Imagination, Commodity and Forbidden Knowledge in Paradise Lost
There is something strangely literary about the economy, functioning as it does through the marshaling of symbols, metaphors and allegories, never taking material shape and yet responsible for so much concrete human action. Given our modern propensity for examining literature through the lenses of psychology, anthropology, history, gender, and any number of other social-scientific methodologies, perhaps it is time for us to experiment with the reverse: an examination of economics through the lens of literature.
One of the key questions in Paradise Lost concerns the nature of knowledge. God and Satan both present distinct ways of understanding knowledge: God through his messenger Raphael teaches that knowledge (like everything else in the garden) must always point beyond itself and find its fulfillment in service to God; there are limits set on human knowledge, but these limits exist not in an externally imposed legal sense but rather they arise from humanity’s very nature as material creation. Satan, on the other hand, teaches a different way of understanding knowledge. For Satan, knowledge is bound up not with service but with power. Knowledge (that is, power) is good in and of itself; its goodness is not derived from the context in which it exists or the purpose to which it is put. Moreover, knowledge functions in a distinctly economical sense: knowledge, like any other commodity, is scarce and can be hoarded. In this sense, knowledge in Paradise Lost is rather like money in the modern economy: a proper understanding always bears in mind that money is purely teleological. Satan’s understanding of the world opens up a possibility that would be impossible in Raphael’s narration of things, a possibility for “forbidden” knowledge; knowledge that God is hoarding in an effort to maintain his control over the created world. This forbidden commodity, of course, is embodied by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When Adam and Eve imagine the world as God has described it to them, they do not understand themselves as being deprived because of the limitations of their ability to know any more than they understand themselves as being limited because of the nature of their physical bodies. It is only because they accept Satan’s economy of knowledge that “forbidden knowledge” becomes a possible concept. At the heart of Paradise Lost is a battle for the imagination: knowledge only becomes commodified when it is imagined to be so. God and Raphael present Adam and Eve with a vision of the world in which knowledge is not a commodity but a means to something else; Satan, on the other hand, presents knowledge to Adam and Eve as a commodity or product, to be attained and enjoyed for its own sake. In this economy of scarcity, God is simply a hoarder and controller of knowledge; this in turn opens the way for Eve to imagine that if she could acquire more knowledge she could be like God. Just as he does with many of the other major themes in Paradise Lost, Milton gives his reader three treatments of knowledge; knowledge as it was in the garden, knowledge as it was corrupted by Satan and then knowledge as Adam and Eve experienced it after the fall and their repentance. The first treatment is given through Raphael’s conversation with Adam at the beginning of Book VIII. In Book VII Adam has been asking Raphael various questions about the garden and heaven and the nature of the angels and Raphael has been graciously answering. At the beginning of Book VIII, Adam asks about the cosmos, and “How nature wise and frugal could commit/ Such disproportions, with superfluous hand/ So many nobler bodies to create,/ Greater so manifold to this one use” (26-29). Raphael answers him, but admonishes him to
Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid,
Leave them to God above, him serve and fear;
Of other creatures, as him pleases best,
Wherever placed, let him dispose: joy thou
In what he gives to thee, this Paradise
And thy fair Eve; heaven is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise:
Think only what concerns thee and thy being (167-174).
It is important to remember that although Raphael gives Adam this warning, he still answers Adam’s question; although he tells Adam to try not to ask to many questions about such things, it is not because such knowledge is forbidden. In short, the injunction for Adam to “Think only what concerns thee and thy being” is not a legal one. Rather, Adam should abstain from questioning such things because, as Raphael says earlier “God to remove his ways from human sense/ Placed heaven from earth so far, that earthly sight,/ If it presume, might err in things too high,/ And no advantage gain” (119-122). Adam is a creature of limitation; just as his body is different from that of the angels and cannot traverse the space between heaven and earth, his mind, too, is limited by the boundaries of creation. And most importantly, Adam accepts and rejoices in these boundaries. After Raphael finishes his speech Adam is thankful for being “taught to live,/ The easiest way, nor with perplexing thoughts/ To interrupt the sweet of life” (182-183). He comments on curiosity by referring to “wandering thoughts, and notions vain” (187) and reflecting that “apt the mind or fancy is to rove/ Unchecked, and of her roving is no end;/ Till warned, or by experience taught, she learn,/ That not to know at large of things remote/ From use, obscure and subtle, but to know/ That which before us lies in daily life” (198-193). Here Adam fully accepts the heavenly imagination of knowledge, in which knowledge is integrally bound up with service and purpose.
This imagination, however, will soon by tested. In Book IX Satan arrives on the scene bringing with him an alternative imagination with which to undermine the one given to Adam by Raphael. When Satan comes to Eve, he comes first as the bearer of new knowledge, something as yet undiscovered by either of the humans (553-559). As John Leonard puts it in his essay on language and knowledge in Paradise Lost, “the serpent’s most persuasive argument is his ability to argue. His seeming participation in language not only argues a miraculous change; in a world where names correspond to natures, language is knowledge” (Leonard 108). The first part of Satan’s plan plays off of Eve’s desire to know why he can speak; she seeks to know what is hidden. This is not in and of itself a wrong desire, yet. However, when Satan takes Eve to the tree, and she recognizes it as the forbidden tree, the nature of the temptation changes. No longer is Eve merely dealing with her own ignorance and seeking to understand more of the world around her, she is now faced with the idea that God has hidden something, something good. God can only be doing this, according to Satan, because he is afraid that they will become like Him (703-709). Satan has effectively changed the entire nature of the relationship between God, humanity, and knowledge. No longer is the difference between God and humans one of kind, it has become one of degree; knowledge is the currency of deity, and God becomes a petty tyrannical figure who, in order to keep his power, must monopolize knowledge and control it. Knowledge, now inextricably bound up with power, has become something that is good for its own sake. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil becomes a locus of forbidden knowledge, which, if taken, will bring untold power. God’s “forbidding/ Commends thee more” (753-754) because in the way Eve is now imagining knowledge God could only forbid it to keep Adam and Eve from gaining more power. Of course, in Raphael’s narration of knowledge it would be impossible for Adam and Eve to become more or less powerful in any significant way by gaining more knowledge because their boundaries – both mental, physical and spiritual – are divinely ordained. There is no forbidden knowledge for Raphael, only useless knowledge. To use the image of the economy again, Raphael assumes abundance and counsels self-control. However, because Eve has accepted Satan’s narration of knowledge as a commodity, it is now a matter of utmost importance that she control as much knowledge as possible so that she can have as much power as possible. In short, Eve’s first fall was one of imagination.
In the Biblical account and in the Christian tradition, upon eating the fruit “the eyes of them both were opened” (Gen. 3:7 KJV). Milton, interestingly enough, seems to take his account in a different direction. There is a strong sense of the anti-climax after Eve eats the fruit, although she is perhaps too caught up in herself to notice. The fruit has actually done absolutely nothing to Eve. She says in lines 799-802 that she will tend the tree and keep eating “Till dieted by thee [the tree] I grow mature/ In knowledge, as the gods who all things know” (803-804) but there is no indication that an immediate effect has been had. Rather, later on after Adam and Eve’s troubled post-coital sleep, they “found their eyes how opened, and their minds/ How darkened; innocence, that as a veil/ Had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone” (1053-1055). As Adam famously says a little farther on, “since our eyes/ Opened we find indeed, and find we know/ Both good and evil, good lost, and evil got,/ Bad fruit of knowledge, if this be to know” (1070-1073). In Paradise Lost, the fall seems to be one cruel joke, played on Adam and Eve by themselves. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is nothing more than an empty sign; there is no such thing as forbidden knowledge that Adam and Eve can gain, for Raphael was telling the truth. The substance of the fall has not been in the discovery of some sacred, hidden knowledge, but in the acceptance of an alternative imagination and the desires pursued under that alternative imagination. This is not to downplay the effects of the fall; Adam and Eve have been changed by their sin, as is pointed out so powerfully in Book XI when Michael “from Adam’s eyes the film removed/ Which that false fruit had promised clearer sight/ Had bred; then purged with euphrasy and rue/ The visual nerve” (412-415). Adam and Eve can still at times grasp the truth and live faithfully to God, but they are now fallen; it will no longer be the natural thing to do, and their material bodies will get in the way of their focusing themselves on God. Towards the end of Book XII Adam gives a powerful last comment on knowledge: “[I] have my fill/ Of Knowledge, what this vessel can contain;/ Beyond which was my folly to aspire” (558-560), a reply which Michael confirms with an equally powerful comment:
This having learned, though has attained the sum
Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the stars
Thou knew’st by name, and all the ethereal powers,
All secrets of the deep, all nature’s works,
Or works of God in heaven, air, earth, or sea,
And all the riches of this world enjoyed’st,
And all the rule, one empire; only add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love,
By name to come called Charity, the soul
Of all rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt posses
A Paradise within thee, happier far (575-587).
Michael very pointedly refers to the fact that there is no forbidden knowledge for Adam; however, knowledge that does not have “deeds to thy knowledge answerable” then the knowledge is vain. This does not mean it is forbidden, only that it is useless. In a very real sense God is wildly permissive when it comes to knowledge, but God is always pushing Adam to understand knowledge as one function in the greater universe, something that points outside of itself and up to God.
Yet, there is an unresolved tension here. What is the real substance of the fall? The reader is told that there is one (Adam and Eve act differently and speak differently, and Michael has to cleanse Adam’s “optic nerve” which leads one to believe that it fallenness is both physically and spiritually lodged) but there is no real discussion of why this is. Adam and Eve do not seem to think differently, they only act differently. For awhile, they are very clearly living under a different imagination of God, themselves, and the garden. However, they repent, and in Book XII Adam returns to a God-centred imagination of knowledge. What is it about the fall that is permanent, that is more than just a temporary confusion as to how Paradise is to be narrated? Milton seems to leave this question hanging. Given that one accepts his set up of imagination, Eve’s fall occurs when she chooses to act under the alternative imagination, not when she accepts that alternative as viable. It seems to be the action that is permanently damaging, and yet in Book IX there is absolutely no evidence that the actual action of eating the fruit has done anything to change Eve or Adam; it has been the decision to eat that has caused the severance, and the decision came out of the alternative imagination. This tension is left present perhaps in order to avoid the danger of a legalistic way of viewing the fall that locates the actual fall positively in either action or thought. Either way, Paradise Lost seems much more concerned with how Adam and Eve are lead to the threshold of falling, and in what ways they repent after the fall, than in what the substance of the fall is itself.
It seems that the power of the human ability to imagine is at the heart of Paradise Lost. It is this ability that allows for the fall in the first place, for if Adam and Eve were unable to imagine a truth different from God’s they would never have been taken in by the serpent, and yet after the fall it is also their salvation; Adam and Eve are able to re-capture their heavenly imagination and live faithfully after the fall because of it. Milton seems particularly interested in how Adam and Eve’s imagination affects the way they see knowledge. Were they to remain faithful to God’s imagination, the idea of forbidden knowledge could never have been seriously entertained; however, when they accept Satan’s commodification of knowledge, they accept a paradigm in which knowledge becomes degraded into mere power and no longer points beyond itself. God is vindicated when he sends Michael down to talk with Adam and explain to him his sin and its repercussions because he gives Adam all the knowledge he can handle, an abundance of knowledge, to prove that knowledge is not, for God, a commodity.
I would like to return to the analogy I used at the beginning. Economically, we are constant victims of our own imaginations. Perhaps it is precisely because we constantly imagine ourselves to be in a world of privation and scarcity that we overlook remarkable abundance we are heirs to; perhaps the habit we have of imagining that the good we have is a scarce resource to be carefully controlled lest others take it from us is less a reflection of the world than of our own inability to imagine better.
Andre Forget is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He recently moved to Halifax to pursue graduate studies in English literature. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.