Who or What Were Adam and Eve?

Adam and Eve
Detail from the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo

Who or What Were Adam and Eve?

 Unless you believe that the entire universe actually came into being at the divine summons 5,781 years previous to the New Year of September, 2020, with the two parents of the human race walking upright and speaking grammatical Hebrew sentences, you have to take the story of Adam and Eve in a somewhat nonliteral way.

But what nonliteral way?

Are they mythic?  “Mythic” doesn’t quite ring the bell with me.  I haven’t made a study of myth, but Erich Auerback has.  In his book, Mimesis, he depicts each mythic figure as having a single outstanding trait: in Homer, for example, it’s the “wily” Odysseus or “the wrathful” Achilles.  In contrast, Biblical characters like King David have a medley of inconsistent traits: emotional buddy to Jonathan, ambitious competitor to King Saul, composer of immortal psalms, brave fighter, adulterer and penitent.  Auerbach’s point is that Biblical characters are much more like ourselves – like real people — than mythic heroes are.

Are Adam and Eve as real-life-seeming as the Biblical David?  Well, they aren’t as complex as he is.  More to the point, none of David’s missteps was as consequential for the whole human race as were Adam and Eve’s first wrong moves.  Just from a writerly point of view, the first couple has to have enough size and traction within themselves to make a downfall on that scale believable.

So what’s left?  Let’s see if philosophy can come up with something.  Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century political philosopher, wrote a book called Leviathan where he posits a primordial condition called “the state of nature.”  It’s a scene where everyone is at war with everyone else – a struggle for “power after power” – and no one is safe.  Once people realize that this is a nasty kind of life, they agree to stack arms and put themselves under political constraints.

Hobbes’s state of nature does not picture how things looked in pre-historic times.  It’s a theoretical construct, like a frictionless plane, to explain concrete realities.  We have politics (so the theory goes) to prevent falling back into the state of nature.

Are Adam and Eve theoretical constructs too, like Hobbes’s state of nature?  To me they seem a bit too loaded down with flesh and blood and emotional ups and downs, to be explained that way.

Does philosophy have other resources that could account for beings like Adam and Eve?  Let’s try Socratic dialectic.

What is dialectic?  It’s conversation, with oneself or another, that seeks to understand some definite topic.  The talkers try out definitions, dropping any that turn out to have contradictory implications or fail to explain all the relevant evidence.

The genius of Socratic dialectic is that each definition is presented in the shape of some character (often a known contemporary) who enters the conversation and personally exemplifies that view.  For example, Thrasymachus, a character in Plato’s Republic, embodies the view that “justice” is just a euphemism for power relations.  Thrasymachus is himself a bully and sincerely believes that everyone else would act as badly if they dared.  Socrates counters by distinguishing two kinds of power: functional power – the power to heal or invent or logically deduce – versus mere brute power, the power of the bully.

Are Adam and Eve like characters in a philosophic dialectic?  One does meet characters like Thrasymachus in real life.  He’s not just a theoretical construct.  He and people like him act out their beliefs.  Yet if you understand their thinking, they are also somewhat predictable.

It’s close, but it’s not quite the answer to our question.  Adam and Eve just feel to me too subjectively vivid – too who me? –to work like embodied definitions in a dialectic chain of reasoning.  I can feel their neck veins throbbing, which I can’t feel with Thrasymachus.

Okay, one last try.  Are Adam and Eve the creations of a talented writer of fiction, like say Charlotte Bronte’s character, Jane Eyre?  Well again, close but not quite.  The plane on which Jane Eyre plays out her moves is fascinating, but it doesn’t have the traction – the sound of gears moving under the life of us all – that the moves of Adam and Eve have.

We seem to have run through – and crossed off — all the possibilities: literal history, myth, theoretical postulates, dialectical place-holders, characters in a great work of fiction.  What then?  Who and what in the world are Adam and Eve?  If we move them off the plane of platitudes and internalize their experience,

why do they feel momentous?

Figures in a dialectic embody ideas and stand for stages in the human search for understanding.

Adam and Even embody moments in our spiritual reality.  They are human beings confronted, like ourselves, with essential human choices within what you might call spiritual space:

Of ourselves —

they are the intensifications.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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