This talk explores Milton’s reliance on early modern anthropology to stage in his Paradise Lost what we can think of as an experiment in the preconditions of religious freedom. Drawing on the little-studied interest among the heretical Socinians in contemporary travel literature, Milton presses his Adam and Eve to embody, differentially, two competing anthropological theories.
The first, wholly orthodox, theory, held that humans are innately religious, having been born with a nascent understanding of God’s existence. The second anthropological theory, inspired by de Léry’s 1578 History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, and embraced by the anti-Trinitarians who influenced Milton and, later, Locke, held that humans, as evidenced by de Léry’s account of Brazil’s Tupinamba, were not innately religious: faith was a product instead of acculturation and education. This latter perspective on the anthropology of religion became a central tenet of the period’s radical tolerationists, who demanded freedom of religion on the grounds that it was a prerequisite for heavenly salvation.
It is Milton’s interest in just this early modern anthropological controversy that shapes a central puzzle in Paradise Lost: Adam is created with what seems to be an instinctive understanding of the existence of God, while Eve, no less human, is not. This paper examines the surprising implications for the poem when Milton’s first couple is viewed from the lens of the early modern anthropology of religion.
John Rogers is Professor of English and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto. He’s the author of The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton, as well as essays on the seventeenth-century figures writers Milton, Marvell, and Isaac Newton, and on the nineteenth-century American Mormon prophets Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt, and Parley Pratt. He is currently engaged in organizing the International Milton Symposium, to be held here at the University this coming July.