Paradise Lost, Plato’s Cave

I am reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He wrote it when he was blind.  Does that mean that he was more cognizant of the eternal truths of the world, free from distraction by one of his senses?  That’s what the Greeks thought of poets, and thus, Homer was blind.

I guess Milton found his way out of Plato’s cave, that dark place where unenlightened men see the shadows of truth dancing on the walls.  But Plato banned poets from the ideal republic:  He was always more about power than justice or truth anyway.

Lots of people have commented that Satan is by far the most interesting character in Milton’s epic poem, but I find myself quite taken with Adam and Eve. 

They are quite the humanist pair:  Adam appears before the angel Raphael, come to warn him against Satan, with appropriate humility, but quite confident and stately in his naked beauty.  I guess Milton only attached the notion of idolatry, against which he railed, to costume, gold, temples, and the like, while it seems to me quite possible to idolize, rather than idealize, the human form.  Anyway, the two really do love each other, apparently without sin as of yet.

Satan is the tormented soul, and not because he is forced to lie about on a lake of fire after his abortive coup d’etat in heaven.  He has a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, and he can’t stop plotting.  The sight of Adam and Eve, happy in Eden, drives him to a frenzy of rage and jealousy, and what could he do?  He has free will…that’s how it had to be.

I was wondering while reading if Plato could have known of the Old Testament, but my digging indicates that it is improbable.  The book wasn’t translated into Greek until long after Plato’s death, and though there must have been Jews passing through Athens, it is hard to imagine Plato chatting with them in the Agora.  Certainly, he could have known of myths and tales from the east, some of which – The Flood, the Garden of Eden – are common to many traditions.  Eastern thinking, art, and cults were very influential in Greek thought.

The Garden of Eden strikes me as a sort of inverse of Plato’s cave.  The inhabitants have no ‘knowledge’:  they must not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but they are happy, paradisically so.  When they gain knowledge at the urging of Satan/Serpent, they are beset by sin, lust, and pain.  They are cast out into the world by God.  Wouldn’t Plato have vomited at the thought that knowledge would bring pain and disaster rather than serenity and peace?   But I don’t think he had a notion of sin that needed to be justified.

In the end, however, I find that I am sympathetic to the scripture’s view.  That is, the Greeks may have invented Tragedy, but when it comes to the Old Testament and Plato, he seems naive, while the story of Eden hits on some deeply felt sense that by gaining the world, and all its knowledge, we have lost something.  Even if it’s not something we want back now.

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2 Responses to Paradise Lost, Plato’s Cave

  1. David llewellyn says:

    I really like this comparison. Bravo.

  2. Agreed, this is an interesting comparison of Plato and the Jews’ Eden account. The key concept is _inversions_ by the Jews of Mesopotamian beliefs. These inversions are to refute, deny and challenge the earlier Mesopotamian explanation of why man was created, why he was at first naked, unaware it was wrong to be naked, why he worked in a god’s garden, why he has wisdom like a god but not immortalitylike a god. All this is covered in my two books available via Amazon employing an Anthropological oint of view: (1) Eden’s Serpent: Its Mesopotamian Origins, (2) The Garden of Eden Myth: Its Pre-biblical Origin in Mesopotamian Myths (both published in 2010). My website also presents similar, more detailed articles based on ancient texts of the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Greek myths and Greek Philosophers. My website also explores Plato’s ideas which were accepted in modified forms by Hellenistic Judaism and a Hellenistic Jesus (Christianity being a Hellenistic Religion, under Greek influence of Socrates, Plato, and the Cynics).
    I aslso have 70 YouTube videos on these subjects under my YouTube ID “Sapiensape.”

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