Biblical Series XII: The Great Sacrifice: Abraham and Isaac by Dr. Jordan Peterson
Thank you all for coming. I’ve been thinking about things that I’m happy about. What I’m most happy about is that I haven’t spilled my bubbly water into my computer, so far, while I’ve been doing these lectures. I’ll probably do it tonight, now that I’m bragging about having avoided it. This is the last lecture in this 12-part series. I did mention that I have made arrangements with the theatre, to do this once a month for the next four months, and we’ll play it by ear past then. I want to continue, and find another venue, and perhaps to do it every two weeks, but certainly once a month. Maybe I can even get deeper into the material, if it’s only once a month. Then we’ll really slow down to a snail’s crawl.
This is a tough one, tonight. It’s a story that everyone with any sense should approach with a substantial degree of trepidation. I’ve been working on my book this week, on chapter seven, which is called "Do What Is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient." It’s been a very difficult chapter, because I’m trying to extend my understanding of sacrifice—which is, of course, what we’re going to talk about tonight—in great detail. I’ve been wrestling with exactly how to do that. I’m going to read you some of that, I think, today. I don’t generally read when I do my lectures, but this is so complicated that I’m not confident of my ability to just spin it off spontaneously.
It will also give me a chance to test out if what I’ve written—which I’ve been struggling with—has the kind of poetic flow that I’d like to have. If you’re writing, it’s really good to read things aloud, because you can tell if you’ve got the rhythmic cadence right. So, anyways, thank you all for coming. Many of you have, I believe, attended all 12 lectures. That’s really remarkable. It’s amazing that this place has been full every single lecture. It’s completely unbelievable for that to be the case. This has been watched more than 2 million views. It’s not 2 million people, because it would be the same people, I would suspect, many times. That’s also crazy, but it’s a crazy world, and it seems to be getting crazier. Hopefully, this is some addition to stabilizing it, and making it slightly more sane. That’s the hope, anyways.
We’ve got a couple of stories to deal with tonight—complex, complex stories that are not really easy to comprehend, in any sense of the word. With the story of Isaac, God calls on his chosen individual—Abraham, the person he’s made this contract with—to sacrifice his son. How in the world are you supposed to make any sense out of that? It’s exactly that sort of story that makes modern people, who are convinced that the faster we put the Biblical stories behind us, the better—it’s grist for their mill, because it seems like such an incomprehensible and barbaric act, on the part of God. I hesitate to even approach it, because there’s so many ways that an interpretation of that sort can go wrong. But we’ll see how it goes. Let’s walk through it, and see what happens.
We'll start with the story of Sarah and Isaac. "And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said." Remember: when Abraham was in the midst of his appropriate sacrificial routines—which we’ve characterized as his return to the contract he made with the idea of the Good; the contract with God—he was informed, by God, that he would get what he most wanted, which was an heir, despite his advanced old age. Of course, Sarah was very sceptical about that, as she had every reason to be. But this story opens with the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
"And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken. For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him. And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him. And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me. And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age. And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned."
I suppose one of the purposes—perhaps the literary purposes of this story—is to exaggerate, for dramatic purposes, the importance of a child. When people are young—and I think this is particularly true in the modern world—they seem to often regard the possibility of having a child as an impediment to their lifestyle. Of course, in some ways, I suppose that’s true. Although, you have to have quite a lifestyle before a child actually constitutes an impediment, because having a child in your life is actually something that’s remarkable almost beyond belief. You can have a relationship with a child that is better than any relationship that you’ve ever had with anyone in your life, if you’re careful, and if you’re fortunate.
I’ve seen many people delay having children for understandable reasons. It’s no simple decision to have a child. Of course, now we can make the decision to have a child—which, of course, people couldn’t in the past ages, really. But, sometimes, you see people delay, and they delay too long, and then they don’t get to have a child, and then they’re desperate. They spend a decade doing fertility treatments, or that sort of thing, and immersing themselves in one disappointment after another. It’s just at that point that you see exactly how catastrophic it can be for people not to be able to undergo one of the great adventures of life, let’s say. One of the things this story does, by delaying the arrival of Isaac continually, is to exaggerate the important significance of a child, because it’s truly not until you’re deprived of something that you have any sense of what its value is. Abraham was waiting a hundred years—a very long time—and the same with Sarah. So they’re unbelievably excited. Of course, this also heightens the drama that’s inherent in the entire sacrificial story. It’s not only that, eventually, Abraham is called upon to sacrifice Isaac, which would be bad enough under any circumstances whatsoever, self-evidently. The fact that he’s been waiting a century for this child, desperately, and made all the proper sacrifices, and lived in the appropriate manner to allow this to occur, dramatically heightens the literary tensions.
Now, you remember Hagar? This is the next part of the story. Hagar was Sarah’s handmaid. When Sarah was unable to bear Abraham a child, she sent him Hagar. Hagar immediately got pregnant, and she gave birth to Ishmael. The story picks up from that point. I mentioned, in a couple of weeks in a row, just how interesting it has been to scour the internet for the paintings that are associated with these stories. There’s an amazing wealth of great paintings that illustrate every single Biblical story. It’s really been enlightening to find out just exactly how poorly educated I am. I’m a great admirer of artistic talent and endeavour, but there’s so much that I don’t know about the history of art that it’s just absolutely beyond belief. To see this treasure trove of images, that I really had no idea existed…Of course, they’re spread all over the world. It’s only been in recent years that you could have access to them in this way. It’s a constant revelation of the depth to which these stories have absolutely permeated our culture, and the loss that it would be if we didn’t know them properly, and take them with the degree of seriousness that they deserve. So, anyways, this is one of those great images.
"And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son."
There’s been quite a bit of tension between Sarah and Hagar, as you could imagine there might be. Why wouldn’t there be? First of all, Hagar had the first child, and that elevated her status. She was Sarah’s handmaid, and so that’s obviously going to be quite awkward. And then she lorded it over Sarah because of the fact that she got pregnant so easily. And now we see this situation, where Ishmael is doing the same thing with regards to Isaac. That causes a substantial amount of trouble. A familial division is occurring, here.
"And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed."
That’s an interesting outcome, too. We pointed out, before, the fact that, because Abraham has lived his life properly, and has kept a contract with God, there’s every evidence in the story that, no matter what the vicissitudes of Abraham’s life—how the great serpent that he sits on, in some sense, weaves back and forth—there’s always the promise that things will work out positively. You can read that as naive optimism, but I think it has a lot more to do with the actual power of keeping the contractual agreement. I really do believe it, and I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about this over the last couple of weeks, in addition to the decades before that. And all that’s happened, since I’ve been doing these Biblical lectures, is that my conviction in this has been strengthened. What’s quite interesting is that, if you do what it is that you’re called upon to do—which is to lift your eyes up above the mundane, daily, selfish, impulsive issues that might upset you—and you attempt to enter into a contractual relationship with that which you might hold in the highest regard, whatever that might be—to aim high, and to make that important above all else in your life—that fortifies you against the vicissitudes of existence, like nothing else can. I truly believe that’s the most practical advice that you could possibly receive.
I was answering questions last night. I did this Q and A, which I do about once a month for the people who are supporting me on Patreon, and which I also release on YouTube. Somebody was struggling with their religious faith, and they asked what they could do about that. I’d also been thinking about the difference between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, which I’ll discuss in a minute. I was trying to answer this question in regards to religious faith because this person was shaky in his faith in life, let’s say, which is a better way of thinking about it. It seems to me that the way that you fortify your faith in Being, life, and your own existence isn’t to try to convince yourself of the existence of a transcendent power that you could believe in, in the same way that you believe in a set of empirical facts. I don’t think that’s the right approach. I think it’s a weak approach, actually. I don’t think that’s the right cognitive technology for that set of problems. That’s more a technology that you’d use is you were trying to solve a scientific problem. It’s more something that needs to be embedded in action, rather than in statable belief. The way that you fortify your faith in life is to assume the best—something like that—and then to act courageously in relationship to that. That’s tantamount to expressing your faith in the highest possible Good. It’s tantamount to expressing your faith in God. It’s not a matter of stating, ‘I believe in the existence of a transcendent deity,’ because, in some sense, who cares what you believe? You might, and all that, but that’s not the issue. The issue, it seems to me, is how you act.
I was thinking about this intensely when I was thinking about Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Of course, you know that Nietzsche was the philosopher who announced the death of God, and who’s a great, great, critic of Christianity, and a vicious critic of institutional Christianity, in the best sense. He announced the death of God, and he said that we’d never find enough water to wash away the blood. It wasn’t a triumphant proclamation, even though it’s often read that way. Nietzsche’s conclusion from the death of God, the fact that our ethical systems were going to collapse when the foundation was pulled out from underneath them, was that human beings were going to have to create their own values. There’s a problem with that. This is something that Carl Jung was very thorough in investigating. It doesn’t really look like people are capable of creating their own values, because you’re not really capable of moulding yourself just any old way you want to be. You have a nature that you have to contend with, and so it isn’t a matter of creating our own values. We don’t have that capacity. It might be a matter of rediscovering those values, which is what Jung was attempting to do.
I think Nietzsche was, actually, profoundly wrong, in that recommendation. I think he was psychologically wrong. Dostoevsky wrote, in many ways, in parallel to Nietzsche, and he was a great influence on Nietzsche. Their lives paralleled each other to a degree that’s somewhat miraculous. In some sense, it’s quite uncanny. Dostoevsky was obviously a literary figure, while Nietzsche was a philosopher—a literary philosopher, but still a philosopher. Dostoevsky wrestled with exactly the same problems that Nietzsche wrestled with, but he did it in a different way. He did it in a literary manner. He has this great book, The Brothers Karamazov. The hero of the book is really Alyosha, who’s a monastic novitiate; a very good guy. Not an intellect, but a person of great character. But he has an older brother, Ivan, who’s a great intellect, and a very handsome soldier, and a brave man. Dostoevsky’s villains—Ivan isn’t exactly a villain, but that’s close enough. Dostoevsky makes his villains extraordinarily powerful, so if Dostoevsky is trying to work out an argument, he clothes the argument in the flesh of one of his characters. If it’s an argument he doesn’t agree with, then he makes that character as strong as he possibly can—as strong, attractive, and intelligent as he possibly can, and then he lets him just have at ‘er. Ivan is constantly attacking Alyosha, and, from every direction, trying to knock him off his perch of faith. Alyosha can’t address a single one of Ivan’s criticisms. He doesn’t have the intellect for it, and Ivan has a devastating intellect—it’s devastating to him, himself, as well.
What happens in The Brothers Karamazov, essentially, is that Alyosha continues to act out his commitment to the Good, let’s say, and, in that manner, he’s triumphant. It doesn’t matter that he loses the arguments, because the arguments aren’t exactly the point. The arguments, in some sense, are a side issue. Because the issue—and this is the existential issue—is not what you believe—as if it’s a set of facts—but how you conduct yourself in the world. Dostoevsky grasped that, and it’s one of the things that makes him such an amazing literary figure, and a genius. He was smart enough to formulate the arguments in a manner that no one else really could, with a possible exception of Nietzsche, and that’s quite an exception. And yet, using his dramatic embodiment, he could still lay out solutions to the problems that he was describing, that are extremely compelling. Both Crime and Punishment, which is an amazing, thrilling, engrossing book, and The Brothers Karamazov—all of Dostoevsky’s great books, really, circulate around those profound moral issues. And so, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from reading him.
"And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed."
All right. I commented that Abraham is being blessed in multiple directions, even when things are going wrong. This is pretty bad, because his family, in some sense, is breaking up. There’s this emphasis in the text that, because he’s kept this contractual relationship with God, that he’s in an ark—we could put it that way—and that he’ll triumph through the vicissitudes of life, which is the best that you can hope for. It’s quite interesting. Again, one of the things that’s so powerful about the Abrahamic stories is that it’s not like Abraham, even though he’s chosen by God, has an easy time of it. He has a rough life. It’s a successful life, and all that, but it’s not without its troubles. That’s for sure. It’s got every sort of trouble that you could possibly imagine, pretty much. That’s one of the things that makes the stories so realistic, as far as I’m concerned.
"And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba."
It’s funny…I guess this had more of an emotional impact on me this week than it might have because my daughter just had a baby, a week ago. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing…We’re so happy that that’s happened. I was trying to put myself in the conceptual space of the people who these stories are about, and trying to notice the catastrophe that this sort of breakup would actually constitute. The visual images really help with that, because they’re so carefully crafted. They hit the story from so many different directions that they add an additional layer of emotional meaning to it, which I found very, very significant.
"And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs." She was sent to wander in the desert, you know? It’s not just that she has to leave Abraham’s household: it’s that where she goes is not really amenable to life. It’s an extraordinarily dramatic and terrible tale.
"And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow shot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.
"And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer."
That’s actually a relevant detail, too: the fact that he became an archer. I think I mentioned to you, at one point, that the word ‘sin’ is derived from a Greek word, ‘hamartia,’ even though it sounds nothing like that word. Hamartia is actually an archery term. It means to miss the bullseye. That’s a lovely metaphor for sin, I think, because it’s associated so tightly with the idea of goal, direction, and aim. There’s a metaphorical idea that’s embedded in that image, and that is that a human being is something that specifies a target—which we do all the time with our eyes, by the way. Our eyes are target-specifying mechanisms. We have very precise central focal vision. We use our focal vision to target the aim of our behaviour. And so we are aiming creatures. It’s built right into our body. We’re built on a hunting platform. We’re aiming creatures. We do that cognitively, as well as behaviourally. As hunters, we take aim at things. We take aim at moving targets, and we’re very good at bringing them down. We’ve been doing that for who knows how long—millions of years, really. Even chimpanzees are carnivorous, by the way, and we split from them about 6 million years ago. And so we’ve been hunting and aiming for a very, very long period of time. We still have aims in our life, right? And that’s how we describe them: ‘what are you aiming at,’ or ‘what are your aims,’ or ‘what are your goals. What’s your target?’ It’s all based on that hunting metaphor. The fact that Ishmael becomes an archer means that he’s someone who can take aim at the center of the bullseye and hit it precisely. That’s an indication that he’s a good man—and, I suppose, he carries part of the narrative weight of the story, because, of course, he’s Abraham’s son, and you’d expect Abraham’s son to be someone who’s very good at taking aim.
"And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran." He could live there and survive, which is no trivial thing. "And his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt."
Ok, so that’s the story of Hagar. It’s a fairly straightforward story. It’s complex emotionally, and it brings up the terrible theme of familial catastrophe, the complications of romantic and familial relationships, and all of that. But it really serves as a prodrome to the next story, which is the one that’s so complex and difficult to understand.
"And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham"—which is a funny thing for God to do, I suppose—"and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you."
It’s really one of the first times that we’ve come across the word ‘worship,’ if I remember correctly. It’s a very difficult word to contend with, too. When I was a kid, it was never really obvious why God would want to be worshipped. You go to church; you offer up your praise and thanks to God. You think, ‘well, really? Does that make a lot of sense? Why in the world is that what he wants?’ It’s almost like you’re kneeling down in front of an ancient, Middle Eastern, tyrannical emperor and vowing your submission. That never sat well with me. I suppose it doesn’t sit well with many people. I think that’s because it’s not the proper way of conceptualizing it.
What Abraham does continually—and this seems to be implicit in the use of the word ‘worship,’ in this particular situation. As we discussed, he has an adventure in his life. It comes to an end. Then there’s a period where he reconstitutes himself, to some degree. That’s when he makes his sacrifices. It seems to me that it’s that reconstitution that constitutes the worship. The worship is something like—this is alluding back to my original proposition that it’s how you act that’s the issue. The worship is the decision to enact the Good in whatever form it is that you can conceptualize it, as well as trying to continually reconceptualize the Good, in a manner that makes the Good that you’re conceptualizing even that much better, right? When you start aiming, the probability that you’re going to be aiming in the right direction is very low. But hypothetically, as you aim, and as you practice, and as you learn, the target is going to shift in front of your eyes, and you’re going to be able to follow it ever-more-clearly. That seems to be a much more appropriate interpretation of what constitutes proper worship, especially given the context that this word is used in, in this particular story. I suppose it’s akin to the later Christian idea that it’s the imitation of Christ that’s the sacred duty of every Christian, and of every human being, I suppose, insofar as that’s an archetypal idea.
The embodiment of the Good is the issue. It’s not your stated belief in the Good. When Nietzsche was criticizing Christianity, this is actually one of the things he brought up as a major issue. He believed Christianity had lost its way because it had introduced a confusion between stated belief, which is, say, your belief in the divinity of Christ—whatever it means if you state that. It isn’t obvious what it means when you state that, because it isn’t obvious what it would mean if you believe it, or even what it is that you’re believing in. As far as Nietzsche was concerned, in some sense, not only was that beside the point, it was dangerously beside the point, because it actually allowed the Christian believer not to adopt the moral burden that was actually appropriate to the faith, which was to—and I’m using a Jungian concept—manifest the archetype within the confines of your own life. That’s to make your relationship with the divine, transcendent, and infinite into something that’s actually realizable in the context of your own life, which is to say that you’re supposed to act out the highest Good of which you’re capable. That will transform your life, to some degree, into an archetypal adventure. There’s no way around that, because as you attempt to climb a higher mountain, let’s say, or to aim at a higher target, or something like that, the things around you will become increasingly dramatic and of import. That happens by necessity, obviously: if you’re aiming at something difficult and profound, and you’re really working at it, then your life is going to become, perhaps, increasingly difficult and profound. But that might be ok. That might be exactly what you need as an antidote to the implicit limitations that face you, as a human being.
"…and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you." Now there’s an implication, here, too. It’s foreshadowing that Abraham offering up his son is actually a form of worship, and it’s continuous with what he’s already done. Now I’m going to read you some of the things that I’ve written, and then I’ll return to this. We’ll see how that goes.
"Life is suffering. That’s clear. There’s no more basic, irrefutable truth. It’s basically what God tells Adam and Eve, immediately before he kicks them out of Paradise: ‘unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiple thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; by the sweat of your brow will you eat your food, until you return to the ground; since from it you were taken: for dust you are, and to dust you will return.’"
Rough. We’ve associated that with Adam and Eve’s eyes opening, and them becoming self-conscious and discovering the future, becoming fully aware, falling into history. It seems, to me, to be a very realistic, existential portrayal of the predicament of humankind.
"What should be done about that? The simplest, most obvious, and most direct answer? Pursue pleasure, and follow your impulses. Live for the moment. Do what’s expedient. Lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate—but don’t get caught. In an ultimately meaningless universe, what difference could it make? And this is by no means a new idea. The fact of life’s tragedy and the suffering that is part of it has been used to justify the pursuit of immediate selfish gratification for a very long time."
Even reading Jung—he often writes as if before the rise of the conflict between religion and science, which culminated, say, in Nietzsche’s pronouncement about the death of God. People lived ensconced, quite safely, within a religious conceptualization, and imbued their life with meaning. That was just the state of reality. But there’s ancient writings that make it quite clear that the crises of faith that characterize modern people were certainly far from unknown in the past. Here’s one of those writings. This is from Wisdom 2, the revised standard version:
"‘Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.’"
It’s an amazing piece of writing. It starts with an announcement for the rationale for nihilism and ends with the justification for fascist tyranny. It’s thousands of years old. It’s a remarkable thing to see, and to be laid out so concisely.
"The pleasure of expediency may be fleeting, but it’s pleasure, nonetheless, and that’s something to stack up against the terror and pain of existence. Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost, as the old proverb has it. Why not simply take everything you can get, whenever the opportunity arises? Why not determine to live in that manner? What’s the alternative, and why should we bother with it? Our ancestors worked out very sophisticated answers to such questions, but we still don’t understand them very well. This is because they are in large part still implicit—manifest primarily in ritual and myth and, as of yet, incompletely articulated. We act them out and represent them in stories, but we’re not yet wise enough to formulate them explicitly. We’re still chimps in a troupe, or wolves in a pack. We know how to behave, if we know who’s who, and why. We’ve learned that through experience. Our knowledge has been shaped by our interaction with others. We’ve established predictable routines and patterns of behaviour—but we don’t really understand them, or know where they originated. They’ve evolved over great expanses of time. No one was formulating them explicitly, at least not in the dimmest reaches of the past, even though we’ve been telling each other how to act forever.
One day, however, not so long ago, we woke up. We were already doing, but we starting noticing what we were doing. We started using our bodies as devices to represent their own actions. We started imitating and dramatizing. We invented ritual. We started acting out our own experiences. Then we started to tell stories. We coded our observations of our own drama in these stories. In this manner, the information that was first only embedded in our behaviour became represented in our stories. But we didn’t and still don’t understand what it all means.
The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptualization and action well-matched to that nature. In the Garden of Eden, prior to the dawn of self-consciousness—so goes the story—human beings were sinless. Our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, walked with God. Then, tempted by the snake, the first couple ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, discovered Death and vulnerability, and turned away from God. Mankind was exiled from Paradise, and began its effortful mortal existence. The idea of sacrifice enters soon afterward, beginning with the account of Cain and Abel, and developing through the Abrahamic stories: After much contemplation, struggling humanity learns that God’s favor could be gained, and wrath averted, through proper sacrifice—and, also, that bloody murder might be motivated among those unwilling or unable to succeed in this manner.
When engaging in sacrifice, our forefathers began to act out what would be considered a proposition, if it were stated in words: that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present. Recall, if you will, that the necessity for work is one of the cursed placed by God upon Adam and his descendants in consequence of Original Sin. Adam’s waking to the fundamental constraints of his Being—his vulnerability, his eventual death—is equivalent to his discovery of the future. The future: that’s where you go to die. Hopefully, not too soon. Your demise might be staved off through work; through the sacrifice of the now to benefit later. It is for this reason—among others, no doubt—that the concept of sacrifice is introduced in the Biblical chapter immediately following the drama of the Fall. There’s little difference between sacrifice and work. They are also both uniquely human. Sometimes, animals act as if they’re working, but they are really only following the dictates of their nature. Beavers build damns. They do so because they are beavers, and beavers build damns. They don’t think, ‘Yeah, but I’d rather be on a beach in Mexico with my girlfriend,’ while they’re doing it.
Prosaically, such sacrifice—work—is delay of gratification, but that’s a very mundane phrase to describe something of soul-shattering significance. The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality. Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. We learned that behaving properly now, in the present—regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others—could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist. We began to inhibit, control and organize our immediate impulses, so that we could stop interfering with other people and our future selves. Doing so was indistinguishable from organizing society: the discovery of the causal relationship between our efforts today and the quality of tomorrow motivated the social contract—the organization that enables today’s work to be stored, reliably, mostly in the form of promises from others.
Understanding is often acted out before it can be articulated, just as a child act out what it means to be ‘mother’ or ‘father’ before being able to give a spoken account of what those roles means. The act of making a ritual sacrifice to God was an early and sophisticated enactment of the idea of the usefulness of delay. There’s a long conceptual journey between merely feasting hungrily and learning to set aside some extra meat, smoked by the fire, for the end of the day, or for someone who isn’t present. It takes a long time to learn to keep anything later for yourself, or to share it with someone else. And those are very much the same thing as, in the former case, you’re sharing with your future self. It’s much easier and far more likely to selfishly and immediately wolf down everything in sight. There are similar long journeys between every leap in sophisticated with regard to delay and its conceptualization: short-term sharing, storing away for the future, representation of that storage in the form of records and, later, in the form of currency—and, ultimately, the saving of money in a bank or other social institution. Some conceptualizations had to serve as intermediaries, or the full range of our practices and ideas surrounding sacrifice and work and their representation could have never emerged.
Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governed fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked. This was in part because the future is largely composed of other human beings—often precisely those who watched and evaluated and appraised the tiniest details of your past behaviour. It’s not very far from that to God, sitting above on high, tracking your every move and writing it down for further reference in a big book. Here’s a productive symbolic idea: the future is a judgemental father. That’s a good start. But two additional, archetypal, foundational questions arose, because of the discovery of sacrifice, of work. Both have to do with the ultimate extension of the logic of work—which is ‘sacrifice now, to gain later.’
First question. What must be sacrificed? Small sacrifices may be sufficient to solve small, singular problems. But it’s possible that larger, more comprehensive sacrifice might solve an array of large and complex problems, all at the same time. That’s harder, but it might be better. Adapting to the necessary discipline of medical school will, for example, fatally interfere with the licentious lifestyle of a hardcore undergraduate party animal. Giving that up is a sacrifice. But a physician can—to paraphrase George W.—really put food on his family. That’s a lot of trouble dispensed with, over a very long period of time. So, sacrifices are necessary, to improve the future, and larger sacrifices can be better.
Second question. We’ve already established the basic principle—‘sacrifice will improve the future.’ What is implied by that, in the most extreme and final of cases? Where does that basic principle find its limits? We must ask, to begin, ‘what would be the largest, most effective—most pleasing—of all possible sacrifices?’ and then, ‘how good might the best possible future be, if the most effective sacrifice could be made?’
The Biblical story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s sons, immediately follows the story of the expulsion from Paradise, as mentioned previously. Cain and Abel are really the first humans, since their parents were made directly by God, and not born in the standard manner. Cain and Abel live in history, not in Eden. They must work. They must make sacrifices, to please God, and they do so, with altar and proper ritual. But things get complicated. Abel’s offerings please God, but Cain’s do not. Abel is rewarded, many times over, but Cain is not. It’s not precisely clear why, although the text strongly hints that Cain’s heart is just not in it. Maybe the quality of what Cain put forward was low. Maybe his spirit was begrudging. Or maybe God was just feeling crabby. And all of this is realistic, including the text’s vagueness of explanation. Not all sacrifices are of equal quality. Furthermore, it often appears that sacrifices of apparently high quality are sometimes not rewarded with a better future—and it’s not clear why. Why isn’t God happy? What would have to change to make Him so? Those are difficult questions—and everyone asks them, all the time, even if they don’t notice. Asking such questions is indistinguishable from thinking.
The realization that pleasure could be usefully forestalled dawned with a difficulty that’s almost impossible to overstate. Such a realization runs absolutely contrary to our ancient, fundamental animal instincts, which demand immediate satisfaction, particularly under conditions of deprivation, which are both inevitable and commonplace. And, to complicate the matter, such delay only becomes useful when civilization has stabilized itself enough to guarantee the existence of the delayed reward. If everything you save will be destroyed or, worse, stolen, there’s no point in saving. It’s for this reason that a wolf will down 20 pounds of raw meat in a single meal. He isn’t thinking, ‘man, I hate it when I binge. I should save some of this for next week.’
Here’s a developmental progression, from animal to human. It’s wrong, no doubt, in the details. But it’s sufficiently correct, for our purposes, in theme: First, there’s excess food. Large carcasses, mammoths or other massive herbivores, might provide that. We ate a lot of mammoths. Maybe all of them. With a large animal, there’s some left for later, after a kill. That’s accidental, at first—but, eventually, the utility of ‘for later’ starts to be appreciated. Some provisional notion of sacrifice develops at the same time: ‘If I leave some, even if I want it now, I won’t have to be hungry later.’ That provisional notion then develops, to the next level: ‘if I leave some for later, I won’t have to go hungry, and neither will those I care for.’ And then to the next level: ‘I can’t possibly eat all of this mammoth, but I can’t store the rest for too long, either. Maybe I should feed some to other people. Maybe they’ll remember, and feed me some of their mammoth, when they have some and I have none. Then I’ll get some mammoth now, and some mammoth later. That’s a good deal. And maybe those I’m sharing with will come to trust me, more generally. Maybe then we could trade forever.’ In such a manner, ‘mammoth’ becomes ‘future mammoth,’ and ‘future mammoth’ becomes ‘personal reputation.’ That’s the emergence of the social contract.
To share does not mean to give away something you value, and get nothing back. That is instead only what every child who refuses to share is afraid that it means. To share means to properly initiate the process of trade. A child who can’t share—who can’t trade—can’t have any friends, because having friends is a form of trade. Benjamin Franklin once suggested that a newcomer to a neighbourhood ask a new neighbour to do him or her a favor, citing an old maxim: ‘he that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.’ In Franklin’s opinion, asking someone for something—not too extreme, obviously—was the most useful and immediate invitation to social interaction. Such asking allowed the neighbour to show him- or herself as a good person, at first encounter. It also meant that the neighbour could now ask the newcomer for a favour, in return, because of the debt incurred. In that manner both parties could overcome their natural hesitancy and mutual fear of the stranger.
It is better to have something than nothing. It’s better yet to share generously the something you have. It’s even better than that, however, to become widely known for generous sharing. That’s something that lasts. That’s something that’s reliable. And, at this point in abstraction, we can observe how the groundwork for conceptions of ‘reliable,’ ‘honest’ and ‘generous’ have been laid. The basis for an articulated morality has been put in place. The productive, truthful sharer is the prototype to the good citizen, and the good man. We can see in this manner how from the simple notion that ‘leftovers are a good idea’ the highest moral principles might emerge.
It’s as if something like the following happened as humanity developed. First were the endless tens or hundreds of thousands of years prior to the emergence of written history and drama. During this time, 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, told in a manner such as this: ‘It’s as if there is a powerful Figure in the Sky, who sees all, and is judging you. Giving up something you value seems to make Him happy—and you want to make Him happy, because all Hell breaks loose if you don’t. So, practise sacrificing, and sharing, until you become expert at it, and things will go well for you.’ No one said any of this, at least not so plainly and directly. But it was implicit in the practice and then in the stories.
Action came first, as it had to, as the animals we once were could act but could not think. Implicit, unrecognized value came first, as the actions that preceded thought embodied value, but did not make that value explicit. People watched the successful succeed and the unsuccessful fail for thousands and thousands of years. We thought it over, and we drew a conclusion: The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future. A great idea began to emerge, taking ever-more-clearly-articulated form, in ever-more-articulated-stories: What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practice their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: what is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? And the answers become increasingly deeper and profound.
The God of Western tradition, like so many gods, requires sacrifice. We’ve already examined why. But sometimes He goes even further. He demands not only sacrifice, but the sacrifice of precisely what is loved best. This is most starkly portrayed, and most confusingly evident, in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, beloved of God, long wanted a son—and God promised him exactly that, after many delays, and under the apparently impossible conditions of old age and a long-barren wife. But not so long afterward, when the miraculously-borne Isaac is still a child, God turns around and in an apparently barbaric fashion demands that His faithful servant offer his son as a sacrifice. The story ends happily: God sends an angel to stay Abraham’s obedient hand and accepts a ram in Isaac’s stead. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really address the issue at hand: why was God’s going further necessary? Why does He impose such demands?
We’ll start our analysis with a truism, stark, self-evident and understated: sometimes things do not go well. That seems to have much to do with the terrible nature of the world, with its plagues and famines and tyrannies and betrayals. But here’s the rub: Sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s not the world that’s the cause. The cause is instead that which is most valued. Why? Because the world is revealed, to an indeterminate degree, through the template of your values. If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it is time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.
Something valuable, given up, ensures future prosperity. Something valuable, sacrificed, pleases the Lord. What is most valuable, and best sacrificed?—or, what is at least emblematic of that? A choice cut of meat. The best animal in a flock. A most valued possession. What’s above even that? Something intensely personal and painful to give up. That’s symbolized, perhaps, in God’s insistence on circumcision as part of Abraham’s sacrificial routine. What’s beyond that? What pertains more closely to the whole person, rather than the part? What constitutes the ultimate sacrifice—for the gain of the ultimate prize?
It’s a close race between child and self. The sacrifice of the mother, offering her child to the world, is exemplified by Michelangelo’s great sculpture, the Pietà. Michelangelo crafted Mary contemplating her Son, crucified and ruined." She’s sitting—most of you know this sculpture—and the body of her adult son is in her arms, and it’s broken. He’s been destroyed. It’s a very beautiful but very tragic work of genius-level representation. "Michelangelo crafted Mary contemplating her Son, crucified and ruined. It’s her fault. It was through her that He entered the world and its great drama of Being. Is it right to bring a baby into this terrible world? Every woman asks herself that question. Some say no, and they have their reasons. Mary answers yes, voluntarily, knowing full well what’s to come—as do all mothers, if they allow themselves to see. It’s an act of supreme courage, when undertaken voluntarily.
In turn, Mary’s son, Christ, offers Himself to God and the world, to betrayal, torture and death—to the very point of despair on the cross, where the cries out those terrible words: ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ That is the archetypal story of the man who gives his all for the sake of the better—who offers up his life for the advancement of Being—who allows God’s will to become manifest fully within the confines of a single, mortal life. That is the model for the honourable man. In Christ’s case, however—as He sacrifices Himself—God, His Father, is simultaneously sacrificing His son. It is for this reason that the Christian sacrificial drama of Son and Self is archetypal. It’s a story at the limit, where nothing more extreme—nothing greater—can be imagined. That’s the very definition of ‘archetypal.’ That’s the core of what constitutes ‘religious.’
Pain and suffering define the world. Of that, there can be no doubt. Sacrifice can hold pain and suffering in abeyance, to a greater or lesser degree—and greater sacrifices can do that more effectively than lesser. Of that, too, there can be no doubt. Everyone holds this knowledge in their soul. Thus, the person who wishes to alleviate suffering—who wishes to rectify the flaws in Being; who wishes to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create Heaven on Earth—will make the greatest of sacrifices, of self and child, of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good. He will forego expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world."
"Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off." It’s not an accident, also, that it’s in a mountain, because a mountain is something you have to climb—and you have to climb to the pinnacle of a mountain. A mountain is up, right? A mountain stretches up, to heaven. It’s a long journey, to specify the right place on the highest pinnacle. That’s symbolic because, of course, it’s a pinnacle that you’re always trying to reach—just like you’re always trying to aim. You’re always trying to climb upward. At least that’s the theory. It depends, to some degree, of course, on your definition of ‘upward.’
"And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
"And they came to the place which God had told them of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me."
When I was answering questions last night, at this Q and A, this guy asked me a question. He said he had parents who were desperate, anti-social, alcoholic addicted, friendless, and that they didn’t want him to leave their home. He was the only relationship they had, and he asked what he should do. And I told him that he should leave. The reason for that is that you have a moral obligation, as a parent, to encourage your child to go out into the world, and to be whoever they can be—to be the best they can possibly be. And, in doing that, you’re encouraging them to pursue the Good. You’re sacrificing them, to the Good. You’re not keeping them for yourself, selfishly. You’re telling them that they can go out, and live their life, and live it properly. That’s the parallel to the idea of the sacrifice of Isaac, as far as I can tell.
You don’t want for your son what it is that you want for him. You want for your son what would be best for him and the world, and you let go in precise proportion to your desire to have that happen. I think this is actually Freud’s dictum, but I’m not certain of that. He said, ‘the good mother fails,’ which is a brilliant observation. When you have an infant, you do everything for the infant, because the infant can do nothing for him- or herself. But as the infant matures, and is increasingly capable of doing things for him- or herself, then you pull back, right? You pull back. Every time the child develops the ability to do something, you allow them, or encourage them, to do it. You don’t interfere. Obviously, there are times that you help them, but mostly you let them learn, so that they can know how to do it in the future. That’s better for you, and it’s certainly better for them.
There’s a rule, if you’re working with the elderly in an old age home. The rule is, something like, ‘don’t do anything for any of the guests that they can do for themselves,’ because you would compromise their independence. So, as a mother, you pull back. You pull back, and you let your child hit him- or herself against the world, and you fail to protect them. But, by failing to protect them, you encourage and ennoble them to the point where you’re no longer necessary. Now, they may still want to see you, and it would be wonderful if that was the case. But the point is that you’re supposed to remove yourself from the equation, by encouraging your child to be the best possible person that person could be. You sacrifice all of your desires to that—your personal desires, even your desires for your child, in relationship to you—because you want them to move forward, into the world, as a light on a hill. That’s what you want, if you have any sense. And so you don’t get to keep your children at home because you need them.
I’m talking generally, obviously. There are circumstances under which families make their own, idiosyncratic decisions. I’m not trying to damn everyone with a casual gesture. But the point is still strong: the good father is precisely someone who is willing to sacrifice his child to the ultimate Good. That’s dramatized in this story, and it’s brutal. But the world is a brutal place, and much wisdom comes out of catastrophe. This is an indication of how much catastrophe our ancestors had to plow and work through, in order to generate the substructure for the conceptions of freedom, even, that we have today—for freedom, and the good. And that’s how the story appears, to me.
I think there’s more to it—I think there has to be more to it. It lays the groundwork, at least in a Christian context, for the eventual emergence of Christ, as I alluded to in my reading. That story, obviously, has to be unpacked, unpacked, and unpacked, just like it has been for the last 2,000 years. It’s also an indication, here, of…well, I would say, of the transmutation of sacrifice into an increasingly psychological form—which is a development that we’ve tracked all the way through the Old Testament, up until this particular point, first acted out, then represented in ritual—those would be the rituals of sacrifice—then laid out in the story, then turned into a psychological phenomena, so that, now, we’re capable of making sacrifices in abstraction, to conceptualize a future that we want, to let go of the things that are stopping us from moving forward, and to free ourselves from the chains of our original preconceptions. That’s laid out in these old stories, as the optimal pathway of being.
There’s a philosopher of science named Karl Popper—a very sensible and down-to-earth person, who was talking about thinking, and its nature. He thought about thinking in a Darwinian fashion. He said that the purpose of thinking is to let your thoughts die instead of you. It’s a brilliant notion: You can conjure up a representation of yourself. You can conjure up a variety of potential representations of yourself, in the future. You can lay out how those future representations of yourself are likely to prevail or fail. You can cull the potential yous in the future that will fail, and then you can embody the ones that will succeed. You do that while, simultaneously, conjuring up a representation of your current state, and determining for yourself—because of your undo suffering—which elements of your pathetic being need to be given up, so that you can move forward into that future. What is it that you’re aiming at, with that work, and with that sacrifice? That’s the ultimate question. That’s the question I was trying to address, in that writing. What is it that you’re trying to do? You’re trying to improve the future. You believe that the future can be improved. You believe that it can be improved as a consequence of our sacrificial work. So, once again, what are the necessary limits to that? I would say that we don’t know. I would say, as well, that that’s actually something that the entire corpus of Biblical stories is desperately trying to figure out and articulate. We conjured up this remarkable idea: The future exists. We can see it, even though it’s only potential. We can adjust our behaviour, in the present, in order to maximize our probability of success in the future. How best to do that? Well, the idea is something like, don’t hesitate to offer the ultimate sacrifice, if you want the future to turn out ultimately well. Now, obviously, that idea is clothed in metaphysical speculation and religious imagery. But it still remains an intensely practical issue. What is it that you could contract for, let’s say, if you were willing to give up everything about you that’s weak and unworthy?
There’s continual hints of that in the Old Testament. What happens with Noah, of course, is that he establishes the proper covenant with God—the proper contract with Being, let’s say—and thrives, as a consequence. And then Abraham does the same thing. There’s a strong intimation that that’s how the world is set right. That idea develops and magnifies, as the stories progress, into something like the concept of Heaven on Earth—the notion being that the proper sacrificial attitude produces a psychological state, and then a social state, that’s a manifestation of that attitude, that decreases the probability that the world will careen into Hell, and increases the probability that people will live high-quality, meaningful, private lives, in a society that’s balanced and capable of supporting that. None of that seems, to me, to be questionable, really. I also don’t think it’s anything that people don’t actually know.
People have told me, many times, that, when they listen to me talk, they’re hearing things that they already knew, but didn’t know how to say. It’s something like that. This is one of those things that I think is exactly like that. I think it’s at the very core of our moral knowledge, which is our behavioural and perceptual knowledge. Let’s get this straight: moral knowledge is no trivial matter. It’s knowledge about how it is that you orient yourself in the world. There’s no more profoundly necessary form of knowledge. It’s predicated on the knowledge that we have to make sacrifices. We know that we have to aim at what’s good. So then why is it that we don’t aim at what’s best, and make the sacrifices that are necessary, in order to bring that into place?
It seems to me that, in some sense, that’s self-evident. The question is why we don’t do it. But there’s an answer to that, too, already, in the material that we’ve covered. Life is hard, and it hurts people. It’s rife with limitation. Some of it’s arbitrary, and some of it’s unjust. Some of it’s malevolent, which is even worse, and something that I haven’t talked about, at all, in this lecture. It’s not surprising that a combination of vicissitude can turn people against Being. But I think, even when that happens—and, even when people have the kind of history that, if they revealed to you, you would say, ‘well, it’s no wonder you turned out that way’—the people who turn out that way still know that it’s wrong. They still know that, however deep their own suffering—however arbitrary their own suffering, however much that’s caused by the malevolence of others, as well as the tragedy of existence—that does not, in any way, justify their turning away from the Good. And I believe everyone knows that—I believe that they know it implicitly, even if they don’t allow themselves to know it explicitly. And I believe that, if they violate that idea, then they violate themselves. They end up in Cain’s position, which is the position of the man who’s been given a punishment that is too great to bear.
"And the angel said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.
"And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba. And it came to pass after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying, Behold, Milcah, she hath also born children unto thy brother Nahor; and Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kirjatharba; the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan: and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her."
Well, I don’t exactly know what to do, now. Hah. I’ll review what we’ve covered, and then I’ll bring this to a close. We can have some more questions than would be usual, tonight.
What have we established, by this point? The stories that have been revealed, so far, contain the idea that there’s something divine, that’s analogous to the human capacity for communication and attention, and that operates at the genesis of Being itself. That’s the initial account from the Old Testament. It’s an account that places the role of spirit centrally in the nature of Being. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, because, in some ways, I’m as materialistically oriented as modern people typically are. But the stories make sense to me, in many ways. The idea that there’s something world creating about human conscious, and that that’s akin, in some sense, to the divine force that called order out of chaos at the beginning of time, seems, to me, to be a very powerful, metaphysical idea. It also seems, to me, to be an idea that is, immovably, at the foundation of Western culture. Our entire legal system, our society, our mutual expectations—all of that—is conditioned, to the final degree, by our presupposition that each of us has an intrinsic value that transcends the local conditions of our Being. It’s with that presupposition that we’ve been able to establish a society that functions well, and has its current characterization. That’s an unlikely occurrence, and it’s a nontrivial reality. I don’t see any way out of that conclusion. I don’t see anything that it can easily be replaced with.
So, God calls order into being, out of chaos, at the beginning of time, and it attributes to human beings the same essential capacity. Then we turn to Adam and Eve, in the garden, and they’re unconscious, by all appearances—allied tightly with God, but unconscious. They don’t seem aware of the future. They don’t seem aware of themselves. They don’t seem aware of their own vulnerability. They make the fatal error of having their eyes opened. They discover their own vulnerability. They also discover their capacity for evil. We reviewed that, to some degree. What’s the association? Because it’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the fruit of which they eat. What’s the association between the discovery of vulnerability and the emergence of moral knowledge? As far as I can tell, it’s something like, you actually don’t know how to be evil, or to be good, until you’re actually aware, consciously, of your own vulnerability, because the essence of evil is the exploitation of vulnerability—perhaps for the sake of that exploitation. I can’t understand how to hurt someone, until I know exactly how I can be hurt myself. And I can’t understand how I can be hurt myself, until I become cognizant of my mortal limitations—until I understand what brings me pain; until I understand the suffering that goes along with my mortal limitations: inevitable death, and the suffering that goes along with that. With the accrual of the knowledge of mortality, and good and evil, Adam and Eve are cast out of Paradise, and history begins.
That seems right, to me, because I don’t think that history did begin before human beings became self-conscious. So there’s something about that that’s right. History doesn’t really begin until people become aware of the future; history doesn’t really begin until people work and start to build. We would still be ensconced in, essentially, an animal existence, until we’re aware of the future, and start to buttress ourself against it—start to wear clothing, build buildings, make cities—all in consequence of having become aware of the fact that we’re fragile, and that the future is a dangerous place. So that seems, to me, to be existentially correct.
And then we have the story of Cain and Abel, brilliantly placed immediately afterwards. Those are the first two people in history, essentially. They make sacrifices, so that goes along with the idea of the discovery, and necessity, of work, and the discovery of the future. And then exactly what you’d expect happens: one segment of mankind, let’s say, makes the sacrifices properly, and prevails, and the other segment makes the sacrifices improperly, and fails. That’s perfectly reasonable, given what you see around you, because that’s what seems to happen all the time. And then, more interestingly, I would say that the sacrificial failure produces embitterment, and that embitterment produces a hatred for Being, and a desire for revenge. That seems perfectly appropriate. When I look at people who are bitter, and want revenge, it’s generally because their sacrificial efforts have failed. Now, I’m loathe to say that that’s a matter of their own doing—although, sometimes, it clearly it is. The embittered and vengeful complain to God, and blame him for the structure of existence.
I read about the Columbine massacre and the kids who undertook it. That’ll make your hair stand on end, if you want to read something that will really disturb you. Reading Eric Harris’ writings will really disturb you. No matter how much you know about human beings, reading Eric Harris’ writings will disturb you. Eric is Cain, you know? He says it, straightforwardly: he hates human beings; he hates Being itself. He would destroy everything, if it was within his power to do that. And, of course, him and his colleague were motivated to produce far more carnage than they managed, that day. What was successful was only a fraction of what they had planned. And Harris said, very straightforwardly, that he had set himself up as the judge of Being, and that it lacked all utility, in his eyes. Human beings, certainly, should all be removed from the face of existence, because of their pathology, and because of the fundamental horrors of Being itself. So there’s nothing in the Cain and Abel story that isn’t real. It’s real. Cain complains to God, as people will, when their dreams are dashed. And that goes for people who don’t believe in God, too. It doesn’t really matter. It’s harder, I suppose, if you’re atheist, to figure out who to blame. But that doesn’t mean that the sentiment is any different, right? The same drama is being enacted: you shake your fist at the structure of being, rather than at God Himself. But it doesn’t make any difference, except in the details.
So God responds to Cain, and tells him that he’s got no right to judge Being, before he gets his sacrificial house in order. And, even worse, he says that Cain is the architect of his own downfall—that he invited catastrophe into his own house, willingly, entered into a creative union with it, and, therefore, brought about his own demise. It’s that additional self-knowledge—imagine you’re facing the failures of your life, and let’s say that you had a failed life. You’re bitter about that, and then you meditate upon it. You think, ‘why has this come about?’ And then you think, ‘well, perhaps I did something wrong.’
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago, which is the book that detailed the catastrophes of the Soviet Union, and helped bring it down. There’s one part of that book that struck me so viciously, when I read it. He was in the gulag, and he was there for a very long time. He said that he observed a variety of people in the camps, who he really admired. They were rare. They were usually religious believers, in his experience, who were not participating in the pathology of the camps—at all; period; no matter what. He said he learned a lot from watching those people. He had a hard time believing that they could even exist. But he said that one of the things that he was brought to—as a consequence of watching those people live their contract with Goodness out, even under the most horrifying of conditions—was that it was possible that he himself was responsible for his position in the camp.
Now, it’s a very dangerous line of argumentation, because who wants to be the one who blames the victim of the catastrophe? You have to be very careful, when you walk down that road. But Solzhenitsyn was speaking about himself. He was a communist, and he arrogantly and forthrightly moved the movement out into the world, and had not fully gone over his life with a fine tooth comb, to find out what mistakes he had made that brought him so low. But his contention, eventually, was that part of the reason he ended up where he ended up was because he, and many others, had completely forfeited their relationship with the truth, and had allowed their society to degenerate into deceit and tyrannical catastrophe, without mounting sufficient opposition. And so he decided, when he was in the camps, to straighten himself out, bit by bit. That culminated in the production of The Gulag Archipelago, and that book really demolished, once and for all, any moral credibility that the communist totalitarian systems had left. And so one man, in the depths of catastrophe, who determined through good example, at least in part, to stop lying, produced a book, eventually, that demolished the foundation of the very system that had imprisoned him. That is really worth thinking about. That’s one example of the absolute grandeur of the human soul, and the capacity for transformation that it has, when let loose properly on the world.
So let’s say you’re conceptualizing your own failure, and you meditated on it, and you come to the conclusion that God forced Cain to: ‘Hey, not only have things not been going very well for you, but it’s actually your fault. And not only that—you brought it on yourself. And not only that—you knew it all the time.’ Well, then you might think that you’ll wake up, and fly right—you’ll get your wings in order, and fly right. But there’s no reason to assume that, at all. That’s not what happens to Cain. The conclusion just makes him more bitter, and you can understand that, if you think about it for just a second. It’s bad enough when something horrible happens to you, but then to have to swallow the additional pill—to have to take in the information that you could have done something different; it was avoidable, and you knew it at the time, and you decided to do it anyways. I think people are in that situation a lot more often than anyone is willing to admit. You have that little voice in the back of your head that says ‘don’t do it,’ and you override it. You know it’s arrogance that makes you override it. It’s always arrogance. It always warns you. It’s always arrogance. ‘Yeah, I can get away with it.’ It’s like, no; you can’t. I don’t think you ever get away with anything. And maybe your experience has taught you different, but my suspicions are that it hasn’t. And if you think it has, well, the other shoe hasn’t yet dropped.
So Cain doesn’t take the opportunity to let God’s wisdom reorient his character. That could have been the outcome. He could have got down on his knees, so to speak, and said, ‘oh my God, I’ve been wrong all along. I’ve been living improperly. I’ve been making the wrong sacrifices. Abel deserves everything he has. I got exactly what was coming to me. Could I possibly, now, straighten myself out, live in repentance, and improve my position?’ That’s not what he did, at all. He said, ‘all right. Fair enough. I get it. I’m going to go after the thing I most admire. I’m going to destroy it, and I’m going to do that despite its cost to me, and I’m going to do that just to spite the creator of Being.’
That’s exactly what Harris did at Columbine. It’s exactly what he says, in fact, in his uncanny writings. It’s why the mass murderers always shoot themselves afterwards, and not before. Because you might wonder, ‘if you’re so upset with the structure of Being, why don’t you just commit suicide, in your basement? Why do you have to go out and mass murder, before you top it off with a gun to your forehead?’ Well, you don’t make the point as effectively, if you just commit suicide, in your basement. It’s like, ‘my life means nothing to me—but neither does anyone else’s, and neither does the structure of Being itself. I’ll take all my revenge as much as I possibly can, and then, just to show you how little I care, I’ll tap myself off at the end.’ People say, all the time, ‘I don’t understand how that could happen.’ I don’t believe that. I think an hour of real thought about your darkest feelings about existence itself illuminates the pathways to that sort of behaviour quite clearly. I mean, I might be wrong. I might be a darker person than most. Hah. Well, at least, I think there are plenty of people out there who are sufficiently dark to know exactly what I mean, when I’m saying these things. I would also say that, if it doesn’t lead to your understanding how that pathway might be illuminated, then you need to know a lot more about yourself than you actually know, now. Because whatever you might say about someone like Eric Harris, he was a human being, too.
There’s this idea in the New Testament that Christ was he who put the sins of the world onto himself. It’s a very complicated idea, but part of it is associated with the idea that he met the devil in the desert, as well. To take the sins of mankind onto yourself is to understand that within you dwells exactly the same spirit that committed the atrocities at Columbine, and ran the camps at Auschwitz, to actually understand that that’s part and parcel with your makeup, and then to take responsibility for it. I think that, in the aftermath of the terrible 20th century, that’s what we’re left with: we’re left with the necessity to take responsibility for the most terrible aspects of ourselves. And that way, perhaps, we can stop those terrible things from happening, again. That also means that you don’t look for the purveyor of malevolence outside yourself—it isn’t someone else, even though, sometimes, it’s someone else. You know what I mean. There are identifiable perpetrators, but that’s not precisely the point. The point is more that the proper place for the encapsulation of that malevolence—at least, the proper place to start—is within the confines of your own existence—and, perhaps, within the confines of your family. That way you’re not a danger to those that you misapprehend as malevolent and evil, because you won’t get your aim right, to begin with. You’ll identify them improperly, and you’ll take your revenge in a manner that allows you to omit your own responsibility, and to act out your own unconscious desire for revenge, and to move the world just that much closer to Hell.
So Cain kills Abel, and then Cain gives rise to his descendants, one of whom is the first artificer in weapons of war. And then comes the flood, which seems perfectly, miraculously reasonable to me. It’s so amazing that the story of Cain and Abel segues into the story of the flood. It is the case that the catastrophes that beset society can best be conceptualized as the spread of individual pathology into the social world, and the magnification of that pathology to the point that everything comes apart. And I truly believe that, if you familiarize yourself with the last hundred years of history, that that’s the conclusion that you would derive. The people who are most wise, that I’ve read, who commented on that, say the same thing, over and over: the key to the prevention of the horrors of Auschwitz and the gulag, in the future, is the reconstruction of the individual soul, at the level of each individual. And that’s a terrible message, because it puts the burden on you. But it’s an amazing message, because it also means that you could be the source of the process that stops that catastrophe, and malevolence, from ever emerging, again. It’s hard for me to imagine that you have anything that could possibly be better to do with the time that you have left.
Well, then we see Noah, who walks with God, and whose generations are in order—which means that he’s entered this contract with the Good, let’s say, that has the protective function of the ark. He’s put his family together, and he can ride out the worst catastrophe. He’s actually our ancestor. It’s so interesting—these people that get their act together properly, and make a contract with the Good, are constantly presented as the genuine ancestors of mankind. That’s a really positive element of the story, as well, and it’s one I believe. It hasn’t been easy for us to get here. We are the descendants of the great heroes of the past, and if you took all those heroes, and you told their stories, and you distilled their stories into a single story, maybe you’d have a story like the story of Noah, or the story of Abraham—the story of the successful; the story of our forefathers, and not the ‘cancer on the planet’ that certain people tend to think that we are. And so the goal is to be one of the people like that. There isn’t anything better that can possibly be done. The alternative is something like Hell. And so Noah rides out the storm, and that’s what everyone wants. You want to ride out the storm. You don’t want to be happy, because that’ll just happen. But you definitely want to constitute yourself so that you can ride out the storm, because the storm is always coming. So then you’re fortified against the worst, and that’s what you want, because, well, the best, you can handle—the worst, you have to prepare yourself for.
And then we see the same thing repeated in the story of Abraham, essentially. Abraham makes this contract with the Good, and he constantly renews it. That’s his sacrifice, and his worship. He constantly renews it. He has the adventures that are sufficiently typical of the adventures of a human being who’s alive and engaging in the world. He bumps himself up against all the horrors of existence, and yet, the story is told in such a manner that reveals that his primary ethical commitment to the overarching good is sufficient to protect him against the vicissitudes of existence. Well, that’s an optimistic story. As a pessimistic person, I appreciate an optimistic story that’s believable. There’s great demands placed on Abraham. It’s not just as if this comes to him as a gift. He has to be willing to sacrifice whatever’s necessary in order to maintain that contract. That seems, to me, to be realistic. There’s no reason to assume that life isn’t so difficult that it actually demands the best from you—that it’s actually structured in that manner, and that, if you were willing to reveal the best in you, in response to the vicissitudes of life, that you might actually prevail, and you might actually set things straight around you. Well, what if that was true? That would be a remarkable thing. I can’t see how it would not be true, and I can’t see that it’s not stamped on the soul of everyone who’s conscious. I think we all know this perfectly well, although the stories remind us.
Socrates believed that all knowledge was remembering. He believed that the soul, before birth, had all knowledge, and lost it at birth, and then experience reminded the soul of what it already knew. There’s something about that that’s really true, because you’re not just a creature that emerged 30 years ago, or 40 years ago: you’re the inheritor of 3.5 billion years worth of biological engineering. You have your nature stamped deeply inside of you—far more deeply than any of us realize. And when you come across these great stories—these reminders—they are reminders of how to Be, properly, and they echo in your soul, because the structure is already there. The external stories are manifestations of the internal reality, and then they’re a call to that internal reality, to reveal itself.
Well, and then we come to the end of the Abrahamic stories—at least this section of them—with Sarah’s death. Abraham was called upon to make the supreme sacrifice. And, interestingly enough, because he was willing to make the supreme sacrifice, he actually doesn’t have to. That’s an interesting thing, as well. I believe that it’s reasonable, from a psychological perspective, to point out that, the more willing you are to face death, for example, the less likely it is that you’re going to have to face it, at least in an ignoble manner. And so with that, then we’ll bring this 12-part series to a close.
I think that applause is for everyone. I hate to say that, because it sounds so New-Agey. Hah. But it really does seem, to me, that this is a participatory exercise, and that it would not be possible for me to go through these stories, without having you here to listen. I always think—when talking to a crowd—that it’s a dialog. It’s a dialog. You sit, and you listen, and you’ve all listened. Thank God for that. That gives me a chance to think, and it gives me a chance to watch, and it gives me a chance to interact. You’re emblematic of humanity at large. I suppose that’s one way of thinking about it. For me to be able to craft what I’m saying so that it has an impact on all of you, here, also means that I can, simultaneously, craft it so that it has an impact that, in principle, can reach far beyond this place. I’m really hoping that one of the things that can start to happen with this, at least, is that we can put our culture back on its firm foundation, because it’s something that’s desperately needed. In order to do that, we have to understand both the evil and the nobility of the human soul. That’s a fundamental truth, and I don’t think you can get to the nobility without a sojourn through the evil. I really don’t believe that, at all. It’s no place for the naive to go. That’s for sure. Anyways, I would like to thank you—as you thanked me—for your close and careful attention, and your support, during all of this. It’s been really a remarkable experience. It’s certainly developed beyond my dreams, so thank you.