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.