Don't settle for comfortable and familiar thoughts, reach for what you don't know, says Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt.
The story of Adam and Eve and their eviction from paradise is one of the most famous origin stories on Earth, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But, it's full of holes. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt illuminates some of these: for example, how could the first humans, who had no prior concept of death, understand God's ultimatum—eat the forbidden fruit and you will die. And when they did eat the fruit, why didn't they die? The same questions have puzzled scholars for millennia, but it doesn't stop massive numbers of people all over the world believing it in a literal sense. This doesn't strike Greenblatt as stupid, or naive, or even surprising, it only strikes him as human. We have always needed the power of narrative to orient ourselves in the world, and the tale of Adam and Eve is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of good and evil on record. To understand why this story exists is to understand something fundamental about human nature, and to pick at the holes in its logic to think deeply. "Often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging," he says. Stephen Greenblatt's latest book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.
Storied skills and a musical analogy might help us update the logic of "virtue ethics." In life, as in jazz, freedom without skills results in a lot foolish noise.
2. Each culture’s “storytelling resources… are of great political and moral importance,” says Alasdair MacIntyre (they’re a “chief means of moral education”; morals = co-living norms; politics = public morality).
3. The “moral of” a story retains an older sense of “practical lesson” taught, from Latin moralis, translating Greek ethikos, “pertaining to character” (neither language had “a word correctly translated by our word moral”).
4. Prior character-forming stories (e.g., from religions or philosophies) face newer story-making agendas e.g., lifestyle vendors, or art-serving and self-serving artists (sometimes oblivious to art’s life-structuring effects).
5. Shifting story-practices caused “something like a mutation in human nature” ~400 years ago. Lionel Trilling says that‘s how once socio-centric, role-and-relationship driven Westerners “became individuals."
6. Harold Bloom amplifies Trilling (over-dramatically)—“Shakespeare… invented the human” (characters narrating inner lives in “modern” ways).
8. Philosophy once explicitly shaped novels. D. H. Lawrence called Plato’s Dialogues “queer little novels,” lamenting that “philosophy and fiction got split.” Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein notes that Middlemarch and Moby-Dick were, like her novels, philosophy-fueled. Likewise for Atlas Shrugged (once reportedly 2nd in influence to the Bible).
9. However unfashionable it seems to some artists (e.g., Nabokov didn’t “give a damn about public morals”), stories and art embody and enact moralities, philosophies, and psychologies (often folk not formal, naive not schooled, often tacitly/unwittingly).
10. But “the only art that escapes social, or ethical, or political effects is art with no audience. Part of what art does is preach… intentionally or not.” Its glorying power often focuses now on what’s prestigious or fun in art (but can be ruinous in life).
12. Text-centric “Gutenberg minds” are waning. Ambient ads spread consumerism’s glamorizing how-to-live stories ad-nauseum (with “hidden brain” learning effects). Video game patterns separate players “from their humanity” (Ian Bogost).
14. MacIntyre prefers life-structuring stories leveraging Aristotelian virtues—seeking rationally educated desires, above non-rational appetites/emotions (see, feelings = fast thinking, + Plato’s Pastry).
15. MacIntyre’s “virtue ethics” needs an updated vocabulary. Virtues are logical life skills, and virtue ethics teaches practical ways to avoid low-skill living (some need “adulting school,” or The Marines to teach successful adult" skills—JD. Vance).
16. A musical analogy might resonate—in life, as in jazz, freedom without skills, is just foolish noise. How could unskilled freedom be desirable?
Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.