Conrad Zaar (conrad_zaar) wrote in miltonic,
Conrad Zaar

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Who Needs Checks and Balances?

Near the end of Book V of Paradise Lost Satan announces his plans for rebellion to his assembled angelic troops. The only dissenting voice among them belongs to Abdiel, who tries to point out the foolishness and evil of the plan. He and Satan exchange arguments and Abdiel fails to convince anyone. After his final plea, Abdiel gives up and leaves, but not before Milton provides this brief conclusive description:

So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
(V. 896-900)

In an annotation to my edition of Paradise Lost, Isaac Asimov writes:

Perhaps in these magnificent lines Milton is thinking, a little self-pityingly, of himself. In 1660, the Puritan domination over England ended, and Charles II, son of the executed Charles I, returned to the throne; and with him a court that was hedonistic and everything else that the Puritans abhorred. Yet the English celebrated the return with great joy, and Milton, downcast, must have felt that only he remained faithful to the godly doctrines where all else rebelled.

To be sure, it is rather ironic that Milton's faithfulness was to an anti-monarchic doctrine in a crowd of those who roared approval for the king, while Abdiel's faithfulness was to an unthinking devotion to the monarchic ideal against the crowd who seemed to be calling for an end to absolutism.

Actually, I'm not so sure that Asimov is right in characterizing Milton's position as ironic. Such a reading fails to recognize the vital difference between earthly monarchy and divine monarchy. It seems pretty clear to me that in Milton's universe, there is no problem with God being a king because God is both absolutely good and absolutely infallible. Earthly monarchy is only wrong because we live in a fallen world. Power should not reside in the hands of one man because all them have only incomplete, fragmented understanding. Milton writes in Areopagitica:

Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who, as that story goes of the Egyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb, still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall do, till her Master's second coming; he shall bring together every joint and member, and shall mould them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection.

This is why, in Book III, Milton can depict the court of heaven as a choir of angels singing praise of God in perfect unison, and apparently content to do so for eternity. In heaven, no debate or discussion is necessary because truth is whole and self-evident (except, I suppose, to self-deceivers like Satan). It is only in Hell and in the post-lapsarian mortal world that truth is uncertain, and consequently it is only in these places that there exist a variety of possible perspectives, any one of which might contain some truth. Only in the absence of certainty (i.e out of the presence of God) does it make sense to avoid monarchial authoritarianism.
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