Adam and Eve; Virtue and Vice; Genesis and Paradise Lost

By Spencer Scott, Frances Schaeffler, Jonah Valverde, and Jo Zeng

Why exactly did Adam and Eve eat the fruit? The original Bible goes into a little detail, saying in Genesis 3:6-7, that the snake tempted them, they ate, and their eyes were opened. It’s a straightforward story. Now this being the Bible and all, there’s a long history of writers taking this and other stories in their own direction, but I want to talk about two specific writers. The first one never became well-known, but their work—the Old English poem of Genesis—recounts the majority of the Book of Genesis in Old English meter. The major change is the shifting of the central dynamic, as Eve is now tricked into thinking God wants her to eat the apple. Second is John Milton with book 9 of his epic poem Paradise Lost. As opposed to Genesis, this version does not stray as far from the original formula, with Eve eating the apple and pushing Adam to do the same. The central dynamics of each hold opposing views on the nature of evil, while also agreeing that a blurring of understanding is the root of all evil.

In the Old English version of Genesis, the serpent shifts the focus onto love of God, while also highlighting his punishments. Looking to lines 562 and 563, Satan says, “Consider in your heart how both of you two together can ward off punishment, as I suggest. Eat of this fruit!” Satan has flipped around the situation. Instead of focusing on Eve’s own ambitions, they focus on Eve’s love of God and her fear of punishment. The greatest sin in the Bible arises from this dual nature of loving God and fearing God. But more importantly than that, it arises from Satan bending these to their will—Satan’s corrupting influence is pivotal. Without Satan’s lies, Eve loving and fearing God keeps Eve in the Garden of Eden, which is quite nice. With Satan’s lies, Eve loving and fearing God leads to expulsion from the garden, which is quite terrible. While Eve does well alone, with Satan whispering in her ear, her previous intentions become confused in execution. Evil slithers in, affecting the primary impulse as a secondary warping of previously good intentions.

Eve’s false vision furthers this theme of deception and evil. The immediate reaction to Eve eating the apple is an expansion of her vision to peaks she had not been able to imagine before—between lines 599 and 610 of the 1674 version. What’s especially interesting is that the vision is ostensibly “loaned” from Satan. It’s beyond human. Her own intellect would never be able to comprehend these images of God’s work. However, the vision only amplifies Eve’s love and belief in God. She sees this as a reward for eating the apple. Satan uses a greater appreciation for God’s work and a greater love of God as the motivation to make Eve betray God. Satan can exploit even the best of intentions.

Now, in Milton’s version, Eve knows eating the fruit is sinful, but confusion still plays a role. Eve’s conversation with the snake concerns her desire to move above her state. Her contemplation of the snake’s speech from lines 745 to 779 highlights that she is jealous of the higher rank bestowed by the fruit, of which she has been denied. Satan has spoken of heights that eating the fruit has given them, which makes Eve ponder to herself, “Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise?” This coupled with the line a little later, “This intellectual food, for beasts reserv’d?” foregrounds the jealousy in Eve’s thoughts. Where it was love of God in the first poem, here Satan corrupts Eve’s pride. It’s important to understand that a vice is corrupted here, and not a virtue. We see the opposite angle—the worst of intentions can be exploited too.

It’s not so simple, as seen with Adam’s decision to eat the apple deriving from the virtue of love (for Eve) being blurred. When Eve comes back to Adam and explains that she ate the fruit, and what has happened, Adam realizes for himself the consequences. At that moment, Eve will die without him. Adam laments, “And mee with thee hath ruind, for with thee / Certain my resolution is to Die” (Bk. IX, 906-907). Further down, he ponders—and eventually rejects—the idea that another Eve could be made. This is his one love. Adam’s love leads him to accept death himself, simply to always be with his love. Satan, although very indirectly, blurs Adam’s conceptions of good and evil. Just like the love of God in Genesis, love is used against the person. It is used to persuade against what he would normally want to do.

But what do these poems mean for evil in general? It’s all about confusion. Humans go about their days with inclinations toward good and evil. The way evil actually manifests is through a blurring of intentions. The three situations show that the motivations themselves—no matter what—can be confused. Secondary influences play the pivotal role in our actions. In Genesis, Eve loved God, but only when Satan twists that love does she sin. In Paradise Lost, Eve is prideful and Adam is loving, but only when that pride and love is twisted do they sin. Only when our intentions are confused by outside forces do we commit evil.

 

Sources: 

  • Anlezark, Daniel. “Daniel.” Story. In Old Testament Narratives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Milton, John, and Anna Baldwin. “Book IX.” Paradise Lost, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008.
  • Rubens, Peter Paul, and Jan Brueghel. The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man. Wikimedia Commons, San Francisco, California, 1617, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

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