The Knowledge of Good and Evil

The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is fascinating on many counts. Fascinating in itself, and also fascinating in the way the story has been used. Christians have mostly read it through the lens of Paul who uses the story to tell us that when Adam sinned by disobeying God, in some mysterious away all human beings were included in a “species solidarity.” Paul also uses the story to tell us why women are inferior to men: the woman sinned first. Poor Eve fairs badly. In Paul’s first interpretation, she is ignored: it is the man who sinned and in Christ it is the man who redeems. In his second interpretation it is the woman’s fault. Paul’s motifs of woman as “ignored because inconsequential” or as “foolish temptress” have shaped western views of women.

Yet, as I read the story of the garden, I tried to look at it without benefit of Paul’s midrash. This is difficult to do, but I tried.

Here is a picture of innocent humanity who do not as yet have the knowledge of good and evil. Nakedness without shame is a sign of that. In the story, when knowledge comes, its first insight is to understand that nakedness is something of which to be ashamed. Fig leaf loincloths are the first essential fashion item! The linking of nakedness, shame and the need to cover up has given us a very conflicted and distorted view of the human body in western culture. Whether the myth explains our unease with our bodies, or whether it created the unease I do not know.

Why is the knowledge of good and evil such a problem?

For me this is quite personal. As a professional ethicist “the knowledge of good and evil” is my daily work. I spend my time making distinctions, trying to understand, working through problems of human life. So, here is my attempt at a response to the story.

The knowledge of good and evil is the ability to make distinctions between what is good and bad, right and wrong. Childhood innocence makes no such distinctions. It is the prerational world of innocent play under the watchful eye of kind parental protection. Yet, innocence lasts only a short time and soon parents give lessons in the knowledge of good and evil: “Don’t touch that; it’s hot and will burn you.” “Share that toy with your sister; selfishness is bad.” “Eat your carrots; don’t eat that worm.” By and large, this parental socialization (primary we tend to call it) is considered a good thing. It helps the little developing human make distinctions between help and harm; it is the beginnings of the moral life—what we ought and ought not to do to live a decent life.

Yet, in the story this knowledge is a bad thing. It is suitable for God but not for mortals. For human beings, this knowledge is death not life. In a sense, we know this. The business of living is fraught with difficulties and dangers. Nothing is simple. There are no easy or clear answers. The black and white world of childhood is taken over by unending shades of grey.

A few years ago, I had a young woman student talk to me after class. In my introduction to ethics class, I spend the first few weeks deconstructing the simplicities students bring to college. I sometimes feel bad, as I strip them of any last vestiges of childhood innocence—break down, in order to build up. The student looked very plaintive and said, “Professor, I have enjoyed the class so far, but when are you going to tell us the right answer?” “You will have to work this out for yourself,” I replied.

Like my student, the story of the garden contains a longing for lost innocence. Take away all this complexity! Make it simple; make it easy! If only we were back before we knew this stuff!

To change the myth: the genie is out of the bottle. It can’t be put back.

Yet, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is good for food, it is a delight to the eyes, it does make one wise. Mother Eve knew that much. We now live in the tension between the delightful goodness of wisdom (sophia, eros perhaps) and death (thanatos). There is no going back. Enjoy the ride!

+ Ab. Andy