Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

By Melissa E. Sanchez | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
“My self / Before Me”
The Erotics of Republicanism in Paradise Lost

Milton’s Paradise Lost provides a fitting end to this study, for it offers perhaps the most explicit argument of all of the texts that I have discussed that private fantasies and desires invariably shape public decisions. Accordingly, for Milton, the best form of government will not attempt to ignore or abolish the passions. It will make them part of the formula for building a godly state. In the texts that I have discussed thus far, the perversity of erotic relations has registered a lack of faith in rationalist political narratives. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s conception of godly rule rests on a nuanced view of the place of sexual desire and cross-gendered identification in legal and political structures. Paradise Lost attests to the dangers of treating human reason and perception as though they are separate from human desire and fantasy and therefore infallibly stable and objective.1 A central concern for Milton is the ease with which the idealization of individual virtue can lead to the destruction of the republican order such virtue is supposed to support. While Milton had initially seen individual rectitude as a source of public justice, his experience of its failure during the Protectorate and Restoration encouraged a skepticism that colors his prose and poetry in the 1650s and 1660s. In these writings, Milton suggests that the perverse pride and ambition he had earlier identified as the hallmarks of tyranny are ineradicable aspects of the human condition as such.

Consequently, the political theory of Milton’s later years—including Paradise Lost—bases its arguments for republican rule on the conviction of human

1. As Fish argues, Milton’s work is deeply concerned with the difficulty of accurately evaluating the motives of oneself or others, since base and selfish actions may often appear noble and altruistic, even to one’s own self (How Milton Works, 3–7, 85–87).

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