John Milton and Thomas Hobbes were two Englishmen who witnessed the English Civil War in the mid 1600s. Hobbes’s work Leviathan is explicitly political. He is discussing the organization of society and how people should be ruled. Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, is not, at first glance, about politics. Milton’s poem concerns Christian matters, such as the belligerence of Satan and the ejection of Eve and Adam from the Garden of Eden.
Yet Milton scholars say that Paradise Lost can be seen as commentary on the English Civil War and the politics of his time. Some claim that Satan and his cohorts represent King Charles I and his regime. They fought with Parliament the way that Satan and company fought with God to avoid accountability for their various misdeeds.
There’s also a way to view Satan as emblematic of Oliver Cromwell. Although Milton had a job in Cromwell’s cabinet as the Secretary of Foreign Tongues, Cromwell never produced the kind of republicanism that Milton supported. Thus, Satan’s betrayal of God could be symbolic of Cromwell’s betrayal of a more democratic commonwealth.
Again, the politics in Paradise Lost are much more allegorical and suggestive. The politics in Leviathan are overt. Hobbes believes that the best way to avoid calamities, like civil war, is for citizens “to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man.” In Hobbes’s ideal system, there is a sovereign ruler that unites the subjects and forms a commonwealth. Hobbes concedes that there will be problems, but these issues are less hazardous than the kind that arise in the absence of a singular forceful leader.
Putting Hobbes’s Leviathan in conversation with Milton’s Paradise Lost might prove contentious. The Milton that appears in Paradise Lost doesn’t come across as someone who will yield to an earthly sovereign. Someone with the imputed ability to “assert Eternal Providence, / And Justify the ways of God to men” might have a hard time subjecting themselves to one of Hobbes’s kings or authority figures. In this formula, Milton, somewhat ironically, becomes the Satan-like rebel. It’s possible to argue that the only master Milton could ever truly obey is God.