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Milton on Machiavelli: representations of the state in 'Paradise Lost.'

Renaissance QuarterlyAutumn, 1996   by Barbara Riebling

In the prologue to Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of of Malta, Machiavelli appears on stage to announce his arrival in England after a sojourn through the Continent:

Albeit the world thinke Machevill is dead,

Yet was his soule but flowne beyond the Alpes,

And now the Guize is dead, is come from France

To view this Land and frolicke with his friends. (Prologue, 1-4)

The impact of Machiavelli on sixteenth-century Europe was profound, and as this passage implies, his reception in England was complicated by an involved process of transmission. Reactions to his works mixed with demonic portrayals of him that had percolated through European political communities.(1) His two major political tracts, The Prince and The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, left an indelible mark on the political discourse of early modern Europe. The Prince particularly troubled Renaissance readers because in it Machiavelli divorced civic virtue from morality, and for many years in English and continental public political discussions, Machiavelli's name was synonymous with treachery and violence. The Discourses, on the other hand, often found an eager audience among those with republican sympathies. Machiavelli's views could be denounced or advanced by the political writers who followed him, but they would have been virtually impossible to ignore.

Milton's debt to Machiavelli and civic humanism has been amply documented in treatments of his political prose, and recently critics have begun to extend an analysis of Milton's Machiavellianism to his poetry.(2) By the time Milton wrote his major poems, he had several "Machiavellis" with whom to contend: the amoral pragmatist, the political theoretician, the devilish stage Machiavel, and the champion of republican liberty. The Machiavellian elements in Paradise Lost reflect this multiform tradition. In his epic Milton wrestles with some of the most fundamental problems of civic virtue: What is the ideal society? Can classic concepts of civic and Christian virtue be reconciled? What defines the role of the individual in a political community? Machiavelli dealt with these same issues in The Prince and The Discourses. In what follows I will argue that Milton deliberately evokes Machiavelli's prince in his portrayal of Satan, and in doing so repudiates princely rule and the idea that virtu can be sustained without Christian virtue.(3) On the other hand, the poem contains positive echoes of The Discourses' central political themes. Specifically, Milton constructs a heavenly republic and a hellish principality, expanding upon Machiavelli's assertion that the isolation of power and civic virtue in the prince is a corrupting and destabilizing force in political life.

When first introduced in books one and two of Paradise Lost, Satan seems to bear a striking resemblance to Machiavelli's ideal prince -- impetuous, confident, courageous, and sly. In chapter 18 of The Prince Machiavelli praises the man who knows how to use the beast within him, specifically how to be either "the lion" or "the fox" depending on whether conditions demand courage or cleverness, force or guile. In chapter 25 of The Prince he criticizes the tendency of most men to fall into rigid patterns of behavior, unable to deviate from their natural inclinations. Machiavelli praises that rare man who, in a world governed by contingency, is able to change his nature with the times. One must be adaptable in order to conquer fortune. For Machiavelli virtu is not a single quality of mind or spirit, or even a list of qualities. In the most general terms Machiavellian virtu is the talent to act in whatever way will bring success, and it is, therefore, closely allied to prudence.(4) Satan both is and is not Machiavelli's prince. His speeches in the first two books of Paradise Lost repeatedly evoke Machiavelli's cardinal principles of force and guile;(5) however, the comparison is rendered problematic by a combination of inflexibility and imprudence on the part of Satan that is anything but Machiavellian. This divided portrait serves Milton's larger project of interrogating the efficacy of princely (as opposed to republican) virtu. Unlike many of his predecessors, Milton does not part company with Machiavelli on the issue of princely virtu's amorality. Indeed with his portrait of Satan as prince, Milton is not so much contradicting Machiavelli as he is pressing a central point in his political philosophy, that principalities are inherently weak even when led by a strong prince. In a sense Milton is simply traveling further down the path Machiavelli charted, translating what is at best improbable and transitory success into certain failure.

Satan's initial address to Beelzebub in book one demonstrates an indomitable will that seems consistent with the portrait of a Machiavellian prince seizing the moment and making it his own, turning misfortune into opportunity:

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,

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