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Quest for Knowledge in Milton’s Paradise Lost - How Much can Humans Know?

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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 ...


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... the universe spends so much time circling the earth.

3 In Book VIII of Paradise Lost, Raphael discusses the source of the moon’s light (140-58).

4 “And now / [Adam] led on, yet sinless, with desire to know” (Paradise Lost VII.60-01).

Works Cited

Hughes, Merritt ed. John Milton: Complete Pomes and Major Prose. New York: Macmillan, 1957.

Marjara, Harinder Singh. Contemplation of Created Things: Science in "Paradise Lost". Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost ed. Alastair Fowler, Second Edition. London: Longman, 1998.

Nicolson, Majorie Hope. A Reader's Guide to John Milton. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1992.

Williamson, George. ed. Milton: Formal Essays and Critical Asides. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve Univ. Press, 1970.


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