October 14, 2017
I was a little surprised by this book. I expected a discussion of the story of Adam and Eve, its historical interpretations, and the significance it still has on western thinking about our origins and our morality. And there is that, although Greenblatt discusses the hold that aspects of the story — original sin, the relationship between men and women, the dangers of pride, etc. — still have on western culture and morals less than I anticipated.
What turned out to be more interesting was Greenblatt’s treatment of the story as an historical idea, especially its uneasy status between mythology and literal fact with the faiths that adhere to it.
Greenblatt starts with historical context. I learned a lot here. The story as told in the Torah dates to the 5th century BCE. The Enuma Elish, from as early as the 18th century BCE, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, going back as far as 2100 BCE, not only predate Adam and Eve in some respects, they also provide a base to which the story responds.
For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the Sumerian creation story), man, once created, truly becomes man by joining the city of Uruk. Enikidu, the first man, becomes human by leaving the garden and joining the city — only by doing so does he become other than another wild animal.
Somewhat similarly, in the Enuma Elish, the role of the city is emphasized as Marduk, the creator, approves the creation of the city of Babylon.
By contrast, the story of Eden turns the relation between the garden and the city on its head — it is in the garden that Adam and Eve are their purist selves. It is only in their fallen state that they leave the garden, with their son, Cain eventually founding the city of Enoch. And of course, God punishes the city of Babylon with a proliferation of mutually unintelligible languages.
There are other apparently deliberate positions or decisions taken by the story of Adam and Eve that respond to cultural and historical context — an insistence on strict obedience to God, pridefulness as sin, a hierarchical relationship between man and woman, the moral prominence of shame, and the status of labor as a punishment (although it does appear that Adam and Eve may have tilled the soil of Eden).
Greenblatt discusses some of these aspects in depth, in historical interpretations given to them. He provides extended discussions of Augustine’s notion of “original sin” and of the historical treatment of Eve as primarily responsible for the fall.
But it is his discussion of attempts at literal interpretation of the story that most engaged my interest, especially as attempted by Augustine and Milton, and aided by the artists of the Renaissance.
There appears always to have been a spirit of interpretation of the story, and of Genesis in general, as allegorical or mythological, rather than literally true. But the pressure to strengthen the faith of believers such as Augustine and Milton produced successive attempts to articulate and defend the story as literally true. And these attempts figure critically in an historical decline in the significance of the story.
Greenblatt believes that the story of Adam and Eve may be a victim of its own success — that is, it became vulnerable as it became believed in that literal sense. Through the efforts of Augustine, the artists of the Renaissance, and Milton, the story was pushed toward a modern kind of realism — literal factuality. Greenblatt writes, “The collective success of all of these efforts by believers — the triumphant fulfillment of the old Augustinian dream of a literal interpretation — had an unintended and devastating consequence: the story began to die.”
It became subject to the same kinds of questioning that any factual account is subject. What evidence stands for or against its truth? What about the internal consistency of the story?
Then, in this context, skepticism could grow roots. Where did Cain’s wife come from, if Adam and Eve bore only two children, he and Abel? Where did the inhabitants of the city that Cain founded come from? How could Adam have named all the animals of the world in half a day? What should we make of the newly discovered peoples of the New World, who apparently did not participate in the shame of nakedness that was the consequence for all humans of Adam and Eve’s transgression? What of the apparent age of the world as implied by ancient documents of Greece and the Aztec artifacts discovered in the New World?
I suspect that Greenblatt is tracing also an increasing split in general between the mythical and the factual, a distinction that if not peculiar to the post-Enlightenment world, is at least more sharply drawn from that point forward. Those questions were always available to any literal interpretation of Genesis, but they were not asked in the same spirit in which they required reduction to fact. Pre-Enlightenment, Augustine had certainly wondered about some of those same questions, and about the very idea of a talking snake, a magical tree, etc., but he took belief and faith as a challenge to be met. His literal interpretation of the story seems an aggressive expression of faith, rather than, in a later post-Enlightenment spirit, a sorting out of the facts.
Greenblatt is clear that he thinks something is lost with the demise of the story’s standing, and I found his position at least somewhat persuasive. The story of Adam and Eve gave us a framework, if not always answers (or acceptable answers), to questions about freedom, knowledge, choice, innocence and guilt, responsibility, and much more. By contrast, the modern story of our descent from extinct hominins leaves those things largely untouched.
Some do draw social Darwinism from the ironically mythologized version of evolution — “survival of the fittest” in Herbert Spencer’s words. Others look for the origin of human morality in our ancestors and closest relatives, the apes. But the former is cynical, reminiscent of Thrasymachus’s ill-fated version of justice in Plato’s Republic — “the advantage of the stronger”. And the latter is, at best, unfinished business and seemingly a very messy story from which to draw guidance for moral thought.
It’s one thing to talk in generalities of an age of realism and fact. It’s another to show in some detail the evolution of one core component of western culture toward that age. By doing so, Greenblatt enables us to see, for better and for worse, how the role the story of Adam and Eve plays for us has changed.