I consider the myth of the Garden of Eden – in which I include Cain and Abel – the most important story in Western culture. Adam and Eve, and their sons Cain and Abel, explain the relationships between self-consciousness, pride, shame, impotence, humiliation, envy, hate, revenge, violence, murder and evil.
Adam and Eve become self-conscious after eating of the Tree of Knowledge and Good and Evil. With self-consciousness comes shame because they are naked, demonstrating that without self-consciousness – and therefore consciousness of the opinions of others – there can be no shame.
There is, tellingly, no guilt, illustrating the fact that in very young children shame comes before guilt. It wasn’t until Christianity that the myth of the Garden of Eden was interpreted as Adam and Even being guilty before God.
When Adam and Eve are confronted by God, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. Each denies responsibility for their actions and blames it on someone else. This is what gets them kicked out of the Garden and brings evil into the world.
The word for what Adam and Eve did is “scapegoating,” and as the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck pointed out, “Scapegoating is the genesis of human evil.” He’s correct. Blaming your problems on other people – projection – is what leads to murder, including the mass murder known as war.
The serpent is a symbol of envy, which means he is also a symbol of hate. He wants to bring down Adam and Eve because they are the most favored of God and he is not. He felt impotent, powerless and humiliated. He wanted revenge.
Humiliated people, because of their envy and hate, want to drag others down, so they will feel as they do. The serpent blamed his problems on Adam and Eve, just as Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. ,p> The serpent, which is not necessarily a snake, is known as a “nachash,” which means to hiss or whisper like a snake. I am reminded of Kaa the snake in the movie version of The Jungle Books, who sings to his victims, “Trust in me…”
The envious never admit their envy, it being too painful. So they are subtle in their attempts to bring others down, as the serpent was “the most subtle.” The movie Amadeus is a perfect example of this subtlety, as is Iago in Othello.
Most of our understanding of the serpent probably comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which he identified the serpent as Satan and said his main problem was Pride, or what the ancient Greeks called Hubris.
When a person’s pride is severely damaged, they feel humiliated, and so want revenge, which is a misguided attempted to replace feelings of humiliation with feelings of pride, by making their “oppressors” feel what they felt. As the psychiatrist James Gilligan has noticed, all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, no matter how misguided the attempt.
When people are humiliated by having violence done to them, they want revenge by doing violence to their oppressors: I will make you feel as I feel; I will drag you down to my level.
An example of this humiliation – and how it led to war – is the aftermath of World War I. Germany was no more guilty than England or France or the United States. They just happened to lose the war.
Instead of being forgiven, the Treaty of Versailles crushed and humiliated Germany. In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote consistently about Germany’s “shame” and “humiliation” because of the treaty, and whom he blamed it on and what he was going to do about the problem. No one listened.
He came to power, which led to World War II. This is what the Greeks called Hubris followed by Nemesis: arrogance, moral blindness and violence fated to be followed by retribution and revenge.
Hubris originally meant to brutally humiliate someone in public, and the Greeks banned it from the theater as obscene. So then, those afflicted with the arrogance, moral blindness and wanton violence of hubris always brutally humiliate people and so bring revenge onto their selves. To use a modern term: “blowback.” Or to use a common expression: “What goes around comes around.”
The arrogance and moral blindness of the Allies led the to brutal humiliation of Germany, so Hitler restored Germany’s dignity and self-respect…and tens of millions died in World War II. “Pride goes before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction.”
I believe the story of Adam and Eve makes more sense if you consider them to be about four years old. Young children have no shame, which is why they will run around naked. And when they do show shame, it comes long before guilt.
The “good” and “evil” that Adam and Eve know is a narcissistic, all-good or all-bad, infantile kind of evil: I am good; you are bad. No one is purely good or purely evil; there are always shades of gray.
I call this belief in all-good and all-bad the Fairy Tale of Pure Good and Pure Evil. It is the basis of all propaganda and also of all war. In it you project all your problems onto those you scapegoat and believe if you eradicate them your problems will depart this earth.
While individuals can be intelligent, groups never are. Groups have no brains and operate strictly on infantile emotion. I believe this is illustrated by the fact that the word “Adam” means “man” and while it does refer to any individual man, it also refers to the human race in general, i.e., groups of people.
While there is no murder in the story of Adam and Eve, murder is introduced with their sons, Cain and Abel. Cain is humiliated, angry, envious, and reduced to impotence because God rejected his sacrifice and accepted Abel’s. “Unto Abel the Lord had respect…unto Cain he had not respect.”
Thus murder was brought into the world, because of the attempt to achieve “justice,” because of scapegoating, because of envy and hate and humiliation and impotence.
The Greeks advised, “Nothing in excess.” I believe they are right. Normal pride (which is mostly a feeling of competence) is a good thing. Excessive pride is hubris. The ability to feel normal shame (and guilt) is a good thing. Too much shame and it turns into humiliation. Too much guilt is also pathological, as is demonstrated in the novel, The Scarlet Letter.
To correctly assess your strengths and weaknesses is what the Greeks called “sophrosyne.” The modern word “humility” comes close but doesn’t catch the whole favor. Sometimes being “humble” is just a front for being arrogant.
Those who are truly humble are well aware of what hubris and nemesis are, and how even they can be prone to it. They understand the truth of the saying, “Power is the horse that evil rides,” and “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and “Power intoxicates and immunity corrupts.”
The problem with the human race is not only that it’s flawed, but many people are nearly asleep: they believe their hubris is a good thing (all tyrants call themselves benefactors) but are astonished when it’s followed by nemesis.