Satan is declaring to the millions making up that third of the angels entering on rebellion against God that the inequality making him superior to the rest does not compromise their freedom. You are, he asserts, “if not equal all, yet free, / Equally free; for Orders and Degrees / Jarr not with liberty, but well consist” (5.791–93). Two ironies undercut his declaration. The immediate one is that he speaks in jealousy of God's appointment of the Son to an order above him. The more general irony is that in the poem's absolute monarchy of God, even those highest in rank must obey the “one Almightie” (5.469). God is a character in the poem, as he is not in human society. This engenders some perplexities.
Readers familiar with Milton's career and his prose writing as interpreted in modern criticism cannot fail to be surprised by the paucity of editorial commentary on politics in Paradise Lost. Features of his preRestoration activities are mentioned in some of the early criticism, but little finds its way into commentary. It is of course a religious poem, but politics and religion are commonly inseparable in his lifetime. Politics is not so much separable as nonexistent in the poem for Patrick Hume, closest in time of the editors to Milton. Masson, author of a lengthy life, has little, and Fowler has not much to say. The reasonable response to this silence is acknowledgment that, easy as it may be to take politics to the poem, there is surprisingly little of it in the poem.
How much there is and how important it is depends in part on how politics is defined. In what follows, the politics in the poem will be taken to involve two chief things: Milton's comments on political matters and politics operative, practiced. There is one possible simple explanation. Milton's avoidance of politics (if that is what it is) may be owed to his precarious situation. Completing his poem in the early 1660s, he had to be circumspect, as when he says in Book 7 he will not be silent:
More safe I Sing with mortal voice, unchang'd To hoarce or mute, though fall'n on evil dayes, On evil dayes though fall'n, and evil tongues; In darkness, and with dangers compast round, And solitude. (24–28)
Yet that is a situation that prepares for political comment that does not follow. On the other hand, we shall see that certain obviously political matters have simply been ignored.
It will not be amiss to assemble lines in which editors have found political references. (See our notes for quotations and passages cited.) In 5.353–57 Adam appears:
in himself was all his state, More solemn then the tedious pomp that waits On Princes, when thir rich Retinue long Of horses led, and Grooms besmeard with Gold Dazles the croud, and sets them all agape.
The editor most alert to political and other biographical matters, A. W. Verity, calls this “One of those passing touches in which Milton reveals his republicanism and dislike of ostentation.” The touch is not very firm. In 9.671–72, Milton speaks of “free Rome, where Eloquence / Flourishd, since mute.” Taking our editorial role we may comment that Milton implies that Cicero's “free Rome” and the republic were lost when the caesars founded the empire. But the silencing of eloquence includes “Even the debates of the Long Parliament, ” as Keightley observed. Newton quotes Warburton (see 11.220n) on “Warr unproclaim'd, ” “The severe censure on this makes me fancy that Milton hinted at the [second] war with Holland, which broke out in 1664, when we surprised and took the Dutch fleet before war was proclaimed, which the Whigs much exclaimed against.” Here is actual history. Unfortunately, it is what Warburton fancies that Milton hinted and the reaction of a political party that did not then exist.
We must not omit one of the most familiar pasages, on Belial (1.497–99).
In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse Of riot ascends above their loftiest Towrs.
This is surely criticism of the court of Charles II, and of London as well. In like vein, he contrasts the chaste love of Adam and Eve with