The European Enlightenment

John Milton


   John Milton (1608-1674) was one of the great poets of England whose life spanned the most turbulent period of English history. His youth was spent in the dissolving reign of Charles I who desperately held on to his power by dissolving Parliament. This foolishness could only last so long, and civil war broke out in 1642. This war would elevate an intensely religious and unboundedly ambitious, charismatic, and cruel man named Oliver Cromwell to the height of power; in 1649, after overthrowing the monarchy and taking over England, Cromwell executed Charles I and thus ushered in a new state which he called the Commonwealth and Protectorate that was, nominally, Puritan. Cromwell nominally subscribed to Calvin's principles of civil government (see selection below) in which the best form of government is either an aristocracy (rule by the best) or a combination of aristocracy and democracy (rule by the people)—the latter would become the basis of American government. Cromwell, however, wanted to be king and ruled harshly, calling himself "Protector of England" and setting up in effect a military government. When Cromwell died in 1658, his son, Richard, tried to lift the reigns of power and succeed his father as Protector, but did not have his father's iron heart or charisma. In 1660, Charles II, the son of Charles I, was recalled from France and put on the throne of England. By then, however, the English Parliament had gotten used to the power it had gained during the Protectorate, and Charles II and later his son, James II, would see their power gradually erode away and gather around the English Parliament.

John Milton
by William Faithorne


   Milton believed in Cromwell and the civil war at first, but would later have second thoughts about Cromwell (in fact, Satan in Paradise Lost is clearly Oliver Cromwell). Milton would spend his later years during the reign of Charles II blind and distressed over the social problems of the seventeenth century, a distress which gave rise to his two great epic poems, Paradise Lost, which concerns the fall of Adam and Eve, and Paradise Regained, which concerns the events Christ encounters in the wilderness.

   The causes of this turbulent, violent century can be easily summed up into a religious question and a political question: a.) how far should the reformation be taken in the Protestant church? and b.) how much authority should a king have? As the century progressed and more and more blood was spilled in England, a.) the answer to the first question was, "as far as any group wishes to take it," in other words, religious tolerance and freedom for all Protestant sects, and b.) the answer to the second was, "the king should have no authority." 1

   Everything seemed to be falling apart; there seemed to be no more stability to the Protestant church or to English government. People were talking about liberty and rights all during Milton's lifetime; no authority of any kind seemed solid or permanent. This fragmentation of authority and radical skepticism—not simply a way of thinking, but a real force in history that had a body count—is the subject of Milton's portrayal of Satan and his revolt in heaven against God. In the passage below, the angel Raphael tells Adam the story of the revolt of Satan and his angels in heaven before the creation of humanity. God calls the angels to himself and announces that he now has a son, Christ, which they are to obey as if he were God. Satan and his angels fly off to the north to debate this new game plan; this new ruler appears to them to be simply an arbitrary judgement by God. Satan is the ultimate skeptic; in fact, his argument is fundamentally a skeptical argument. Although Satan talks about several issues such as freedom, liberty, self-rule (when I put a section of this passage on the midterm the last time I taught this course, one-third of the class identified the passage as coming from The Declaration of Independence), his central argument is a skeptical one: how do we know that God is not running the universe arbitrarily? Suppose there is no divine plan or logic? Should we then accept this arbitrariness? Eventually, this view that the universe is arbitrary and not run by any rational principle—that is, that the universe is absurd—would become the hallmark of modernity.

Richard Hooker


ENDNOTES

1 This paragraph is derived from M.H. Abrams, et al, editors, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, vol. I (New York: Norton, 1993), page 1071.


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-25-98