Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.


*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.



A comparison of Vondel’s ‘Lucifer’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667 and 1674)


1 Lucifer (a drama) has a little over two thousand lines (rhymed), whereas Paradise Lost (an epic) has about 10,500 (blank verse).  (Milton first thought of telling the story through drama.)

2 The similarities between Lucifer and Paradise Lost can be attributed to their derivation from two passages in the Bible: Genesis, Chapter 3, verses 1-6, for the temptation by the serpent of Adam and Eve; and Revelation, Chapter 12, verses 7-9, for the “war in heaven” and the “casting out” of Satan. 

3 Both God the Father and God the Son appear in Paradise Lost; in Lucifer, God is represented by the loyal angels, expressing his wishes and enforcing his orders. 

4 Is it a good idea to include God in a poem as a major character?  Does it work artistically? Does Milton do him justice?  (Can he, indeed?)

Rather caustically, Alexander Pope commented on God’s speeches in Milton’s epic:

‘In Quibbles, Angel and Archangel join,

And God the Father turns a School-Divine.’


[The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace Imitated, 101-102]


See also Christopher Rick’s Introduction to his edition of Paradise Lost (Penguin, 1989), pages xxi-xxii.


For a positive view of Milton’s portrayal of God (Father and Son), see Alastair Fowler’s Introduction to his edition of Paradise Lost (Longman, 2007), pages 36-41.


5 Is the God of either poet autocratic?  And if so, is he unappealing? Suffice it to say here that Milton’s Satan is a tyrant in the making (see Paradise Lost, Books I and II, to look no further); and Vondel’s Lucifer is similar.  So, although they make great speeches, they are great deceivers and are unfit to rule (except perhaps in hell).


6 Adam and Eve do not appear on stage in Lucifer.  They may seem passive – created and acted upon rather than active (they are not given space to tell their story in their own words).  In Paradise Lost, by contrast, Adam and Eve, are undoubtedly active characters.  God the Father, moreover, states that He has endowed them with free will; and of Adam he says:


“Ingrate, he had of me

All he could have; I made him just and right,

Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”


[Book III, 97-99]


7 In Lucifer, Lucifer himself has been second only to God hitherto.  He and his supporters rebel against God because they believe that the newly created Adam and Eve will usurp the angels’ place and be closer to God (and be of higher status) than they themselves.  In Paradise Lost, it is the status of God the Son that sparks the rebellion (see Book V, lines 772-802.)  Moreover, Adam and Eve are created after the war in heaven, as the climax of the six day creation (see Book VII).

In this connection, compare speeches by Lucifer in Vondel’s play and Satan in Paradise Lost:


“To be the first prince in some lower court

Is better than within the Blessed Light

To be the second, or even less.”


[Lucifer, Act 2]


‘Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.’


[Paradise Lost, Book I, 263]


8 In Lucifer, the rebels are warned against rebellion by Gabriel (Act II), Michael (Act III) and Raphael (Act IV).  In Paradise Lost, the challenge to Satan and prediction of his downfall comes from the seraph Abdiel (Book V, 803-848 and 877-89).


9 Lucifer conveys the build-up to the angels’ rebellion in the first four Acts, and all the consequences in Act V.  (The Fall of the rebel angels and that of Adam and Eve follow in quick succession.)  The movement over time is linear.  Paradise Lost starts in the middle, with Satan’s preparation for his part in the second Fall, in Books II-IV; then it covers the first Fall, in the account given by Raphael, in Books V and VI; then it returns to the Fall of mankind, and its consequences, in Books VIII-XII.   

10 There is a war in heaven, between the forces of God and those of Lucifer/Satan, in both works: in Lucifer, the account is given in Act V; in Paradise Lost, in Book V, 563-907, and Book VI, 1-866.  God the Son is the commander in Paradise Lost: in Lucifer, it is Michael.  (Both accounts make the reader think of the nature of 17th century warfare.)

11 In both works, Satan/Lucifer is transformed into a lowly beast.  In Satan’s case, he is changed into a hissing serpent (Book IX, 504-545).  Lucifer is metamorphosed into a “hideous medley of seven beasts”, representing the seven deadly sins (cf Revelation).

12 In Paradise Lost [Book III, lines 80-134] God the Father reveals that he can foresee the Fall of Adam and Eve: nothing similar occurs in Lucifer.


13 In Paradise Lost, God the father contrasst the negative fate of the rebellious angels (“the first sort”) and the ultimately positive destiny of Adam and Eve:


“The first sort by their own suggestion fell,

Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived

By the other first: man therefore shall find grace,

The other none: in mercy and justice both,

Through heaven and earth, so shall my glory excel,

But mercy first and last shall brightest shine.”


[Book III, 129-134; emphasis added]


In Lucifer, Act IV, as the rebellion comes to a head, the angel Raphael talks about justice and mercy.  Justice, he says, now has the superior claim on God’s attention, but mercy is still on offer (for a short space), if Lucifer lays down his arms.  Lucifer hesitates, but loses his chance to accept the offer, as he feels impelled by his supporters to join battle with God’s forces.


14 In both works, both Adam Eve are very beautiful; and they have something denied the angels – their happy married state.  The angel Apollion readily expresses his admiration for the couple:

“Perfect are both man and wife;
Of equal beauty they, from head to foot.”

And, he says, they surpass the angels:

“And though all the Angels now
Impress our eyes as beautiful and fair.
How ill their forms and faces would appear
If seen within the rosy morning-light 
Of maidenhood!”

[Lucifer, Act 1]

Similarly, in Paradise Lost, their beauty makes an impression upon Satan [see Books IV and IX]; but the sight of them, “Imparadised in one another’s arms”,  is “hateful” and “tormenting” to him [IV, 505f]; and later, when he finds Eve on her own [IX, 455ff], her beauty temporarily “overawed/His malice”, and he is “of enmity disarmed,/Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge”, until “the hot hell that always in him burns….soon ended his delight” and “Fierce hate he recollects”.  (And his temptation of Eve follows.)


15 In Paradise Lost, it is Satan himself who tempts Eve.  (See Book IX, 532-548, 567-612, 655-658 and 677-732, for his speeches to Eve; see the rest of Book IX for the short term consequences, and the later Books for those of the long term).  In Lucifer, it is Belial (sent by Lucifer) who tempts Eve (and Adam), in similar but far fewer words.


16 The planned redemption of mankind, through Jesus Christ, is conveyed in the last few lines of Lucifer, and throughout Books III, X, XI and XII of Paradise Lost.


17 There are symmetries in both works.  Albeit known only by report, Adam and Eve feature early in Act I of Lucifer (where they are beautiful and happy) and late in Act V (when they have fallen).  Symmetries can be found too in Paradise Lost.  In the Introduction to his edition of Paradise Lost, Alastair Fowler sets out this “array” of the twelve Books:


i-ii       Effects of angelic fall                    a

iii        Council: Satan enters world           b

iv       First temptation                           c

vi       Messiah’s triumph                        D

vii       Messiah’s creation                        D

ix       Second temptation                       c

x        Council: Satan leaves world           b

xi-xii   Effects of human Fall                             a


[Page 26]     


18 Last but not least: both works are full of male characters: Eve is the only woman.  As is well known, it is Eve who takes much of the blame for the Fall – much more so in Paradise Lost than in Lucifer, as in the latter the forbidden fruit is passed from Eve to Adam immediately.




Scholars can detect theological differences between Vondel (a convert to Roman Catholicism) and Milton (a free thinking Protestant); but on the whole both poets act to “justify the ways of God to man”.  Both works are tremendous literary achievements.  Objections to them can be raised by readers who do not share the faith that informs the works, but on grounds of belief rather than artistic merit.



For an alternative analysis of the two works, see: van Dijkhuizen, J F, and Helmers, H, ‘Religion and Politics – ‘Lucifer (1654) and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674)’, in: Korsten, F W A, and Bloemendal, J (eds) (2012), Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), Dutch Playwright of the Golden Age, (Leiden: Brill), 377-405 (available on line).  They see Vondel as a supporter of divinely appointed authority and Milton as a republican, concerned about tyranny, whoever exercises it:

‘Both Milton and Vondel employ the Lucifer myth to investigate the nature of authority….  Both ultimately draw opposite conclusions from their material: Vondel sees in the rebellion of Lucifer a lasting justification of divine kingship….[In the hell of Paradise Lost, we see portrayed] the power and authority [that] come to be corrupted into the inequality and tyranny that Milton associated with the Stuart monarchy.’  [Page 404]


David Harries


January 2014