Ever At Odds: The Conflict and Reconciliation of Science and Religion in Paradise Lost and The Blazing World

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Ever At Odds: The Conflict and Reconciliation of Science and Religion in Paradise Lost and The Blazing World

Throughout history, scientific theories and spiritual beliefs have often been at odds. Even today, most people are faced with the difficulty of reconciling their religious beliefs with modern science. In the 17th Century, when scientific thought was in its infancy and religion was the established source of knowledge about the universe, this conflict was of particular interest to writers and philosophers. Two similar but contrasting viewpoints on this issue can be seen in John Milton's Paradise Lost and Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World. Milton and Cavendish both see science as a tool for exploring the world; however, while Milton feels that science can provide no deep insight into God's workings, Cavendish believes that science can potentially be a source of greater knowledge and understanding.

Under the reign of Elizabeth I, England enjoyed a period of religious toleration. However, near the end of her reign, a growing religious minority, the Puritans, became increasingly critical of her policies, believing that she was still too close to Catholicism. These grievances were magnified when Elizabeth's successor, James I, a devout Anglican, proved to be far less tolerant and tactful. Furthermore, James was accused of abusing his royal authority by attempting to undermine Parliament. The growing tension between Anglicans and Puritans worsened under James' son, Charles I, who repeatedly angered a Parliament in which the House of Commons had gained a significant Puritan influence. In response, the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, called for a reformation of the church, including the abolition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and a ban on bishops voting in the House of Lords. When Charles attempted to dispel the situation by arresting five Commons leaders, loyalties in the country split and the English Civil War began.

Under Cromwell's political and military leadership, the Puritan forces gained organization and determination. His New Model Army won a major battle in Naesby in 1645, which ultimately lead to Charles' surrender. In January 1649, Charles I was executed and the Interregnum under Cromwell began. However, Cromwell's reign was not successful, and by 1653 he was forced to rule through military dictatorship. After Cromwell's death in 1660, Charles II was invited to return from exile to claim the English throne. His return to power is known as the Restoration (Chambers 478-85).

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At the same time as this religious and political upheaval, Europe was undergoing a vast change in intellectual thought. For the first time, people began to view science as a powerful tool for inquiry into the workings of the universe. One of the earliest manifestations of this Scientific Revolution was the introduction of Copernican astronomy. In his 1543 book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Nicolaus Copernicus argued for a heliocentric model of the universe, a theory that contrasted sharply with Christianity's long-accepted Ptolemaic model of geocentrism. Because of its conflict with religion, Copernicus' theory was dismissed until the early 1600's, when Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei found support for his theory through their observations. Galileo's discoveries using the telescope led to his belief in and advocacy of Copernicanism. While Galileo was also interested in physics, the most important physicist of the time was Isaac Newton with his laws of motion. Though these accomplishments were important in their own right, the greatest impact of the Scientific Revolution was its influence on all forms of intellectual thought at that time. Philosophers such as Bacon and Descartes incorporated the scientific method and modern scientific ideas into their own work. The growing interest in science led to scientific societies, which in turn brought science to the general public. This new focus on observation and rational thought was soon reflected in the art and literature of the time (Chambers 499-510).

Like many other contemporary writers, Milton in Paradise Lost displays a keen interest in science. Much like other intellectuals of that time, Milton was wealthy and very highly educated. His fascination with science in general and astronomy in particular began when he traveled to Italy and viewed the latest scientific advances there. The experience in Italy that left the greatest impression on Milton was his opportunity to view the universe through a telescope. While his claims and allusions to his use of Galileo’s own telescope are unverifiable, it is very likely that his first use of the instrument did occur in Italy (Nicolson 86-9).

Milton’s newfound interest in astronomy manifested itself in his writing. While some of his early poetry includes astronomical references, these are used in a more general sense, as metaphors and personified symbols (Nicolson 82). However, after his experience with the telescope, he began to include more specific and scientifically accurate details in his work. Most noticeably, his conception of the astronomical backdrop of the creation and the fall in Paradise Lost demonstrates his knowledge and interest in the subject. When Satan leaves Hell on his quest to Earth, he encounters Chaos as "a dark/Illimitable ocean without bound,/Without dimension, where length, breadth, and highth,/And time and place are lost" (Book II, lines 891-4). This imagery was shaped by his observation of the vast size and darkness of the universe. Likewise, Milton displays his awareness and consideration of one of the greatest scientific debates of his time, that of heliocentric versus geocentric astronomy. When Raphael visits Adam and Eve in Eden, one of the topics of Adam's dialogue with the angel is "Whether the sun predominant in heav'n/Rise on the earth, or earth rise on the sun" (VIII, 160-1). While Milton ultimately provides no opinion on this matter within Paradise Lost, his knowledge of both theories is evident in his neutral treatment and the equal merit given to each.

As Milton was a Puritan, his strict religious ideals are clear in Paradise Lost. After the creation of man, God gives Adam Eden:

“To till and keep, and of the fruit to eat:/Of every tree that in the garden grows/Eat freely with glad heart; fear here no dearth:/But of the tree whose operation brings/Knowledge of good and ill, which I have set/The pledge of thy obedience and thy faith,/Amid the garden by the Tree of Life,/Remember what I warn thee, shun to taste” (VIII, 320-7)

Milton viewed Adam’s role in the garden as a parallel to God’s role in Heaven. Though Adam lacks the power to create, his tilling of the garden and reproduction of himself closely imitates God’s own activities. Even after the fall, Milton believes, man must continue to try to follow God’s way as Adam once did in Eden. The symbolism of the Tree of Knowledge is also very important to Milton’s personal beliefs. The Puritans believed in the concept of free will, rejecting the Calvinist idea of predestination.

Specifically, all created life has the free will to choose between good and evil. In Paradise, the Tree of Knowledge is the device through which free will ultimately brings about the fall of man, just as it brought about the fall of Satan and the angels. As obedience to God would be meaningless if it were intrinsic or coerced, the Tree’s function is to allow Adam and Eve to freely disobey God’s command.

Milton further explains man’s relation to God immediately after the fall, and when Adam receives the vision of Biblical history from Michael. Just after their fall, Adam and Eve, not knowing what else to do, pray to God as they had done many times before. Adam later tells Eve that he believed that “I was heard with favor; peace returned/Home to my breast, and to my memory/His promise, that thy seed shall bruise our foe” (XI, 153-5). Milton believed that after the fall, it became man’s duty to lead as virtuous a life as possible, so that God may eventually become close enough to man again to forgive him and admit him back into Paradise. However, as Michael explains during Adam’s vision, man will continually transgress and further offend God, forcing him to distance himself from man. Thus, the only way for man to gain God’s forgiveness is through Christ, who “shall endure by coming in the flesh/To a reproachful life and cursed death,/Proclaiming life to all who shall believe/In his redemption, and that his obedience/Imputed becomes theirs by faith” (XII, 406-9).

Because of these beliefs, Milton found it very difficult to reconcile his interest in science with his religious faith. The biggest influence of his scientific pursuits on Paradise Lost is the use of his knowledge of astronomy to create the imagery for the universe, as well as his inclusion of Adam’s discussion of astronomy with Raphael.
However, that dialogue is also an indication of Milton’s own unease with science in regard to religion. In the poem, Adam only goes as far as questioning Raphael about the nature of the universe, never actually acting on his curiosity in any way. In fact, Milton implies that too great a desire for knowledge can be dangerous, as both falls were caused by a desire for God-like knowledge and power. Additionally, Milton felt that science is not worth this risk, as it ultimately can not answer any of the questions it asks. This belief is expressed in Raphael’s advice to Adam to “Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid,/Leave them to God above, him serve and fear … heav’n is for thee too high/To know what passes there; be lowly wise:/Think only what concerns thee and thy being” (VIII, 167-74).

In contrast to Milton, Margaret Cavendish was an Anglican, and the less zealous nature of her faith is clear in her writing. Unlike Milton, she rarely makes reference to religion in The Blazing World, and when she does, she does not include any of the theological aspects that Milton does in Paradise Lost. When the Empress questions her subjects about their preference for a monarchical form of government, they answer that it “is a divine form of government, and agrees most with our religion; for as there is but one God, whom we all unanimously worship and adore with one faith, so we are resolved to have but one Emperor, to whom we all submit with one obedience” (134). Also, Cavendish followed the vitalist philosophy, which supports the idea of “self-moving matter,” or a cyclical life force to all objects in the universe (Ankers 309-10). This is seen in The Blazing World when the Empress asks her subjects “what opinion they had of the beginning of forms,” to which they reply that “there is no beginning in nature, no not of particulars, by reason nature is eternal and infinite … so that there’s nothing new in nature, nor properly a beginning of any thing” (152-3). Such philosophical ideas emphasize that neither Cavendish’s writing nor her own beliefs were strictly Christian, which meant that unlike Milton, she was able to deal more thoroughly with science in her writing without worrying about potential conflicts with Biblical scripture.

Where Milton had a very thorough formal education, Cavendish had none; instead she was self-educated in science and philosophy. Her intellectual pursuits were aided by her marriage to William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle, a patron of arts and letters who encouraged his wife’s writing (Lilley I). Much of Margaret Cavendish’s work was influenced by atomist and vitalist theory, philosophies that helped her define both the meaning of the individual and the individual’s role within society. However, there is also a good deal of scientific influence in The Blazing World. Like Milton, Cavendish was fascinated by modern astronomy and the invention of the telescope. In The Blazing World, the Empress assigns her experimental philosophers to observe the “phaenomenas of celestial bodies … through such instruments as are called telescopes” (140). In addition to telescopes, Cavendish displays an interest in microscope technology; the Empress views through a microscope a fly, a piece of charcoal, a nettle, a flea, and a louse (142-4). Besides the use of modern optics in The Blazing World, Cavendish displays knowledge of a broad and diverse range of scientific topics such as marine biology, material physics, and the nature of light and color.

Because of her less dogmatic religious leanings, Cavendish had a much easier time reconciling her religion with her scientific interests than did Milton. Where Adam only went as far as asking questions in Paradise Lost, Cavendish’s characters act on their scientific curiosity and use their inventions to try to answer their questions about the universe. Thus, Cavendish allows science a much greater role within her writing, to the extent that The Blazing World can be considered a work of science fiction.

While she is in favor of the use of science to explore and define her world, Cavendish, like Milton, does have some reservations about the usefulness of science. Perhaps because of the novelty of the field in her time, she seems to fear that many scientists tend to use their technology more as toys than tools. She also questions the precision of these instruments and accordingly, their utilitarian value. Regarding various disputing theories, the Empress in The Blazing World tells her astronomers “that if their glasses were true informers, they would rectify their irregular sense and reason; but, said she, nature has made your sense and reason more regular than art has your glasses, for they are mere deluders, and will never lead you to the knowledge of truth,” an assertion to which the astronomers reply that “we take more delight in artificial delusions, than in natural truths” (141-2). The astronomers’ attitude is consistent with Cavendish’s work; she encourages the use of imagination and fancy for intellectual as well as entertainment purposes. Later in the work, the Empress and the Duchess create their own imaginary worlds to govern, much as Cavendish did with The Blazing World. This embrace of fancy is a practice of which Milton would not approve; his beliefs would not allow him to endorse the use of either science or imagination in the way Cavendish does.

For centuries, man has struggled to reconcile spiritual beliefs and scientific knowledge. Though he was intrigued by science, the devout Milton concluded that the issues it raises are best left in the hands of God, and that God is the only one who holds the answers that science seeks. On the other hand, Cavendish believed that the knowledge science provides, if applied appropriately and wisely, could prove to be a source of insight into universal questions. Today, determining the roles of science within the framework of one’s religious tenets is just a confusing and difficult as it was for Milton and Cavendish.

As in their time, the only solution to this dilemma may be to realize that while science and religion can coexist, it is up to each individual to define for himself the roles of science and religion in his intellectual pursuits.

Works Cited

Anker, Neil. “Margaret Cavendish and the Nature of the Individual.” Essays & Studies
In Literary Criticism 9.1-2 (2000): 301-315.

Cavendish, Margaret. The Blazing World & Other Writings. London: Penguin Books,

Chambers, Mortimer, Raymond Grew, David Herlihy, Theodore K. Rabb, and Isser
Woloch. The Western Experience. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995.

Lilley, Kate. Introduction. The Blazing World & Other Stories. By Margaret Cavendish.
London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.

Nicolson, Marjorie. Science and Imagination. Archon Books, 1976.

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