Sep 12, 2020 in 

The Psychology of Adam and Eve

What does the biblical story of Adam and Eve teach us about the importance of shame in the evolution of the human condition?

Thomas Fenichel

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    A way to think metaphorically about the human condition is illustrated in the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from paradise. What psychological insights can we infer from this story?

It must be of significance, that the first affect that appears in the bible is shame (or the lack of it), where it is said that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis, 2:25). Could it be that living in paradise has the psychological meaning of living in the kingdom of animals? Animals (and little children) are like Adam and Eve in that they are not ashamed of their naked body. It seems that the Bible is telling us that shame plays an important role in becoming human. Shame appears immediately when Adam and Eve commit the first human “sin”: they are seduced by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit of knowing good and evil. The eating of the forbidden fruit represents becoming conflicted creatures, ashamed of their previous, innocent yet naked existence.

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Thomas Fenichel

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When taken metaphorically, the Bible as the most influential book in the history of humanity must be a book of great psychological wisdom. Paradise then is not a physical place but a metaphor for a state of mind that had to be given up with the evolution of knowing good and evil – the mind. Moral thinking comes at the cost of deep feelings of shame and guilt for the animalistic drives that are still part of who we are. In other words, eating the forbidden fruit is a metaphor for the birth of the mind. From now on, we are metaphorically condemned by an almighty God to a life of suffering away from paradise. Can we find our way back to heaven without becoming animals once again?

The human mind is proud of its sense of “knowing good and evil” – but do we really know? The use of language enables abstraction and a whole new world of fantasy. In the mind, abstraction has become something to be proud of, and the old animal instincts, the body, and its sense perceptions have been reduced to something to be ashamed of. The inner conflict has been set and paradise has been lost. Figure 1 depicts the two dimensions in humans after the evolution of the mind and the conflict between these dimensions.

the inner conflict

Figure 1: The Two Dimensions of the Inner Conflict

    The ability to think and to make abstractions divides the human psyche into two dimensions, lower (the body) and upper (the mind). Instead of living in peace, these two dimensions are in a constant fight with one another. There were ancient cultures that knew how to set up traditions and ceremonies to harmonize the human condition. In contrast, we have the religions, spirituality, and science where the mind is raised to the level of tyranny against the “lower” instincts.

All three religions are using the human tendency towards feelings of guilt which came with the birth of the mind to manipulate the inner balance of the psyche. In the name of senseless morality, rules have been created to “purify” men from their “dirty” bodily desires. Instead of harmonizing the psyche, the conflict is projected on the world where enemies must be found. Radical Islam with its Jihad is one example. Racism, where the inner conflict is projected on the color of the skin, is another example. How powerful is the inner conflict that needs to be defended against is evident in the intensity of the hatred that religious fanatics and racists demonstrate.

The birth of the mind has divided the human psyche into two conflicting parts. The instincts that have been perfected through natural selection over millions of years are suddenly faced with a new layer that pretends to “know” what is good and what is evil. But the instincts do not accept moral rejection without a fight.

Taken metaphorically, the story of Adam and Eve represents a leap in psychological understanding in that it is the first myth that describes a personality structure with all the relevant complexities and paradoxes. The story is a description of how a neurotic mind experiences the world with the projection of its wickedness on the instincts which are represented by the serpent and with aggression projected on a punitive God. The acceptance of shame as a significant factor in the evolution of humans differentiates the Bible from other mythological systems that represented shameless cultures that defended against the inner conflict in constant external wars. The Bible tells us wisely that on the level of affects, it is shame that differentiates humanity from other species. It is, of course, a pity that the psychological wisdom of the author had been quickly lost when religion has turned a myth into a book of history that is taken literally. 

But what the author of the Bible was essentially saying is that we are all Adam and Eve. The garden of Eden is, of course, the garden of our mind, and the voices of both God and the serpent are coming from our own psyche. The serpent is a symbol of the instincts that have fallen under the moralistic judgment of a higher voice that has evolved inside us with the development of language. Understanding the psychological wisdom of the story is a great starting point to deal with shame.

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