Biblical Series V: Cain and Abel: The Hostile Brothers by Dr. Jordan Peterson
I’m going to read you something. I get a lot of mail. I don’t know where I got this. I’ve been a lot of different places in the last week, and this showed up at one of them. I’m going to read it to you. I have no idea what to make of it.
It’s written in a female hand. That’s about all I can tell. There’s no address or name on it. "This isn’t a question but a comment—or, more accurately, perhaps, a message. I spent this past weekend in an Ayahuasca ceremony, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a South American visionary plant medicine. Some of you may roll your eyes at this, but Ayahuasca brings you into direct contact with the archetypal realm of being. Users of this medicine—initiates, I should say—refer to Ayahuasca as she, because the spirit of the plant is decidedly feminine, and an encounter with Ayahuasca is an encounter with the great mother earth, creation, the goddess, the void from which all things come—the feminine counterpart of logos. Dr. Peterson, you appeared in one of my Ayahuasca visions."
It might account for why I’ve been rather fatigued lately. "Dr. Peterson, you appeared in one of my Ayahuasca visions, and I asked her, who is Jordan Peterson? What is he doing?" Which is something I’d really like to know, as well. "And she responded with crystalline clarity: he is here to invoke and initiate the divine masculine principle on earth at this time. So, I’m up here to thank you deeply and profoundly on behalf of the great mother herself, the goddess, the divine feminine principle who has been eagerly awaiting the awakening of the masculine principle into divinity and service."
So…You don’t get a letter like that every day. Actually, I get a letter or two like that every day. What went through my head when I read this—and this is, of course, a completely crazy parallel, but one of the things I learned to do as a psychotherapist was just to tell people who were talking to me what came into my head. It isn’t what I’m thinking, exactly. That’s not exactly the same thing. What comes into your head is more like a dream. It comes unbidden. It’s like your imagination. If you’re thinking, there seems to be a voluntary element of that, right? I mean, God only knows how we think, but it seems partly voluntary, at least.
Jung thought about it like a dialog between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. There as a continual dialog. But when things just pop into your mind, it’s not much different than walking into a room and having something there, which is an observation I also derived from Jung, by the way. He pointed out, quite rightly, that people don’t really think, but that thoughts appear to them. Now you can take the thoughts that appear to you, and then you can subject them to criticism, elaboration, and so on, instead of just assuming that they’re true right off the bat. But people often don’t do that; something pops into their head and they assume that it’s true.
Anyways, one of the things that I tend to do in psychotherapy is to just tell people what pops into my head. Why? Because then the person that is talking to me gets one person’s untrammelled opinion. Not even that—reaction. Not opinion. It’s not really an opinion, I don’t think. An opinion, maybe, is what I think later. There’s this personal flavour to it.
What popped into my head was the story about Socrates. When he was being put on trial by the Athenians for corrupting the nation’s youth—something I’ve been accused of, by the way, although it’s not self-evident to me that it’s me doing the corrupting. Somebody had asked the Delphic Oracle, once—and the Delphic Oracle was this retreat you could go to if you were an ancient Greek citizen. You’d be there, and you’d have a dream, and then you’d go ask the Delphic Oracle to interpret it. Nobody really knows what was up with the Delphic Oracle, and how that worked, exactly. She would interpret your dream, in any case.
Somebody once asked her who the wisest man in Greece was. The Delphic Oracle said it was Socrates, because he knew he didn’t know anything. That’s essentially the story. That popped into my mind. It’s a crazy comparison, but I have a crazy mind, so I guess that’s how it works out.
Now, one of the things I’m going to do today—which I haven’t done before—is to read you a little bit of my book that I finished last week. I haven’t read it to anyone. I’ve given it to a couple of friends, to review. One person in particular, a screen writer named Gregg Hurwitz, has been unbelievable helpful. He’s so fast and sharp at this sort of thing. I can send him a dense, 20-page manuscript, and he’ll rip it to shreds and send it back to me in like 90 minutes. It’s just unbelievable. He’s so good at that. He’s been very helpful. But no one else has seen it apart from my editor, and I haven’t read it to anyone. But some of it seemed particularly appropriate for tonight’s lecture.
So I thought I would start the lecture tonight by reading a little bit of it. It’s from a chapter on the issue of sacrifice as such. This is Abraham and Isaac. This is a very strange, little Old Testament story. This is one of the stories that’s contained in the Old Testament that makes modern people think that maybe we should just not have that much to do with the Old Testament, per say, at all, especially with regards—and maybe we shouldn’t have anything to do with the God of the Old Testament, either. I mean, as far as Abraham is concerned, God tells him to sacrifice his own son. Now it turns out that God was just kidding, so to speak. I’m obviously being flippant, but it does raise the question, what do you make of the divine being who would require such a thing? Or, conversely, what do you make of Abraham, who would have such delusions? Either way, it’s a little hard on the modern believability, and on the moral integrity of the Old Testament. These are very, very strange stories, and they are not what they seem to be—or they are, and they’re more.
So we’re going to talk a lot about sacrifice tonight. Here’s some of the things that I’ve been thinking about sacrifice. This is from my book, called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It’s coming out in January, which I think I mentioned. This is from Rule 7, which is Pursue What is Meaningful, Not What Is Expedient.
And so here’s some of the writing that I’ve been doing over the last three years on the motif of sacrifice. I’ll start with just a brief intro before I read this. It took me a long time to understand what was meant in the Old Testament by sacrifice, which is strange. Once I figured it out, it seemed bloody obvious. It seemed like, oh, well, obviously that’s what it means. But lots of times if you figure something out correctly, it seems self-evident as soon as you figured it out correctly. We’ll see how that goes, but it seemed to work for me, anyways.
I knew, at least implicitly, of the modern usage of the idea of sacrifice. Everyone understands that motif. It’s that, if you want to make things better in the future, then you make sacrifices in the present. Maybe you even do that multi-generationally—in fact, you most definitely do if you’re a good parent. I would say that’s particularly typical of immigrants, right? Immigrants often come from terrible places, and they have to undergo terrible things to come to a new community where they get a rough reception. They have a hard time getting their life going. A big part of the reason that they do it is to make their lives, and the lives of their children, better. Luckily, when they come to Canada—usually, given where they came from—that actually works. Where they came from is worse, and here is better, even though, you know, immigrants often have to struggle to get on their feet again. They have to learn a new language, become inculturated, and face the fact that they’re not part of the mainstream culture. But many of you know that whole story.
So the idea that you make sacrifices for the future, and that you make sacrifices for your children—everyone understands that. It’s part of being responsible, mature, and shouldering the burden of being properly. You do that for yourself, too, if you’re disciplined. In fact, that’s almost what disciplined means. Disciplined means that you’re capable of making sacrifices. You’re not disciplined if you just do something you want more, rather than something that you’re doing. That’s not discipline. Maybe that works, and great. If your life is working out that way, great, man, but that isn’t discipline. Discipline is when you want to do something right now and instead you think, no, I’m going to forestall my gratification, maybe forever, but certainly for a medium to a long period of time. You concentrate on something that you think will bear fruit in the medium to long run. You look into the future, and you decide that, by making today a little less impulsively pleasurable, shall we say, you’ll make tomorrow a little bit more secure and productive. And then you actually do it, too. That’s difficult.
Last week we discussed Adam and Eve’s discovery of the future and the revelation of the possibility of the future, including the possibility of tragedy and suffering in the future. It’s our knowledge of the possibility of tragedy and suffering in the future that motivates us to sacrifice in the present, so that we can reduce the unnecessary anxiety, uncertainty, and pain that awaits us. Now, that’s a negative way of putting it. We’re also doing it so that we can have some joy, and so that we can make life better, and all of that. That’s not trivial. But the fundamental issue, especially once you have small children, is to stave the suffering the hell off, right? That’s what you want to do. That’s your primary moral obligation if you’re a person who has any—if your eyes are open, at all, that’s your primary obligation. And so you make the sacrifices that are necessary, and you set up the future.
The motif of sacrifice is there in the Old Testament, but it’s so concrete that it’s difficult to draw a parallel between the two of these. For me, they didn’t align self-evidently. I went to the United Church until I was about 13. I don’t ever remember anybody pointing out the sacrifices that Cain and Abel were making, or the sacrifice that Abraham was supposed to make, or that the sacrifices that people were making to God were the dramatic precursors to the psychological idea of sacrifice that we all hold as civilized people in the modern world. Although, it seems obvious—as I said—once you lay it out. I don’t remember that ever being explained to me. Let me read this, now that I’ve sort of introduced it.
"Here’s what happened as humanity developed. First were the endless tens or hundreds of thousands of years prior to the emergence of written history and drama. The twin practices of delay and exchange began to emerge, slowly and painfully."
So here’s a cool psychological study. It’s called the Marshmallow Test, and maybe it’s even a reliable study, even though it was done by social psychologists. It’s probably replicable. It’s a nice study. You take small children, and you bring them into a room, and you put something that they would like in front of them—a marshmallow—and then you torture them. You say, see that marshmallow? And the kid thinks, yea, I see that marshmallow. You can have that marshmallow right now or, if you wait—I think the experiment is 10 minutes—then you can have two marshmallows. And so that puts the child in quite the conundrum. They are being asked to trade an actual, concrete, tangible marshmallow for two hypothetical, future marshmallows.
It’s not that easy to conjure up a hypothetical future reality that has the same tangible significance as something real right in front of you. It’s an amazing thing that people can do that. Then the experimenter leaves. Some children grab the marshmallow and just chomp that thing down, right now. Other kids—they videotaped kids. While they’re away, the kids do all sorts of things. They whistle, and they look at the ceiling, and they sit on their hands. They try to distract themselves. Of course, they’re eyeing that marshmallow like a squirrel eyeing a nut, and they’re trying to restrain themselves. What I see in that is that child’s prefrontal cortex. The higher cortical systems are warring with the underlying motivational systems—more primordial motivational systems that govern such things as hunger. The hunger system, the hypothalamic system, says there’s something sweet and fat sitting right there, right bloody now. Grab that thing and stuff it down—now. I’m sure many of you have a constant battle with your hypothalamus in regards to sweet and fat things, and often lose, so you can feel some sympathy for the child. The hypothalamus has these tremendously powerful tendrils upward into the brain, into the parts that we would associate more with voluntary control. The voluntary control centers have these little, weak ribbons going down to control the hypothalamus. It’s pretty obvious, if you know something about neuroanatomy, what part is actually in charge when the chips are down.
It’s not easy for children to learn to regulate those underlying, primordial impulses—the ones that are wired in, and that we share with animals. But they do it, and the cool thing is—this is what Walter Mischel found. He’s the guy that did the study. The longterm outcome for the children who could delay gratification in the Marshmallow Test is much more positive than it is for the children that are impulsive and eat the marshmallow instantly. It’s delay of gratification. It’s likely that that’s associated with trait conscientiousness, although that specific connection has not yet been established. But they seem, conceptually, very, very similar.
Anyways, this emerges in children probably between the ages of two and four. Something like that. They should have it in place by four, because it’s very difficult for them to really interact well with other children without having that delay of gratification in place. If you can’t delay gratification, other kids don’t like you, because you want everything your way, and you want it now, and you’re liable to have a temper tantrum, and that sort of thing. You haven’t got the kind of self-control necessary to make you fun to play with. So you can see that emerging in children, and it’s pretty interesting. Not only that, but as it emerges, it predicts positive, longterm outcomes—just like trait conscientiousness does, by the way. Trait conscientiousness is the 2nd best predictor of longterm success, over the lifespan, in Western cultures. It’s 2nd after intelligence. In our societies, the people who do best across time are the people who have high IQs and work hard. I would say that’s a pretty decent…What would you call it…It’s a validation, in some sense, that our cultures are working properly. What you would want, I would say—if the system is working meritocratically, like it should, and if you’re trying to extract resources from those who can contribute at a higher rate—is for the hard-working, smart people to do better. Hopefully, if that’s the case, then everyone does better. Hopefully. Anyways, you can see this developing in children.
"First were the endless tens or hundreds of thousands of years prior to the emergence of written history and drama. The twin practices of delay and exchange began to emerge, slowly and painfully. Then they became represented, in metaphorical abstraction, as rituals and tales of sacrifice. It’s as if there’s a powerful figure in the Sky, who’s judging you. You better keep them happy, or look the hell out. We’ve been watching ourselves deal with Him for a long time. He seems to like it when you give up something you value. So practice sharing and sacrificing, until you get good at it."
"No one actually said any of this"—so long ago, although they said something very similar—"But it was implicit in the practice, and then in the stories. Action comes first. Implicit comes first. People watched the successful succeed and the unsuccessful fail for thousands and thousands of years. We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us sacrifice. The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future. A great idea begins to emerge in ever-more articulated form. That idea is the point of a long and profound story. It’s the moral of the story." I’m going to engage in some foreshadowing, here.
"What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice, and things get better as the successful practice their sacrifices. The question becomes increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader. What is the greatest possible sacrifice, for the greatest possible good?"
If you push a question in that direction, perhaps there comes a time when you can’t formulate it any more precisely and broadly. That’s the point at which the question, in some sense, and, perhaps, even the answer to the question, becomes archetypal. It comes archetypal, because it can’t be bested. This is like an ultimate question, in some sense. How are you going to ask a more broad-based question than that? Given the initial presuppositions—that you have to make sacrifices—then the logical end point to that is something like, ok, if you have to make a sacrifice, what’s the greatest possible sacrifice, and for the greatest possible good? That’s a good question.
"The answer becomes increasingly profound. The God of Western tradition, like so many gods, requires sacrifice. We’ve already examined why. But sometimes He goes even further, and requires the sacrifice of what is loved best. This is why, and this is another one of mankind’s fundamental discoveries: Sometimes, things do not go well. That’s self-evident. But here’s the rub: Sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s precisely that which is most valued that is the cause."
"Why? It’s because the world is revealed through the template of your values. If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions."
There’s a famous experiment that I’ve alluded to, a couple of times, I believe, in this lecture series: the Invisible Gorilla experiment. In the Invisible Gorilla experiment, there’s two teams of players, each with three members. One team is dressed in the black, and the other team is dressed in white. Each team is passing a basketball back and forth to the team members, and milling about. You see a video of them doing so. They basically fill the video screen. The white team is passing a basketball to the white team members, and the black team is passing a basketball to the black team members. Your job, as far as the experimenter is concerned, is for you to count the number of times the black team passes the basketball back and forth. That’s what you do. Now, you have an ambition, an aim, and a value. The ambition, and the aim, and the value are all the same thing, and that is to perform well at the task. Now, the thing that’s so cool about this—and this is really so cool. It’s just unbelievable that this is the case. It’s like a complete validation of a certain element of the Buddhist worldview.
So, they pass the ball for a couple minutes, then the experimenter says to you, how many, and you say 15, and you’re happy with yourself, because you’ve been paying attention. The experimenter says, yea, that’s right—or maybe not; maybe you missed one. And then the experimenter says, did you see the gorilla? And half of you say, what gorilla? Like, really? And the experimenter says, yes. He rewinds the video and replays it, and like a minute and a half into the three minute video, sure enough, in walks this guy in a gorilla suit, six foot three, or so. He stands in the middle of the game—right in the middle of the game—the same size as the players. Perfectly, obviously, evident. He beats his chest for like a second and a half, and then sort of saunters off.
Half the people who watch the video don’t see the gorilla, which is absolutely shocking. What that means is that your ambitions blind you to the nature of reality. Now, they illuminate some reality, but they blind you to most of it. That’s fine, because you’re not—there’s not a lot of you, in some sense. You’re a very pinpoint thing, like a laser beam, and so you just can’t be attending to everything, all the time. If you’re suffering dreadfully, then one possibility is that you’re so fixed on the point that your fixation might be integrally related to why things are going so catastrophically wrong. Now, perhaps not, because there’s a lot of arbitrariness about life. And perhaps you suffer even when you don’t deserve to. That seems to happen in the book of Job, for example. Job is a good guy, and God has a bet with Satan—which seems like another relatively nasty thing to do—to, let’s say, torture him. Satan does, quite nicely, to see if Job will turn against God. It seems like a rather playground sort of thing for God to engage in, but the point is that, even in a document like the Old Testament, there’s ample suggestion that. sometimes, people just get wiped out, and hurt, even if they’re living good, moral lives, aiming properly, and all that. There’s an arbitrariness in life. But it’s possible that it’s what you’re clinging to that’s hurting you. It’s even possible that the thing that you’re clinging to the hardest, that’s hurting the most, could easily be someone you love.
Lots of times I see people in therapy, and they’re miserable for one reason, or another. Sometimes, it’s because a very close relationship with a family member just isn’t working. The family member, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll say, is not really oriented towards helping them have a good life. The family member is, instead, oriented towards making them as bloody miserable as you can possibly make anyone, and exploiting the bond between family members in order to enable that. And then, sometimes, the sacrifice that’s necessary is either merely distancing yourself from that person, sometimes substantively, and sometimes seriously distancing yourself from them, like we don’t talk anymore, ever. So that’s pretty damn rough, and it hurts, and all of that, but it’s a good example of the fact that, sometimes, in order to extract yourself from the miserable bit of chaos that you happen to be enmeshed in, you have to let go of what you love best.
"If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values." That’s really worth thinking about, because the alternative is to curse fate. If it isn’t you, and there’s nothing you can do to change, there isn’t something you’re doing that’s wrong, then it’s fate itself. It’s the world itself. It’s other people, let’s say, because they’re a huge part of the world. Or, it’s the nature of the world itself. Or, it’s God himself, in whatever form you either believe in, or don’t believe in, because it’s fundamentally all the same in this sort of situation that I’m describing. One of the things that’s really interesting—and I mentioned this before, about the Israelites in the Old Testament—is that they got this right. It’s really something.
What happens to the Israelites, over and over in the Old Testament, is they get all puffed up about how wonderful they are, and then they make moral errors. They’re arrogant, and then God comes along, and just cuts them into pieces, for like generation after generation. They wobble back to their feet, but they always maintain the same attitude, which is, we did something wrong. We did something wrong. It’s like an axiom, rather than an observation: if things are not laying themselves out for us, as they should be, then we cannot curse God; we have to look to ourselves. And you think, well, why not curse God? Because maybe it’s his fault. That’s a really good question. One of the things that I’ve tried to figure out over the last 30 years is, well, why not just curse God? Because there is this arbitrary element to existence, and we are vulnerable, and there is plenty of suffering, and things are unfair. There’s problems, right? There’s injustice, and there’s unfairness, and all of these things, and endless suffering. Why not just lay it at the feet of God? Whether God exists, or not, with regards to the metaphysics of this particular discussion, is not relevant. The point remains the same, either way. The answer, as far as I can tell, is that, if you refuse to take on the responsibility yourself, and you attempt to lay it at the feet of either society, or being itself, then you instantly start to act in a way that makes everything much worse—not only for you, but for everyone else, and maybe even for being itself. It’s not helpful.
Now, if you decide that it’s you, that you’ve got the problem—maybe that’s not even true. Maybe you are someone who’s been tortured by the bet between God and Satan, and too bad for you if that happens to be the case. But it still seems to be the appropriate thing for a human being, who’s standing on his or her own two feet in a proper manner, to take the responsibility on for themselves, regardless of the counterarguments that might be made against it. That’s really something.
"It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions." I also think of that as a deadwood issue. One of the things you see with motifs like the phoenix—remember when Harry Potter goes off to fight? He’s like Saint George. He goes off to fight…The hell is that thing…The basilisk that turns you to stone when you look at it. It’s a dragon, for all intents and purposes. It’s guarding a virgin. What’s her name…It’s not Virginia. It’s close to that, though. Ginny? Ginevera, which is a variant of virgin, and a variant of Virginia. Well, when he gets bitten by the dragon, and poisoned—that’s the dragon of chaos, right? The thing that turns you to stone when you look at it. When he gets bitten by it, and he’s going to die—and, yea, well, if you get bitten by the thing that turns you to stone when you look it…Man, if you’re not dead, you’re gonna wish you are. It’s one of the two.
And then the phoenix flies in, and cries tears into the wound, and that heals him. The phoenix is the thing that allows the deadwood to burn off, occasionally, let’s say. Well, I think it’s once every 100 years with the phoenix, and, of course, it’s pretty dramatic. The whole damn bird has to go up in flames, and then there’s nothing left but an egg. But there’s a very serious message there, too, which is that you can compare yourself, in some sense, to a forest. A forest has to burn, now and then, for the deadwood to clear—so that the forest can actually maintain, and continue its existence. If you stop the forest from burning for a long period of time—which happened in the United States when they were trying to manage the forest fires too tightly—then all that happens is the deadwood accumulates, and accumulates, and accumulates, and accumulates, and accumulates, until the whole damn forest is deadwood. And then lightning hits it, and it burns so hot that it burns the tops off. And then there’s nothing left. Nothing grows. That’s a good moral lesson, which is, don’t wait too long to let the damn deadwood burn off. Maybe a little self-immolation on a daily basis might be preferable to burning yourself all the way down to the bedrock once every 20 years, or so, because maybe there won’t be anything left of you when you do that.
That happens to people all the time. I’ve seen that happen to people many, many times. The deadwood accumulates, the mess around them gathers, the chaos that they haven’t dealt with accumulates. One day the spark comes, and they burn so far, and so fast, that there’s not enough left of them to recover. And then they’re the people who’ve been eaten by the dragon, and now are inside its belly—another very common archetypal motif. Well, maybe a hero will come along and rescue them, or maybe they’ll just stay in there forever. That’s a precursor to the idea of hell. It’s not something I would recommend. So, a little medicine on a regular basis is a lot better than total immolation on terms other than your own, sporadically.
"It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions." There’s another thing that…When Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Soviet Union and its pathologies—it sort of peaked in terms of its pathological authoritarianism when it became illegal to complain that your life wasn’t going well. You just think about how horrible that is, say, because, you know, lots of times your life isn’t going well, and I don’t mean this in some casual way. I mean, maybe you have diabetes, and maybe you’re going to lose your feet, or something. It’s really nothing trivial that’s going on here; something is not good. Or maybe it’s economic, or maybe you’re unemployed. But, you see, the idea in the Soviet Union was, well, we already have all the answers. Everything’s perfect, already. That’s what totalitarians think. Well, if everything’s perfect, and you’re suffering, then, well, maybe there’s something wrong with you. Everything is perfect, after all. If you’re suffering, what are you going to do? Come out and say you’re suffering? Well, then you’re evidence that things aren’t perfect. You’re like a widower, or an orphan, in an Old Testament story. When the kings got too high and mighty, then they wouldn’t pay enough attention to the widows and orphans. Then a prophet would come along and say, you know, those widows and orphans are far more important than you think they are, and if you don’t pay attention to them properly, then things are going to fall apart around you in a way that you just can’t even imagine. Well, then you’re sort of like your own widow, and your own orphan, but you don’t get to say, hey, look, things aren’t perfect yet, because I’m still having quite a rough time, here. You don’t get to admit to your own suffering. If you can’t admit to your own suffering, then you certainly—the suffering, especially the excess suffering, should be treated as evidence that you’re not doing something quite right, yet. It should be treated as evidence that you’re wrong. There’s something important, that you’re doing, that’s wrong. I understand how harsh that is, and I’m not saying that everyone who’s suffering is suffering because they’re doing something in some simple way that’s wrong.
I was in an elevator, once, in a hospital. It’s a very terrifying thing. This person got on, who was just in an absolutely state of shock. It was really not good. I don’t remember how this happened, but I engaged the person in conversation. They said that they’d just been diagnosed with, what looked to be, terminal cancer. What was horrifying about it was that they were going over their life in the elevator, and trying to figure out what they had done to deserve such a fate. They’d immediately taken it upon themselves as a moral failing. That’s not what I’m saying. You can’t come up to someone who has cancer and say, well, if you weren’t such a bloody idiot throughout your whole life, you wouldn’t have cancer. Believe me, that happens a lot more than you think. People who have disease like that get blamed for it. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s not like that. It’s a more generalized attitude that if life isn’t yet what it should be, then you have a primary responsibility to do something about it. The place to start looking is to your own errors, and to fix them. That’s a safe bet, man, because you’re probably doing some things that you wouldn’t have to be doing, that, if you fixed, would make things better. "It’s time to let go, and to sacrifice who you are for who you could become."
In case any of you are interested in how to catch a monkey, now you’re gonna know how to do it. First, you have to take a large, narrow-necked jar, just large enough in diameter at the top for a monkey to put its hand inside. Then you have to fill it part way with rocks, so it is too heavy for the monkey to carry. Then you scatter some treats near the jar, to attract them, and you put some inside the narrow-necked jar. A monkey will come along, if you’re lucky, and grab the goodies. He’ll want the ones inside the jar, too, so he’ll put his hand in there, and grab what’s in there. If you’ve set up your monkey trap properly, then he won’t be able to get his hand out, because he’s got the goodies. Now, without unclenching his hand, without relinquishing what he already has, the monkey catcher can just walk over and pick up the monkey. The monkey isn’t into the whole sacrifice thing. He’s just a monkey. And so you can catch him as a consequence of his own unregulated, hypothalamic desires. To be…what would you say…charitable to the monkey—if you put out candy or something like that, it’s like, how often does a monkey get candy? He’s probably a little bit more motivated than you are to not let go. But you get the point. The monkey catcher can just walk over to the jar and pick up the monkey. The animal will not sacrifice the part for the whole. That’s actually a pretty good phrase, eh? It’s the animal that will not sacrifice the part for the whole. Perhaps this story is apocryphal, but as an eccentric psychology professor once told me, fiction lies to you in the most truthful possible manner.
"Something valuable, given up, ensures future prosperity. Something valuable, sacrificed, pleases the Lord." Those are equivalent statements. One’s more articulated; I would say that’s the first statement. The second one is more dramatic, and more embedded in a collective religious dream, you might say. What’s most valuable and best sacrificed? Well, obviously, that depends on the culture and the time. What is, at least, emblematic of that? A choice cut of meat. Well, if you’re a herdsman, for example, that’s a big deal. Generally speaking, throughout human history, meat has been a very valuable commodity—as it is, by the way, among chimpanzees. Chimpanzees hunt. They like to hunt colobus monkeys. They’ll basically start eating the damn monkey alive—they weigh about 40 pounds—despite the fact that the thing is screaming away. That’s pretty interesting. One of the things it indicates is that male chimps—the ones that do the hunting—aren’t really inhibited that much when they’re in hunter mode, by what you might describe as empathy. There’s certain elements of human behaviour that are reminiscent of that. You see that sort of thing emerge now and then in human battlefields, when groups of men seem to abandon all internal regulation, whatsoever, to a degree that makes you wonder if internal regulation even exists.
There’s a good book by Richard Wrangham, I think, about the human invention of fire. I think I’ve told you a little bit about this. Wranham claimed that we discovered fire, mastered it, maybe two or three million years ago. That’s a long time—longer than people had thought—and that’s what actually transformed us, physiologically, from our chimp-like ancestors into the svelte creatures we are, now. It’s a lot easier to digest cooked meat, and meat is a tremendous source of nutrition, energy, raw materials, all of that, especially if it’s cooked. So, meat’s a big deal. Cooked meat is a big deal, and maybe it’s a choice cut of meat—the kind you might offer to a guest if you’re not…I always say this wrong. Is it vegan? Vegan? Or is it vegan? I always think vegan, but that’s wrong. That’s a star. Vega’s a star, right? They’re not like star creatures. Anyways, you might offer that, especially if a guest came to your abode, and you were a herdsman. You might sacrifice a high-end animal, and offer your guest a nice choice cut of meat. That would actually matter. It would mean something—from the best animal in a flock.
What’s above even that? Well, in terms of the thing you could sacrifice, well, your best animals is good. Well, how about you? How about your child? Well, that would be next on the hierarchy. It’s kind hard to get past that, right? I think it’s a tossup, whether the sacrifice is greater if it’s you, or if it’s your child. I would say, being a parent, that it’s greater if it’s your child. I think most people who have established…I hesitate to say proper, but I’m going to, anyways…a proper relationship with their children…If push came to shove, they’d take the bullet; and let their kid go and live.
The sacrifice of the mother is exemplified, profoundly, by Michelangelo’s great sculpture, the Pieta. Mary is contemplating her son crucified and ruined. That’s his body, after he’s been crucified. It’s her fault. It was through her he had entered the great drama of being. So, what’s the meaning of this sculpture? It’s a great sculpture. It’s just an absolutely unbelievable sculpture. You just can’t believe that someone could exist who could make something like that. It wasn’t the only thing Michelangelo made, right? It wasn’t like, that’s it. It was something that he just tossed off in a couple of months while he was doing other, unbelievable things. It’s an object of contemplation, which is why it’s in a great cathedral, and in a great city. It’s an object of contemplation. The idea is something like, well, what’s the role of the mother if she’s awake?
I had a client come to see me not very long ago: a woman, who’s about 30, trying to make decisions about her life. She was pretty career-oriented, and so I asked her about—although, maybe having a bit of trouble with her career. I’ve seen this many, many times. This is a story that’s an amalgam. I talked to her about the other elements of her life. You only do five things in life. So, you’ve got your career down. What do you do outside of your career that’s meaningful and engaging? How are things going with your family? Do you have an intimate relationship? And what’s your plan for your own family? And apart from those five things, there’s sort of something like, get some exercise, now and then, don’t eat too badly, and try to stay away from the drugs. That kinda lays out life. If you miss any of those five things, or if you do any of those other things wrong, then you’re in trouble. You can get away with missing a couple of them, but not all of them. She said something along the lines of, well, I’m not sure if I should bring a child into this world. I thought, oh, God. Christ. You gotta come up with something better than that! It’s such a bloody cliche, which is what I told her. I said, you must have thought that up when you were 16. It’s like, really? You can’t do any better? This was a very, very smart woman. It’s like, really, you can’t do any better than that? Yes, obviously this is a veil of tears, and a well of suffering, and all of that. If you ask 30 people who are wondering about having children why they’re wondering, 20 of them will say that. That tells you how original it is. It’s not original, at all. It’s not a thought. It’s a meme; something that lives in your mind. It’s not a thought. It’s certainly not something that you should just take at face value and say, well, I’m not having a family. No, you kinda look at that, and you criticize it a little bit.
That’s the other one that’s very common: there’s too many people on the planet already. I really don’t like that statement. It’s like, just who are you gonna ask to leave? Just how are you going to get them to leave? It’s a serious question. And who says there’s too many people? What the hell’s wrong with people, anyways? We’re running around, and ruining the planet. Yea…I think it was the Club of Rome who prophesied, by the way, that there would be so many people on the planet by the year 2,000 that there would be widespread starvation. They were completely and utterly wrong about that. I think it was the Club of Rome who compared us to either a virus or a cancer on the face of the planet. It’s like, oh, really? That’s what you think about people, eh? Hm, aren’t you something? Isn’t that something to think about human beings—viruses and cancer. What do you do with viruses and cancer? Invite them in, and make them at home? It’s like, no. You try to eradicate them. You bloody well better watch your metaphors, folks, because it isn’t clear if you come up with them, or if they run you, so you better watch them.
So, anyways. Mary’s the Great Mother. She’s the Mother. That’s what Mary is. Whether she existed or not is not the point. She exists, at least, as a hyper-reality. She exists as the Mother. What’s the sacrifice of the Mother? Well, that’s easy. If you’re a mother who’s worth her salt, you offer your son to be destroyed by the world. That’s what you do. That’s what’s going to happen, right? He’s going to be born; he’s going to suffer; he’s going to have his trouble in life; he’s going to have his illnesses; he’s going to face his failures and catastrophes, and he’s going to die. That’s what’s going to happen. If you’re awake, you know that, and then you say, well, perhaps he will live in a way that will justify that. And then you try to have that happen. That’s what makes you worthy of a statue like that. Bestow the sacrifice of the Mother.
Is it right to bring a baby into this terrible world? Well, every woman asks herself that question. Some say, no, and they have their reasons. Mary answers yes, voluntarily. Mary is the archetype of the woman who answers yes to life, voluntarily. That’s what that image means, and not because she’s blind. She knows what’s going to happen. She’s the archetypal representation of the woman who says yes to life, knowing full well what life is. Not naive, and not someone who got pregnant in the back seat of a 1957 Chevy, in one night of half drunk idiocy. Not that, but consciously, knowing what’s to come—and then, also, allows it to happen. That’s another thing that’s a testament to the courage of mothers.
My mother was good at this. My mother’s a very agreeable person—too agreeable for her own good, but that’s what happens if you’re agreeable. That’s the definition of agreeable. She’s a nice person—and still is, luckily. She’s still alive, and we’ve had a really good relationship. I’ve always been able to make her laugh, which is a good thing. But she was a tough cookie, that woman. I was out playing in this little baseball diamond, in an empty lot, in this little town I grew up in. I was about 10. She walked by. I was there with a bunch of my friends. I was about to have a fistfight with this little tough kid that I hung around with. There were half girls on the team, and a fistfight had some relationship to status maneuvering in relationship to that. Anyways, we were going to have a fight. My mom walked by. She took a look, and I could see from her demeanour that she knew exactly what was about to happen. She looked for a second, and then she walked by. And I thought, whoa! Good work, mom! No kidding, eh? The last bloody thing I needed at that moment was for her to come charging up, and say, you boys aren’t planning to have a fight, are you? It’s like, well, yea, mom. We’re actually planning to have a fight, and now that you came and intervened, I actually lost before the goddamn thing even started. So two thumbs up for mom. She was also the person that said—I had some trouble with my dad when I was an adolescent. He had some trouble with me. It was 50-50—no, it was probably 70-30, with me on the 70 end of the trouble. Anyways, I left home when I was about 17. She said something really interesting when I left home. She said, if it was too good at home, you’d never leave. I thought, hey, mom, that’s pretty good. For an agreeable person, you’ve got a real spine. That was pretty good.
The mother is the person who also says, get out there and take your goddamn lumps, because you’re tough enough so that you can handle it. She doesn’t say, just stay down there in your bedroom, brooding away, because the world is unfair and treating you badly, and your suffering is too much. She says, yea, there’s a lot of suffering out there, but you’re a hell of a lot tougher than you think you are.
"In turn Mary’s son, Christ, offers Himself to God so completely that his faith and trust in the world is not broken by betrayal, torture, or death. That’s the model for the honorable man." You have an interesting dynamic, there. You have the woman who’s willing to make the sacrifice, and who lays the groundwork for the son, who is willing to make the sacrifice. That works out pretty nicely. It’s a good thing to know.
"In Christ’s case, however—as He sacrifices Himself—God, his Father, is simultaneously sacrificing his Son." That’s one of the oddities of the Trinitarian model, is that God sacrifices himself to himself. The same thing happens in Norse mythology…German mythology. Zeus sacrifices himself to himself. He actually hangs on a tree. He’s actually wounded in his side. It’s a very interesting parallel. But I think part of the idea is the human race is trying to work out, what’s the ultimate sacrifice? It’s something like the ultimate sacrifice of value. Well, the Passion story—and I told you I was foreshadowing. I’m bringing into consideration things that we won’t talk about for a long time, and maybe not at all in this lecture series, because I don’t know how far I’ll get. There’s a supreme sacrifice demanded on the part of the mother, and there’s a supreme sacrifice demanded on the part of the son, and there’s a supreme sacrifice demanded on the part of the father, all at the same time. That makes the supreme sacrifice possible, and, hypothetically, that’s the one that renews. That’s the sacrifice that renews and redeems. It’s a hell of an idea. The thing about it is that—I don’t know if it’s true, but I know that its opposite is false.
Generally, the opposite of something that’s false is true. Its opposite is false, because if the mother doesn’t make the sacrifice, then you get the horrible Oedipal situation, or something like that, in the household, which is its own absolutely catastrophic hell. If you want a really good insight into that, watch the documentary Crumb. That’s been rated by some critics as the best documentary ever made. It is some piece of work, man. It is the only thing I’ve ever seen that actually lays out the Oedipal catastrophe in its full nightmare. So you could look at that. If the maternal sacrifice isn’t there, that doesn’t work. If the paternal sacrifice isn’t there, if the father isn’t willing to put his son out into the world, let’s say, to be broken and betrayed, and all of those things, then that’s a nonstarter, because the kid doesn’t grow up. And then, if the son isn’t willing to do that, then who the hell is going to shoulder the responsibility? If those three things don’t happen, then it’s cataclysmic; it’s chaotic; it’s hell. If they do happen, is it the opposite of that? You could say, well, maybe it depends on the degree to which they happen. It’s a continuum. How thoroughly can they happen? Well, we don’t know. You might say, how good a job do you do of encouraging your children to live in truth? That’s part of the answer to this question. The answer likely is, you don’t do as good a job of it as you could. It works out quite well, but you don’t know how well it could work if you did it really well, or spectacularly well, or ultimately well, or something like that. You don’t know.
People have an intimation of this. One of the things that’s really cool about having a young baby…There’s two things you don’t know…There’s a lot more than two. There’s three things you don’t know until you have a baby. The one is that you didn’t grow up yet. You actually don’t grow up until someone else is more important than you. You can’t. People think they grow up if they don’t have children, but they don’t. They just think they do. Now, there are some people who make sacrifices of other sorts, but this is a whole different ball of wax, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not a very elegant metaphor, but…You learn that it’s kinda a relief not to be the center of attention. That’s cool—that you can sit back, because, of course, your child, in your family, and in society, is immediately the center of attention. Unless you’re narcissistic, then you allow that to happen. And then you learn all sorts of really good things about other people.
Other people really like babies. It’s so cool. I lived in Montreal when we had our first child. I lived in a pretty rough neighbourhood, by Montreal standards. It’s like, Montreal’s such a great city, like Toronto. Even the rough neighbourhoods are more like charming with a little dark underbelly. Something like that. But there were some rough characters in our neighbourhood, and it was pretty poor, and we’d push her around in her stroller. These grizzled, wrecked, old guys would come by, look at her, and just light up. They’d come over and smile at her, and you just saw the positive element of their humanity well worth. There has to be something seriously wrong with you if you don’t respond that way to a baby. That’s not good. But it was so cool to see these people, who you’d generally kind of walk around on the street, and, all of a sudden, the layers that were on them would just fall off. The babies are sort of like public property, weirdly enough, too—sort of like pregnant women. People often treat pregnant women sort of like they’re public property, too—in a positive way. They do all sorts of cute things.
The reason I’m telling you that is because there’s a strong impulse in people to know that there’s something miraculous about the existence of a new human being. The miraculous element is all the potential that’s there. Potential is all that is there. With every birth, there’s the potential for something remarkable to be introduced in the world. One of the things I’ve thought, too, is that babies are generic until you have one. Your baby isn’t a generic baby, at all. Instantly, it’s a person with whom you have a relationship that’s closer, perhaps, than every relationship you’ve ever had, and that you can keep perfect, right? Most of the relationships that you’ve had already are with people who are screwed up in 50 different ways, and so are you, but here you’ve got this baby. It’s not ruined, yet. You have this possibility of maintaining this relationship that starts out—that baby really likes you, and generally that continues for quite a long time. They’re two years old, you come home, and they’re really happy to see you. It’s kind of like having a puppy. It’s like, they’re thrilled when you come home. How many people are thrilled when you come home? It’s like, oh, it’s you again. No, not a little kid. A little kid is thrilled when you come home, and you can keep that going. There’s this pristine element to the potential relationship between parents and children that’s terribly devalued in our society. It’s almost as if we’re willfully blind to it. I think it’s an absolute catastrophe, because there’s very little in life that can compare to establishing a proper relationship with a child. They make great company if you keep your relationship with them pristine.
It’s worthwhile. The reason I’m telling you this is because people look at infants and they think this could be the potential saviour of mankind. That is what they think. That’s how they act, so that’s how they think. The thing is, it’s also true. Now, how true it is, I don’t know. But that’s, I think, probably because people don’t dare to find out. That’s how it looks to me.
"In Christ’s case, however—as He sacrificed Himself—God, his Father, is simultaneously sacrificing His Son. It’s for this reason that the Christian sacrificial drama of Son and Self is archetypal. Nothing greater can be imagined. That’s why it’s an archetype: you can’t push past it. That’s the very definition of ‘archetypal.’ That’s the core of what constitutes ‘religious.’ The greatest of all possible sacrifices is self and child. Of that there can be no doubt."
"Pain and suffering define the world. Of that, equally, there can be no doubt. The person who wants to alleviate suffering—who wants to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create Heaven on Earth—will therefore sacrifice everything he has to God—to life in the Truth." So that’s a page and a half from the book that I’m going to release in January. Back to Genesis. We’re already up to Genesis 4.
"And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord."
This is after Adam and Eve have been chased out of the garden of Eden. What’s really cool about this—I really think that the Cain and Abel story is the most profound story I’ve ever read, especially given that you can tell it in 15 seconds. I won’t, because I tend not to tell stories in 15 seconds, as you may have noticed. But you can read the whole thing that quickly. It’s so densely packed that it’s actually unbelievable.
Ok, so the first thing is that Adam and Eve are not the first two human beings. Cain and Abel are the first two human beings. Adam and Eve were made by God, and they were born in paradise. It’s like, what kind of human beings are those? You don’t know any human beings like that. Human beings aren’t born in paradise and made by God. Human beings are born of other human beings. That’s the first thing. It’s post-fall. We’re out in history, now. We’re not in some archetypal beyond—although we are still, to some degree. Not to the degree that was the case with the story of Adam and Eve. We’ve already been thrown out of the garden; we’re already self-conscious; we’re already awake; we’re already covered; we’re already working. We’re full-fledged human beings. So you have the first two human beings: Cain and Abel; prototypical human beings.
What’s cool is that humanity enters history at the end of the story of Adam and Eve, and then the archetypal patterns for human behaviour are instantaneously presented. It’s absolutely mind boggling, and it’s not a very nice story. They’re hostile brothers. They’ve got their hands around each other’s throats, so to speak, or at least that’s the case in one direction. It’s a story of the first two human beings engaged in a fratricidal struggle, that ends in the death of the best one of them. That’s the story of human beings in history. If that doesn’t give you nightmares, you didn’t understand the damn story.
Now, in these hostile brother stories, which are very, very common, often the older brother—Cain—has some advantages. He’s the older brother, and, in an agricultural community, the older brother generally inherited the land, and not the younger brothers. And the reason for that was, well, let’s say you have like eight sons, and you have enough land to support a bit of a family, and you divide among your eight sons, and they have eight sons, and they divide it among their eight sons. Soon, everyone has a little postage stamp that they can stand on and starve to death on. And so that just doesn’t work. You hand the land in a piece to the eldest son, and that’s just how it is. It’s tough luck for the rest of them, but at least they know they’re gonna have to go and make their own way. It’s not fair, but there’s no way of making it fair.
Well, you might say the oldest son has an additional stake in the stability of the current hierarchy. He has more of a stake in the status quo. That makes him more of an emblematic representative of the status quo, and, perhaps, more likely to be blind in its favor. It’s something like that. That motif creeps up very frequently in the hostile brothers archetypal struggle. The story of Cain and Abel fits this pattern, because Cain is the one who won’t budge, and who won’t move. He’s stubborn. Whereas the younger son, who’s Abel, is often the one who’s more…Not so much of a revolutionary, but, perhaps, more of a balance between the revolutionary and the traditions, whereas the older son tends to be more traditionalist-authoritarian—in these metaphorical representations, at least.
"And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord." There’s the first human being: Cain. I told you that the Mesopotamians thought that mankind was made out of the blood of the worst demon that the great goddess of chaos could imagine. Well, the first human being is a murderer, and not only a murderer, but a murderer of his own brother. And so, you know, the Old Testament, that’s a hell of a harsh book. And you might think, well, maybe that’s a little bit too much to bear. And then you might think, yea, and maybe it’s true, too. So that’s something to think about.
Human beings are amazing creatures. To think about us as a plague on the planet is its own kind of bloody catastrophe—malevolent, low, quasi-genocidal metaphor. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t without our problems. The fact that this book, that sits at the cornerstone of our culture, would present the first man as a murderer of his brother, is something that should really set you back on your heels.
"And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground."
There you see a very old representation. There’s Abel. He’s got his sheep up on the altar. Cain is bringing a sheaf of wheat. I don’t know exactly what’s happening here. Blood, or it’s a ray, perhaps. It’s something like that. The overall impression of the image is that something transcendent is communicating with this sacrifice. You think, oh, how primitive. How primitive, that these people were sacrificing to their God. It’s like, those people weren’t stupid, and this is not primitive. Whatever it is, it’s not primitive. It’s sophisticated beyond belief. The idea, as I already pointed out, is that you could sacrifice something of value, and that that would have transcendent utility. That is by no means an unsophisticated idea. In fact, it might be the greatest idea that human beings ever came up with.
It’s an answer to the problem that’s put forward in the story of Adam and Eve, right? We became self-conscious, and then we discovered the future, and then we knew we were going to die, and then we knew we were vulnerable, and then we became ashamed, and then we developed the knowledge of good and evil, and then we got thrown out of paradise. It’s like, that’s a big problem. So what the hell are you going to do about it? Sacrifice. That’s the hypothesis. Well, that’s a hell of a hypothesis, man. That’s what we’re doing. You make plenty of sacrifices—even to sit in this theater—and many people made plenty of sacrifices to have a theater like this exist. Many people made sacrifices so that we could actually freely engage in the dialog that we’re engaging in, in a theater like this. All of this is built on sacrifice, and sacrifice bloody well better work, because we do not have a better idea.
Sacrifice. What’s the counter position? Murder and theft. So, let’s go with sacrifice, shall we? And, perhaps, we won’t consider it so damn primitive. It’s not so primitive.
"And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground."
Some people have read into this the eternal battle between herdsmen and agriculturalists, which raged in the American West, for example. The herdsmen like to have their herds, sheep, cattle, go wherever they were going to go. The agriculturalists—the farmers—have things fenced off. The agriculturalists actually won in the final analysis. But, anyways, Abel is a keeper of sheep, and that’s interesting, because that makes him a shepherd. I think that’s part of the critical issue, here, because a shepherd—we talked a little about shepherds before. If you look at Michelangelo’s statue of David, which is another staggering work…I mean, that David, he’s no trivial figure. Of course, it’s David who slays Goliath, right? Goliath is like the giant of the patriarchal enemy. It’s something like that. Middle Eastern shepherds take care of sheep, and they’re edible, and the lambs are very vulnerable, and there were lots of wild animals around. It wasn’t like England in the 16th century. There were lions, and you got a slingshot, or a stick, or some damn thing, and so your job was to keep the sheep organized and not let them be eaten by the lions—alone. You had to have a clue, and be tough, and self-reliant, and all of those things. You had to be tough and self-reliant. You had to be able to take care of a lot of vulnerable things, and you had to be able to do it on your own. That’s all built into the shepherd metaphor. It’s not a great metaphor for modern people, because we tend to think of the shepherd like some Little Lord Fauntleroy, and certainly not as a lion-killing, hyper-masculine monster. That’s not a shepherd. Shepherd’s dance around, and, you know…That’s not the metaphor, here.
"Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord." Ok, so he’s participating in this sacrificial ritual. "And Abel, he brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering."
You don’t know why that is. This is a built-in ambiguity, I think. I think there’s textual hints, but I’m not sure. "Abel brought the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof." Ok, so what does that mean? Well, he brought a high-quality sacrifice. You don’t know that Abel’s sacrifice is low quality, because it doesn’t say that, you know, Abel brought God some wilted lettuce and then burnt it. It doesn’t say that. But there isn’t a sentence, there, that talks about how high quality Cain’s sacrifice is. But, in any case, the Lord has respect unto Abel and his offering. So there’s a hint that Abel’s putting a little bit more into the whole sacrificial thing than Cain. But there’s also a hint that, maybe, God is just liking you a little better than he’s liking him. That’s, I think, useful from a literary perspective, because there is that arbitrariness about life.
One of my own children, for example, has had…Things come easy to him. He’s lucky; fortunate. However you want to put it. He seems to be that sort of person. Whereas my other child, it’s like, it’s just like one horrible, Job-like catastrophe after another. It’s so strange to see that, because, as far as I can tell, the characterlogical differences are certainly not accounting for the difference in destiny. The one child, who’s had so much trouble, was just a wonderful child…Amazingly happy, easy to get along with, fun, and she had a terrible time of it. So, who knows what God’s up to, but distributing fate equally certainly isn’t one of them.
"And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth."
Angry. Wroth is a tough word. These are translated many times. It’s hard to get the full flavour of the words. But, "wroth, and his countenance fell," well, to have your countenance fell…This is sort of up. To fall is to have it be heavy, depressed, for sure. Angry, for sure. Resentful, probably. Wroth: that’s anger. So, Cain is not a happy clam, that his hard work has been rejected by God. Now that’s worth thinking about. You think about how human that story is. You’re out there—well, we could say, you might be a useless character, and you’re whining about how catastrophic your life is. It’s pretty much obvious to everyone around you, and to you, that it’s your fault. You just don’t try: you don’t wake up in the morning; you don’t get a job; you don’t engage in things; you’re cynical; you’re bitter; you’re angry; you don’t try to help the people near you; you don’t try to fix up your own life, and you don’t take care of yourself. And then things go wrong. It’s like, well, really? What did you expect? But that doesn’t mean someone in that situation will just say, well, that’s ok; I deserve it; and they’ll be happy about it. They won’t. They’ll be absolutely bitter about it and angry. But, you know, put that aside for a moment. There are people who seem to struggle very forthrightly, let’s say, and still have one catastrophe after another happen to them. There’s no easy answer in this story. It’s like, you can fall afoul of God because your sacrifices are second rate, or you can just fall afoul of God, and you don’t know why. Well, tough luck for you. And then what happens, in either case, is exactly this, almost inevitably: "Cain was wroth, and his countenance fell."
People like this write to me all the time. I’ve seen this in many, many clients. They’re not often 20. 30, more commonly. Sometimes, 40. Their lives haven’t gone well. They’re in a pit of despair, of one form or another, and not only are they in a pit despair, but they’re extraordinarily angry about it, and God only knows what they’d do with that anger if they had that opportunity to give it full voice.
One of the things I’ve always thought about Hitler is that people…You have to admire Hitler. That’s the thing. He was an organizational genius. The thing that doesn’t stop people from being Hitler…People don’t refuse the ambition to become Hitler because they don’t have the genocidal motivation. They don’t follow that pathway because they don’t have the organizational genius. They’ve got the damn motivation. If you take a hundred people, randomly, and you talk to them—and you really talk to them—you’ll find that five percent of them would take their vengeful thoughts pretty damn far if they were just given the opportunity, and, in fact, they do. They make life miserable for themselves, and often for their family, and, sometimes, for anybody they can come near. And then maybe another 20 percent of people have that bubble up in them on a pretty damn regular basis. You can have some sympathy for Cain. If you don’t have any sympathy for Cain, then you’re not…See, Cain and Abel don’t just represent two archetypal types of being. It’s not like you’re Cain, and you’re Abel. It’s like, you’re half and half, and you’re half and half, and you’re half and half. It’s something like this. This is two different potential patterns of destiny. You don’t manifest one purely and the other zero. It’s like the line between good and evil that runs down the human heart. It’s exactly the same idea. Maybe you’re more like Cain, or maybe you’re more like Abel, but there’s still a little Cain in you, no matter how Abel you are. And maybe more than a little—and probably more than a little. If you watch your fantasies, which I would very much recommend, you’ll find that they show you dark things about you that will shock you if you allow yourself to be conscious of what you’re thinking.
When you’re having an argument with someone, especially someone that you love, it’s a good time to just watch the pictures that flash in the back of your mind. That’s part of, let’s say, coming into contact with what Carl Jung called the shadow. The shadow is the manifestation of Cain. That’s a perfectly good way of thinking about it. One of the things that Jung said about the shadow—because Jung was not someone that you mess around with lightly. He said the human shadow has roots that reach all the way to hell. Jung meant that. That’s no metaphor for him. He might not have meant it in the same way that a fundamentalist Christian from the Southern U.S. might mean it, but I would say that Jung meant it in a way that’s far more terrifying, and also far more true. "And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell."
So there’s Abel, burning his offering away, there. He’s in this sort of relationship with…let’s call them the archetypal figure of culture. The archetypal Father. It’s something he respects. That’s the thing—the posture’s an indication of respect. And then there’s Cain, in the background. His face is in shadow. He’s jealous of what’s happening. He’s going through the motions, perhaps, and maybe God just doesn’t like him. We don’t know. But he’s going through the motions. He’s not very happy about it. That’s actually a phrase that you could carve into many people’s tombstones as an epitaph for their life: went through the motions, but wasn’t very happy about it.
This is really an interesting one, I think. I don’t know what God’s doing here, exactly. He’s helping ignite the sacrificial flame. That’s kind of an interesting idea, I think, because…Let’s say you have an impulse to make a sacrifice. You think, well, I should change this about my life. Well, where does that come from, that impulse? It just manifests itself out of nothing, or you came up with it. Well, you might want to stop thinking so surely that you come up with your own thoughts. You don’t come up with your damn dreams, do you? They just happen. God only knows where they come from. They come from your brain—oh, boy; that’s a sophisticated answer. They come from your unconscious. Well, that’s not much better. At least it’s somewhat better. Those amazing dramas take place in the theater of your imagination at night. You don’t even understand what they are, and yet they occur night after night.
Dreams can contain wisdom that it just…Well, it just staggers the person who has the dream once they get the key to the dream, and once they remember it. It’s like, oh, look, you just revealed a bunch of wisdom to yourself that you didn’t know. Where did that come from? You don’t know. How in the world can you dream up things that you don’t know? That’s a tough one. Maybe we’ll talk about that, at some point, in this lecture series, because there are some reasonable things that can be said about that. The idea that there’s something that’s not you…Jung would call it the Self, which he thought of as the totality of your being across time and space. It’s something like that, and that, you know, each second that you exist is a slice of the Self manifesting itself across time and space. He thought of the Self as partly the voice of conscious, whatever that is, that helps guide you when you have to make a difficult decision. A difficult decision might be, well, what do I need to sacrifice? How do I need to discipline myself? What do I need to forego? Well, how do you figure those things out? This picture is trying to put forth the idea that, perhaps, if you’d established the proper relationship with God the Father—and we’ve talked about what that might mean—then he would help figure out how to get the sacrificial fires burning, so that you could stay in a proper relationship with Him across time. Is that such an unreasonable proposition? What’s the alternative proposition? Well, this isn’t working out very well. That’s for sure.
Cain seems to be doing…I don’t know what it is. It’s as if he thinks he can only do it himself, or maybe he wants only to take credit for it, or something like that. He’s not in this…Grateful, let’s say, and inquiring. Grateful and inquiring posture. That’s what a prayerful posture should be. It should be grateful and inquiring. Grateful is, thank God things aren’t worse for me than they are. You should be grateful about that, because they could be a lot worse than they are, man. They can be so bad. Inquiring would be, well, I don’t really know how I could make it better, but I’m open to suggestions. If I can figure out how to do it, I’ll try it. That’s the humility: a humble inquiry. How could I make things better? It’s something like that. What sacrifices do I need to make in order to make things better? That’s a good question to ask yourself.
You could ask yourself that every morning. What sacrifice do I have to make to make things better? You can decide what constitutes better. How about that? Then, it’s not even as if it’s being imposed on you. Come up with your own notion of what constitutes better. Try to make it sophisticated. It shouldn’t just be better for you, because that isn’t going to work very well, right? You’re just going to fall down stairs if you do that, because you have to live with other people. And besides, it’s stupid. What are you going to do? There’s nothing you can even say about that. It’s so…That’s the attitude of a very badly behaved, hyper-aggressive two year old. I mean that technically. You could ask yourself, well, I have this day that lays itself out in front of me. What thing could I let go of that’s impeding my progress, that, if I let go of, would make my life better, and my family’s life better, and my culture’s life better, and my being better? That would give you something to do for the day, wouldn’t it? And to justify your miserable life.
You need that. That’s the whole point of the first story of Adam and Eve. What do you have? A miserable life. Ok. What am I going to do about that? Well, if you just have a miserable life, you’re just going to suffer stupidly and get bitter about it. That’s what happens to Cain. It’s like, well, how about not doing that? That just seems to take a bad deal and make it worse. How about making a sacrifice, and seeing if you can please God and put being on track? God, that would be something to do. What could be better than that? What could possibly be better than that? That’s why it’s archetypal, man, because nothing’s better than that. That’s where it tops out.
You can do that. You can do that every day. You have to do it in a little way, because what good are you? You’re not going to go and bring this socialist utopia into being in one fell swoop. You might also think that one of the things Cain might figure out there—there are a couple of things that aren’t just going right for him. Downwind of the fire? Not the right place to blow from. And the fact that he’s enveloped in haze and smoke, and breathing it in, and the fire isn’t burning, might be an indication that he’s doing something wrong, or he would be wiping his eyes and saying, Jesus, what kinda stupid bloody universe would produce smoke like this? It’s like, yes, well, that’s a more likely outcome.
"And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?"
Now that’s an interesting line. I’ve looked at a variety of different translations of this seventh verse. That’s a critical line, and the translation really matters. I’ll tell you what I think this story is, and what I’ve been able to figure out. I’m sure I haven’t got it completely right. God says, if you do well, won’t you be accepted? There’s a hint there, right? It’s something like, well, things aren’t going so well for you. The first thing you might think is, you’re not doing well. Does that mean you’re not doing good? Does that not mean you’re not acting properly? It’s the hint. God is suggesting that, if you were acting properly, you would be successful.
I had a friend, at one point, who was a very bitter person. He had a bunch of problems. Some of them were self-inflicted, and some of them were fate, I suppose. He had become very, very destructive—murderously destructive. Genocidally destructive, I would say. You could see it in his dreams. He lived with me for a while. I knew him very well. He was a friend of mine from the time I was 12 until the time he committed suicide, when he was about 40. When he lived with me, I was trying to help him get on his feet, which was why he had come to live with me. He thought that maybe I could help him get up on his feet. He could only take relatively low-level jobs. He had some mechanical ability. He didn’t get educated, but he was a very, very smart person. He probably had an IQ of 135, or something like that. He was bitter, too, because he hadn’t educated himself to the level that his intellect would have demanded. He had to take jobs that were beneath him, intellectually. He had that real intellectual arrogance, and really smart people often come to believe that only smart matters. If they’re smart, and all that matters is smart, and then the world is sort of laying itself at their feet, then they’ve been terribly betrayed. Then they point to their intelligence, which is more like a talent or a gift. It’s like a false idol, which is exactly what it is, and a very dangerous one. They get cynical about the stupidity of the world and the fact that their talents weren’t properly recognized. That’s just not that helpful. Smart is a good thing, but, I’ll tell you, if you don’t use it properly, it will devour you, just like all arbitrarily assigned talent. You might have the talent, but it’s your friend if use it properly. If you misuse it, it will be your enemy. Maybe that’s how God keeps the cosmic scales adjusted.
Anyhow, my friend was a very smart person, although not as smart as he thought he was, unfortunately. He hadn’t done what would have been necessary with that intelligence to make it manifest itself properly in the world. That also embittered him, because he also knew that there was more that he could have done if he would have done it, and perhaps more that he could still do. What I was suggesting to him while he was living with us—because he was two levels from homeless at that point—was that he should find a job that he could find—working in a garage, working in a shop, or something like that, because he had some mechanical ability—and that he should separate himself from the arrogance that made him presume that such a job would be beneath him. At that point, no job was beneath him, but, more importantly, it’s not so obvious that jobs are beneath people.
Imagine that you have a job as a checkout person in a grocery store. That’s a fairly unskilled job. You can be some miserable, resentful, horrid bastard doing that job. You can come in there just exuding resentment and bitterness, and making mistakes, and making sure that every customer that passes by you has a slightly worse day than they need to. You can pilfer time—and, perhaps, pilfer goods—and be resentful about the people who gave you the position, because they’re above you in the dominance hierarchy, and you can gossip behind the backs of your coworkers. You can take your menial position—self-described—and turn that into a very nice little slice of hell. That’s for sure.
I always think of the archetypal diner in that way. You guys have been in this diner. There’s a really good opposite diner. There’s a great diner on YouTube. It’s Tom Waits reading a poem by Bukowski. I think it’s called Nirvana. It’s about a good diner that he happened to visit when he was a kid. A diner where everything was going well. You could listen to that. It’s great. But this is the opposite diner, that I’m thinking about. You go into a diner, right. It’s seven o'clock in the morning. You order some bacon and eggs and some toast. You look around the diner, and you think, it was like 1975 when the windows were last washed. There’s this kind of thick coating of who-gives-a-damn grease on the walls. The floor, too, has got that sort of stickiness that you really have to work at to develop over the years. The waitress is not happy to be there. The guy behind the counter isn’t happy that that happens to be the waitress that he’s working with. And then you walk down the stairs to the washroom, and that’s its own little trip. You come back, and you order your damn eggs, and you order your toast, and you order your bacon. It comes, and the eggs are too cooked on the bottom, so they’re kind of brown, and then they’re kind of raw on top. They’re cold in the middle. You really have to work to cook an egg like that, man, but you can master that with like 10 years of bitterness. It will teach you how to cook an egg like that. And then the toast—here’s what you do with the toast. You take the white bread—the pre-sliced stuff that no one should ever eat—and then you put that in the toaster, and you overcook it. You wait, and then you pop it out of the toaster. Because it’s overcooked, you scrape it off. You knock off the crumbs so that it doesn’t look too burnt, and then you wait until it’s cold, and then you put cold margarine on it. First of all, it’s not butter. But, if you put cold margarine on it, you can also kinda tear holes in it. Then it has lumps of margarine in it, and it’s really dry, except where it’s too greasy. That’s like its own little work of art, man.
You put that on the side with eggs. And then you have the potatoes. This is how you cook the potatoes properly: the leftover potatoes—and you keep dumping new leftover potatoes into the old leftover potatoes, over weeks. Some of the potatoes have half returned to mother earth. Then you flap them on the grill, and you sort of burn them a bit, I guess. And then you slap them on the plate. Jesus. You don’t want to eat those, man. That’s for sure. That’s the point.
You have the bacon, and you want to make sure you buy the lowest possible quality bacon. That’s how you start. Then you throw it on the grill—and your grill has to be overheated to do this—and you have to cook the bacon so that it’s raw in places and burnt in other places. It has that delightful pig-like odor that only really cheap, badly-cooked bacon can provide. Or maybe you use those little breakfast sausages that no one in their bloody right mind would let within 15 feet of anything living. And then you serve that. And you serve it with the kind of orange juice that is only orange is color, and with coffee that’s…Agh…What would you say? It was started too early in the morning. That’s the first thing. Bad quality coffee started too early in the morning—got cold once or twice, and has been reheated. And then you serve that with whitener. It’s like, here’s your breakfast! It’s like, no, man. That’s not breakfast. That’s hell, and you created it. And then what you do if you have a diner like that is—because you have a miserable life if you have a diner like that, and you really worked on that—you go home, and you curse your wife, and you curse your kids, and you fucking well curse God, too, for producing a universe where a diner like yours is allowed to exist. And that’s your bloody life. Also, that’s what God’s trying to point out, here.
"If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door." Well, I looked at lots of translations for this. Actually, the next line is, "And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him."
Yes. What God actually says is something like this…Things aren’t going so well for you, but if you were behaving properly, they would. But, instead, this is what you’ve done. Sin came to your door, and sin means to pull your arrow back and to miss the target. Sin came to your door. But he uses a metaphor. The metaphor is something like, sin came to your door like this sexually aroused cat-predator thing, and you invited it in. And then you let it have its way with you. It’s like you entered into a creative—he uses a sexual metaphor. You entered into a creative exchange with it, and gave birth to something as a consequence. What you gave birth to, that’s your life. And you knew it. You’re self-conscious, after all. You knew you were doing this. You conspired with this thing to produce the situation that you’re in.
Jung said something similar about the Oedipal mother situation. What he said was very politically incorrect. Of course, every single he wrote was politically incorrect. That’s how you could tell that he was a thinker, by the way. He talked about the unholy alliance between hyper-dependent children and their mothers. He said, well, it’s actually—Freud thought about it as a maternal thing. I’m not putting Freud down. Freud mapped out the Oedipal situation brilliantly. I’m not putting Freud down. But, you know, Jung was taking the ideas and expanding them outward. He said that there as actually an unholy alliance between a hyper-dependent child and an Oedipal, over-dependent mother. The alliance was, the mother would always offer—so maybe the kid is supposed to go off and do something that would require a little bit of courage and effort. The mother says, well, are you sure you’re feeling well enough to do it? And then the child could say, yes, or the child could say no. But the thing is, the child made the damn decision, too. You might think, well, that’s pretty harsh. But just because children are little, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid.
You don’t know children if you don’t know how children know how to manipulate. They are staggeringly good at that. They’re studying you nonstop, trying to figure out, A, what you’re up to, and B, how they can get what they want in the way that they want it. They can play a manipulative game, no problem, especially if they’re well schooled in it. It’s sort of like that. Maybe the mother is a little timid and a little inclined to over-protect, and maybe the child is a little manipulative, and a little willing to not take that courageous step out into the world, and to regress into infantile dependency, instead. Then you get a terrible dynamic building across time that is like a vicious circle, or like a positive feedback loop. It just expands and expands and expands. Sometimes, in families, you see a hyper-dependent child and a perfectly independent child, and the same mother. Mothers are very complex, and mother for child A and mother for child B are not the same mother, even if they happen to be the same human being. The literature’s quite clear on that, but you get my point.
God’s idea was that, not only are you not doing well, but you’re not doing well because you’ve actually really spent a lot of work figuring out how to not do well. This is like creative effort on your part. If you want to read about truly malevolent people, you could start with the Columbine killers. They left some very interesting diaries behind. I would recommend them. There’s plenty of serial killers you could read about, and the people who’ve really gone out and done dark things. I’ve read more than my fair share of that sort of thing, and I understand it quite well. If you really want to have your countenance fall and be wroth, 10 years of brooding on your own catastrophe, sort of alone, and letting your fantasies take shape, and egging them on, allowing them to flourish and, let’s say, take possession of you…That’s exactly the right way to think about it. That will get you somewhere like this. There are more people who are like that than you think, and you’re more like that than you think.
So, Cain is obviously not very happy about this whole answer. The last thing you want to hear if your life has turned into a catastrophe and you take God to task for creating a universe where that sort of thing was allowed, is that it’s your own damn fault, and that you should straighten up and fly right, so to speak, and that you shouldn’t be complaining about the nature of being. But that is the answer he gets. Then what happens? Well, we have to infer that, if Cain was angry before, he’s a lot more angry now. Of course, that’s exactly what the story reveals.
"And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass. when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him."
I’m going to read you something else. This is foreshadowing. This is from the same chapter, by the way.
"Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient. Jesus was led into the wilderness, according to the story, to be tempted by the Devil (Mathew 4:1), prior to his crucifixion. This is the story of Cain, restated abstractly. Cain is far from happy, as we have seen. He’s working hard, or so he thinks, but God is not pleased. Meanwhile, Abel is dancing away in the daisies. His crops flourish. Women love him. Worst of all, he’s a pretty good good guy. Everyone knows it. He deserves his good fortune. All the more reason to hate him."
When I used to teach at Harvard, now and then my wife would have some of the younger graduates over. We used to joke afterwards, because many of them were very remarkable kids. They were super smart, or they were athletic, or they had some dramatic ability, or they were musicians, or they’d done some spectacular charitable work. Because, basically, to be accepted into Harvard, you had to be top of your damn school, and then you had to have at least two other outstanding things going for you. What was so annoying about most of these kids—this was our joke—you really both liked them and respected them. My joke was, you’d think they would have had the good graces to be dislikable sons of bitches, at least. With all those other great things going for them, they had to add respectability and likability to it, as well. So you thought, well, you know, it really couldn’t happen to a better person. It’s like, good God. Well, that’s Abel’s situation. The funny thing, too, is that that’s an ideal. That’s the ideal. An ideal person, let’s say, would be someone who you would want to be like, and someone who is operating in the world like you would want to operate, and someone who fortune is smiling on, and someone who is making the right sacrifices. It’s really what you would want to be. And so Cain kills that.
It’s a psychological story, too. You see this in the cynicism that people have about people who have done well in the world. They’re always looking for some reason why they’ve done well. They must be crooked, or they must be conniving, or they must be arrogant, or they must be psychopathic, and, of course, all of those things exist. But it’s a very bad trick to play on yourself to make the proposition that the person in the world who represents your own ideal is that ideal because of despicable reasons. Because what you do is train yourself that the ideal that you should pursue can only exist if it’s motivated by despicable reasons. And then what? Not only is Abel, your brother, dead, as your brother, in the field, in reality, but you’ve also slaughtered your own ideal. Well then what the hell are you going to work for? How are you going to live, then? Bitterly and miserably. That’s for sure. Bitterly, miserably, and hopelessly. That’s how you’re going to live. It’s so rare that I see—especially publicly—that people honestly admit—with sports figures they’ll do it. That’s one place where that seems to happen. But it’s so uncommon for expressions of admiration and gratitude to manifest themselves in any public communication, of any sort. Newspapers, TV, YouTube, Twitter. It’s almost always undermining, backbiting, and criticism, and very often directed at people who have often done little else but bring good things into the world for other people. That’s part of why this is such a profound story.
"He’s a pretty good guy. Everyone know’s it. He deserves his good fortune. All the more reason to hate him." That’s for sure.
"Cain broods on his misfortune, like a vulture on an egg. He enters the desert wilderness of his own mind. He obsesses over his ill-fortune and betrayal. He nourishes his resentment. He indulges in ever-more elaborate fantasies of revenge. His arrogance grows to Luciferian proportions. I’m ill-used and oppressed, he thinks. This is a stupid bloody planet. It can go to hell. And with that, he encounters Satan in the wilderness, and falls prey to his temptations. He does what he can, in John Milton’s unforgettable words, to confound the Race of Mankind in the first Root and mingle and involve Earth with hell—done all to spite the Great Creator. He turns to Evil to obtain what Good forbade him, and he does it voluntarily, self-consciously and with malice. Let him who has ears hear."
So that’s the first two human beings. The resentful, bitter, failure taking the axe to the admirable success. "And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not; Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What has thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand;"
If you want to understand that, which I would recommend, you could read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. That’s a great novel. I think it might be the greatest novel ever written. I haven’t read every novel, but, in my experience, it’s the greatest novel. It is exactly this. It says what happens psychologically if you commit the ultimate crime. It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s no psychologist like Dostoyevsky.
"When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the Lord, my punishment is greater than I can bear."
One of the things that’s interesting about this is—I think the punishment that God lays on Cain…It’s like the inevitable consequences of Cain’s action. It’s like, well, he killed his brother. There’s no going back from that. Good luck forgiving yourself for that, especially if he was your ideal. Because you haven’t just killed your brother—and, of course, tortured your parents and the rest of your family—you’ve deprived the community of someone who’s upstanding, and you did it for the worst possible motivations. There’s no up from there. That’s as close to hell as you can manage on earth, I would say.
"And Cain said unto the Lord, my punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid…”
That, too. There’s also no turning back to God, let’s say, after an error like that. You’ve done everything you possibly could to spite God—assuming he exists—and the probability that you’re going to be able to mend that relationship in your now-broken state, when you couldn’t mend it to begin with, before you did something so terrible, starts to move towards zero.
"And it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him."
That’s an interesting thing. I wondered about that for a long time. You might think, why would God take Cain under his wing, so to speak, given what’s already happened? I think it has something to do with the emergence of the idea that it was necessary to prevent tit-for-tat revenge slayings. It’s something like that. There’s hints of that later in the text. It’s like, well, I killed your brother, and then you killed two of my brothers, and then I kill your whole family, and then you kill my whole town, and then I kill your whole country, and then we blow up the world. That’s probably not a very intelligent solution to the initial problem, even though the initial problem, which might be a murder, is not an easy thing to solve. But I think it’s something like that.
That’s William Blake. Adam and Eve have discovered their dead son. Cain has become cognizant, I would say, of what he did and of what he is. It’s another entrance into a form of self-consciousness. The self-consciousness that Adam and Eve developed was painful enough. They become aware of their own vulnerability, nakedness, and, perhaps, even their capacity for evil. But Cain becomes aware of his voluntary engagement with evil itself, and sees that as a crucial, human capability.
That’s something modern people…It’s no wonder we don’t take it seriously. Among intellectual circles, for decades, the idea of evil has been…It’s like, what are you? Medieval, or something? The whole idea of evil is a non-starter as an intellectual starting place, and as a topic. That’s something that I’ve just been unable to understand. I cannot understand how you could possibly have more than a cursory knowledge of the history of the 20th century—much less a deep knowledge of the history of the 20th century—and walk away with any other conclusion than, well, good might not exist, but evil…The evidence for that is so overwhelming that only willful blindness could possibly explain denying its existence.
That was actually a useful discovery for me. I also concluded that, if it was true that evil existed, then it was true, by inference, that its opposite existed. The opposite of evil. Let’s say the evil of the concentrate camp. We could get more specific about it. There’s this one thing that used to happen in Auschwitz, where they would take people off the incoming trains—those who lived, and that weren’t stacked around the outside of the train cars and frozen to death because it was too cold. Those who only had to be stuck in the middle, so it was warm enough. Maybe the old people died because they suffocated, but at least some of them were alive when they arrived at Auschwitz. They took those poor people out, and one of the tricks that the guards used to play on them was to have the newly arrived prisoners hoist like hundred pound sacks of wet salt and carry them from one side of the compound—and these compounds were big. This was a city. It wasn’t like a gymnasium; it was like a city. Tens of thousands of people were there. They would have them carry the sack of wet salt from one side of the compound to the other, and then back. That was to make a mockery out of the notion that work would set you free. It’s like, no, no. You work here, but there’s nothing productive about it. The whole point is exactly the opposite of sacrifice, in some sense. We’re going to make you act out working, but all it will do is speed your demise. And maybe we can decorate it up a little bit, because not only will it speed up your demise, it will do it in a very painful way, while simultaneously increasing the probability that other people’s demises will be painful and sped up. It’s a work of art. That’s for sure. To know about that sort of thing and to not regard it as evil means…Well, you can figure out what it means for yourself.
"And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived…" A fairly common criticism of these Biblical stories is, well, if Cain and Abel were the only two people from Adam and Eve, where did all these other people come from? Doesn’t that make the story simpleminded? No. That makes the reader simpleminded. I mean, really? That’s the best criticism of this you’re going to come up with? You might say, ah, you missed the point. That would be the right response: you missed the point.
"And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch, and he builded the city, and sold—" It’s Cain that builds the cities and starts the civilization. That’s pretty rough, too. It’s the first fratricidal murderer who builds the cities after the name of his son, Enoch.
"And unto Enoch was born Irad…" Et cetera, et cetera. I’m going through the generations. "And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah." This is an attempt to flesh out the genealogy and describe to how culture started, in some sense, in these tribal communities. "And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. And Zillah, she also bear Tubalcain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron." Tubalcain, traditionally, is the first person who makes weapons of war. "And Lamech"—back to Lamech, descendent of Cain—"said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Heed my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold."
Well, what I see in that is this proclivity of this murderous capacity of Cain manifesting itself, as society develops, to a murderous intent that transcends the mere killing of a brother. You hurt me; I hurt you back. No—you hurt me; I kill you and six other people. The thing that happens after that is, it’s not to make it seven people, but to make it seventy people. And so there’s this idea that once that first murderous seed is sown, it has this proclivity to manifest itself exponentially. That’s a warning. That’s also why, I think, Tubalcain, who’s one of Cain’s descendants, was the first person who made weapons of war.
And that’s pretty much the story of Cain and Abel. It’s a hell of a story, as far as I can tell. I think it’s worth thinking about pretty much forever. It has so many facets. I think the most usefully revealing of those facets is the potential for the story, once understood, to shed light on not your own failure—not even on your rejection by being, let’s say—but on the proclivity to murder the best, and the best in you, for revenge upon that violation. What that means—and we know that knowledge of good and evil entered the world, so to speak, with Adam and Eve’s transgression—is that now, not only does humanity have to contend with tragedy and suffering, and even the unharvested fruits of proper sacrifice, but with the introduction of real malevolence into the world.
There’s the Fall into history, and then there’s the discovery of sacrifice as a medication for the Fall. And then there’s a counterposition, which is the emergence of malevolence as the enemy of proper sacrifice. And that’s where we’re left at the end of Cain and Abel. And that’s the end of that lecture. Thank you.