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The Life of the Mind

Members of the Nexus Institute can log in to read the full essay. A Dutch translation of this essay is published in Nexus 58,  ‘Lofzangen’.

The enigma of Genesis 2, 16-17 remains intractable. Why should knowledge of good and evil – fundamental to human maturity, indispensable to morality – be prohibited ? Why should this interdiction be imposed on Adam prior to the creation of Eve? Are there organic relations between sexual innocence and knowledge itself ? How is homo to ripen into homo sapiens without tasting of the forbidden fruit ? The serpent promises that knowledge will make human beings equal to the gods (the Hebrew here is plural). God concurs with the ‘subtlest’ of all animals. Disobedient man ‘is become as one of us’ (again that plural with its hint of archaic, persistent polytheism). If this is so, immortality lies in man’s reach. Hence his rapid expulsion from Eden and his fall into both history and death.

The Hebrew for ‘God’ can indeed be grammatically plural. Thus the ambiguities deepen. There may be links to Mesopotamian myths. In Gilgamesh the temptress hails Enkidu: ‘you are wise, you are like a god.’ At the price of death the Sirens promise the passing mariner knowledge of all that has been, is and shall be. The motif of the Tower of Babel incorporates that of technological science as a competitive challenge to the divine. We will return to the matter of Prometheus who threatens the monopoly of Zeus in regard to constructive wisdom and the secular powers which it provides. There is scarcely a mythology lacking symbolic, narrative correlations between the acquisition of knowledge, the alchemical thrust of the human intellect and fatality. A thousandfold before Faust.

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