Quest for Knowledge in Milton’s Paradise Lost - How Much can Humans Know?
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Shakespeare II.i.166-67). So Hamlet tells Horatio when he marvels at the spectre of the ghost. Hamlet is telling his friend that science and natural philosophy can only account for so much. A point comes when humans cannot rationalize or prove certain events. In Paradise Lost , Raphael tells Adam similar sentiments when Adam questions him on the nature of the universe in Book VIII. However, Raphael goes on to warn Adam not to ponder deeply things that he can never know fully. This type of curiosity and desire for learning only leads to sin.
Yet, while Raphael is warning Adam not to think of these things, he himself speculates on the nature of the universe, planting ideas in Adam’s mind he did not have before. These ideas concern the theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo, much in dispute in Milton’s time. Though Milton seems to advance the Ptolemaic theory of the universe in Paradise Lost , the debate over which system Milton truly believed in is not the most important aspect of Raphael and Adam’s discussion in Book VIII. Knowledge is the true topic. What and how much can humans know?
Knowledge is the cornerstone of Paradise Lost . Adam and Eve must not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan pinpoints Adam and Eve’s vulnerability in their ignorance of evil. Adam worries that he may seek knowledge that displeases God. Raphael praises Adam’s thirst for knowledge and warns him about obsessively seeking knowledge that is useless. Eve eats the fruit because she wants to know how to be like a god. The warning that knowledge exists that humans and angels cannot comprehend or have overshadows the quest for knowledge. This limitation on knowledge is in itself not evil. Only the omnipotent God can fully comprehend Nature. However, Adam and Eve’s intemperance and Satan’s pride lead them to break the limits God sets on knowing. By breaking these limits, they disobey God. This is the true cause of evil in Paradise Lost . Satan’s lack of knowledge leads him to suppose he can defeat God. Adam and Eve’s lack of knowledge helps Satan fool Eve as the serpent. It also contributes to their underestimating the seriousness of their sins. But they do know the consequences of disobeying and defying God. In Heaven, God tells the Angels:
him who disobeyes
Mee disobeyes, breaks union, and that day
Cast out from God and blessed vision, falls
Into utter darkness, deep ingulft, his place
Ordaind without redemption, without end. (V.611-15)
When Adam recounts his birth to Raphael, he tells of his visit with God. It is clear that Adam knows the price of disobedience for God tells him:
Remember what I warn thee, shun to taste,
And shun the bitter consequence: for know,
The day thou eat’st...