23 December 2012

Milton and Science: Depictions of the Universe and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Paradise Lost

            For being a poem about “Man’s first disobedience,” John Milton’s Paradise Lost contains a great deal of scientific discourse. There are a few scientific oddities in the poem, such as Adam understanding how the sun’s “gathered beams / Reflected may with matter sere foment” through a lens, considering the earliest known lens, of unknown purpose, dates to around 3000 BC (Milton 10:1070-1071; Kramer). Adam’s avid interest in and grasp of cosmology also seems unusual or perhaps implausible given his short lifespan of about a month. Despite their eccentricity, such anachronisms function as narrative inroads that Milton uses to address some of the salient and controversial scientific issues of his day. Ultimately, the different ways Milton depicts the universe of Paradise Lost provide valuable insight into what he is trying to say about the pursuit of knowledge and what he means by “Man’s first disobedience.”
            One of the major scientific debates in the seventeenth century was about the nature of the universe. The Ptolemaic model, based on Aristotle’s theories, asserted that the earth was at the center of the universe and that the sun and planets revolved around the earth in concentric circles (See Appendix A). The outermost sphere was the domain of the Prime Mover, whose agency progressively caused motion in all of the inner spheres. This scheme was modified in order to account for certain observed phenomena—retrograde motion (planets appearing to move backwards in the sky when they should consistently move forward) and inconsistent planetary brightness—by placing the sun and other planets in epicycles (orbits around an imaginary point) that revolved within their respective sphere (See Appendix B). Later refinements included epicycles around epicycles in order to accommodate for other, similar aberrant celestial motion. Over time, this conceptualization of the universe gradually became integrated with Christian theology resulting in “the conviction of an order in the universe, sustained by God in the pattern of a Chain of Being whose links formed a graded hierarchy of all things” (Rattansi 202; “The Universe”).
The universe of Paradise Lost often fits this Ptolemaic model. During Raphael’s recounting of creation he explains that “Now heav’n in all her glory shone and rolled / Her motions as the great First Mover’s hand / First wheeled their course” (7:499-501). In many ways, this short passage seems supersaturated with Ptolemaic ideas: use of the words “rolled” and “wheeled” both connote circular motion, and using two such terms hints at the epicycles used to explain observed planetary motion. Additionally, by employing “First Mover” as an epithet for God, Milton both adheres to the Aristotelian model of the universe and highlights the confluence of scientific ideas and religious theology; Milton essentially replaces Aristotle’s religiously ambiguous Prime Mover with the Christian God.
            At odds with this Ptolemaic, geocentric paradigm for the universe was the Copernican, or heliocentric, model. By Milton’s time, new technology and new observations about the universe had brought about the need for a radical redefinition of the structure of the cosmos. The invention of the telescope allowed the human eye to see known celestial objects in much greater detail and observe previously unseen elements of the universe as well. The most prominent figure associated with the telescope is Galileo Galilei, whom Milton probably met in 1638 and the only contemporary personage Milton mentions by name in Paradise Lost. While Galileo made many notable discoveries about the universe, some of his central discoveries chipped away at the legitimacy of the geocentric model: moons orbiting Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the topography of the moon, and the occurrence of sunspots. More specifically, if all the planets orbited the earth, the fact that moons orbited Jupiter implied there were at least two centers to the universe: the earth and Jupiter; Venus could not show phases if it orbited the earth along with the sun; and the observation of imperfections on the moon and sun undermined the classical belief in a strict dichotomy between the imperfect terrestrial, sublunary, and perfect celestial, superlunary (Rattansi, Rivers, Danielson).
            Milton engages with the heliocentric model in many places throughout Paradise Lost, particularly in Book Eight. Raphael poses the question “What if the sun / be center to the world” and analyzes the implications of that question (8:122-123). He first explains that earth would “save the sun his labor” by rotating on its own axis and causing “that swift / Nocturnal and diurnal rhomb… the wheel / of day and night” (8:133, 133-136). Raphael then mentions the “spots thou seest / As clouds,” a reference to the imperfections of the moon and sun (8:145-136). He also alludes to the much larger size of the universe and faster speed of planetary motion necessary in the Copernican model by referencing “heav’n’s wide circuit” and “the swiftness of those circles” (8:100, 107).
            Milton incorporates another one of Galileo’s discoveries into Paradise Lost as well. Because Galileo learned that “observed through the telescope, the milky or cloudy texture of the galaxy could now be resolved into stars,” the number of stars was increased incomprehensively compared to the older, Ptolemaic model of the universe (Danielson 217). In fact, without the aid of a magnifying lens, a person could actually count the number of stars in the sky, but with the telescope and greater advances in magnification, counting the stars became practically impossible. Milton alludes to this in several places: Raphael explains that “Seen in the galaxy, that Milky Way / Which nightly as a circling zone thou seest / Powdered with stars,” and describes how the moon “With thousand lesser lights dividual holds, / With thousand thousand stars that then appeared / Spangling the hemisphere” (7:579-581, 7:382-384).
            By including so many details about the universe, incorporating different theoretical models, referencing Galileo by name, and dedicating such a large portion of his poem to contemplating the structure of the cosmos, it is clear that Milton is engaging in the contemporary scientific debates of his time, and he may be weighing in on which model is best. Adam wonders “How Nature wise and frugal could commit / Such disproportions with superfluous hand” by having all the planets and stars revolving around the “sedentary earth” (8:26-27, 32). His contemplation of purpose and efficacy reads as a simple, innocent observation, but it deftly subverts the geocentric model’s insistence on the centrality of the earth. Later, Raphael takes an interesting tone when describing how God will be moved to laughter
            …at their quaint opinions wide
            Hereafter when they come to model heav’n
            And calculate the stars, how they will wield
            The mighty frame, how build, unbuild, contrive
            To save appearances, how gird the sphere
            With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er
            Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb. (8:78-84)
In a way, Raphael seems to be undermining the notion of pursuing cosmological knowledge altogether, but the vocabulary he chooses is heavily Ptolemaic: “mighty frame,” “sphere,” “centric,” “cycle,” “epicycle,” and “orb.” This would seem to indicate that “their” refers to advocates of the geocentric system rather than anyone pursuing a greater understanding of the universe. Additionally, Gordon Teskey’s note on “save appearances” in his edition of Paradise Lost explains that it is a “technical term from ancient Greek science to reconcile new observations with an existing theoretical model,” which again suggests that it is the methodology of Ptolemaic astronomers trying to force new observed phenomenon into old, outdated models that causes God to laugh (179).
Paradise Lost, then, seems to be promoting the concept of a heliocentric universe; however, while there is certainly a great deal of evidence to support the idea that Milton was in favor of the heliocentric model, attempting to definitively label him as an advocate of the Copernican system results in some difficulties. At one point, Satan looks upon earth and explains that “As God in Heav’n / Is center yet extends to all, so thou / Cent’ring receiv’st from all those orbs” (9:107-109). Later, God orders certain changes to be made in the universe after the Fall, and “The sun / Had first his precept so to move, so shine / As might affect the earth with cold and heat” (10:651-653). These lines suggest that rather than tilting the Earth’s axis to allow for seasons, as would be done to adhere to the heliocentric model, God orders the sun to be moved farther away from earth to produce the seasons, a clearly Ptolemaic idea. In direct opposition to this, Milton then states that “Some say He bid his angels turn askance / The poles of earth twice ten degrees and more / From the sun’s axle” (10:668-671). Here, barely ten lines after definitively saying God ordered the sun to be moved, Milton explains that the earth’s axis had been altered to create the seasons. Prefacing this idea with “some say,” however, might suggest it is just an unsubstantiated theory, but afterwards he also prefaces the notion that the “sun / Was bid turn reins from th’ equinoctal road” with “Some say” (10:671-672).
This equivocation about the relevance or appropriateness of a particular model of the universe perhaps reveals a deeper purpose in Paradise Lost. Rather than weighing in on whether the geocentric or heliocentric model is a better descriptor of God’s design, Milton is joining the debate from an oblique angle. While contemporary scientists are busying themselves with observing and modeling the universe trying to find its true structure, Milton is trying to help people understand a greater truth:
Whether thus these things or whether not,
Whether the sun predominant in heav’n
Rise on the earth or the earth rise on the sun…
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. (8:159-161, 167-168,173-175)
This is what differentiates Adam from Galileo. Where Adam discovers a way to create fire with a lens, ensuring his survival in the unknown, inhospitable world outside the garden of Eden, Galileo stuffs lenses into tubes and squints up into the night sky trying to “calculate the stars” (8:80). While Adam may be “doubtfully answered” by Raphael as far as knowledge is concerned (177), he realizes that he has been
…taught to live
The easiest way nor with perplexing thoughts
To interrupt the sweet life from which
God hath bid dwell far off all anxious cares
And not molest us, unless we ourselves
Seek them with wand’ring thoughts and notions vain. (8:182-187)
            Despite this dictum to “Think only what concerns thee and thy being,” Milton is certainly not advocating a complete abandonment of learning or seeking knowledge of the cosmos. Adam and Eve are both invested with a capacity for learning and reasoning, “growth, sense, reason: all summed up in Man,” which allows them to contemplate things beyond their immediate experience (9:113), and Milton continually depicts Adam and Eve using reason and inquiring about things outside of their day-to-day routine. While some of his ideas may seem a bit silly to readers, Adam’s reasoning leads him to create hypotheses and then affirm them by speaking with angels or observing nature. For example, Adam wonders about the purpose of the rainbow shown to him in a vision of the future:
            But say, what mean those colored streaks in heav’n
            Distended as the brow of God appeased,
            Or serve they as flow’ry verge to bind
            The fluid skirts of that same wat’ry cloud
            Lest it again dissolve and show’r the Earth? (11:879-883)
It is not directly pertinent to his current situation, but Adam is curious about something, in this case the image of the rainbow, and employing a rudimentary form of the scientific method to discover its purpose. This small moment in Paradise Lost illuminates an important facet of Milton’s view of pursuing knowledge: attributing purpose to observations. Adam assumes that everything, including the rainbow, works for a purpose, and Michael tells him how “dexterously thou aim’st” (11:884). Adam is not chided for pursuing knowledge beyond what is immediately important to his existence, and in fact, Michael appears to encourage his theorizing because it implies there is a purpose for God’s works in nature.
In the same way, Milton sets out from the beginning of his poem to “justify the ways of God to men” (1:26). While the word “justify” is usually taken to mean “To make good (an argument, statement, or opinion); to confirm or support by attestation or evidence,” in Milton’s time the word could have also meant “To make exact; to fit or arrange exactly,” which corresponds to the word’s Latin origin, justificare, “to act justly towards, do justice to” (OED). While it seems clear that Milton is attempting to justify the ways of God to men, prove that God’s ways are righteous, he also seems to be attempting to do justice to God’s works, describe them as exactly as possible, by providing such an elaborate and detailed discussion of the cosmos from different perspectives. Both meanings of “justify” run together in Milton’s description of the universe because he is not just describing things – he is ascribing purpose to the structure of the cosmos.
One of Michael’s final exhortations to Adam and Eve before they leave the garden sums up Milton’s perspective on the relationship between purpose and knowledge:
This having learned thou hast attained the sum
Of wisdom. Hope no higher, though all the stars
Thou knew’st by name and all th’ ethereal powers,
All secrets of the deep, all nature’s works…
…Only add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love…
…Then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise but shalt possess
A paradise within thee, happier far… (12:575-578, 581-583, 585-587)
These lines do not condemn knowing “all the stars… by name” or “All secrets of the deep, all nature’s works,” but they do imply that there is a responsibility to go beyond just knowing something and adding “Deeds to the knowledge answerable.” Any knowledge gained should be applied to life and reaffirm God’s purpose for creation. What if everything is faster and larger than the Ptolemaic system imagined? “The swiftness of those circles attribute, / Though numberless, to His omnipotence” (8:107-108),
            And for the heav’n’s wide circuit: let it speak
            The Maker’s high magnificence who built
            So spacious and His line stretched out so far
            That many may know he dwells not in his own,
            An edifice too large for him to fill,
            Lodged in a small partition and the rest
            Ordained for uses to his Lord best known. (8:100-106)
Whether the universe is structured one way or the other, the fundamental principle is that God organized and created the universe with a purpose, and every new piece of knowledge gained should be employed to reveal that. In a geocentric cosmos, everything serves to aid man: “not to earth are those bright luminaries / Officious but to thee earth’s habitant” (8:98-99), and in a heliocentric universe, everything exists to show man humility: man lives in “An edifice too large for him to fill, / Lodged in a small partition.”
In light of Milton’s aim to “justify” the works of God and his preoccupation with the conflicting views of the cosmos, it is tempting to see Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden as a metaphor for the changing cosmological views in Milton’s time. Where Adam and Eve lived in the small, perfectly stable, theologically unambiguous garden and were expelled into a much larger, unknown world because of the Fall, so earth resided in the small, perfectly stable, theologically unambiguous geocentric universe and was thrust into a much larger, unknown heliocentric cosmos by new scientific discoveries. It is no small wonder, then, that the forbidden fruit is called the “Mother of science” and that one of Eve’s first thoughts after eating the fruit and gaining more knowledge is that “Heav’n is high, / High and remote to see from thence distinct / Each thing on Earth” (9:680, 811-813). In the Copernican universe, informed by new scientific knowledge and orders of magnitude larger than Ptolemy’s, the “First Mover” is pushed further and further away until he cannot see man at all, and it is a short logical step to infer that more discoveries will eventually push God out of the universe altogether.
“Man’s first disobedience,” then, is perhaps not simply an aspiration for greater knowledge, but an aspiration for knowledge forgetful of purpose. Eating the fruit is an act of reckless forgetfulness, a forgetting of the deliberate design of all things, a forgetting of the “First Mover” that “first wheeled” the course of the cosmos. When every new discovery should be an affirmation of God’s omnipotence and creativity, Milton instead depicts mankind slowly removing God’s presence from everything. First Eve imagines that God is so far away he will not see her eating the forbidden fruit. Later, Adam expresses anxiety about not being able to actually see God after he is expelled from Paradise: “This most afflicts me: that departing hence / As from His face I shall be hid, deprived / His blessed countenance” (11:315-317). Finally,
Some natural tears they dropped but wiped them soon.
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way. (12:645-649)
Providence may be their guide, but they are left “solitary” in an enormous world, traveling “with wand’ring steps and slow,” unsure of their direction and purpose, banished from the presence of their creator, just as Milton sees the scientists of his day unnecessarily burdened by “anxious cares” with “wand’ring thoughts and notions vain” about the structure of a universe more and more bereft of God’s presence (8:185, 187). For Milton, the way science was pushing God further and further out of the context of people’s day-to-day experience may have seemed ill-advised or even dangerous. And yet even today, while his religious dogma may feel heavy-handed for modern readers, there is something deeply compelling and valuable in Milton’s idea that people should make “deeds,” whether spiritual or secular, “to thy knowledge answerable.” 

Appendix A: A Simplified Model of the Ptolemaic Universe [Back to text]

Appendix B: A Visual Representation of Epicycles [Back to text]

Works Cited

Danielson, Dennis. “Astronomy.” Milton in Context. Ed. Stephen Dobranski. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 213-225. Print.
“justify, v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. OED Online. Web. 14 November 2010. <http://dictionary.oed.com.ezproxy.gvsu.edu/cgi/entry/50124898?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=justify&first=1&max_to_show=10>.
Kramer, Jack. “Oldest Optical Device? The Nimrud Lens.” NightTimes. September 2002. Lake County Astronomical Society. 12 November 2010. Web. 13 November 2010. <http://www.lcas-astronomy.org/Articles/nimrud.htm>.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon Teskey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 1-303. Print.
Rattansi, P.M. “The Scientific Background.” The Age of Milton: Backgrounds to Seventeenth-Century Literature. Eds. C.A. Patrides and Raymond B. Waddington. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1980. 197-240. Print.
Rivers, Isabel. “Cosmology.” Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry: A Students’ Guide. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. 73-92. Print.
“The Universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy.” University of Tennessee Department of Physics & Astronomy. Web. 13 November 2010. <http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/

Works Consulted

Martin, Catherine Gimelli. “‘What If the Sun Be Centre to the World?’: Milton’s Epistemology, Cosmology, and Paradise of Fools Reconsidered.” Modern Philology  99.2 (2001). 231-265. Print
Smith, Nigel. “Paradise Lost and Heresy.” The Oxford Handbook of Milton. Ed. Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 510-524. Print.
Kerrigan, William. “Milton’s Place in Intellectual History.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. 2nd ed. Ed. Dennis Danielson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 253-267. Print.

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