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Looking for Wisdom Behind Beauty’s Mask

Looking for Wisdom Behind Beauty’s Mask

We all love to see beautiful things. What would our lives be without beauty? Yet there’s always the chance that beauty adorns and accompanies harmful things. How do we discern when something is truly beautiful or when beauty merely masks the detrimental? 

In this penultimate part of this series, we continue to extract wisdom from Milton’s interpretation of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Previously, we left Satan as he turned into a serpent to find a way to hurt God through Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were blissfully enjoying the Garden of Eden, unaware of Satan’s presence, though the Archangel Raphael has warned them about Satan. 

The Union of Wisdom and Beauty

Upon waking, Adam and Eve wish to tend to God’s garden, to shape it and mold into a beauty respectful of God, but there’s so much to tend to. Eve suggests that they split up, but Adam is concerned that Satan will have better success hurting them if they’re apart: 

But other doubt possesses me, lest harm
Befall thee severed from me; for thou know’st
What hath been warned us—what malicious foe,
Envying our happiness, and of his own
Despairing, seeks to work us woe and shame
By sly assault and somewhere nigh at hand
Watches, no doubt, with greedy hope to find
His wish and best advantage, us asunder,
Hopeless to circumvent us joined, where each
To other speedy aid might lend at need. (Book IX, Lines 251–260)

Adam reveals an important aspect about the relationship between the masculine and feminine: They must work together and aid each other against evil’s onslaught. Milton also repeatedly refers to Adam’s wisdom and Eve’s beauty throughout his writings, suggesting that these two—wisdom and beauty—must work together as one if resistance of temptation and obedience to God are to be accomplished.

In “Nearer he drew, and many a walk traversed,” Doré shows Adam and Eve sitting off in the distance. They sit under a canopy of the overgrown garden teeming with life. A light shines upon them as if to showcase their union in the light and love of God. Satan, disguised as a snake, sneakily watches them, and awaits his opportunity.  

“Nearer he drew, and many a walk traversed / Of stateliest covert, cedar, pine, or palm” (Book IX. 434, 435), 1866, by Gustav Doré for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Engraving. (Public Domain)

The Danger of Beauty’s Excursion

Despite Adam’s warnings, Eve convinces Adam that everything will be okay and she can take care of herself. Eve goes off by herself, and it’s not long before Satan follows her to initiate his attack. Her heavenly beauty, however, catches him off guard, and he almost forgets the hatred in his heart: 

Such pleasure took the Serpent to behold
This flowery plat, the sweet recess of Eve
Thus early, thus alone; her heavenly form
Angelic, but more soft and feminine,
Her graceful innocence, her every air
Of gesture or least action, overawed
His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought.
That space the Evil One abstracted stood
From his own evil, and for the time remained
Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed,
Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge. (Book IX, Lines 455–466)

Here, Milton suggests that Eve’s heavenly beauty possesses the power of transforming that which is sinful and hateful into what is good. Beauty inherently has transformative potential. Seeing this beauty he could not possess, however, refueled his anger, and he approached Eve to begin his temptation. 

Eve is taken aback by the speaking serpent: How can this animal speak when none of the other animals can speak? Satan responds that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil gave him his powers, and that she too should eat from the Tree. She knows she cannot eat from this tree. It is the one thing God has asked her and Adam not to do. 

Satan, however, goes straight to the source of her pride: her beauty. He tells her that she’s so beautiful she should be worshiped by all as though she were a goddess. Now, only Adam gets to enjoy her beauty, but her beauty is too much for just one man and the unworthy animals of the garden:  

Fairest resemblance of thy Maker fair,
Thee all things living gaze on, all things thine
By gift, and thy celestial beauty adore,
With ravishment beheld—there best beheld
Where universally admired. But here,
In this enclosure wild, these beasts among,
Beholders rude, and shallow to discern
Half what in thee is fair, one man except,
Who sees thee (and what is one?) who shouldst be seen
A goddess among gods, adored and served
By angels numberless, thy daily train? (Book IX, Lines 538–548)

He assures her that there’s nothing wrong with the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If there were, why would he be able to eat from it and gain these powers to speak like a human? Surely, if she eats from it, she will become even more beautiful and godlike, like the beings in heaven. 

She thinks this over and considers that the serpent might be right, that maybe they misunderstood God’s commandment, for why would God not want them to have the fruit from this tree if God truly loved them? She takes fruit from the tree and eats. She immediately becomes drunk and feels as if she is divine. During her drunken stupor, Satan slithers away back into the brush of the garden. 

“Back to the thicket slunk / The guilty serpent” (Book IX. 784, 785), 1866, by Gustav Doré for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Engraving. (Public Domain)

In “Back to the thicket slunk / The guilty serpent,” Doré shows the moment Satan leaves the indulgent Eve with fruit in her hand. In contrast to “Nearer he drew, and many a walk traversed,” here, Adam and Eve are separated. 

The spotlight is on Eve, illuminating her beauty but also the disobedience that her beauty now accompanies—as the fruit in her hand indicates. Adam sits in the shadows of the background with his head on his hand as if he is in deep, contemplative worry. Might this scene represent the inner discord that occurs when beauty and wisdom are separated; when beauty indulgently adorns things other than the divine? 

The Union of Wisdom and Beauty

Throughout the history of Western civilization, beauty has come with its caveats. Plato warned about its dangers, suggesting that the poets should be exiled from the Republic since they had the power to make anything seem enticing. There is truth to Plato’s concern: Anything can be adorned with beauty, even those things that might prove to be destructive.   

How can beauty benefit us? Beauty can inherently transform those who experience it, but toward what end? How can the transformation be beneficial? Is it how Milton suggests: that beauty should be unified with the intellect and made obedient to God’s commandments? Is beneficial beauty that which fulfills these requirements?

Gustave Doré was a prolific illustrator of the 19th century. He created images for some of the greatest classical literature of the Western world, including the Bible, “Paradise Lost,” and “The Divine Comedy.” In this series, we’ll take a deep dive into the thoughts that inspired Doré and the imagery those thoughts provoked. For the first article in the series, visit “Illustrious Ideas and Illustrations: The Imagery of Gustave Doré.”

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