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An essay donated by Harry J. Bentham

Parables involving the Theft of Knowledge

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All religions have points of agreement concerning human toil and its relationship to the divine. This essay considers some of the Biblical and Hellenic parables of human origin, specifically the origins of human knowledge and instrumentality.

Here I want to present how knowledge and instrumentality are reported to originate with an act of mischief, specifically the theft of a divine artifact. My argument is that, although the possession of knowledge may be seen as a sin to be atoned for, the kind of atonement originally promoted may have simply been for us to apply our knowledge constructively in our lives. The concept of atoning for original sin (whether it is the Biblical or Hellenic sin) can then be justified with secular arguments. Everyone can agree that we retain the capacity for knowledge, and this means our atonement for the reported theft of such knowledge would simply rest with the use of the very same tool we reportedly stole.

The story of the titan Prometheus, from ancient Greek mythology, has been interpreted and reinterpreted many times. A great deal of writers and organizations have laid claim to the symbolism of Prometheus, including in modern times. 1 I would argue that too many writers diluted and over-explored the meaning of the parable by comparing everything to it, although this is not the focus of my essay. Greek mythology is notably weak on the subject of “good and evil” because it predates the Judeo-Christian propagation of their dualism, and this means most of the characters in Greek mythology can be defended or condemned without violating Hellenic theology. Prometheus as a mythic figure could be condemned from a Christian standpoint, because he seems strikingly similar to other scriptural characters engaged in a revolt against the divine. Yet the spirit of Prometheus and his theft has also been endorsed by people and organizations, such as the transhumanists who see him as an expression of the noblest human aspirations. 2

The widely repeated version of the Prometheus story holds that Prometheus was a titan, a primordial deity who literally stole a sample of fire from Olympus and handed it down to humans. Prometheus was subsequently punished by the gods, who nailed him to a mountain and trapped him in a time-loop so that an eagle repeatedly ate his liver before it was regenerated to be eaten yet again. However, contrary to popular belief, the Prometheus parable is not mainly about the theft of fire but about the creation of the first man. According to Apollodorus’ Library dating from the First or Second Century AD:

"After he had fashioned men from water and earth, Prometheus also gave them fire, which he had hidden in a fennel stalk in secret from Zeus. But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephiastos to nail his body to Mount Caucasos (a mountain that lies in Scythia). So Prometheus was nailed to it and held fast there for a good many years; and each day, an eagle swooped down to feed on the lobes of his liver, which grew again by night. Such was the punishment suffered by Prometheus for having stolen the fire, until Heracles later released him, as we shall show in our account of Heracles." 3

Immediately, you may be eager to identify the differences between this account of humanity’s creation and the Abrahamic accounts. For example, man is created by the thief, Zeus punishes the thief rather than man (it may seem), and the punishment of the thief is not portrayed as good, because ultimately the hero Heracles is destined to set Prometheus free again. However, the similarities are striking. Mankind is believed, in this parable, to be a source of trouble for the gods because mankind’s unique power derives from the violation and theft of divine power. We also encounter the apparent responsibility of women for the release of evil, found in the parable of Pandora, noted in the Library as being described by Hesiod as a “beautiful evil.” 4 Pandora (meaning women) was inflicted on men as the punishment for their possession of fire, which directly connects the tale of Pandora with the tale of Prometheus. We may speculate that Hesiod’s Pandora story contributed misogyny in the way some have argued that the Genesis account justifies misogyny. 5 However, such misogyny would defy the notion that Pandora, unlike men, was created by the gods 6 and was not punished by them.

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It is possible that the serpent represents a Prometheus-like figure within Christianity. Christian theology holds that it was Satan, the serpent, who really leaked knowledge of good and evil to mankind and so condemned us to death. The Abrahamic God lashes out at everyone involved, holding them all to be guilty: the serpent for tricking the woman, the woman for enticing the man, the man for consuming the fruit. He does, however, seem to punish those parties somewhat proportionally to their crimes, because serpents are reduced to lesser animals, women are condemned to endure pain in childbirth, and men are condemned to earn their daily bread through lab our. Similarly, Zeus opts to punish men by inflicting women on them, read this how you will, even though man did not do anything wrong other than be created by Prometheus and accept his gifts. Note that the stories consistently explain man’s hardships as burdens to counter the divine flares of knowledge and power in human hands.

Although the Prometheus parable can be used to praise a specific stride such as enlightenment or technological advancement, the more important part of the parable today should lie in the way it actually tries to explain something fundamental to our nature as humans, separating us from animals. If we take an evolutionary standpoint, there likely was a Prometheus “incident” in our evolution, and in this sense the parable of knowledge being “stolen” is describing a very definite reality. 7 When we first exercised knowledge to help our survival, we might not yet have been human as we know it. Knowledge of fire was perhaps the first significant teaching that allowed us to fully separate ourselves from the billions of years of direct competition with the animals, moving away from interspecies competition towards inter-social competition. A secular Fall of Man theory might hold that the parable is really just a retelling of our transition from being unclothed foragers to civilised farmers, just as the Cain and Abel parable probably describes a real feud in ancient Mesopotamia between shepherds and farmers. 8 Was God’s refusal to recognise Cain’s offering merely a misconstrued report about farming going into disuse as a result of desertification?

Let us just consider some of the visual similarities between the Biblical Fall of Man and the contents of the Library, because there are some alarming ones worthy of note here. Pagan mythologies are filled with stories about magical apples as a source of eternal life. The Library describes the “Apples of the Hesperides” as being found in a nymph-occupied garden, upon a tree with a monstrous serpent guardian coiled in the branches to defend against mortal thieves. 9 Hera placed the serpent there to defend the tree, with the golden apples growing upon it being a known source of eternal life.

Human engineering ambitions seem to anger both the Biblical God and the Hellenic gods repeatedly. The Biblical God is reported to see engineering ambitions as an affront to his divine monopoly. In the Tower of Babel parable described in the Book of Genesis, mankind’s will to build a magnificent structure and enter Heaven results in our punishment by God, who confuses our languages to subvert cooperation among different nations. In the Hellenic parables of Daidalos and Icarus, efforts to extend human abilities prove to be disastrous. 10 However, these stories are not really attacking engineering, international cooperation, or knowledge and the human will to strive for perfection. They actually just represent counterattacks against human wills to invade God’s presence. What defines these affronts exactly can be subjected to interpretation, but the parables were probably written to discourage attempts to seek out a physical basis for Heaven and God when there are none to be found. While the Tower of Babel parable can be compared with the Fall of Man, it still does not contain any condemnation of humans for using their “stolen” gift of knowledge to help them in their worldly toil. Therefore, even radical transhumanists advocating artificial immortality. 2 do not violate the parables of Icarus or the Tower of Babel. In fact, it is more arguable that pseudo-researchers looking for Biblical evidence are violating the parable of the Tower of Babel by trying to bridge themselves to God by physical means.

Let us consider the possibility that the Christian theology is “anti-Promethean”, to coin a phrase. If we were to follow the teachings in Genesis literally, it might mean knowledge and the advancement of technology have to be regarded with distrust and hostility, like they are by Amish communities. The shadow of Christianity’s possible anti-Promethean bias is still arguably shown in Western politics and philosophy in the modern day. To accuse someone like synthetic biologist J. Craig Venter of “playing God,” 11 for example, is simply to accuse someone of Promethean theft, much like any claim that a specific nation is too irresponsible and brutish to handle a certain technology. The crime is essentially to become “like God” through knowledge and instrumentality, which is considered to be the very meaning of original sin in the Book of Genesis. Is science and technology, really, what original sin was about? Quite probably not. My reading of the Fall of Man parable, much like the Tower of Babel parable, is simply that the greedy pursuit of power and the arrogant pursuit of personal contact with the divine for ultimately selfish reasons of power-mongering is actually the real character of the Fall of Man. As such, great numbers of Christians may actually be committing an affront to their own God due to the false reading of a parable. Could Christians actually be motivated by the very character that caused the Fall of Man, trying to get close to God by approximating his mind and ultimately stretching their hands out towards “eternal life” with no real motivation other than their own arrogance and greed? If so, the Christian’s own worship might really be motivated by the exact same reasoning that makes Eve bite the apple.

For religious believers, I think the best theological resolution to these parables of the theft of knowledge might actually be to simply accept the theft of knowledge and the sinful character of humans as other parts of divine intention. Isolated on its own, the sin of consuming God’s knowledge described in Genesis is evil in spiritual terms, because knowledge and power in Eden were utterly unnecessary and were acquired out of greed and defiance against God. On the other hand, our knowledge and power outside of paradise are necessary and are part of divine intention because God clearly left those stolen tools in our hands. Although, in Genesis, God was displeased by the human consumption of the fruit of knowledge, he then used that very sin as the basis for the “fallen” world humans would inhabit. The logic follows that humans must toil, using the very knowledge and instrumentality they had stolen, in order to actually earn that knowledge and instrumentality and justify such gifts. Are the extension of the human life span, a future cure for cancer, and improved agriculture all divinely sanctioned, just like toiling in the fields with primitive instruments?

In secular terms, the horrors and pains of our humanity and our world are regrettable, but they can be relieved if we atone by developing solutions to those scourges and having faith that our good-willed lab our is going to pay off someday.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today

  1. Consider the recent science fiction movie, Prometheus, directed by Sir Ridley Scott: http://www.imdb.com/, retrieved 2013-FEB-18.
  2. Nick Bostrom, “A History of Transhumanist Thought”, Journal of Evolution and Technology, http://www.nickbostrom.com/, retrieved 18 February 2013
  3. Robin Hard (Translator), Apollodorus, “The Library of Greek Mythology,” (Oxford University Press) 1997, Page 36.
  4. Ibid, Page 185.
  5. Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, “Genesis and Patriarchy”, http://witcombe.sbc.edu/eve-women/4patriarchy.html, retrieved 18 February 2013
  6. Hard, op. cit. , Page 37
  7. Stanley Kubrick’s popular movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” approximates a scene with early hominids first taking up tools to defend themselves
  8. "Miscellaneous myths: The Deluge," http://www.sacred-texts.com/, retrieved 2013-FEB-18.
  9. Hard, op. cit. , Pages 81-83.
  10. Hard, op. cit. , Pages 140-141.
  11. “American scientist who created artificial life denies ‘playing god’”, The Telegraph, 21 May 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/, retrieved 2013-FEB-13

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Copyright © 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Originally posted: 2013-MAR-04
Latest update: 2013-MAR-04
Author: Harry J. Bentham

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