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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 239-259

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Original Sin and the Problem of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe

Peter Harrison

It is not the philosophy received from Adam that teaches these things; it is that received from the serpent; for since Original Sin, the mind of man is quite pagan. It is this philosophy that, together with the errors of the senses, made men adore the sun, and that today is still the universal cause of the disorder of men's minds and the corruption of men's hearts.

Nicolas Malebranche 1

In his Éloge du Pere Malebranche, delivered to the Parisian Academy of Sciences on 22 April 1716, Bernard Fontenelle recounted the story of Nicolas Malebranche's somewhat controversial conversion to Cartesianism. When friends and colleagues had taken him to task over his new-found commitment to the doctrines of Descartes, Malebranche responded with this question: "Did Adam have the perfect science?" It was agreed that this was the common view. Malebranche responded that he, too, aspired to the perfect science, and that his quest for this knowledge could not be satisfied by following the historical or critical pursuits of his colleagues, but by adopting the procedures set out by Descartes. 2 For Malebranche, the Cartesian method offered a means of overcoming the limitations of the fallen intellectual faculties of Adam's seventeenth-century descendents, and thus of restoring the fabled encyclopedic knowledge of the first man. [End Page 239]

Aspirations to recover the science of Adam provided a common motivation for a number of early-modern philosophical projects. Earlier in the seventeenth century Francis Bacon had famously observed in his Novum Organum (1620) that the human dominion over nature which Adam had lost at the Fall could be restored in some measure by the sciences: "For man by the fall fell at the same time from this state of innocency and from his dominion over creation." The moral losses of the human race were to be restored in some measure by "religion and faith"; Adam's lost knowledge, and the dominion which it made possible, by "arts and sciences." 3 Bacon's vision of a reconstructed knowledge of nature during the period which he regarded (somewhat prematurely) as "the last times" clearly played an important role in legitimizing the goals and methods of the new natural philosophy. Indeed the program of the Royal Society of London from its inception in 1660 explicitly relied upon a Baconian rhetoric of the restoration of that human knowledge and dominion over nature which Adam had once enjoyed.

While historians such as Charles Webster have alluded to the ways in which the myth of an original perfect philosophy motivated projects for the advancement of learning in a rather general way, little attention has been paid to the manner in which early-modern views of the nature of the original fall from knowledge directly informed the methods of the new sciences, determined the scope of their enquiry, and provided ammunition for use against traditional learning. 4 Moreover, most commentators, following Webster's lead, have restricted their attention to Francis Bacon, and to the Baconian aspirations of subsequent reformers of knowledge in seventeenth-century England. In this paper I shall suggest that the biblical narrative of the Fall played a far more direct role in the development of early modern knowledge—both in England and on the Continent—than has often been assumed, and that competing strategies for the advancement of knowledge in the seventeenth century were closely related to different assessments of the Fall and of its impact upon the human mind. While confirmation of this claim would require a more comprehensive study than space here permits, this paper will set out a number of preliminary considerations which establish the plausibility of such a thesis, showing how the biblical narrative of the Fall directly informed the epistemological projects of the seventeenth century, and prompted various rationalist and empiricist solutions. [End Page 240]

The Mind of Adam

There was an almost universal consensus in the sixteenth...


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