which is reason, that no wrong
But justice and some fatal curse annexed
Deprives them of their outward liberty,
Their inward lost. (12.79–101)
Unlike his eighteenth-century revolutionary successors, Milton does not bow down to human reason that is independent of God. The effective rhetorical move in the passage just quoted aligns reason with virtue and virtue with liberty: the condition for outward liberty is virtue. Thanks to Adam’s “original lapse,” the condition for outward liberty can be met only by the “one greater man” (1.4). However, the perfect configuration of understanding, will, and affection embodied by the Son of God in Paradise Regained (1671) seems very far away as the reader follows Adam and Eve out of the garden in the final lines of Paradise Lost. Milton’s earlier vision for an English commonwealth crowned with religious, domestic, and civil liberties had all but disappeared.
Milton’s less than sanguine view of human autonomy in Paradise Lost anticipates nicely the critique of modern revolution offered by Groen van Prinsterer. Current critical approaches to Paradise Lost tend to highlight gender, empire, and ecology as the political pressure points of the poem. While Paradise Lost certainly bears close reading through these insightful perspectives, its real political value lies in its realistic exposure of the empty promise of absolute freedom. By returning to the originating moment of the revolutionary impulse in human history, Paradise Lost teaches each new generation of readers how to interpret the religious ground motive of political visions and illusions.