John Milton wasn't just a poet; he was a wanted man. In the 1640s a civil war was raging in England. On one side were the Royalists, a group of people that supported King Charles I (royalty, Royalists). On the other side were the Parliamentarians, the men of Parliament (think: Congress) who represented different parts of Britain. As you can probably guess, the Parliamentarians were fed up with their king and wanted Parliament to play a more important role in English politics and government. The young John Milton was all about the Parliamentarians and wrote a lot of pamphlets supporting their positions. In one very famous pamphlet, he actually defended Parliament's right to behead the king should the king be found inadequate. According to Milton, the king exists to serve the people and Parliament; if he doesn't fulfill his end of the bargain, they should be allowed to kill him. Cheery, huh?
As it turns out, Charles I didn't fulfill his end of the bargain (ruh-roh) and literally lost his head in 1649. There was no king until 1660. At that time, Parliament realized things weren't working out so well, so they decided to bring back Charles's exiled son, Charles II, and make him king. The return of Charles II from exile to assume the English throne is called the Restoration, because the English monarchy was restored.
As you might expect, Charles II wasn't too happy about his dad's death and he executed many of those responsible. While Milton wasn't directly involved in the beheading, he was still a wanted man. He spent some time behind bars, and almost found his way to the chopping block, but, thankfully, he was eventually pardoned with the help of influential friends like fellow poet Andrew Marvell. (Check out Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress.")
By this time Milton was totally blind as well, and the thing for which he passionately fought (a better English government) was in ruins. In many ways, he was in the perfect position to write a poem about the loss of Paradise, seeing as how his own aspirations for a brand new government had gone up in smoke. People have often commented on the fact that Milton himself resembles the Satan he creates in his poem; Satan (who, when the story begins, has just been crushed) attempted to launch a revolution to do away with God, because he thought God was a tyrant. The similarities between Milton and the Satan he creates are huge and worth pondering. But, at the end of the day, we should be careful about identifying Milton – a very serious Christian – too completely with Satan and his wingmen.
But Milton didn't just write Paradise Lost because he was upset and felt that he had lost his own paradise; he had been planning the poem for quite some time. Actually, Milton always saw himself alongside the greatest poets of Western literature – Homer (Greek), Virgil (Roman), Dante (Italian), and Spenser (English), among others. Milton, being Milton, also realized that to be a full member of the Cool Writer Club he had to write an epic. But, whereas most of those other poets wrote epics celebrating martial heroism (i.e., being a good soldier, winning wars, etc.), Milton's poem explores a more spiritual heroism.
If competing with the great poets of the past weren't enough, Milton was completely blind! He couldn't see. That means he had to dictate Paradise Lost to somebody (the person who transcribes a dictation is called an amanuensis, by the way; ten points if you can use that word in conversation today). Just try writing your next essay by dictation, and then imagine writing a poem that is several hundred pages long. Yikes!
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever gotten really angry or sad thinking about all of the suffering in the world, about how many people struggle just to exist? Have you ever cried out in frustration, "Life is not fair! What's with all the injustice in the world?"
Well, you're not alone. Nearly four hundred years ago John Milton struggled with the same questions in Paradise Lost. At the very beginning of the poem, Milton claims that he will "assert Eternal Providence" and "justify the ways of God to men." In other words, Milton says he'll explain and defend God's ways, and will show us how everything in the world is part of a grand plan, a plan in which everyone will live happily ever after in the end.
While he believes in a grand plan, Milton also tells us how important freedom and choice are; there is no such thing as fate or predestination in the world he describes. Now, to review for a moment, predestination is an idea held by some Protestants which claims that everyone is already predestined for salvation (Heaven) or damnation (that would be Hell) when they're born. So the idea is that people are either born good or bad. According to this belief, there is nothing a person can do to escape his or her fate in the next life (good works, charity, penitence and the like won't get anybody into Heaven because everything has already been decided). For Milton, God doesn't predestine anybody, and his God's "ways" turn out to be just reactions to human decisions: God banishes Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and evil enters the world because Adam and Eve broke the rules. Simple as that. In Paradise Lost the point is not that Adam and Eve were unlucky or unjustly treated; they knew the rules and were given the gift of freedom of choice; they were "free to fall," as Milton's God puts it.
So now we get down to why we should care: choice. Such a tiny word for such a gargantuan idea. Why, you might ask, were Adam and Eve given this choice? Wouldn't it have been better if there were no Tree of Knowledge? The short answer is yes, the long answer no. You see, Adam and Eve's obedience to God doesn't mean much if there's no way to disobey him. It's more meaningful and more significant if there is temptation that must be resisted; virtue, Milton feels, is nothing if it isn't tested. The same is true in real life; how can we know how good someone is if we don't know how they respond to "bad" or "sinful" things? How do you know how strong your friendships are until they are tested?
You may not agree with Milton's ideas, and you may not believe what he believes, but thinking about our own freedom of choice is important. Milton challenges us to define our own views on this, and what we believe shapes our everyday actions. While it may seem "mean" to sit by and watch people suffer or make bad decisions, Milton suggests that only a God willing to give people free will can be considered good and "justified." What do you think about this and about freedom of choice in general? What a complex kettle of fish you've given us, Señor Milton!