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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Cain and Abel, Marx and Freud)

Even though they lived in the lush garden of Eden, Adam and Eve didn’t stay obedient to the Lord God.  As punishment for their disobedience God proclaimed that “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” and they were driven from the garden.  From that point on people have had to earn their bread by the sweat of the brow.  Years pass.  Adam and Eve become the parents of two boys.  We’re even told their occupations.  “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.”  Human economics had a division of labor right from the start (see Adam Smith, The Division of Labor, GB2).  This is the kind of story that grabbed Marx’s attention.  Shepherds and farmers can, and often do, come into economic conflict.  It happened in the settling of the American West, for example.  Shepherds (cowboys) want open ranges where sheep (cows) can freely graze.  Farmers want fields (often fenced off) where they can plant crops.  For Marx economics in the form of labor is the primary source of human conflict.  Adam and Eve originally enjoyed work in the garden of Eden.  Cain and Abel worked because they had to.  They had to work in order to eat.  In that sense work is “alien” to Cain and Abel (and to us) in a way that wasn’t alien to Adam and Eve.  Marx poses this question: “If the product of my labor is alien to me and confronts me as an alien power, to whom does it belong?  If my own activity does not belong to me but is an alien, forced activity, to whom does it belong?  To a being other than myself.  And who is this being?  The gods?”  (Alienated Labor, GB1)  Genesis says actually yes, it does: “And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.  And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.”  Marx was asking a rhetorical question.  He doesn’t believe there are any gods to sacrifice to.  Therefore, the product of our labor belongs to us alone.  Cain may have believed this too because Genesis says “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.”  God rejects Cain offering the fruits of his labor.

How did Cain feel about that?  This is the kind of question that interested Freud.  Genesis says “Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”  For Marx economic relationships are the primary motivation of human action.  For Freud it’s psychological relationships.  He says “An important feature of civilization is the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated.” (Civilization and Its Discontents, GB1)  We have to regulate social relationships because “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.”  In Genesis these regulations are absent and innate human aggressiveness reaches a lethal level: “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.”  Cain was angry at God.  Then why did he kill Abel?  Because he couldn’t kill God.  So he struck Abel instead.  This doesn’t surprise Freud.  We often transfer anger from the primary cause to a weaker secondary object.  Nor is he surprised when Cain tries to cover up the murder.  “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother?  And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Why did Cain feel guilty?  Freud describes “the origin of the sense of guilt… a person feels guilty (devout people would say “sinful”) when he has done something which he knows to be bad… How is this judgment arrived at?  We may reject the existence of an original, as it were natural, capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  The story of Cain and Abel puts this question on trial.  Freud rejects the idea that we have a “natural capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  Genesis says the opposite.  Cain knew what he was doing, knew it was bad, but did it anyway.  Just like mom and dad before him.


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