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The Selfishness of the Intellectual: Why Eve Upset the Apple Cart

Maybe intellectuals run the risk of poisoning for themselves the simpler joys in life; joys that are primarily emotional, not intellectual.
Amanda Shoemaker

Issue #52, November 2000

In order to prove a point about the alienation of the intellectual, I would like to examine the plights of two women in tricky situations. The first describes me, faced with the need to initiate a relationship "talk." The second involves Eve, mother of us all, when faced with that shiny, significant apple. Both cases are intended to show ways in which society tells us that incessant analytical harping disturbs the peace.

But does it?

That's a more difficult question.

First, I invite you into a scene from my home life. My boyfriend and I sit on the couch in our living room. He puts his hand on my head, fingers gripping the top of my skull. He says, "What's this?"

If I don't offer the right response, I'll never get his hand off my head." It's a brain sucker," I am compelled to say.

"What's it doing?" he asks, his fingers still digging into my scalp.

"Starving," I answer, starting to laugh in spite of myself.

This is humor like being tickled is humor. It's well intentioned. On the other hand, it reminds me of a thing I've noticed lately: The incidence of the "you're dumb" comments (considerable) compared to the incidence of "you're smart" comments (zero). It's an issue I've begun to worry about.

"I know you're just kidding," I tell him. "But have you noticed how often you make comments about being dumb? Have you noticed how rarely you say anything positive about my intelligence, or any of my capabilities?"

In my ideal world, he responds, with a note of concern, "No, I hadn't noticed that. Are you sure it's true?" Then, after we go over some examples, we begin to examine the behavior. Do I do the same to him? Is that problematic? Is there a gender issue here, or is it a balance-of-power problem? Should we take steps to correct it? Etc.

In the real world, he covers his face with his hands and groans. "Can't you take a joke?" he asks.

"Let it be" is the motto of the non-examiner. "Can't you take a joke?" falls into that category as well. Is the unexamined life worth living? I don't think so. But could examination be an addiction - and a destructive one? Sometimes I'm afraid it might be. Dostoevsky said, "to think too much is a disease, an actual, real disease." Can we not look though history - especially art history - and see numerous examples of artists, literary characters, and others driven mad by brooding, destroying their lives for the sakes of highfalutin' passions, guilty consciences, and intellectual obsessions?

In my own relationship, I have real fears about driving my boyfriend crazy. I don't want to "talk things to death"; I believe some silences are sacred. Over-intellectualization would be as depressing to me as it would be to him. Moreover, my conscience whispers that this tendency toward intellectual analysis might be a form of selfishness or self-consciousness, actually. To be self-conscious in the most basic sense seems a virtue: to be self-aware. But the phrase has so many meanings. To be self-conscious could mean to be self-preoccupied, maybe even blind to the needs of others. That's not a thing that I would want. To be self-conscious could also mean to be paralyzed by self-doubt, embarrassment, and shame.

not alan alda If you have any doubts about the ability of an intellectual argument to ruin simple happiness, just read Milton. The tale re-told in Paradise Lost is here to show you that you had better leave well enough alone - you had better take the joke, let it be, and take instructions on faith. The consequence of failing to do so is to be driven from the status quo with a flaming sword.

Look at the kernel of the story: the temptation scene. The serpent approaches Eve in the garden, and knocks down her arguments, one by one, as to why she should not eat the apple. First, he assures her that she won't die. Look at him, he says; he ate, and yet he lives. And even if eating from the Tree of Knowledge did pose a deadly risk, would not God be proud of her for risking death for knowledge?

... will God incense his ire
For such a petty trespass? and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing death be,
Deterred not from achieving what might lead
To happier life, knowledge of good and evil ...

Milton endows the serpent with a powerful argument. Knowledge is good, and ignorance evil; therefore, Eve should eat the fruit. The serpent goes on to say that knowledge, far from being harmful, in fact offers the path to greater virtue. Why would God not want Adam and Eve to know the world for what it is? Knowledge used to recognize good can only be good, he argues. And as for knowledge of evil:

... if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunned?
God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just;
Not just, not God; not feared then, nor obeyed

Having listened to the serpent's argument, Eve begins to believe. She even elaborates on his logic, questioning the point of living unconsciously:

For good unknown sure is not had; or, had
And yet unknown, is as not had at all.

We know what happens at the end of Milton's temptation sequence. Eve eats the apple, and everything is ruined.

... her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat!
Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

Eve chose wrongly. The moral of the story is that she should never have disobeyed God because God is good, and the devil's logic was flawed, selfish, and dangerous. Milton's poem - to say nothing of the Bible -- hinges on the hierarchy of values that places importance on trust in God over information and critical thinking.

This argument gives me goosebumps. It brings to mind visions of German citizens throwing books onto bonfires at the urging of a paternalistic Hitler; and U.S. school libraries banning "Harry Potter." Citizens and grade-school students, beware! A higher power does not always have your best interests in mind when it protects you from the taint of knowledge.

The apple of knowledge in "Paradise Lost" represents more than just faith and obedience. In the poem, "knowledge" is closely tied to intellectual analysis. As the serpent points out, the apple represents the tools that people need to examine their lives (in the context of good and evil). That means that in this case, the unexamined life is Eden.

I equate my boyfriend's "Can't you take a joke?" with the idea of divinity telling humanity, in essence, "Can't you just do what you're told?" There's no question about this being a difficult choice. Why ruin your own happiness, and that of others, by asking tough questions?

Maybe some things are best left unsaid. Maybe intellectuals run the risk of poisoning for themselves the simpler joys in life; joys that are primarily emotional, not intellectual. The dangers of over-intellectualization and analysis pale beside the awful threat of non-examination and ignorance. If I were Eve, had I known the consequences, I'd have eaten that apple in a heartbeat. I think real intellectuals do that every day.

Copyright © 2000 by Amanda Shoemaker. All rights reserved.