“I am currently in week 190 of my reading journey through the Great Books of the Western World. Now reading Greek tragedy plays.”
—Stephen

“Be Lowly Wise”: Ignorance as Happiness in Milton’s Paradise Lost

by Stephen James Carter on April 5, 2011

A translation of Doctor Samuel Barrow’s poem on the greatness of John Milton begins, “You who read Paradise Lost, the magnificent poem by the great Milton, what do you read but the story of everything?” And thus “the story of everything” begins as the poet attempts to “justify the ways of God to men.” Throughout the epic poem, the Tree of Knowledge of good and ill stands constantly as a literal reminder of the impending fall (“man’s first disobedience”) and as a metaphoric reminder of the loss of innocence. The notion of innocence as directly akin to ignorance is broached early in book IV of the poem when Satan overhears Adam reminding Eve of their command not to eat from the tree of knowledge and adds his own commentary:

Knowledge forbidden?

Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord

Envy them that? Can it be a sin to know?

Can it be death? And do they only stand

By ignorance? Is that their happy state,

The proof of their obedience and faith?

The linking of ignorance to the current state of happiness (by means of obedience and faith) seems to suggest a link between knowledge and sadness. Satan’s questioning of whether it can be a sin to know leads directly into the question of why knowledge would be forbidden to “our first parents.”

Books V through VIII of the poem involve a conversation between Raphael and Adam wherein Raphael relates all the history of heaven including the fall of Lucifer and the creation of the Earth. Toward the end of this discussion, Adam begins asking questions of Raphael all the while cloaking his inquiring nature under the premise of wanting to praise God even more: “What thanks sufficient . . . have I to render thee . . . who thus largely has allayed / The thirst I had of knowledge . . . now heard . . . and, as is due, / With glory attributed to the high / Creator” (8.5-11). Raphael is quick to see through this guise straight to the heart of the issue: Adam’s “thirst” for knowledge. Eventually Raphael just cuts to the heart of matter and admonishes Adam to “Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid; / Leave them to God above.” He continues by explaining to Adam that he should “Think only what concerns thee and thy being.” The entire section of verbal advice boils down to Raphael’s suggestion that Adam content himself by being “lowly wise.”

This idea of being “lowly wise’ seems to contradict the natural and seemingly God-given “thirst” that Adam has for knowledge. It also plays into the theological snares of the very nature of the Tree of Knowledge and its restrictions. If Adam’s happiness lies in his ignorance, why is he given the initial thirst for the knowledge that will only strip his happiness in its unquenchable drive? Raphael’s admonishment seems to do its job because Adam responds in the utmost sincerity as he suggests that “the easiest way” would be to live not “with perplexing thoughts / To interrupt the sweet of life” but instead “to know / That which before us lies in daily life / Is the prime wisdom.” Adam goes on to call everything else “emptiness”—even the quest for knowledge, the urge to obtain answers to his myriads of questions. He swears off his desire for knowledge with diction of descent as he says, “let us descend / A lower flight and speak of things at hand.”

Here the reader is placed into a difficult situation, especially the reader currently working through The Great Conversation in a quest for knowledge. If knowledge is to be juxtaposed with ignorance, and ignorance is to be inexplicably tied to happiness, then what end will the quest for knowledge bring to the seeker? Why do we, years later, still yearn for the forbidden fruit when we know, as Adam did, it brings only misery and woe? Perhaps we know something that we refuse to admit; perhaps we know that long after the sweet taste of the fruit has faded from our memory, the bitter seeds will remain caught in our bodies, suspended between our heads and our hearts.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

StephenCarter April 15, 2011 at 3:42 PM

“Maybe God’s punishment is an act of benevolence?” – Now that is certainly an intriguing thought. The punishment is certainly carried out in a spirit of love, as the text suggests, but the very notion of it being benevolent would seem to implicate the Creator in the fall of the Creation, which greatly changes the concept of free will. It also brings to mind the notion that free will itself is an illusion.

One of the many reasons I love Paradise Lost. Thanks for the comment.

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Nick January 27, 2013 at 7:55 PM

Happened upon your blog while trying to find this passage from Paradise Lost – about the only passage I remember after reading it over 25 years ago.

Your comment reminded me of that Holy Saturday prayer, The Exultet:

O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer . . .

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bevisiscariot April 5, 2011 at 7:59 PM

“If Adam’s happiness lies in his ignorance, why is he given the initial thirst for the knowledge that will only strip his happiness in its unquenchable drive?”

This seems to me a necessary prerequisite for free will – without the possibility of rebellion, Adam and Eve are no more than a slaves or playthings, as opposed to images of their creator. The act of disobedience is the creation of free will. God MUST tell them not to do this; otherwise their doing it is not an act of liberation. As for happiness…in the absence of suffering, what is it, really? Ignorance only. Is that desirable? Does God “know,” a priori, that they will disobey him? Probably. So why play it out at all? Maybe they have too; maybe they need that moment to make them real to themselves. Maybe God’s punishment is an act of benevolence?

I’m just rambling and thinking out loud.

I enjoy your blog.

Thx.

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