Saturday, October 24, 2009

Eden and the Fall of Man. Part 1, Milton and Paradise Lost

This last year (2009) in my fairly random reading, I came across a the story of the Garden of Eden a number of times, and for the first time became interested in the story. To be more exact I became more interest in the telling of the story; where did it come from, what does it mean to different people. As an atheist brought up in a Church of England family and school, I'd not had any real interest in it before. In these blog posts I'll review all the places the story showed up this year, and discuss some fascinating insights people have had about the origin and meaning of the story of Adam and Eve.

One caveat; I'm writing this for fun because I enjoyed it. I am not an expert on English literature or the Bible, and most of this is probably wrong. But it is a collection of personal thoughts that I didn't want to forget.

In the beginning I was looking for something interesting to listen to on my commute to work, and found that Yale University have online course material that any idiot can download. So I did. Pretty much at random I chose a course on the English poet John Milton and really enjoyed the lectures by John Rogers [here]. From there I began also reading Paradise Lost as well as some of Milton's less epic poetry.

John Milton

Milton was the son of a wealthy man (a respected professsional who would have been a combination of todays money lender, notary public, and contract lawyer). Sent to a private school, St. Pauls, and then to Cambridge, University, it would have been expected that he would go enter the clergy, where he would have lived a comfortable and privileged life. He had other ideas however, and from early on his life he decided he would be the greatest English poet, and devoted himself to that task. In much of his early work he seems to defending this decision, as perhaps he had to defend it to his father, who supported him financially.

Before Paradise lost was written, in the middle of the 17th century, King Charles was becoming somewhat of a tyrant. In addition by marrying a Catholic he was bring the Church of England close to the Catholic Church than the general population of England would like. This lead to the Civil War and the eventual execution of Charles. Milton played his part in this, both before and after the revolution and eventual rexicide, which he implicitly supported in his publications.

Though the civil war was a success and England became a republic, Oliver Cromwell died of illness in 1958. England became unstable again, and by 1960 the monarchy was reinstated. Milton was imprisoned and could well have been executed for his part in the civil war, but was released due to his influential friends.

As he wrote Paradise Lost, Milton had become blind and had married a woman from Wistaston in Cheshire (which incidentally was the town I first lived in).

Paradise Lost

Milton had planned to write the story of King Arthur in his bid to become England's greatest poet, but chose instead to tell the story of Adam and Eve. The story begins with Satan, who is a powerful, charismatic and vivid character in the poem. He is with the fallen angels who have had a civil war of their own against God, and lay broken and bruised in the depths of hell. A debate ensues, about how best to react... to lay in Hell, hoping for eventual forgiveness, or to try and fight back. Satan comes up with the idea of finding, and corrupting, Adam and Eve. This, they all agree, is the way to get revenge on God for their humiliating defeat. "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in heav'n" Satans journey out of Hell as he seeks Eden is arduous and horrific, some of things that happen on the way out would be perfectly at home in a Clive Barker book.

The Biblical Adam and Eve, as you probably know, lived a simple and immortal life of abundence. They were innocent of all evil and had nothing to fear, so long as they obeyed God's law not to eat from the Forbidden Tree of Knowledge, which would mean death.

Satan arrives in Eden and, disguised as a Serpent, is able to convince Eve to eat from the from the tree. Appealing to her pride and vanity, he also tells her that the tree of knowledge will boost her intellect. After all if it can give a simple snake the ability to speak, imagine how much wiser she could become.

She goes to Adam and tells him what she's done. He is initially angry but decides that if she is going to die then he will too, so he also eats from the tree. They both now know shame and fear, and walk hand in hand out of the garden of Eden to begin their new lives. There's an oddly hopeful feeling to the end of the book.

Milton and freedom

Milton was against the tyranny of Charles I because he believed in freedom, and in elected officials. I like to think that in Paradise Lost Milton was rooting for the bad guys, the oppressed. Satan is not portrayed as character devoted to causing harm and evil for no purpose. He's an intelligent and complex creature, driven by pride and vanity. Eve is not stupid or week minded, but instead is driven by the desire for knowledge. Is it better to be happy and ignorant, or to pursue all the knowledge you can, no matter what the cost?

God in this story is the bad guy. He places the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden for no good reason other than for man to fall. Whether he is all-knowing and knew they would take the apple, or whether man actually has free will and chose to take it, it still seems like a cruel game to play.

The story seems to mirror Milton's own experience with the civil war. His hope as the King was over thrown and replaced with a peoples government. Perhaps he expected a Utopia as his dreams of a monarchy free country were realized. Then the few years of freedom from monarchy that the English people enjoyed, followed by the restoration and the disappointment he must have felt.

Some of Milton's opponents, and perhaps he himself, thought this his blindness was a punishment from God for supporting the regicide and being on the eventual losing side fo the civil war. There are references to darkness and blindness in the hell of Paradise Lost.

That's all for this post, there will be a few more to follow all on the same theme.

Godel, Escher, Bach and Incompleteness

Earlier this year I came across a book called "Proust and the Squid" which I reviewed a few posts ago. That book started me on the thread of Gödel and his incompleteness theorem, and I read a book on that "Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel", which lead me to "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid".

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in mathematics and AI. Hofstadter covers a wide range of topics, and he's very good at explaining things, using diagrams, Socratic dialogue, and exercises for the reader. He describes in great detail, and from first principles, a number theory he calls Typographical Number Theory, and with that and other devices he explains Incompleteness theorem. In addition there are great swathes of information about how genetics works at the cell level, knowledge representation, in particular hierarchical. Also, of course, there's plenty of information about Bach (and Fugues) and Escher from the title. In regards to the rest of the post, this book is interesting because it's really about the mind. About how it emerges from simple low level processes, and how at the highest level (our own stream of consciousness), we don't need to know about neurons firing and so on because we're essentially the software running on the hardware.

As an aside I found it both fascinating and sad that Bach's last composition included his name as possibly the last four notes he wrote: BACH (I know there's no H in the musical scale, but in German there is).

This is a book you could spend a lot of your life obsessing over, as it is filled with mystery's and difficult exercises for the reader. But even if you just rush through it like I did, enjoying some parts and being utterly baffled by others, you will find much to enjoy I am sure.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Overheard on the West Coast Express

Announcer: "Could you please make sure you stay behind the yellow line. Especially the woman in a red dress, about 1 carriage down from the front. You were in the danger zone lady"