John Milton’s Warning to Scientists
Adam’s memory of first awakening to consciousness presents significant differences from Eve’s first memories, which we see in Book IV. Whereas Eve awakens in shade, Adam does so in broad sunlight —“happy Light,” as he calls it (VIII.285). Eve is quickly drawn in by reflections and images, coming to desire an illusion of herself, and only gradually drawn by God toward Adam and the wisdom represented by the platan tree. Adam, in contrast, looks toward the sky and toward God immediately upon waking up. He quickly discovers that he knows the true names of things, so he is not deceived by mere appearances and shadows. God appears to him as a visible presence rather than merely a voice, and entrusts Adam with his commandments, all of which suggests that Adam is closer to God and to the truth than Eve. When God asks Adam why he wants a companion, given that God himself is solitary and without peer, Adam shows that he understands his own nature, arguing that he is deficient and defective, unlike God.
Adam’s account of his first meeting with Eve is somewhat different from the version Eve gives in Book IV. There, Eve says that she turned away from Adam at first because he did not seem as attractive as her own reflection. Although Adam has heard Eve’s explanation, in his explanation to Raphael he says that her turning away from him seemed to him to be intentionally designed to make her more attractive to him (whether the intention was Eve’s or God’s), as it is natural for him to pursue her rather than the other way around. This discrepancy could point to Adam’s tendency to deceive himself where Eve is concerned.
Adam and Raphael’s description of Eve illustrates Milton’s view of the inequality of men and women. Eve’s decision to leave Raphael and Adam alone, preferring to hear the conversation from Adam afterward, demonstrates her submission to Adam and her reluctance to converse with the angel herself. We get the sense that she withdraws because she acknowledges her place in God’s hierarchy. Moreover, Milton tells us that she prefers to hear the story mingled with Adam’s caresses, indicating that intellectual stimulation by itself is not sufficient for her. Her absence allows Adam and Raphael to discuss her openly, but it also implies Milton’s belief that women are either uninterested or mentally ill-equipped for intellectual pursuits. Whatever the reason, Eve’s lack of knowledge or engagement with reason allows her to remain ignorant to the dangers that lie ahead for her and Adam.
Raphael’s account of our solar system displays Milton’s knowledge of the conflicting scientific theories and beliefs of his time. Milton was well aware that the organization of the universe was hotly disputed. Some astronomers thought that the universe revolved around the Earth, and others, including Milton’s contemporary Galileo (to whom he alludes by name in Book I), felt that the Earth revolved around the sun. While Galileo’s theory was widely denounced by religious authorities, Milton does not take either side of the issue in Paradise Lost, having Raphael assert that the debate is unimportant because it concerns matters that do not pertain to humankind’s relationship with God.
Similarly, Raphael’s message to Adam about the limits of human knowledge functions as a warning to scientists in Milton’s time. Many believed that science could yield incorrect and misleading answers to questions about the universe. Milton argues that humankind should resist making theories about the universe and other incomprehensible things, and focus rather on pragmatic issues of their daily spiritual lives. Milton believed in the necessity of scientific questionings and pursuits, but he also believed that the pursuit of truth through science would yield dangerous results. Truth, according to Milton, should only be pursued through faith and religion; humans should tend to their more Earthly practical matters and have faith that God will manage the metaphysical matters of the universe.
Chapter Challenge: Book 9