Utopia Everlasting and Paradise Lost: Nature, Work, and Intellect
Plush gardens, rich vegetation, succulent fruits–for the unaware Christian, John Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost (1667) shapes the biblical understanding of paradise. To the more learned individual, however, Milton’s description is highly politicized, the components of his Eden significant, and upon noticing the weighted nature of Eden, the reader begins to wonder what components were prioritized in previous accounts of an earthly paradise. Thomas More composed Utopia in 1516, and a parallel analysis of Paradise Lost and Utopia, specifically Book II, reveals similar elements that are used to communicate different ideologies. I will focus my comparison on three aspects: 1) the physical landscape; 2) the role of work; 3) the role of intellect and reason. Interestingly, though written 100 years apart, the two accounts have a similar emphasis on nature, work, and intellect, but one that speaks uniquely to its audience.
Both More and Milton create for their paradises a beautiful and compelling landscape. More’s Utopia takes the form of a crescent-shaped island, complete with a broad bay that “is never rough, but quite and smooth instead” (Greenblatt 598). The island houses fifty-four cities, “all spacious and magnificent, identical in language, customs, institutions and laws,” and “every city has enough ground assigned to it so that at least twelve miles of farm land are available in every direction, though where the cities are farther apart, they have much more land” (599). So while Utopia is highly populated, More still emphasizes the empty space and excess land; much like a pastoral, the peaceful, rural scene is idealized. Similarly, Milton’s descriptions of Eden resemble the pastoral. Like Utopia, Eden is spacious, “stretch[ing] her line/From Auran eastward to the royal tow’rs/Of great Seleucia” (Greenblatt 2007). Furthermore, whereas More uses a serene sea to create a sense of peace, Milton uses vegetation, “trees of noblest kind . . . blooming ambrosial fruit/Of vegetable gold,” fed by a “fresh fountain,” “sapphire fount,” “orient pearl and sands of gold,” and resulting in “nature bounteous/Poured forth profuse on hill and dale and plain” (Greenblatt 2007, 2008). In both Eden and Utopia, the landscape is not only beautiful, but also peaceful, and in these descriptions of peace there is no mention of humanity, just nature; paradise is peaceful, therefore, because it is removed from human tampering and ensuing chaos.
The accounts differ, however, in how far removed chaos is or is not. For More, Utopia is surrounded by harbors and coasts that are “rugged by nature,” resulting in an island “so well fortified that a few defenders could beat off the attack of a strong force” (Greenblatt 599). Utopia, then, is suspended in this state of peace, harbored from any sort of attack. This differs sharply from Eden, with its “close and precarious proximity of good and evil” (Loewenstein 85). Whereas Utopia is protected from evil, Satan’s serpentine entrance into the garden shows that good and evil can, at least temporarily, exist simultaneously in Milton’s paradise. The significance is not in their co-existence but rather in the fragility of Eden’s peace. David Loewenstein says it best in his critique of Paradise Lost when he writes, “Despite the garden’s natural protections, . . . the furtive and voyeuristic Satan easily gets into it: he is compared to a wolf invading God’s sheepfold . . . reminding us how vulnerable and fragile this delightful place or locus amoenus is as we begin to share his view of its beauty and abundant pleasures” (85). Nature completes Utopia’s protection from invasion, but for Milton, even nature cannot keep evil from entering Paradise. In Utopia, peace is guaranteed; in Eden, The Fall is inevitable.
The pastoral elements to both Utopia and Paradise Lost provide inviting settings, but settings that do not keep characters idle; instead, both works communicate activity as an important part of paradise. In More’s society, “agriculture is the one occupation at which everyone works, men and women alike, with no exception.” Furthermore, “every person (and this includes women as well as men) learns a second trade, beside agriculture” (Greenblatt 603). Clearly, living in a utopia brings with it the requirement of work. A similar standard exists in Eden, where Adam and Eve “also need to work, beginning early in the day, pruning the growing plants and tending the flowers, herbs, and fruits” (Loewenstein 84). While both More and Milton emphasize the importance and necessity of work, there seems to be a distinct difference in the role of this emphasis. Milton communicates that for Adam and Eve it is a task, an assignment, so in Paradise Lost, working the garden shows Adam and Eve’s dominion over nature, but in Utopia work seems to fulfill an innate need of the people; according to Milton, work is for the garden, but according to More, work is for the people, “so that no one sits around in idleness” (Greenblatt 603). Milton and More, then, both communicate the importance of work, but this emphasis plays very different roles.
In both works, an aversion to idleness translates to a pursuit of education. More’s Utopians are “tireless . . . in intellectual pursuits,” studying “music, dialectic, arithmetic, and geometry,” and spending “their leisure time in reading” (614, 621). Furthermore, all Utopians have free access to education, “a remarkable idea given that at the time of Utopia’s publication the vast majority of the population in England could neither read nor write” (Halpin 304). For More, education is of utmost importance, and, according to David Halpin, the context surrounding More “indicates clearly that More was very committed to a particular version of the education process” (304). In other words, surrounded by the abundance of Renaissance ideas, More’s educational ideal differed from previous ways of teaching. This perhaps explains why his Utopians “had never so much as heard about a single one of those philosophers whose names are so celebrated in our part of the world,” nor had they “discovered even of one those elaborate rules . . . or inventions of our modern logicians” (Greenblatt 614). More promotes education but in an entirely different way, with a polite nod to the classics while also postulating that other areas of study, especially when done through individual experience, are as important as philosophy and logic.
Milton, on the contrary, elevates reason as the ideal, not by putting Adam and Eve through rigorous bouts of schooling but, rather, by creating a dichotomy of reason and desire. Where desire triumphs, reason has failed, and for “those who restrain Desire . . . Reason usurps its place and governs” (Blake, qtd. in Saurat 175). Or, in other words, The Fall occurs when reason is replaced by desire. As the ideal, reason symbolizes Christ, and according to David Saurat in “Faith, Philosophy, and Poetry,” “We have seen that Chris is, in truth, Reason triumphing over Desire . . . Thus Christ is ‘Reason,’ but not through allegory: he is truly the reasonable part of each believer, each man being part of God” (175, 6). In Paradise Lost, reason is from God, of God, and accordingly combats desire, making it the ideal. Milton is not focused on widespread education, like More, but he makes logic and reason top priorities by giving them such significance in the spiritual realm. Furthermore, by placing logic within humanity, Milton also elevates individual experience.
Paradise Lost and Utopia are very dissimilar works, providing bookends for the 16th and 17th century in British literature. Despite their differences, the presentation of paradise is rife with similarities, and it is interesting to see how the two works mirror each other in that they both elevate nature, work, and education. In their including these three elements as fundamental parts of paradise, More and Milton communicate cultural ideals, like the importance of the pastoral, the aversion to idleness, and the affluence of Renaissance learning and ideas. These similarities, though, are only surface deep, for behind the initial elevation the works are unique in the ultimate message they are communicating. For More, education for all is beneficial for society; for Milton, reason is divine. For More, work is healthy and helpful; for Milton, it is a human responsibility. For More, once gained, utopia is everlasting; for Milton, paradise is fragile and ultimately lost.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print. 6 vols. The Norton Anthology.
Halpin, David. “Utopianism and Education: The Legacy of Thomas More.” British Journal of Education Studies 49.3 (2001): 299-315. JSTOR. Web. 16 July 2013.
Loewenstein, David. Milton: Paradise Lost. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.
Saurat, David. “Faith, Philosophy, and Poetry in Milton’s Work.” Milton Criticism: Selections from Four Centuries. Ed. James Thorpe. New York: Collier Books, 1950. 169-77. Print.