Politics in Heaven

Paradise Lost, Milton’s vast and highly influential epic poem, offers a unique conception of both politics and theology. Controversial and subversive, the text fails to deliver a concrete argument about the nature of divine justice, and the role of theology in the political. Nevertheless, Milton suggests that the ordering of power and influence on earth, in Hell, or in any part of Milton’s universe, is within God’s hands. A corrupt regime, be it a republic or monarch, is one which seeks to overextend its appropriate place in the natural order (of which God is supreme ruler). Proper politics are those which fit into a proper theological order. The theology of Milton, into which his politics are integrated, is not one of blind submission or of compulsion, but it is founded upon the supreme importance of freedom. The ability of humanity to choose is the foundation, for Milton, of all political justice. According to Paradise Lost, it is appropriate to question God’s will and justice, as reason is the foundational principle of freedom. In order to understand the intricate connection Milton weaves between theology and politics, one must examine the nature of his theology and the various manifestations of freedom in Paradise Lost. Various scholars have examined the unique connection Milton draws between his narrative of fallen angels and humans and the political regimes of his day. Many have questioned the orthodoxy of his theology, and his political loyalties, but regardless of where Milton stood on particular issues, it is evident that his conception of politics is based in a singular and powerful theology, and that his version of scriptural retelling is heavily influenced by the political climate of 17th century England. Paradise Lost blatantly invokes the political. It is filled with references to political institutions which reveal facets of Milton’s argument. These allusions, placed as they are in a fundamentally theological work, draw the readers’ attention to an important relationship between theology and politics. Milton creates a parallel between the relationship of God to humankind, and earthly manifestations of political authority. Much of the narrative depends on the political framework of God as the “world’s great Author” (Milton 5.188), and the rest of Creation as his kingdom.
Readings of Milton have traditionally been divided between those who view his
work as orthodox, and those who see it as heretical. The latter emphasize the
unconventional and potentially sympathetic treatment of the character Satan as
evidence of his heretical views. Certain scholars suggest that Milton’s work is a radical declaration of revolution against tyranny, and that God is portrayed as a tyrant to Satan’s republican. Others, however, argue that Milton maintains an orthodox Christian perspective and that he acted as a spokesperson for the classical understanding of God’s relation to man and the nature of the Fall. For many scholars, there is a “question of consonance between” Milton’s political and theological tracts and his Paradise Lost (Lewalski 143). Miltonists who find Paradise Lost to be a grand embodiment of Christian orthodoxy have always sought to distance it on some grounds from the heterodoxies of Christian Doctrine. Other Milton scholars find the late poems to be imbued with those heterodoxies–antitrinitarianism, arminianism, monism–and find them central to the poem’s drama and power (144).
Regardless of Milton’s orthodoxy, his argument is based on the fundamental importance of freedom. For Milton, the relationship between metaphysics and the political is defined by liberty, and one’s place within the system. Myers identifies the source of dissension and mixed opinions of the nature of Milton’s theology as the poem itself, which is “altogether more complex, more variegated and more elusive than either straightforward orthodox or straightforwardly heretical readings have tended to suggest” (4). It is through an original account of theology that Milton explores the nature of freedom, politics and metaphysics. This both complicates and illuminates his version of the Fall, and his characterization of God, Satan, and the Son. Milton’s account of freedom, and its subsequent impact on the nature of politics, must be understood within the context of this original theology, in which God is neither an uncontroversial benefactor, nor a single-minded tyrant. As McColley writes, Milton’s poetry “is too open and subtle to become trapped in an ideology” (34).
The very construction and declared intent of the poem, “to justify the ways of God to man” (1.26), suggests something inherently troubling in the nature of God’s actions such that they need to be justified. Milton, from the beginning of the poem, indicates that it is appropriate to question the justice of a divine monarchy. Milton begins with the persuasive rhetoric of fallen angels. He creates a telling of the familiar biblical story that is far more nuanced, in which evil is portrayed as a complex reality which can both repel and allure readers (Diekhoff 54). The structure of the poem ensures that God’s goodness cannot be supposed (82). Milton gives heredoxical and subversive viewpoints a mouthpiece in his poem, but ultimately asserts the goodness and justice of God’s rule: “Satan helps us to know God, through a series of marvelously engineered inversions” (Kranidas 129). The final state of the fallen angels in Book 10 indicates that God’s hand is in all things, and that he is ultimately the “restorer of mankind” (10.646).
The second version of divine rule is offered by God Himself, and it is in sharp contrast to the account of Satan, Moloch, and the other fallen angels. In Book 3, God claims that humans are “authors to themselves in all / Both what they judge and what they choose; for so / I formed them free, and free they must remain, / Til they enthrall themselves” (3.122-5). He explains that punishment is not directly from His hand, but that one creates and wills its own retribution. “Reprobation is therefore not an act of the divine will, but an act of the human will” (Kranidas 85). Some scholars argue that freedom is a mechanism of the Father’s power, “a political tool for creating obedience rather than a theological premise in a syllogism to prove God’s goodness” (Dunnum 153), one which “exerts power through an ideology of obedience” (152). Yet Milton ultimately argues for the intrinsic justice of self-discipline. Abdiel says in Book 6 that for one to rebel “against his worthier” is to serve oneself, and “thyself not free, but to thyself enthralled” (Milton 6.179-81). “God establishes an internal mechanism, personified as an ‘Umpire Conscience’, which will aid mankind in maintaining ‘obedience’ as the ultimate aim of existence” (Armstrong 95). The freedom to stand or fall requires the willpower and integrity of God’s subjects, but it is premised on his grace. The definition of freedom Milton proposes depends upon a larger structure of obedience and the hierarchy of which God is head (Dunnum 154). In submission to God’s higher power, one is free to choose her own prosperity.
Freedom is the crucial question for Milton. For him, it is ultimately considered a moral act (Savage 286). According to some scholars, the freedom of God is of primary importance; “it is the ground and basis of all creaturely freedom” (Myers 93). God, the supreme being, “is free to create or not and free to redeem or not” (93). Made in the image of their creator, humans are likewise given freedom of will and action. In Paradise Lost, we are given to believe that the actions of intelligent beings, whether angels or men, are freely willed, neither constrained nor compelled…Their actions are always considered to be those of moral agents, free to have chosen differently, responsible for what they have chosen, and deserving of whatever praise or blame their actions may justly merit (Savage 288).
The matter of free will, however, is more complicated than this, as there is the issue of causation. Milton identifies another part of his intent to: “say first what cause / Moved our grand parents in that happy state, / Favoured of Heaven so highly to fall off / From their Creator and transgress his will” (Milton 1.28-31). Milton is preoccupied with culpability; he questions who is responsible for humanity’s fallen nature, and the implications this has on the integrity of God. When one questions what caused the fall, one assumes that it was inevitable. But, if it was freely willed, without constraints of any sort, there is the potential that it was avoidable. This complication forces us to simultaneously attribute the fall to free will, and to believe in its necessity. To assume that Adam could have chosen differently, that there was no cause, is to suggest spontaneity, but also to imply that his actions had no purpose and were completely left to chance (Savage, 290). Satan makes the argument that God, in concealing the extent of his strength, “tempted [the angels’] attempt and wrought our fall” (Milton 1.642). This tension reveals a crucial component of Milton’s theology and politics: one is only free insofar as she fills her proper place in Creation. A human is “free in proportion to his fulfillment of what God has intended for him” (Savage 219). According to Milton, freedom is action in harmony with God’s will.
For Adam, it is his awareness of what he ought to do which initially implies his freedom…That he feels himself morally obligated to act in a certain way is sufficient to his freedom to do so, for he cannot feel obligated to do that which he in fact is not at liberty to do (Savage 292). Humans must, in both theology and politics, have the freedom to choose or reject rule. This allows for the possibility that humanity and individuals may choose wrongly; but, for Milton–to whom freedom is of utmost importance–just and sustainable systems are built on the principle of free will. As Hooker puts it, freedom is “to bend our souls to the having or doing of that which they see to be good” (170). For Milton, the eternal and infinite justice of God’s plan is in this liberty: “the free human will, a will that decrees the future and authors its own fate” within the confines of Providence (Kranidas 92).
Reason dictates the degree to which one fulfills God’s purpose. For Milton, freedom is only available to the rational (293), as one must know and will the good. A person’s freedom is proportionate to her rationality, and she is only rational insofar as she chooses God’s will–which is intrinsically good. Adam’s defense of God’s ways in Book 9 is based on this premise, that “God left free the will, for what obeys / Reason, is free, and reason he made right” (Milton 9.351-2). Adam argues that all happiness is found in obedience to God, because of God’s perfection. Creation, Adam posits, wasmade in accordance with God’s will, governed by the rational; therefore, all who dwell within the will of God dwell also in his reason.
The implications of this argument extend beyond the individual and into the political realm. Milton criticizes the institution of absolute monarchy, insofar as there is no room for free will. He does not, however, advocate for the absolute virtue of a republican state. Rather, he argues that the system itself, regardless of the particularities of the court, must be based on the principle of free will. The primary issue with monarchies is that they misplace and misuse authority. In A Treatise of Civil Power In Ecclesiastical Causes, Milton argues that “it is not lawful for any power on earth to compel in matters of religion”. In Book 12 of Paradise Lost, Raphael warns Adam of rulers who
seek to avail themselves of names,
Places and titles, and with these to join
Secular power, though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God, promised alike and giv’n
To all believers; and from that pretence,
Spiritual laws by carnal powers shall force
on every conscience…
What will they then
But force the Spirit of grace itself, and bind
His consort Liberty (12.515-526).
Man is free to rule the beasts, fish and fowl, “but man over men / He made not lord; such title to himself / Reserving, human left from human free” (12. 69-72). Those who usurp God’s authority over others, or who “claim second sov’reignty” (35), reject both reason and liberty, the foundational principles of God’s creation. According to Milton, lack of reason produces tyranny. Such a ruler, “since he permits / Within himself unworthy powers to reign / Over free reason, God in judgement just / Subjects him from without to violent lords” (90-4). This indicates Milton’s radical perspective on the role of government, and the justification for revolution against or rejection of authority that does not follow from reason. Adam’s lament in Book 10 “implicitly impugns dynastic kingship by demonstrating through Adam’s example that bloodline, birthright, and other organic measures of patriarchal entitlement suppress free will and enslave the spirit” and has “anti-dynastic implications” (Turbowitz 400). Raphael’s prophecy to Adam suggests that good earthly regimes are those which are directed by divine reason, and which allow for freedom. “The poet’s antipathy to dynasty kingship and its organic measures of personal entitlement and social belonging require him to repudiate the body and traditional body politic, and to revalue personal and collective identity” (389).
Some scholars argue that Milton’s reformation of theology and politics is based on an integration of body and spirit, or materialist monism. “Milton wants and needs to integrate spirit and body, but also to separate them. This paradox is intrinsically related to his opposition to dynastic kingship and to his protomodern vision of the reformed nation” (389).
In a political tract, Milton wrote:
Man is a living being, intrinsically and properly one and individual. He is not double or separable: not, as is commonly thought, produced from and composed of two distinct and different elements, soul and body. On the contrary, the whole man is soul, and the soul man: a body, in other words, or individual substance: animated, sensitive, and rational (Complete Prose Works, 6: 318).
Monism, Lewalski argues, “underlies the epic’s blurred distinctions between matter and spirit, angels and humans, intuitive and discursive intellect” (149). It reinvents the connection between the corporeal form of God’s creation, and the metaphysical part which scripture calls the ‘soul’. Milton describes God as the “Author of all being” (3. 374). To choose existence under God’s terms, to be what the supreme ruler deemed seemly, is to choose eternal blessing. Conversely, “to reject God is to reject being” (Moore, lecture). The Hell of Paradise Lost is unique as a result of this argument; “in contrast to traditional portrayals of hell, the hell of Paradise Lost is characterized by silence and absence” (Diekhoff 59). Hell is the inverted goodness of God’s creation. It is Satan, who says “which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (Milton 4.75). The most corrupt political regime is one in which God’s order is dissolved: ‘nonbeing’, as it were.
Milton demonstrates the enactment of the divine regime on earth through the relationship of Adam to Eve, and their subsequent offspring. Eve’s role is a controversial one, as some scholars argue that she is a subordinate within a traditional patriarchal regime, while others find grounds for feminism in Milton’s treatment of humanity’s mother. According to Elisabeth Liebert, Eve is “subordinate and privilegedsimultaneously, at once liberator by Milton’s revision of tradition and proscribed by the limitations of that revision” (152). Adam is immediately defined in relation to reason, which, considering the importance of reason as the foundation of authority and liberty (as discussed earlier), suggests that Adam is the intrinsically superior being. “When Adam is first introduced to the reader in Book 4, he already possesses an authoritative and well-reasoned knowledge of himself and of God” (Liebert 152). Only Adam experiences direct discourse with God, and he alone receives the divine prophecy. Yet even though God deprives Eve of these privileges, it is “evident in her changing discourse as she adjusts the mode of her address to Adam, [that] she is already identifying knowledge and its dissemination as a powerful tool in the creation and dissolution of hierarchy” (162). Liebert notes that Milton’s Eve considers retaining sole possession of the knowledge granted by the tree, to “render [her] more equal, and perhaps, / A thing not undesirable, sometime / Superior” (Milton 9.823-25). Eve is paradoxically liberated and enslaved by her actions, and her role in the patriarchal society of God and Adam takes on new importance with unique implications. Milton grants Eve a particular understanding of the world, suggesting a new sort of equality, but ultimately places her in subjection to both the will of God and of Adam. This reestablishment of patriarchal rule is an indication that God’s monarchy, when replicated on Earth, has man at its head. Yet it also requires Adam’s unity with a capable and rational female, and the freedom of all members of civilization.
Jesus, the redeemer and intercessor for the sins of humanity, is the fulfillment of God’s grace and mercy. Raphael speaks of the sacrifice that will destroy Satan and overcome death in terms of obedience to the law: “The law of God exact he shall fulfill /

Both by obedience and by love, though love / Alone fulfill the law” (Milton 12.402-4). This suggests that it is the Son’s complete submission to his place in the Father’s plan that ultimately brings eternal justice into the kingdom of Heaven. Insofar as the Son fulfills all the duty prescribed to him by the Father, humanity is redeemed. “The poem depicts human nature as universally enslaved through the fall, but also as universally liberated through the operation of prevenient grace” (McColley 14), which is manifest in the Son. The actions of Adam and Eve ensnare all of humankind, but the poem offers a conception of God’s grace that acts as deliverance and benediction. Thus, even after the Fall, humankind, though bound by sin, can freely choose grace and be reconciled to the divine.
Politics and theology are both concerned with the governance of human desire and action. Milton, who introduces a unique conception of the divine, and a critical analysis of government, blends the two in compelling and controversial ways. Ultimately, for Milton, a just political regime is established on the principle of free will, which is informed by reason. Reason–to know and will the good–originates in the divine. Milton provides numerous political images in Paradise Lost which emphasize the connection between politics and theology. His exploration of free will, tyranny, materialist monism, and divine authorship shape both the political and theological arguments of the epic poem. In the end, humanity is redeemed, and God is supreme ruler of everything in Milton’s vast and infinitely complex universe.
Works Cited
Diekhoff, John S. Milton’s Paradise Lost: A Commentary on the Argument. New York: Columbia University Press. 1946.
Dobranski, Stephen B. and John P. Rumrich. Milton and Heresy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998.
Donnelly, Phillip J. “ ‘Matter’ versus Body: The Character of Milton’s Monism”. Milton Quarterly. Vol. 33, No. 3 (October 1999): 79-85.
Dunnum, Eric. “The Bipartite System of Laws in Paradise Lost”. Rocky Mountain Review. Vol. 64, No. 2 (Fall 2010): 151-169. Print.
Fallon, Stephen. Milton among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in
Seventeenth-Century England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Lewalski, Barbara K. “Forum: Milton’s Christian Doctrine”. Studies in English Literature. Houston, Texas: Rice University. 1992.
Liebert, Elisabeth. “Rendering ‘More Equal’: Eve’s Changing Discourse in ‘Paradise Lost’ ”. Milton Quarterly. (Vol. 37, Issue 3): 152-165.
Martin, Raymond and John Barresi. The Rise and Fall of Soul and self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity. New York: Columbia University Press. 2006.
McColley, Diane Kelsy. “All in All: The Individuality of Creatures in Paradise Lost”. All in All: Unity, Diversity and the Miltonic Perspective. Associated University Presses, Inc. 1999.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. John Leonard. England: Penguin Classics. 2000.
Moore, Andrew. GRID 3506, Freedom. Holy Cross Room 5, St. Thomas University, Fredericton. October 2014.
Myers, Benjamin. Milton’s Theology of Freedom. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. 2006
Savage, J.B. “Freedom and Necessity in Paradise Lost”. ELH. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol. 44, No.2, 1977.
Turbowitz, Rachel J. “Body Politics in Paradise Lost”. PMLA. Vol. 121, No. 2 (March 2006), 388-404. Modern Languages Association.