1. The Fall
There is much that is strange, but nothing that surpasses man in strangeness. -Antigone, line 332
My first visit to the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Italy was a disappointment as the Masaccio frescos were in restauro. On the second visit in the late 80's the restoration was complete and I was able to see the famous frescos. They are wonderful, but I must admit Adam's genitals were a bit of a shock. I gained some understanding why Cosimo de Medici had ordered the leaves. On the other hand, I had never liked Adam's right leg and foot and the restoration did not help at all.
The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio. The fresco is a single scene from the cycle painted around 1422 by Masaccio, Masolino and others on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.
Three centuries after the fresco was painted, Cosimo III de' Medici ordered that leaves be added to conceal the genitals of the figures. The leaves were eventually removed in the 1980s when the painting was fully restored and cleaned. -Wiki
Many Christians take the Book of Genesis as historical and point to the fall, man's disobedience to God's command, as the cause of our troubles. I take a different approach and abide in the camp of Alan Bloom. Bloom thinks the main author was a woman called J. Nobody knows who J, as the author has come to be called, was, and many believe there were several J's; but Bloom, while agreeing that different authors were involved in the first five books of the Bible, is sure there was only one J, whom he takes to have been a brilliant writer living in Jerusalem about 3,000 years ago, during the reign of Rehoboam. This J venerated David and contributed to the cultural splendors of Solomon's court. In this view, the story of the garden and the fall is poetic, not historical, and thus derived from human experiences. To wit.
As early humans looked up and wondered about the stars above them they also wondered about themselves. We don't look like other animals, we walk upright and have little body hair. Moreover, most of our hair is on our heads and, unlike most other animals, it keep growing longer and longer. If left alone, hair would grow down over our faces forming a curtain, how strange. We also have a plethora of hair about our genitals, how strange. Our strangeness is obvious to other animals. Just yesterday, I noticed a new calf in the pasture behind the house and drove out in the golf cart to check on it. The two or three day old calf was lying down and watched with interest as I approached. Only when I stepped out of the cart did she become alarmed and move away. Animals seem to know instinctively that something strange and perhaps dangerous is approaching. Even though the birds around the house watch us place seeds in the feeder, they still fly off several yards when we approach the feeder. However, they pay little attention to the presence of the cat. The same cat that often attempts, sometimes successfully, to catch and kill one of their kind.
Adam and Eve ate the apple became conscious and realized their shame, their strangeness. When caught, guilt and regret were added to shame, as Masaccio shows. Guilt, shame, and regret are not the same things, but are certainly related emotions. In their defense, the creator certainly knew they would eat the apple.
The fall has also been called the magnificent fall for although we lost our innocence we gained a higher level of consciousness. Without the fall, I guess the two of them would have lounged about the garden picking fruit, other than apples, until they died of old age. However, had they eaten from tree of life, there would have been a much different narrative.
In the Greek version of the origin of consciousness Prometheus ("forethought") defies the gods and gives the divine fire to humans, an act that enabled technical progress, civilization, and a great deal of belly button gazing. For this Prometheus, not the humans, was punished for the gift. In the biblical story, humans were driven out and the serpent was cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dust forever. Serpents still crawl about on their belly, but Hercules eventually killed the eagle tormenting Prometheus and freed him from his bonds. Better to be the bad guy in Greece rather than Israel. Now the next question: When Adam and Eve had their eye opened, exactly how were they changed?
And he has found his way
to the resonance of the word,
and to wind-swift all-understanding, and to the courage to rule over cities. - Antigone
An illness renders infant Helen Keller blind, deaf, and consequently mute. Pitied and badly spoiled by her parents, Helen is taught no discipline and, by the age of six, grows into a wild, angry, tantrum-throwing child in control of the household. Desperate, the Kellers hire Anne Sullivan to serve as governess and teacher for their daughter. After several fierce battles with Helen, Anne convinces the Kellers that she needs two weeks alone with Helen in order to achieve any progress in the girl's education. Annie teaches Helen discipline through persistence and consistency and language through hand signals, but the girls is little more than a trained animal until there is breakthrough that changes Helen's life and has a direct effect on the lives of everyone in the family.
In the play and the movie "The Miracle Worker" the breakthrough comes when the child connects the sensation of water on her hand to the one word she remembers before her illness, "water". At that moment she connects words to the sign language she had learned by rote and the miracle occurs - the world is suddenly alive. She had found her way to the resonance of the word.
Consciousness and language go hand and hand, then what comes next?
After man was given the divine fire he had to use it: application. We moved from a hunter gatherer stage, to the settled society stage with complex social arrangements and advanced technology.
And he has found his way
to the resonance of the word,
and to wind-swift all-understanding, and to the courage to rule over cities. Clever indeed, mastering
the ways of skill (techne) beyond all hope,
he sometimes accomplishes evil,
sometimes achieves brave deeds.
He wends his way between the laws of the earth
and the adjured justice of the gods.
Rising high above his place,
he who for the sake of adventure takes the nonessent for essent loses his place in the end. -Antigone
Man establishes societies, cities, empires, and civilizations, but Sophocles informs us that societies not built with wisdom do not last. Those who take the nonessent for the essent (ie the right way from the wrong way) lose their place, their house crumbles, Götterdämmerung. How should we proceed?
Protagoras of Abdera was a fifth century Sophist known for his claim that man is the measure of all things. He could be called the father of humanism, that outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanists beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. Humanist now dominate the liberal arts faculty in most colleges and universities in both America and western Europe.
Sophocles took the opposite tack, he found man the thing measured and coming up short. In the Theban cycle the dilemma that Oedipus faces is similar to that of Creon: each man in his hubris fails to show reverence for religious traditions (see below). Both lacked reverence and lose their place in the end.
True reverence is for things beyond human
control and the principal object of
reverence is to something that reminds us of human limitation, that mankind
cannot acquire absolute truth and that human life is finite. Reverence recognizes a higher truth that transcends the scope of humankind. So, where do we find the way, where do we find wisdom? For that we turn to the Book of Job, Plato, a modern writer, and to the Christian tradition.
|28:20 Whence then cometh wisdom? and where is the place of understanding? 28:21 Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air. 28:22 Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears. 28:23 God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof. 28:24 For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven; 28:25 To make the weight for the winds; and he weigheth the waters by measure. 28:26 When he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning of the thunder: 28:27 Then did he see it, and declare it; he prepared it, yea, and searched it out. 28:28 And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding. - Book of Job|
Plato in his Protagoras makes a distinction between creative power (techne) which is presented as superior to merely natural instincts (physis). For Plato, only the virtues of "reverence and justice can provide for the maintenance of a civilized society -- and these virtues are the highest gift finally bestowed on men in equal measure."
Paul Woodruff in his book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, assesses our understanding of the emotion reverence. He thinks reverence is missing from both modern society and in our discussions of the ancient cultures, especially Greece that prized it. His definition of Reverence is: "The well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have" (Woodruff, p. 8) That is, respect for other people, shame is over one's own shortcomings, and awe towards the transcendent. Although Woodruff acknowledges the relationship between reverence and religion he argues that, "Reverence has more to do with politics than with religion" (Woodruff, p. 4). Woodruff tries to separate a misunderstanding that reverent emotions can only be related to religion. Reverence reminds us of our limitations; that human life is finite and that we recognize we cannot acquire absolute truth. Woodruff describes how reverence is often activated through music. He states the reverence cannot be expressed in a creed; its most apt expression is in music. He gives the analogy of a quartet playing a piece by Mozart. They embody reverence because: (1) The musicians have been engaged harmoniously on a group project; (2) their project involved ceremony; (3) they have felt themselves largely without ego; (4) they have felt themselves to be part of a clearly defined hierarchy that was painless for all of them; and (5) they have achieved in the end a shared feeling of inarticulate awe. Thus art speaks the language of reverence better than philosophy does. Reverence is not dependent on religion, but true religious experience is dependent on the emotion reverence. For example in ancient Athens the people celebrated reverence in the belief that it is reverence above all that maintains social order and harmony. For the Greeks reverence was rooted in a religion that they lived every day. This foundation was critical because it motivated the people to act rightly, to be humble, and to support society. Thus reverence focuses on an ideal that transcends the scope of humankind. This ideal can vary from God, to unity, to anything else that transcends human capacity. You must share a culture with others, and this must support a degree of ceremony. A reverent person listens to other people even when they are defective, as that is part of remembering that you are human together with them. Hubris is best understood simply as the opposite of reverence, in action or attitude. In the play Antigone, Creon displays hubris by refusing to bury his dead nephew and this leads to tragedy. In both plays (Oedipus Rex and Antigone) Oedipus and Creon interrupt religious ceremonies being conducted by women. However, in Oedipus at Colonus, because Oedipus trespassed on the holy ground of the Eumenides, the villagers tell him that he must perform certain rites to appease them. Ismene volunteers to go perform them for him and departs, while Antigone remained with Oedipus. In this case Oedipus shows reverence for ritual and ceremony and is forgiven, perhaps, for his past transgressions.
This piece began with an image of Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden and ends with another image. The Return of the Prodigal Son, painted by Rembrandt two years before is death in 1669, depicts the moment of the prodigal son's return to his father in the Biblical parable. I saw the magnificent painting in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg years ago and I can not disagree with the art historian Kenneth Clark who said it may be the greatest picture ever painted.