existential primer

John Milton
a poem with the ultimate anti-hero

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When Satan is your most memorable character because he refuses to be oppressed, you have unintentionally planted a curious thought in the minds of readers.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


Long before the French Resistance rebels Camus and Sartre became literary and philosophical powers, John Milton was rebelling against his country's government and church. Milton's great works, written during the last decade of his life, highlight a concern with individual choice and responsibility. It should be no surprise that Milton did not believe in the Divine Right of the Crown or in infallibility of the Church of England.

Milton's first work of note was Lycidas, a pastoral elegy written to honor Edward King, a classmate at Cambridge. An elegy is a poem adhering to strict conventions meant to honor a lost friend. King died in 1637 while sailing to Ireland to visit his family. Milton used the opportunity to criticise the church. Milton's dedication introducing the poem indicates his intent:

In this monody the author bewails a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted clergy, then in their height.

The poem explores the meaning of existence, the role of the church, and the Creator's role in destiny. Written nearly 30 years before Paradise Lost, the basic themes that would dominate Milton's works are apparent.

Milton considered the individual more important than any created system, such as government or the church. The fact that he considered these institutions man-made was heresy in itself. Individual rights and free will were given to man, according to Milton, by the Creator. This pursuit of individual rights created many confrontations with the powerful men of his time.

On June 14, 1643, Parliament passed the Ordinance for Printing. The Tudor monarchs and the early Stuarts had attempted such controls, but Parliament was the true source of power in the 17th century. The Parliament wanted to guarantee the preservation of order and uniformity in the church and state. Milton realized that the real goal was to limit what the public read. In November of 1644 he published Aeropagitica, a defense of the free press. Milton wrote that censorship was an attribute of "degenerate" cultures. In Aeropagitica, Milton stated:

When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing...

Milton's distaste for the monarchy led directly to his embracing the rule of Oliver Cromwell. From 1630 through 1658 Milton wrote at least 24 sonnets. Many of these celebrate the rise of "Lord General Cromwell" and "New Forcers of Conscience." When Cromwell's government collapsed and Charles II ascended the thrown, Milton was imprisoned, fined, and his property confiscated. Yet Milton steadfastly accepted his decisions and the consequences.

Three years after the fall of Cromwell's government, Milton began writing Paradise Lost. Readers of the epic often find Satan the most compelling character, especially at the beginning of the poem, which he dominates. Satan has used his free will to choose his role in the universe. The famous statement by Satan that it is "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven" is an endorsement of individual rights and responsibility, versus serving authority. Satan describes his enemy as "the tyranny of Heaven." Nietzsche would appreciate the honest ambition of Satan.

In Paradise Lost, Adam is heroic only because he accepts his fate. He does not fight Satan, argue at length with the Creator, or run away from responsibility. Adam admits to and embraces his guilt in order to tolerate his mortality. This is the same acceptance we later read about in Camus' The Stranger; the sinner admits to his deeds and eventually embraces fate.


1608 Born in Bread Street, Cheapside
1629 Graduates from Christ's College, Cambridge with an A.B. (bachelor's degree)
1632 Receives A.M. (master's degree) from Christ's College
1634 Writes Comus for a nobel family in Shropshire
1637 Contributes Lycidas to a volume honoring a Cambridge classmate.
1642 May or June Marries Mary Powell, daughter of a royalist squire. She leaves within weeks.
1643 to 1645 Publishes several essays in support of divorce.
1644 Writes the essay On Education, debating the writings of German scholar Samuel Hartlib.
1644 November 24 Publishes the essay Areopagitica, defending the right to a "free press" in opposition to regulations approved by Parliament.
1645 Mary returns to Milton. She gives birth to three daughters in the following years.
1649 Publishes a series of essays in support of Cromwell and defending the execution of Charles I.
1649 Goes blind, but is still appointed Latin Secretary to Cromwell's Council of State.
1652 Wife Mary dies.
1656 Marries Katherine Woodcock.
1658 Katherine dies during childbirth.
1660 Charles II returns to the throne. Milton is imprisoned briefly for treason and his property is confiscated.
1663 Marries Elizabeth Minshull.
1663 Begins writing Paradise Lost.
1667 Publishes Paradise Lost.
1671 Publishes Paradise Regained, a tribute to Christ.
1674 Publishes the play Samson Agonistes.
1674 Dies of gout.



Few characters are associated with existential free will as strongly as John Milton’s (1608–74) Satan from the epic poem Paradise Lost. The English poet was not attempting to express a theological existentialism, though. Reading Satan as a heroic figure runs counter to Milton’s theology. The famous lines actually emphasize the dangers of free will.

… Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Paradise Lost Book 1

In Milton’s theology, humanity is sinful and corrupt, free will resulting in “The Fall of Man” from the Creator’s grace.



The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
-- Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 254. Satan speaking of his new domain.

To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
-- Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 262. Satan speaking of his new domain.


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