On November 7th—the day after President Obama’s re-election—a lot of conservative bloggers tried to make the best of a bad outcome, but hyperbole also seems a frequent sight in the headlines. “The End of America I Know.” “The Day After America.” “Is America Still Exceptional?” Many seem to feel as though the republic has fallen. Hope is gone.
Being the literature nerd that I am, my mind immediately turns to the greatest English poem to ever lament a republican loss: John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Not to be confused with any GOP members, Milton was a republican in the classical sense, an anti-monarchist who believed England would be best governed if all enfranchised men were equal under the dictates of one law rather than under the dictates of one king. (The 17th-Century republicans used the famous Roman republic as their model—just like the Jedi in Star Wars.)
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Thus, Paradise Lost expresses Milton’s reaction to the demise of England’s brief experiment with republicanism (1649-1653). A staunch supporter of the republic (and of regicide), Milton witnessed his hard-fought revolution collapse into a monarchical Protectorate in only a matter of years. England had almost achieved a utopian level of liberty with its Commonwealth—why would God let it slip away, and so quickly at that?
It takes Milton twelve books of blank verse to articulate an answer, but I think the following lines make a good summary. After foretelling the fall of man, the Father tells the Son:
Man shall not quite be lost, but saved who will,
Yet not of will in him, but grace in me
Freely vouchsafed; once more I will renew
His lapsed powers, though forfeit and enthralled
By sin to foul exorbitant desires;
Upheld by me, yet once more shall he stand
On even ground against his mortal foe,
By me upheld, that he may know how frail
His fall’n condition is, and to me owe
All his deliv’rance, and to none but me.
This excerpt is part of Milton’s answer to why evil exists: God allows human suffering because suffering reminds man of his place in the universe and of his dependency on his Creator. God does not want man to suffer. Suffering in the poem usually results from man destroying the good things that God has given him.
God saves man when man realizes he is unable to save himself. After God saves us, we will be grateful and love him again. It’s the biggest guilt trip ever, and, thus, God teaches man to rely on the divine rather than the political.
Dreams of a republic, of man’s equality under one law, and of liberty all stem from natural law—an ingrained reminder of what is good, of qualities of God, and of the nature of Heaven.
On Earth, however, we forget the purpose of such dreams, largely owing to original sin—that distracting tendency towards “foul exorbitant desires.”
If we believe that liberty comes through a political worldview, if we believe that our shelter and food is given us by the state or an economic system, if we believe that equality is achieved through political design, then we become idolaters. We replace God with manmade things.
Salvation, as Milton tries to remind us, comes solely from God. If we don’t let Milton’s strange brand of Protestantism turn us off to his poetry, this reminder has bearing for modern day Catholics, whether Democrat, Republican, or third party.
For Milton, the dissolution of the republic felt like being cast out of Eden. But he also recognized it was a pattern of success and loss that would be repeated for Israel. In Book 12 of Paradise Lost, Adam is given a revelation of the entirety of the Bible. It is a repetitive tale of God inviting man to an earthly paradise, and man’s subsequent exile. Each time man enters a promised land, the ripe and abundant fruits of that land obscure man’s view of God over time.
God gives generous gifts, but man obsesses over those gifts at the expense of thoughts of the giver. Thus, God has to take away those gifts—or, more typically, God lets the gifts be taken away by other men.
As with Adam and the people of Israel, God allows us to become selfish as a people. And, as the Old Testament prophets warned, a selfishness people becomes a weak people. A weak people is vulnerable to conquest, from without or within. A conquered people will lose those possessions and beliefs that made them weak.
This dynamic of God-givething-and-God-takething-away can be frightening and scary. Adam doesn’t feel particularly good hearing about the sufferings of the Jewish people. Waking up to the election results left me feeling queasy. I like my stuff, what little of it that I have.
It’s easy to imagine that we are going through just such a period of loss right now. If America is the New Promised Land, are we heading for a new Babylonian exile?
It would also be easy to despair over the thought of exile, and Adam starts to, except that a final vision of Christ—and the invisible, spiritual liberty that he offers—renews Adam’s hope and trust in God.
Adam endures his material loss because he realizes there is something better to be gained spiritually.
Milton, likewise, carries on in the new decadent monarchy because he realizes true liberty is in his faith rather than in his political rights.
When all social systems and wealth are stripped away from us, God remains free to us.
One could misinterpret where I am going with this. I am not arguing that the faithful should check out of politics or that we should all try our hands at epic poetry. Our system of government offers us the chance to vote on whether or not we should have a system that enables us to have nice things (iPhones, SUVs, degrees in literature at liberal universities, Xboxes, etc.). There’s no harm in electing to have nice things. The problem is when nice things come at the expense of good or better things (free speech, religious freedom, financial independence), or when having nice things requires concessions to intrinsically bad things (abortion).
See, this is why we can’t have nice things. They often turn out to be “foul exorbitant desires.”
Worse yet, the democratic process also misleads many of us into giving more credit to a particular political or economic system (welfare, capitalism) than to the source of all that is good (God). Even when Democrats and Republicans have the best of intentions, most of the rights and goods they fight for are insignificant when compared to eternal life.
Of course, the consequences of this election might extend beyond political philosophies and the “nice things” of the world. I can argue that we should take solace in invisible, spiritual goods at a time of material, political loss, but such an argument can be hard to read for those who are finding it hard to eat. Christ promises that the Father will feed us like he feeds the sparrows and robe us like he robes lilies, but that has not prevented his faithful from suffering starvation and poverty.
Not surprisingly, Milton seems to have this covered, too. In Paradise Lost, the physical suffering that man endures arises from our interdependence as God’s creatures. Half of this country will experience the consequences of election choices made by the other half. A whole nation can be condemned by the errors of a majority just as all of humanity is condemned by the sin of two people.
But I cannot lay all the blame on a political party or its adherents. If our nation becomes weak, we, as Catholics, have to look to ourselves to be God’s people. We are called to be a light to the world—and that doesn’t limit itself to clicking the right box on an anonymous blind ballot during election day. If God must remind our nation of the greatest good by depriving us of lesser goods, it is because we ourselves have not been a bright enough reminder to our brothers and sisters. We must ask for the Holy Spirit to rekindle that light in us so as to attract our fellow citizens to Christ. Unfortunately, many of our brethren have been giving off a false light—and that is to our shame.
Regardless, our ultimate mission is to bring our neighbors to Him, not to the election booth.
Whether we lose something as significant as our jobs or as petty as our comfort, whether our free speech is curbed or our right to worship is restricted, whether our neighbors call their long-term homosexual relationships “marriage” or tragically kill their own children, nothing a government or society does can force us to abandon our faith or to stop loving as God loves.
The American dream is only a dim shadow of the kingdom of God.
Let this be a reminder.