The Failure of English Republicanism and the Restoration
One critic has argued that Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes are part of Milton's interpretation of the failure of the godly reformation and the Cromwellian political regime, and the path for the godly to follow under the restored Stuart monarchy. This symbiotic interpretation, i.e. that a full understanding of Milton's intentions can only be discovered by considering both texts in comparison, serves for an interesting argument.
One of the major themes of Paradise Regained is Christ's repudiation of the military approach. His rejection of the role of 'military Messiah' who would forcefully liberate the Jews is of central importance to the story of Christ. But the issue remains: why would Milton write a poem celebrating the pacifism of Christ? Why focus on that aspect of the New Testament? What does this reveal about his attitude to the Civil Wars and republic? Most importantly for this discussion, how does this relate to the poet's portrait of Samson, the military hero?
Samson Agonistes is the companion poem, or pendant, to Paradise Regained; they were published in the same volume in 1671. The temptations of Christ recorded in the New Testament (i.e. the Gospels of St Matthew 4:1-11, and St Luke 4:1-13) do not record Satan offering military glory and conquest as part of 'all the kingdoms of the world'. Satan says 'All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them'. Milton's interpretation is crucial here - there is nothing in the Gospels to imply that the power and glory Satan offers Christ is to be achieved by military means; that is Milton's own interpretation of the temptation. Satan mocks Christ in book iii for his lack of achievement, drawing attention to great military heroes from history (Scipio, Alexander the Great, Pompey) and taunting Christ's 'under-achievement'.
Christ replies, 'They err who count it glorious to subdue | By conquest far and wide...' (iii.71-92; 400- 2). Christ's repudiation of war (reiterating book xi of Paradise Lost) marks Milton's pacifism, it has no origins in the New Testament. The Messenger's response to Manoa's question about Samson's fate, 'Inevitable cause | At once both to destroy and be destroyed' is poignant in this; Milton's point is that if you chose to destroy it will inevitably involve self-destruction. 'Destroy' is a word that Milton deployed for Satan, and its connotations are clear. Further moral evaluation is evident in Milton's language; Milton defines the 'glory' that Satan tempts Christ with as military glory. The Chorus praise Samson's glorious achievement, exalting the revenge he has enacted upon the Philistines:
'O dearly-bought revenge, yet glorious!
The Chorus evaluates Samson's success by the number of Philistines he has killed; they assess his life, and the 'dire necessity' of his death, in these terms. 'Necessity' is another word associated with Satan in Milton's oeuvre: hence in Paradise Lost after he has justified destroying Adam and Eve, the poet remarks of Satan - 'So spake the fiend, and with necessity / The tyrant's plea, excused his devilish deeds'.
Milton's Samson is an old-style military hero; this, rather than whether Samson committed suicide or not, was Milton's concern. Samson is the warrior-hero, who deploys Satan's martial means, regardless of the sanctity of the objective. In this sense it is interesting to consider Samson Agonistes as a companion- piece to Paradise Regained; Samson is the old-style military hero who uses the old means in his attempt to save his people. It is Christ, and his approach to the salvation of his people in his duty as Messiah that captures Milton's attention.
Christ's method is that of patience and heroic martyrdom for the sake of truth. Where Samson offers only death, Christ promises life. Samson perceives himself as an instrument of God to be deployed to save his people, taking a public role as their 'deliverer'. It is this very role that Christ rejects. These are the values that Milton had come to uphold by the Restoration. His faith in the 'good old cause' had been shattered, and in his attempts to explain away the failure to safeguard the religious and civil liberties of the godly, Milton turned to emphasise the fundamental importance of purging the innermost spiritual
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