Everyday epiphanies from Milton's Eden and beyond

Postlapsarian Good vs. Evil

While reading Book XI, the lines that initially stood out to me deal with the concept of good and evil:

O Sons, like one of us Man is become

To know both Good and Evil, since his taste

Of that defended Fruit; but let him boast

His knowledge of Good lost, and Evil got,

Happier, had suffic’d him to have known

Good by it self, and Evil not at all (84-89).

I found this particularly interesting because Milton appears to argue in Areopagitica, however, that we know good by evil:

“And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbeare without the knowledge of evill?”

So are these two ideas of good and evil by Milton at odds with each other, or is there a way that they can both be true? It is interesting to consider that we could have once known good simply for the good itself and not in comparison with something evil. Perhaps Milton is suggesting that this kind of perception of good is a result of the fall (we are now subject to only know good by its opposite) and that prelapsarian good is a privilege we no longer have.

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4 Comments

  1. I think this is a fascinating idea! I’m inclined to agree. Perhaps after the Fall, as you suggest, the goodness that came so easily and freely to Adam and Eve was shuttered and now in this new world, we have to deal with “shades of grey” when it comes to defining morality. I think this makes a lot of sense, as in the Pre-Lapsarian Time, sin was defined by God to ears of Men and past that, as in Milton’s time, there was discourse on what was and wasn’t sin. Furthermore, I think your idea ties in rather beautifully to what I’ve heard Professor Campbell say in class, that Adam and Eve were perfect, sinless, but incomplete. Great post!

  2. I thought something similar when I read those lines. Although I can see that there is an argument for Adam and Eve inherently knowing what is “good,” Book 11 seems to suggest that because of Sin, because of Evil, Adam and Eve were able to commit themselves to a life of honest work and prayer. The idea of what we define as good being related to what we define as evil seems more honest to real life anyway.

  3. Yeah I always found this, and other conceptions of Good, Evil, and Knowledge between the two works created some discrepancies but I do think ultimately that Milton thinks of these concepts as distinctly different in the prelapsarian and postlapsarian worlds and I think that much of the difference can be boiled down to the presence of God in the Garden

  4. Good and evil is one of those things that has and will puzzle humanity, probably until the end of days. I suppose you could look at it like doing good. There is a difference between doing good for the sake of getting a reward versus doing good for the sake of doing good. Or I guess another way of looking at it would be the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. Doing being good because the law tells you what is good versus doing what is good because you know what is good. Is this making any sense?

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