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Why Mythological Stories Are Tools for Deep Thinking: The Power of Adam and Eve

The story of Adam and Eve and their eviction from paradise is one of the most famous origin stories on Earth, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But, it’s full of holes. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt illuminates some of these: for example, how could the first humans, who had no prior concept of death, understand God’s ultimatum—eat the forbidden fruit and you will die. And when they did eat the fruit, why didn’t they die? The same questions have puzzled scholars for millennia, but it doesn’t stop massive numbers of people all over the world believing it in a literal sense. This doesn’t strike Greenblatt as stupid, or naive, or even surprising, it only strikes him as human. We have always needed the power of narrative to orient ourselves in the world, and the tale of Adam and Eve is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of good and evil on record. To understand why this story exists is to understand something fundamental about human nature, and to pick at the holes in its logic to think deeply. “Often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging,” he says. Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.

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Transcript: I think the first thing to say about the story of Adam and Eve is it’s one of innumerable origin stories. It happens to be the most celebrated, the most famous and powerful origin story in our culture, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, but it’s only one of many, many origin stories. It seems to be something that our species does; and as far as we know other species don’t do it. I don’t think that chimpanzees ask questions about the origin of chimpanzees, or bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales, but we do ask, “Where did we come from? What were the first ones of our species?” And this appears to be a universal phenomenon in culture, to ask about origins. So this is a crucially significant version of the kind of story that is generated. And we might ask, “Why? Why do we want to know? Why don’t other creatures want to know?”

Well, I think there are a number of different explanations—one is our insatiable curiosity, including something like scientific curiosity. Another is our uneasiness, perhaps, about ourselves and the course of our existence: Why is it so hard? Why do we have to labor? Why do we weeds grow in the fields and we have to clear them out in order to get food from the ground? Why can’t we just get everything we need naturally? Why do women scream in pain when they give birth to offspring—a totally natural event that is part of the replication of the species? Why are men so miserable to women, and why do they put up with it? And, maybe above all, why do we die?
So the story addresses these in an incredibly powerful though difficult way, but in very, very tight compass it addresses those questions and more in a way that human beings appear to want and need, as a way of orienting themselves in the world, as a way of understanding their fate.

The fact that the first humans are in a garden where they’re told that they can eat of any tree that they want—they’re vegetarians—and they can eat of any tree in the garden except for one, which they are prohibited from eating. And it happens that the one tree that they’re prohibited from eating is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it was noticed a very long time ago, say several thousand years ago, that it’s a problem to be prohibited from eating of the tree that will enable you to distinguish between good and evil, since distinguishing between good and evil is presumably what enables you to observe the prohibition in the first place!
So that problem bothered people right away, or at least maybe not right away but at least 2,000 years ago. And then we have various other problems: they’re warned that they will die if they violate the prohibition. He doesn’t explain, unfortunately, what that means, and since there had been—as far as we know—no death in the world up to that point, it must have been rather perplexing. I sometimes think of Adam hearing this for the first time and thinking, “I don’t really know what he means, but next time I talk to him I’ll ask him, what do you mean by “die”?” But in any case we don’t get any explanation given to the first humans as to what it is they’re being told to beware of.

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