This paper discusses the portrayal of God and Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost through an examination of Milton’s politics and ideals based on his political prose writings. The ethics of Paradise Lost have been debated since the poem was published in the seventeenth century, because though the poem is meant to “justify the ways of God to men,” Milton portrays Satan so sympathetically that many critics believe that Milton intended him, not God, to be the hero of the poem. Is it moral to portray Satan, the embodiment of evil, as such? The answer to this ethical conundrum depends upon Milton’s intent. The ethical implications of Satan’s heroism in Paradise Lost are muddy as this portrayal of him either means that Milton was praising sin in the epic and therefore, to an extent, renouncing God and goodness, or that he was making a revolutionary statement against monarchical power. In this paper, I mostly engage with the latter by discussing Milton’s relationship with and opinions of the despot King Charles I and the revolutionary Oliver Cromwell and attempting to determine which, if either, was meant to be represented by God and Satan in the epic. I also examine Milton’s moral standing based on his political prose and discuss how his ideals are imbued in Paradise Lost so as to better understand his ethical intent behind the epic. Milton’s ethics are neither clear-cut nor perfect and his portrayal of women in the epic is also a source of heated ethical debate, but in this paper I only reflect on how his politics influence the morals of the poem. I explain that his political prose reveals that he stood for free will and stood staunchly against the idea of the divine right of kings and absolutist leaders like Charles I. I discuss Milton’s parliamentary ties, explaining that in the civil war between Charles and the House of Commons, Milton sided with the Commons, who were elected by and for the people. Though the British parliament itself also lies in an ethical grey area, Milton very clearly was in favor of freedom for the people as opposed to the all-powerful monarch, and I believe that he wove this opinion into Paradise Lost based on the way that he wrote about Adam, Eve, Satan, and anybody under God’s rule. By examining the argument that Milton actually intended Charles I to be represented by Satan, I engage in a debate that certainly relates to ethics. Satan’s actions are undeniably evil, and some argue that this equates to moral repugnancy. By no means do I settle this debate, but I believe that it is too easy to paint Satan as the unadulterated, morally corrupt villain because the evidence for such an argument is too slim. Ultimately, the question of which of these two characters--God or Satan--is truly the hero cannot be settled in a single paper (or perhaps ever) but asking these questions and engaging in the centuries-old debate allows for a far more complex understanding of the ethics of Paradise Lost.
Swift, Elizabeth, "The Arch-Fiend in Charles I or Cromwell: How Milton’s Politics may Illuminate Paradise Lost" (2021). Student Research. 25, Scholarly and Creative Work from DePauw University.