Knowledge of Good and Evil in Milton’s Paradise Lost

The Temptation and Fall of Eve, by William Blake - illustration to Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (1808, pen and watercolour on paper)
The Temptation and Fall of Eve, by William Blake – illustration to Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (1808, pen and watercolour on paper)

At our Culture Club discussion on Milton’s Paradise Lost, one aspect of the narrative came up as a particular problem. This was the meaning of the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’, the instrument of humanity’s fall.

I think we all agreed that the tree is symbolic of something, but the nature of the symbol needs clarifying.

Before eating from the tree, Adam describes his creation to Raphael, and in his speech he inadvertently highlights the flaw in his character that will lead to the fall:

Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live,
And feel that I am happier than I know…
Paradise Lost, Book VIII, lines 280-282

As soon as he is created, then, we learn that Adam wants to know more about the earth, the stars, and the nature of his creator. He is born with curiosity and a yearning to know more about the ‘objective world’.

The angel Raphael happily passes on some of this information, so clearly this is not forbidden knowledge. Therefore the knowledge that is being offered by the tree must be of a different kind. God calls it ‘knowledge of good and evil.’ But what does he mean by that?

To my mind, the key is offered in the quote from Adam above. Before tasting from the tree of knowledge, Adam is ‘happier than I know’. He is happy without being aware of why or how he is happy. After tasting from the tree, he and Eve are aware of their predicament in surprising new ways. What the tree brings is a type of knowledge peculiar to humanity: ‘consciousness’.

The Sin of Consciousness

It has long been believed, and yet to be disproved, that consciousness is the single unique-identifier of the human mind over that of other animals. It is our ability to ‘know that we know’ which makes us unique as a species. What the Bible story and Milton make clear is that this same knowledge can be a burden for humanity, when it takes the form of feelings such as guilt, shame, regret, etc.

Consider the immediate consequences of the knowledge that Adam and Eve gain by eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. After their lustful ‘amorous play’ they fall asleep and become ‘with conscious dreams/Encumbered’ (Book IX, line 1050-1051, my italics). They awake to find themselves ‘naked left/To guilty Shame’ (lines 1057-1058).

This shame that the couple feel is expressed through another kind of self-consciousness, an awareness of their nakedness, which they are immediately moved to cover:

But let us now, as in a bad plight, devise
What best may for the present serve to hide
The parts of each from other, that seem most
To shame obnoxious, and unseemliest seen;’
Paradise Lost, Book IX, Lines 1091-1094

The idea that consciousness is central to the human condition has occupied all areas of human enquiry, including religion, philosophy, the arts and science.

In his book Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Roger Scruton outlines the perspective of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

According to Kant, human beings stand in a peculiar metaphysical predicament – one not shared by any other entity in the natural world. We see ourselves, he argued, in two contrasting ways – both as objects, bound by natural laws; and as subjects, who can lay down laws for themselves.

The human object is an organism like any other; the human subject is in some way ‘transcendental,’ observing the world from a point of view on its perimeter, pursuing not what is but what ought to be, and enjoying the privileged knowledge of its own mental states that Kant summarized in his theory of the ‘transcendental unity of apperception.’

It is not religious belief that forces us to see ourselves in this dualistic way. The need to do so is presupposed in language, in self-consciousness, and in the ‘practical reason’ that is the source of all human action and moral worth. Even if there were no God, that would not undermine the belief in human freedom or in the ‘transcendental’ viewpoint from which that freedom stems.
Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, by Roger Scruton, pg 123

Kant’s view was that our knowledge of the objective world was based on representation, and that we can never know ‘the thing-in-itself’ that lies behind this representation. Arthur Schopenhauer developed a philosophy built on Kant’s, but suggested that self-knowledge, or self-consciousness, can be a pathway to a true understanding of ‘the thing-in-itself’:

I have stressed that other truth that we are not merely the knowing subject, but that we ourselves are also among those entities we require to know, that we ourselves are the thing-in-itself. Consequently, a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that could not be taken from outside.
Scopenhauer, quoted by Roger Scruton in Death-Devoted Heart, pg 127

Note that Schopenhauer describes this self-knowledge in terms that evoke the Biblical ‘fall’ story. It is treacherous, subterranean, forbidden.

For Schopenhauer the ‘thing-in-itself’ expresses itself as ‘Will‘. His definition of ‘Will’ is fascinating: something ‘one and immutable’, a ‘universal substratum from which every individual arises into the world of appearance, only to sink again after a brief and futile struggle for existence’. It is not hard to see an analogy here between Schopnhauer’s ‘Universal Will’ and the concept of ‘God’.

The Universal and the Individual

According to Schopenhauer, we have access to the universal will from within ourselves, and this is embodied in the transient ‘will to live’ of individual creatures:

Will is manifest in me, trapped as it were into a condition of individual existence by its restless desire to embody itself in the world of representation.
Death-Devoted Heart by Roger Scruton, pg 128

Will manifests itself in two ways: as Individual and as Idea.

Idea (much like Platonic idealism) is a universal pattern, presented to us at the level of ‘kinds’ and ‘species’. Schopenhauer goes on to say that the species should be favoured over the individual, since the species gives permanent form to the ‘Will’. The individual creature is simply a way of perpetuating the ‘Idea’ (i.e. the species).

Schopenhauer expresses these ideas beautifully in the following image:

Just as the spraying drops of the roaring waterfall change with lightning rapidity, while the rainbow which they sustain remains immovably at rest, quite untouched by that restless change, so every Idea, ie every species of living beings remains entirely untouched by the constant changes of its individuals. But it is the Idea or the species in which the will-to-live is really rooted and manifests itself; therefore the will is really concerned only in the continuation of the species.
Schopenhauer, quoted by Roger Scruton, Death-Devoted Heart, pg 128

What’s more, Schopenhauer asserts that the universal will when incarnated as individual leads to torment, suffering, and conflict:

Individual existence is, from the individual point of view, a mistake, yet one into which the will to live is constantly tempted by its need to show itself as Idea. The will falls into individuality and exists for a while trapped in the world of representation, sundered from the calm ocean of eternity that is its home. Its life as an individual (my life) is really an expiation for original sin, which is ‘the crime of existence itself’.
Death-Devoted Heart by Roger Scruton, pg 129

Scruton here makes the link between Schopenhauer and the Biblical creation myth explicit (the italic on ‘falls’ is his not mine). Schopenhauer believed that our ‘salvation’ is impeded by our attachment to the phenomenal world, as we strive to affirm our separate existence as individuals.

In Paradise Lost this same concept is expressed as the self-consciousness that comes with forbidden knowledge of the reality of our existence. We are cursed by our awareness of our individuality, and can no longer be, as pre-lapsarian Adam was, ‘happier than I know’.

Schopenhauer’s philospohy (as he himself noted) has much in common with Eastern religion, as expressed in the Vedic Upanishads. Salvation is available to the soul with the loss of its individuality and its escape from the phenomenal world into ‘Brahman‘, the world spirit (analogous to the Universal Will in Schopenhauer).

From our modern perspective, we can also see that Schopenhauer’s theory looks forward to ideas of modern evolutionary biology. For example, a similar view is expressed in different terms in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Dawkins’s contention is that the genes that get passed on in a species are the ones whose consequences serve the interests of the gene, i.e to continue being replicated and thus propogate the species. Thus the meaning of existence for the gene is the species and not the individual organism which it is part of.

It is as if Judaism, Christianity, the Upanishads, Milton, Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin and Dawkins (and many others) are all telling the same story using different symbols.


In the creation story as told by Milton, the fruit of the forbidden tree expresses the fundamental dualisms explored above: Objective world/Idea/Species/Universal Will vs the Subjective perspective and the self-aware Individual organism.

In Paradise Lost, the dualism is expressed through the symbol of ‘the state of human knowledge before and after eating the forbidden fruit’, i.e. with and without a capacity for consciousness. It is the difference between an innocent knowledge of the world, in harmony with God (Universal Will), and the more complex and troubled knowledge that comes with the individual’s awareness of itself, which itself leads to a conflict with God and the need for redemption.

The post-lapsarian man and woman in Paradise Lost are transcendent with new knowledge, but also flawed with all that consciousness brings.

6 responses to “Knowledge of Good and Evil in Milton’s Paradise Lost”

  1. Culture Club member Ian Smith emailed and asked me to post his response to the above post:

    Tim, I just read your blog post on consciousness – excellent. My only comment would be that the fruit of the tree is also sometimes referred to as being the knowledge of life and death and that a complete blog post could be written on how man’s knowledge of the possibility of death (and musings on the consequences – if there were any – of death and the possibility of existence after death) also utterly sets him apart from all other consciousness as far as we know. I know you cover this indirectly, but I do think it would be worthy of its own focus if only I had the time!

  2. I found this comment on Paradise Lost very interesting. I’m from Argentina and I’m studying to become an English teacher. I take a deep interest in Literature and an English friend told me he loved John Milton’s work Paradise Lost, so I read it. It was very difficult for me, and this kind of comments are very helpful for interpretation. The Culture Club is a great idea! Congratulations!

  3. An interesting concept, yet I cannot but question it. That Adam recognized in himself something different and apart from both the animals and God seems to indicate awareness–or what might be termed “consciousness”–of himself as an individual even before the Fall.

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