Pursuit of Knowledge

Tanjila Ferdous Published: 29 November 2018, 04:03 PM | Updated: 29 November 2018, 04:11 PM
Pursuit of Knowledge
Representational image

'Pursuit of Knowledge'


The suggestions and remarks in this presentation are based on personal writing experience. Writing practices and approaches vary. Exercise your own judgment regarding the suitability of the content. I hereby declare that this essay is my own original work and has not been submitted before to any institution for assessment purposes.  Further, I have acknowledged all sources used and have cited these in the reference section.

Again I acknowledge those scholars whose materials I have collected from different sources and used after certain modification in this essay.

I have chosen two texts to describe the essay which focuses on the theme of The Pursuit of Knowledge playing a crucial role in influencing characters and plots in both Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus.

The Paradise Lost Satan entices both Adam and Eve to take the forbidden fruit using the tendency of human beings to know the unknown, for accomplishing his mission to divert human being from the path of God. In Doctor Faustus the central character Faustus has only craving for knowledge which makes him defy human limitations, set by God. In both texts the central characters initially don’t violate any prescribed rules or orders of God. Since the genesis of human civilization this particular trait of knowing the unknown has been working as a major motivation for human to advance and develop their civilization. The pursuit of knowledge or curiosity is certainly an inborn characteristic of men as they are provided with the ability by the creator to think independently, question and come to conclusions. For the current study the two texts Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus are given the most focus. Besides these texts Critics opinions are used to authenticate the overall discussion.

In “Dr.Faustus”  and “Paradise Lost” the central characters initially do not violate any order of God. The problem starts happening with Adam and Eve when they cannot resist their temptation of knowing the unknown. Lured by Satan, they take forbidden fruit and for a certain time they remain bereft of God’s mercy. Similarly DR. Faustus,  a well-respected German scholar, goes against God as he grows dissatisfied with the limits of traditional forms of knowledge—logic, medicine, law, and religion—and decides that he wants to learn to practice magic. Due to this blind chase for knowledge Faustus is doomed forever. So in both texts pursuit of knowledge has been the root cause of the characters’ misfortune and sufferings. Knowledge is awareness of knowing about what, why, when, where and how of anything. It is power. Power is of two kinds: one physical and the other intellectual. The physical power includes strength and skill to do things, to perform acts and to produce goods. The intellectual polders include – recall, recognition, retention, reasoning, imagination, curiosity and so on.

Knowledge sharpens the mind and intelligence, which in turn improves farther quest and desire for adventure and investigation. Man has already known the different corners of the world. He has started stepping on other planets. He has gone and come back from the moon. He is now exploring the other planets. All this is possible because of his pursuit of knowledge.

The desire for knowledge makes the central character DR. Faustus in Doctor Faustus such a reputed scholar with far and wide spread fame. But the same desire for knowledge becomes the cause of his eternal doom.

Also in John Milton’s Paradise Lost the first man and woman Adam and Eve are created by God with a natural curiosity to know the unknown. It’s this curiosity that makes them the best different from and superior to other creatures as the letters didn’t have the ability to think freely and question things. Satan uses this inner curiosity of Adam and Eve to trick them with a view to fulfilling his evil purpose of misguiding humans from the way of God. But it can also be said that the eating of forbidden fruit that resulted from human’s curiosity to know the unknown, paved the way for human civilization’s inception on earth.

Brief History

John Milton published the first edition of Paradise Lost in 1667. Paradise Lost is an epic poem by John Milton retelling the Biblical story of Adam and Eve’s first sin. Milton first recounts the rebellion of Satan, who would afterward act as tempter in the events that transpired in the Garden of Eden. Satan’s rebellion begins when God calls an assembly of all the angels in Heaven in order to announce that he has appointed his Son to reign over them. Satan believes that he and the Son are equal in rank, and he concludes that God in this exaltation of the Son is unjust. Satan refuses to surrender his personal freedom or to submit to what he regards as the illegitimate reign of the Son, and he appeals to the other angels to do the same.One-third of the angels join Satan, and Satan criticizes those that do not follow him. Satan then leads his followers in an attack against Heaven. The battle between the loyal and rebel angels rages for days before the Son comes forth from his throne; the Son defeats Satan and casts the rebellious angels from Heaven to Hell.

In drama, Doctor Faustus, a well-respected German scholar, grows dissatisfied with the limits of traditional forms of knowledge—logic, medicine, law, and religion—and decides that he wants to learn to practice magic. His friends Valdes and Cornelius instruct him in the black arts, and he begins his new career as a magician by summoning up Mephistopheles, a devil.

Literature Review

The theme of the pursuit of knowledge has been a crucial issue in both texts. Critics have reacted from so many perspectives on this point. They have tried to explain “Pursuit of Knowledge” from their respective point of views on the basis of topics like Christian theology, humanism, equality, feminism etc. All these points they raised are closely connected with the theme of pursuit of knowledge that connects both “Paradise Lost” and Dr. Faustus.

Curiosity is defined as a need, thirst or desire for knowledge. All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that it is wonder that led the first philosophers to philosophy, since a man who is puzzled thinks of himself as ignorant and philosophizes to escape from his ignorance.

Motivation is defined as the arousal, direction and persistence ofbehaviour ; an internal state or condition that activates behaviour and gives it direction; desire or want, that energizes and directs goal-oriented behaviour; the influence of needs and desires on the intensity and direction of behaviour. Drive is defined as a basic or instinctive need; a vigorous effort toward a goal; to cause and guide the movement.

Leisure and curiosity and culture were three factors that Aristotle saw as being intimately linked.  That immediately opens a window into the lives of the rich and famous in the ancient world and the middle ages.  Throughout that time, there existed a small group of people who were especially well-endowed with wealth.  These elite had the power and ability to be able to have leisure and be supported by the rest of the population.  And they’re the ones who created culture. They created really sophisticated art like great edifices, great murals, great mosaics etc.  All sponsored by people whose sole interest was to have something beautiful look at, something really delightful .People who were never satisfied. No pharaoh ever said, “Well, there are a lot of nice pyramids out there with all kinds of pretty stuff; I don’t need to build another one.”  Pharaohs built not just because they too wanted a place in history, but because they wanted something new, something different.  They wanted their workmen to make something more interesting, something awe-inspiring.

They created literature.  It’s hard to think of anything that is more a “waste of time” than literature.  Especially in ancient times, where you had to scribble everything out longhand and almost nobody could read.  Imagine a person who was moved in ancient times to write a play.  Who did he write the play for?  Who’s going to read it?  How lucky we are that any of them survived because there were only a handful of manuscripts of each one!  In fact, most of what was written in ancient times didn’t survive.  The great production of ancient literature – the library of Alexandria – went up in flames in the 8th century. With that, most of the writing of the ancient world disappeared.

They had entertainment.  Not only theatre, but games.  They had fun, they had parties.  If “Symposium” by Plato is gone through by one, which is nothing other than the story of a really wild drunken party featuring Socrates and his buddies, one will get an idea of how the elite celebrated cuisine.  We have cookbooks from ancient times, for the elite.  Do you think the average person looked at a cookbook?  Finally, the elite were the ones who engaged in science and philosophy, who went to little academies and listened to the masters speak.  Unfortunately, the only extensive surviving record we have of this is Plato’s Dialogues, which is a terrible shame because we know these academies existed all over the place. Plato’s Dialogues provide a wonderful picture of these small knots of people who had lots of time on their hands, who obviously wealthy, and who chatted about all the important philosophical questions that we still talk about today.

I have to tell about just one such question, because it has to do with curiosity, and it shows you how bold Aristotle was when he talked about curiosity.  There’s a dialogue of Plato’s in which Socrates asks the question, “How can you ever look for anything new?” – Which is the essence of curiosity? The problem, as he saw it, was that if it’s new, you don’t know that it’s there, so you can’t look for it; and if you’re looking for it, then it’s not new, because you know it’s there.  He tangles himself in his quest for an answer page after page, until he comes up with the only answer he could figure out, which is: you can’t ever seek something new; rather, everybody is born with all the knowledge of everything within him, but they forget it at birth.  Thereafter, all of the search for ostensibly new things involves trying to recollect what we once knew.

Let’s summarize the human condition in pre-modern times.  Briefly, the overwhelming majority of people struggled for existence. They were satisfied if they could meet their basic needs.  They didn’t have time or energy to deal with the broader culture. There was a  small elite that had the leisure to create and transmit culture from generation to generation. The rate of cultural development was limited by the small number of people who belonged to the elite; by barriers to communication, due to the lack of mobility which made face-to-face contact between people who lived far apart rare; and by the difficulty of diffusing information through the written word.  But I want to add a key point: the curiosity-driven culture of the elite was a consumer-driven culture.  It was the elite that demanded new experiences, and led to the creation of all of the cultural treasures that we now treasure so much.  They wanted novelty, innovation.  They were never satisfied with what they had.  They were never satisfied with what existed.

Let’s look at another event: the invention of movable type printing. That was basically invented as a way to save on money for scribes.  Scribes were expensive, they got sick, they were a bother to deal with.  Gutenberg figured out a way to save on scribal time by assembling movable type and making replications of it.  At the time, no one realized the incredible fallout that would follow from that little invention. They were incredibly difficult to operate.  The letters had to be individually carved out of wood or cast out of metal.  Then they had to be set line by line, after which they had to be laid out on a page and held together firmly.  Then somebody came over with a huge ink roller and rolled it along the top of the type, after which a huge sheet of paper was laid on top and pressed against the type. The point I’m trying to make is this: as tedious as this process is, it still enables one to replicate hundreds of times in a day. All of a sudden, literacy becomes something worthwhile.  It didn’t make any sense to read before.  What was the point of reading?  There were hardly any books.  Now there’s something to read.  Human beings are naturally curious.  They thirst for new information.  The availability of books fosters independent research – and thinking – for everybody who could lay their hands on a book and mull over its contents.  It was worth pursuing even if they only had a few minutes of spare time, because books became relatively cheap and plentiful now.

Printing, books, and literacy constituted a time bomb for religion.  The first book ever printed was the Bible.  Virtually nobody ever actually read the Bible.  How did people find out what was in the Bible?  The preacher told them, and the preacher in turn was told by his teacher in the seminary.  The preacher had never read the Bible either.  Now all of a sudden Gutenberg printed Bibles and anybody could read them.  The result: many people were motivated to learn how to read, and when they did they often discovered that it didn’t jibe with what they had been told.

Before you could turn around, 1500 years of Roman Catholic monopoly on religion in Europe was shot to smithereens, and it was never restored.  All because of human curiosity, all because people wanted to know what was actually in that holy book.  Did they have to read the Bible?  After all, life was rolling along as it had for centuries.  The preacher told them what to do, how to go to heaven, what would get them sent to hell, and all that important stuff.  Life had gone on that way for 1500 years – what was the problem?  And now, all of a sudden, they had an opportunity to see for themselves.  Why did they bother to read?  It just created problems for them.  It was risky to read.  They did it anyway. Probably this trait of taking risk of people reminds us the boldness of Dr. Faustus who wanted to know every branch of knowledge and this mind set enables him to identify the flaw of highly respected Pope who deceived people in the name of forgiving them by the name of God.

Let’s look at another event: the European discovery of the New World.  Now if there was ever an accident, that was it.  The story behind this is fascinating.  We all know that Columbus went to open a trade route to China. .  No problem; the earth is round.  Everybody intelligent knew the earth was round.  All this business about the earth being considered flat is a fairy tale.  Aristotle clearly explains that the earth is a sphere, and that knowledge was part and parcel of ancient science.  In fact, the ancient Greek scientist Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the earth and got it pretty right.  The result showed that the earth was a huge sphere – too big to navigate sailing West from Europe.  Columbus, however, thought the radius of the globe was much smaller than what Eratosthenes had determined.  He had reasons to think so, which Thor Heyerdahl outlined in a brilliant tour de force.

Social Well-Being and Curiosity

Humans evolved in small groups, in which survival and reproductive needs depended on having close connections with others. Anything that increases the ability to form close connections and reduce the probability of social rejection served the function of ensuring that basic needs could be met. Only recently have scientists uncovered the importance of curiosity to satisfying a sense of belonging.

Feelings of curiosity may build social bonds by promoting behaviours such as engagement, responsiveness, and flexibility to others’ varied perspectives. People who are more curious have been shown to experience energizing conversations with strangers that rapidly escalate in intimacy, and show impressive accuracy in discerning the personality traits of strangers after brief interactions.

The curious people use a number of strategies to regulate interest including being provocative, injecting humor, a willingness to disclose personal information and encouraging partners to do the same, openly expressing feelings about the conversation, and intentionally searching for interesting details about their partner. Thus, the healthy social outcomes of people with more curiosity appear to be the result of their intentional efforts to create interesting, enjoyable opportunities for both them and their partners.

As another example of relationship enhancing behaviour, when something interesting happens to us, sharing it with other people (who are good listeners) can transform memories of the event. Describing an interesting event to others serves to strengthen our own curiosity and make it more salient. The intrinsic value and motivation for a given activity can be increased through this socialization process.

In this case one must not forget Dr. Faustus, a person keen on knowing more and more, becomes rebellious against traditional beliefs and makes mistakes of going against God. Here his spirit for exploring the truth is praised, not his going against God.

Psychological Well-Being and Curiosity

The functions of curiosity make it an ideal candidate for signalling and producing well-being. Upon seeking and investing effort in novel and challenging activities, people with greater curiosity expand their knowledge, skills, goal-directed efforts, and sense of self. Feeling curious also appears to increase tolerance for distressing states of self-awareness that result from trying new things and behaving in ways outside of one’s comfort zone. Using cross-sectional and laboratory research designs, people scoring higher on trait curiosity consistently report greater psychological well-being. One theoretical model suggests that people with greater curiosity are more selective of and responsive to activities that are personally and socially enriching, leading to the building of durable social, mental, and physical resources. Curiosity allows people to engage more deeply with potentially enriching people and experiences. A recent experience sampling study, for example, examined how being in nature influences positive mood. The effect of nature was moderated by fascination, measured essentially as interest: nature had its strongest effect on positive mood when people reported that the natural environment was interesting, thus evoking engagement and exploration.

Wonder is a complex emotion involving elements of surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy. It is perhaps best defined as a heightened state of consciousness and emotion brought about by something singularly beautiful, rare, or unexpected.

Wonder involves significant elements of surprise and curiosity, both of which are forms of interest. Surprise is a spontaneous and short-lived reaction to something unexpected, immediately followed by at least some degree of confusion and one or more emotions such as joy, fear, disappointment, or anger.

Curiosity derives from the Latin cura, ‘care’. To be curious about something is to desire knowledge of that thing. Knowledge extinguishes curiosity but not wonder.

Babies, by definition, are curious creatures. They hunger for information and knowledge about the world. They take in an enormous amount of information and acquire a vast amount of skills in the first few years of life.

In both texts this desire for knowledge is solely responsible for each and every incident, good or bad. Let’s call this desire Curiosity. In “Paradise Lost” Adam and Eve appear as curious and this similar trait is more acutely seen in Dr. Faustus in the play Dr. Faustus.

Columbus and Curiosity

The day in 1492 when Columbus ran into a cluster of islands blocking his way to India is celebrated throughout Latin America and in Spain. It is now fixed in the United States as the second Monday in October, and Americans too have long commemorated the event, both embracing and vilifying the explorer. It took something as dramatic as finding new lands filled with exotic people, plants and animals to liberate Europe's investigative spirit from official opprobrium. Over the two centuries that followed Columbus' initial voyage, robust questioning about the nature of the world turned an inward society outward, fueling an inquisitiveness that would eventually carry Europeans.

The discovery of the New World upended the entire intellectual tradition of its discoverers. Aristotle had insisted that the equator was too hot to support life. Others had predicted that sea monsters would swallow any vessels attempting to cross the Atlantic. More troubling, no llamas, pumas or bison had boarded Noah's Ark. These challenges to Christian orthodoxy had to be answered, entangling church officials and their critics in two centuries of disputes.

Bacon predicted that the cumulative growth of knowledge would permit his contemporaries to throw off the idea that their world had degenerated from a golden era, an idea that both classical and Christian traditions embraced.

In the 17th century, people remembered what had stimulated the dramatic changes in their thinking. "Distant voyages and travels have brought to light many things in nature," Bacon reflected, "which may throw fresh light on human philosophy and science and correct by experience the opinions and conjectures of the ancients." After studying natural phenomena became a dominant cultural trait, Europeans forgot that questioning eyes had once been verboten. Columbus' voyages unchained curiosity and that should be celebrated.


What is interesting about all the characters in this essay are that the kinds of knowledge which they pursue leads to questions about the existence of God. In their strive for knowledge and power all the characters meet their tragic endings. This theme is also a universal statement about humanity at all times and in all places. Humans have a bottomless motivating but dangerous thirst for knowledge. This leads them to seek that which should remain unknown to them.

Knowledge is often a dangerous and unsettling thing. Contrary to most scientific thoughts, not every piece of knowledge is golden. The human mind must not comprehend everything that there is to know about the world.

So the  bottom line is pursuit of knowledge can be positive as long as someone is not crossing the limit. Limitless passion can bring upon a huge disaster. Adam and Eve could redeem themselves but some people cannot avoid doom; for example Faustus and Frankenstein.

Exploring the two, Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost, certain religious aspects can be found. The Fall of Man, Free Will, and Atonement/Redemption will be the  main focus of this analysis. These poems take place in very similar universes where there is a Heaven and Hell with a God and a Devil respectively. As a result, they share many similarities within the above stated aspects and can be compared. Doctor Faustusis a story of an extremely educated man that has more or less grown bored with his current lifestyle and consequently sells his soul to “Lucifer” who is the devil in this story. This marks the beginning of the fall of Dr. Faustus and in this case represents the aspect of “The Fall of Man”. It is his thirst for knowledge or even as far to say power that leads to the fall. “Paradise Lost” is the known story beginning with the fall of angels to hell and the fall of man from God’s grace. Similarly, in the poem “Paradise Lost” it is the temptation of knowledge that marks the fall for Eve and ultimately the Fall of Man.

The aspect of free will is portrayed in both texts as well. In,Doctor Faustus it is shown in a literal representation via Good Angel and Evil Angel.

Dr. Faustus himself goes through his own fall through the action of his own free will and falling short of atonement and redemption. In contrast, Adam and Eve show similar action in their own fall from grace as a result of their free will but manage to atone and granted their redemption. Just as a consequence of  Dr. Faustus’s actions, he loses his soul to the devil. In Adam and Eve’s case, they also suffer their punishments laid out by God but know redemption will be achieved in later generations.

In fine it must be said that one must not forget that without curiosity, one cannot be called a human being. It is due to curiosity every incident happens, whether good or bad, significant and insignificant. Satan, no doubt a creation of God is always keen on abusing this power of curiosity. If someone controls his own curiosity for own and society’s betterment then Satan remains inactive. It can also be said that Satan is a human instinct always entices a person to cross the limit of passion, curiosity and exploration. In other words it can be said when we cannot control ourselves from avoiding anything restricted and this uncontrollable passion is Satan. So Satan is both a character and a human instinct.


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