Thursday, August 24, 2006

Milton's Tree of Knowledge: Sacred Fruit?

(Framed by Wikipedia)

In Paradise Lost, 9.921-937 Adam speculates about the fruit from the tree of knowledge that Eve is offering him:
Bold deed thou hast presum'd, adventrous Eve
And peril great provok't, who thus hath dar'd
Had it been onely coveting to Eye
That sacred Fruit, sacred to abstinence,
Much more to taste it under banne to touch. [ 925 ]
But past who can recall, or don undoe?
Not God Omnipotent, nor Fate, yet so
Perhaps thou shalt not Die, perhaps the Fact
Is not so hainous now, foretasted Fruit,
Profan'd first by the Serpent, by him first [ 930 ]
Made common and unhallowd ere our taste;
Nor yet on him found deadly, he yet lives,
Lives, as thou saidst, and gaines to live as Man
Higher degree of Life, inducement strong
To us, as likely tasting to attaine [ 935 ]
Proportional ascent, which cannot be
But to be Gods, or Angels Demi-gods. (PL 9.921-937)
I'm in the middle of writing a paper on this passage, so I can't go into great detail right now, but I find fascinating that Milton has Adam call the fruit from the tree of knowledge "sacred fruit" (cf. 9.904). We might suspect that Adam is mistaken, that Milton is presenting him as falling into false reasoning as he falls into sin, but Milton himself elsewhere calls the tree sacred:
It is, however, a principle uniformly acted upon in the divine proceedings, and recognized by all nations and under all ... that the penalty incurred by the violation of things sacred (and such was the tree of knowledge of good and evil) attaches not only to the criminal himself, but to the whole of his posterity.... God declares this to be the method of his justice. (Christian Doctrine = CE 15.185) (cited in Hosch, Truth in Our Practice, pp. 275-276)
I'll have to check this quote more carefully, for I have it from a secondary source, Braden J. Hosch's Truth in Our Practice: Representing Justice in Milton's Poetry and Prose (University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2003, online Ph.D. thesis, pdf), which cites Milton's Christian Doctrine as CE 15.185, a citation that I assume refers to volume 15, page 185 of The Works of John Milton (18 volumes in 21), edited by Frank Allen Patterson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1933) ... but I'll have to find the original myself.

The question that I'm attempting to answer in my paper -- or one of the questions, anyway -- is precisely what the term "sacred" means when used by Milton to describe the tree of knowledge and its fruit. In biblical thought, "sacred" can mean either "set apart from profane things" or "imbued with a divine, dynamic power" (or both), so which one of these two possibilities does Milton mean?

I have an opinion, but I want to publish the article first ... and before that, I have to finish it.

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At 6:50 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

Hmmm. I was never interested in Milton's interpretation of the Bible anyway, so I couldn't care less about what he thought - mistakenly or otherwise. But if someone DID care, this would be of interest. I'm not knocking YOUR interest. Just telling you about mine. ;o) I was never impressed with Milton.

At 7:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I find Paradise Lost fascinating as a story, as a source of knowledge about the Western literary tradition, and as a springboard for my own metaphysical musings.

But I don't expect everyone to share my interest. Life is too large and complex for that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:29 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

I imagine that you are considering Michael Lieb's Poetics of the Holy, North Carolina, Chapel HIll, 1981.He explores Milton's fruit symbol in amazing depth. He looks particulary at the "sacred fruit" as a focus of what he calls "sacral poetics". His biblical and Hebraic knowledge is considerable and truly fascinating. I like the sound of your paper very much. Hope you will enjoy some unpremeditated writing! My copy of Lieb has been with me for 15 years...I still haven't fathomed it out.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, I do need to look at Lieb's book, and I'm hoping that I have it in my office. I'm a bit concerned that he may have long pre-empted my views ... but there's always more to say.

Another two good texts, both by Regina Schwartz:

Remembering and Repeating: Biblical Creation in 'Paradise Lost' (Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Remembering and Repeating: On Milton's Theology and Poetics (University Of Chicago Press: Reprint edition, 1993)

Note that the latter is a 'reprint' but with a different title (and perhaps reworked).

Schwartz's views are somewhat flawed. She tends to conflate purity with holiness, with the result that much of her analysis is distorted, but her book is brilliant and rises above its flaws.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:26 PM, Blogger Wonderdog said...


It seems to encompass both meanings to me. Is not the profanity in the act of eating rather than in the foreboding which the tree represents? Hence, it is seperate from the profane act of man and at the same time "imbued with divine power" through its foreboding consequences via God.

Then again...maybe not.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wonderdog, there's a sense in which "sacred" could mean both -- according to biblical principles, anyway.

For instance, an object purified and set apart for God is considered "holy," and this object can also come to be imbued by God's holy presence and therefore be holy in the more profound sense of the term.

Technically, however, such a thing is no longer entirely pure -- if "pure" means without a dynamic power pervading it, whether that power is impure or holy.

An object holy in either sense can be profaned. An object purified and set apart for God is no longer set apart if touched. An object pervaded by the force of holiness can lose that force.

Profanation in either sense could occur even if the one touching is pure (assuming that he or she lacks the proper status to touch the holy object). In this case, the object is merely returned to its common state, which is ordinarily pure.

Profanation in a more severe sense occurs if the one touching is impure. In this case, the object is returned to its common state, but also contaminated with impurity.

So, it gets rather complex, but there is a system.

Jeffery Hodges

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