Monday, August 20, 2007

Reflections: Life in the Material World

[N.B.: if you would like to read this essay on dualism from the beginning, scroll down to the August 13th post, "Reflections: Heresy?"]

Why was the Serpent’s proposal to Eve so effective? Why was the satisfaction of every physical need, combined with complete ease and security, not enough for our human parents? In Chapter XXXIII of his Republic, Plato provides a possible answer:

"…As hunger and thirst are states of bodily inanition, which can be replenished by food, so ignorance and unwisdom in the soul are an emptiness to be filled by gaining understanding. Of the two sorts of nourishment, will not the more real yield the truer satisfaction?
Which kind of nourishment, then, has the higher claim to pure reality – food-stuffs like bread and meat and drink, or such things as true belief, knowledge, reason, and in a word all the excellences of the mind? You may decide by asking yourself whether something which is closely connected with the unchanging and immortal world of truth and itself shares that nature together with the thing in which it exists, has more or less reality than something which, like the thing which contains it, belongs to a world of mortality and perpetual change.
No doubt it is much more real."

Prior to eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were essentially nothing more than a pair of beautiful pets; they were not fully human, as we understand human. It would seem that, according to orthodoxy, the price of full self-consciousness and of our moral free agency, and therefore of our full humanity, is living with the perpetual burden of Original Sin.

Orthodoxy states that the sin of Adam and Eve is responsible for bringing death into the world, but the text of Genesis does not fully support that doctrine. It is made clear, for one thing, that Adam and Eve will be eating, and to eat is necessarily to kill that which is eaten. To the contention that Adam and Eve were immortal prior to the attainment of self-consciousness are opposed verses 22 and 23 of the third chapter of Genesis:

[22] And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
[23] Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

Clearly, it was for the very purpose of keeping Adam and Eve from acquiring immortality, along with wisdom, that they were expelled from Eden. So, the Serpent did not exactly lie when he told Eve that she would not die as a direct consequence of eating that apple. And the Serpent also spoke the truth when he said that Adam and Eve would become godlike by eating it, as God himself affirms. Plausibly, then, everything that orthodoxy attests to be the fallen state of nature is, in reality, a necessary condition of material existence. The material world is not the highest Good under heaven; but neither is it Fallen because of a human act. It is as it must be, in order to have material existence. It becomes, therefore, the human project to transcend our material nature and strive to become holy, like God. This is what Jesus commands us to do: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” [Matt. 5: 48]

So, what is the nature of the Serpent? Is this the first appearance of Satan, the principle of pure evil, in the Bible? Interestingly, the book of Genesis does not characterize the Serpent as “evil,” but merely as “subtle.” It is clear that the agenda of the Serpent is to coax the humans into an act of defiance against the rule put in place by the Creator. But we have seen that the consequences of this act of disobedience are not shown to be unequivocally bad as they might be interpreted, for instance, by the philosophy of Plato.

The Serpent is sometimes portrayed in a positive light in world mythology, and sometimes as an embodiment of evil. Some snakes are, after all, poisonous. But others are a boon to man in controlling the numbers of vermin. The Serpent is sometimes, as in Genesis, seen as wise, and is sometimes equated with Satan:

"Although in the minority, there are at least a couple of passages in the New Testament that do not present the snake with negative connotation. When sending out the twelve apostles, Jesus exhorted them 'Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.'Matthew 10:16)."


"In the Gospel of Matthew 3:7, John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Saducees visiting him a "brood of vipers". Later in Matthew 23:33, Jesus himself uses this imagery, observing: 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?' ("Hell" is the usual translation of Jesus' word Gehenna.)"

And these are some of the reasons why the various degrees of dualism found in Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and the teachings and philosophies of some of the many mystics and sages are of interest to me.