Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Existential Fall of Man

In Feodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground the protagonist argues that man will on occasion act in a manner that seems for all practical purposes against his best interests. Scientists, he says, will try to dismiss this behavior as committed out of ignorance. However, the underground man claims, “man may purposely, consciously, desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid—simply in order to have that right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire what is rational” (45). In other words, man may act contrary to all reason for the sole advantage of not being subject to reason. In this way, man may demonstrate to himself that he is free and his choices, however wise or unwise they may be, are the product of his will and nothing else.

The most prominent example I can think of for the rationality of irrationality comes from the book of Genesis. God made only one request of Adam: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2.27). Such a warning from such a being should be sufficient evidence for Adam and Eve to know that eating the fruit is not in their best interest. However, as we all know, Adam and Eve disregard this warning and succumb to temptation.

God provided everything for Adam and Eve; yet instead of being content with this, they knowingly ate of the forbidden fruit. For this reason, I argue that the fall of man is to some extent the direct the consequence of his desire, not to do what is rationally advantageous, but to demonstrate his freedom of will.

In this sense it seems that part of the knowledge of the fruit of good and evil bestowed upon Adam and Eve was, if only indirectly, the conformation of their own free will. Through their blatant disobedience to God’s will they are demonstrating their own. Thus, man’s fall from grace of his own accord seems completely in tune with the underground man’s supposition that “one’s own free unfettered choice” is valued as the “most advantageous advantage” (43).

It is true that the serpent is partially to blame for Adam and Eve’s transgression. However, because God punishes Adam and Eve as well as the serpent, and because God is just, we can assume Adam and Eve are accountable to some degree. They are accountable because, as they learned the hard way, they have the free will to make their own decisions and suffer their own consequences.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is an interesting reading of the story. The traditional interpretation has been that God did in fact give Adam and Eve the command in order to provide free will. Without the possibility of disobedience, humans cannot be truly free to make moral choices. God, like Dostoevsky (or should that be the other way around?) saw human free will and the moral choices resulting from that as being worth the consequences of sin and death.

    I think this reading fits in well with the traditional assignment of the first sin as being pride. Pride could indeed have been manifested this way, as a human exerting his or her free will not in service to God, but against God in sheer desire to exert it.


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