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Sin and Knowledge in Humankind

(Epics for Students)

Paradise Lost has been hailed as one of the greatest poems in the English language. While this acclaim is due in a large part to Milton's command of language and poetic style, much of the attraction of the poem lies in its content. The discussion of temptation and fall is rooted in universal questions concerning the nature of good and evil, the apparent injustice of a world where the wicked prosper and the good suffer, the nature and value of knowledge, and the nature of humankind.

Milton's struggle to reconcile the Genesis account of the Fall with his own deepest convictions and concerns is often attributed to a failure to come to terms with the particular demands of the epic form. However, in light of his prose treatments of similar themes, it becomes clear that the conflicts in Paradise Lost reflect a conflict between his understanding of the authority of scripture and his conviction that reason is the surest guide to truth. If reason represents the image of God in humankind, how can the Fall be attributed to knowledge, and, more important, how can knowledge be forbidden? Milton's struggle to reconcile his intellectual convictions with the text of Genesis reflects a conflict which remains to this day. The Genesis account of the creation and Fall remains one of the foundational myths of Western culture; yet, in our modern secular world, the intrinsic power of myth often collides with the demands of reason.

Milton's treatment of the Fall is, in fact, remarkably consistent with his understanding of the nature of humankind as created in the image of God and with his treatments of the nature and value of knowledge. The first question which must be asked, then, is what is the true nature of humankind? Or, what does it mean to be created in the image of God? In the first view of humankind (seen through Satan's eyes, but not described from his point of view) the omniscient narrator describes: "Two of far nobler shape erect and tall, / Godlike erect, with native Honor clad / In naked majesty seem'd Lords of all, / And worthy seem'd, for in their looks Divine / The image of their glorious maker shone, / Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure, / Severe, but in true filial freedom plac't; / Whence true authority in men..." (PL IV.287-294). Adam and Eve's outward appearance is characterized by nobility, and rectitude, reflecting the inward attributes of the image of God: truth, wisdom, sanctitude, purity and freedom. These attributes, or more accurately, the image of God which they represent, are the source of both human dignity and authority, leading to the conclusion that they are rightly "Lords of all."

Similar motifs emerge in Raphael's description of the creation of humankind as "... a Creature who not prone / And Brute as other Creatures, but endu'd / With Sanctity of Reason, might erect / His Stature, and upright with front serene / Govern the rest, self-knowing..." (PL VII.506-510). Again, what distinguishes humans from the creatures which they will...

(The entire section is 10,342 words.)