A concept experienced by all, but fully understood by few; temptation. It has haunted the human race since the genesis of time. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as “the act of tempting; enticement or allurement”. This does not serve the word justice. Temptation is the single reason that man has inherited a nature defined by sin; that man is depraved from birth. Temptation holds weight in history books, overbearingly seen in the details of human and divine interaction, but the most famous depiction of temptation is found in the pages of John Milton’s book Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost is derived from the story of man’s fall, recorded in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which includes the infamous story of Adam and Eve’s interaction with the tempting serpent. Although Genesis sufficiently depicts this story, Milton goes far beyond the historical data, and reaches into the psychological intentions and reasoning behind the fall. Though Milton’s rendering is mere skepticism and fictional, it creates an intriguing portrayal of the nature of temptation versus the nature of “perfect man”. In order to truly dissect what temptation is, Milton must match it against its most threatening opponent: a man of perfected nature.
The condition of the tempted: Adam and Eve were perfect. They were created directly by the hands of God, created in His image, and modeled with a perfect nature. They were in the words of God, “good” (Genesis 1:31). When Paradise Lost references that they are in God’s image, it means that they know no sin. This implies that the things of sin are foreign to them, including death. Death was something they were knowledgeable of, but there were no emotional ties to. “In Paradise that bear delicious fruit / So various, not to taste that only Tree / Of Knowledge planted by the Tree of Life. / So near grows death to life, wate’er death is, / Some dreadful thing no doubt ” (Milton 4.422-426). Adam is explaining to Eve that the Tree harvests death. Although he does not know what death is, he certainly knows that it is a frightening thing. Knowledge of sin must first be known in order to sin. Sin occurs when our sinful intentions meet our sinful actions. This is the first step towards the fall, and how Milton solves the paradox of how perfect beings become sinful beings. John Tanner voiced it this way “Thus Raphael functions much like Ransom: both unwittingly nudge innocent beings away from blissful ignorance by warning them about sin, which becomes an increasingly concrete and imaginatively alluring possibility in paradise the more it is forbidden—just as the injunction ‘Don’t think about a hippopotamus!’ ineluctably brings images of the bulky beast to mind”. (Tanner 4) It lies within the important distinction that Milton emphasizes between sin and knowledge of sin. Knowledge of sin by itself is not sin, because then the fall would have occurred several books earlier. “Evil into the mind of god or man / may come and go, so unapproved, and leave / No spot or blame behind. “ (Milton 5.117-119). Their knowledge of sin was like that of God’s in that it in no way affected their will. They had knowledge of sin but no guilt, spiritual intentions, or emotional preconceptions to do so. The following actions expressed by Eve are not sinful in themselves, because her will is not corrupted, but they later direct her to a path where she is found defenseless to Satan’s temptation.
“In Paradise Lost Milton describes Eve on her way to ruin” (Moore 7). This is how Milton does so: first is Eve’s self-admiration. Once again, admiring one’s self is not sinful, but it leads to potentialities of sin. It is not a mistake or a folly, but when perverted, it becomes one. Her first “acknowledgement” of herself was found in reflection of the water, but the real danger comes when Satan adds his influence upon her. He begins to lie to Eve; labeling her as divine (Milton 9.533-37, 540, 542, 546-7, 689). He also calls her an Empress implying that she rules creation (Milton 9.708, 560, 626). Milton characterizes temptation with lies and oxymorons. Satan must deny reality to convince Eve to deny God. God is reality. Satan perverts what is around Eve, like creation, her dominance over it, and her own beauty, to instill doubt. He even denies reason and quotes an oxymoron, referring to Eve as “Goddess humane” (Milton 9.732). In order to tempt Eve, Satan must be illogical. “The serpent’s words endow the ‘Heav’n’ of Eve’s face with a potential for stormy wrath that would befit a goddess whose vain pride demands fearful idolatry.” (Harding 7) The serpent leads Eve down the path to failure.
To pile on, Satan continues his attack on eve by uprooting the core of the issue: Eve’s allegiance to her creator. He questions the very intentions of God. “Or is it envy? And can envy dwell / In Heav’nly breasts?” (Milton 9.729-30). This of course intrigues Eve, because she has never had this thought; her nature was blameless. She would not have doubted her creator. For that is the logical thing to do. That which is new, naturally attracts man, and so is true for those of perfected nature it seems.
Who is to blame? Analyzing the several events and characters, whose fault is to blame for the fall? There is Satan the tempter who instilled doubt through Eve’s dream, as well as conversations with Eve. Also there is Eve, the tempted, who committed the sin. She allowed circumstances to lead her down a path to failure. There is Adam: the interactive person on earth who let Eve go alone. Finally there is God, man’s creator. He was the entity that implanted free will to humanity. He created the water to be reflective where Eve saw her reflection, and was intrigued. He gave Eve the mind to think, to doubt, to analyze. He allowed Satan’s existence, and God certainly could have even joined Adam and Eve at the hip!
But there must be an interjection here, for we can not assign any malfeasance to a God, corresponding to the Biblical depiction of God, referred to as “love” in 1 John. Although no blame, or action deserving of repercussions can be attributed to God, my route is that God allowed for this event to transpire. He was not the hand that dealt the blow, but His lack of intervention “gave permission” for the temptation to unfold. I am not going to spend time in this writing clarifying God’s exact role in this event, but I believe the above words will relinquish any bloodthirsty theologians waiting for me to stumble into heresy.
So the question is posed: Who is to blame? Certainly it must be a connection of all three: man, God, and Satan.
Temptation is deceitful, illogical, and it exemplifies our weaknesses. God perfectly created Adam and Eve with no concept of deceit, foolishness, or weakness; He also instilled in them curiosity. The knowledge of sin does not demand punishment of sin, which lies within sinful intentions. It is when man succumbs to temptation that death ensues. This is how a being of perfection was led to sin, through the knowledge of sin. Potentialities begin to loom in the minds of man until they begin to contemplate disobedience. Milton depicts this perfectly through the character of Eve. She fondles with self-admiration and independence, which soon lead to baleful ends. Successful temptation is composed of three parts: our curiosity, God’s free will, and Satanic influence. All three of these components must intertwine simultaneously to create sin, at least with ones of perfect nature. Curiosity and Free Will without Satanic influence would not lead to disobedience, just as any combination of the two would not create sin without the other. Curiosity implants the desire for knowledge; Satan provides the deception of knowledge, and God gives man the free will to act accordingly when tempted. Temptation is a three-part harmony between Man, God, and Satan.
Harding, Pitt. “Milton’s Serpent and the Birth of Pagan Error.” SEL: Studies in English Literature (Johns Hopkins) 47.1 (2007): 161-177. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Apr. 2010.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.
Moore, Jeanie Grant. “The Two Faces of Eve: Temptation Scenes in Comus and Paradise Lost.” Milton Quarterly 36.1 (2002): 1. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Apr. 2010
Tanner, John S. “The Psychology of Temptation in Perelandra and Paradise Lost: What Lewis learned from Milton.” Renascence 52.2 (2000): 131. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Apr. 2010.