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What Adam and Prometheus tell us about human nature
As a wise friend once said, “all animals want to do is eat, sleep, sh*t, and f*ck.” So, what differentiates man from beast if not the painful realization of his own vulnerability? What separates us from the animals if not our ability to contemplate the righteousness (or wickedness) of our own behavior? What makes a human animal a person if not the awareness of one’s own mortality?
We are self-conscious beings.
That was the significance of the myth of Adam and Eve after all. In the ancient Babylonian tale, the First Man and Woman lived in the Garden of Eden where they had neither toil nor desire. They had no anxiety and no shame, for they “did not know that they were naked.” They had no psychological conflict within themselves and no spiritual conflict with their Maker.
Fiat Homo // Let there be man
When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, “their eyes were opened” and the first evidence of their knowledge of good and evil was in their experiencing of guilt and shame. They became “aware of their nakedness”, and so when God visited the Garden that day, they hid from Him.
Like all myths, the tale of Adam speaks a classic truth to generations of people not because it refers to a specific historical event, but because it portrays some deep inward experience shared by all people.
This creation story describes a true stage of development that happens in every human infant between the ages of one and three: the emergence of self-awareness. Self-consciousness—namely, the realization that one is vulnerable (“naked”), moral (susceptible to being right and wrong), and, ultimately, mortal—is what separates our species from the others. This is when a human animal becomes a person. The fact that being seen naked in front of a crowd is a common nightmare shows how primal our understanding of vulnerability is. It applies to both mind and body. To be naked, physically and figuratively, is to be embarrassed, ashamed, and mercilessly exposed with nowhere to hide.
The emergence of self-awareness is our personal banishment from paradise, a place that is reserved for angels and babies only. This loss of “innocence” marks the birth of a spiritual, psychological, and existential person.
But knowing right from wrong is only one facet of self-consciousness. As conscious people, you and I know that that is not all we’re occupied with. We know that we are creatures full of desires—we want to be better, do better, and improve. We will always want to be smarter, faster, stronger, richer, healthier, and so on. Because we think about ourselves in terms of something that is “made of dust” and will eventually “return to dust”, we are inclined to create and expand ourselves while we last.
So, that’s the story of self-consciousness. When a person becomes aware of the fact that they are vulnerable, that is when they partake in the true human experience. But there is another aspect to our nature: a human animal becomes a person when they realize that to be is to be creative. After all, what makes man, man if not the desire to innovate, bring new ways to his generation, and, in Adam Smith’s words, “better his own condition”? What makes the world go round if not the desire to be better off than who we were yesterday?
When I say “creative”, I don’t necessarily mean it in an artistic sense. To create simply means to add something to the world instead of taking from it. Creating means going out of your way to intervene with the status quo with the intention of making it better. Technology—be it the invention of controlled fires, shoelaces, or self-driving cars—is a key example of creation.
Fiat Lux // Let there be light
If the story of Adam is the myth of self-consciousness, then his Greek parallel, Prometheus, is the tale of creativity.
In the Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to his fellow human beings for their warmth, light, and productivity. This enraged Zeus, who seized Prometheus and casted him to the Caucasus where he was chained to a mountain peak. Unlike Adam, who was only sent to wander beyond the walls of Paradise, Prometheus was condemned to eternal torment: his liver would be feasted on by a falcon during the day, then, it would grow back at night, only to be eaten again the following morning.
One can say that the Greek god was more imaginative than Yahweh when it came to punishment: with no way of having the mortals return their fire, he crammed all diseases and sins and sorrows into a box, and had it delivered to the earthly paradise (much like the Garden of Eden) in which Pandora and Epimetheus lived in bliss. When the young woman gave in to her curiosity, she opened the box and out flew all the afflictions that would forever plague mankind. This was the punishment for man’s creativity. This was the gods’ fight against man’s ambitious desire to bring newness to his way of life. Man will always want technology, and the gods will fight just as hard to keep such knowledge a secret. Zeus would tell us that the world is filled with suffering because man dared to venture.
The name Prometheus means “forethinker”; if Adam was the First Man, then Prometheus was the First Thinking Man. And as we have already pointed out in Fiat Homo, the capacity to see good from evil is only one facet of self-consciousness. Prometheus’ torture represents the inner conflict that is caused by the other facet of our nature: the urge to be creative. It symbolizes the discomfort to which—as creative figures like Dostoyevsky and Michelangelo have told us—the man who dares to bring mankind new creations must endure.
To be a person means to be creative. In some way, Prometheus was the first technologist—the word ‘technology’ roots in Latin parts meaning art, skill, craft, or, roughly, ‘to make.’ That’s to say, the ability to invent and make tools out of ordinary objects is what makes us, us.
Fiat Voluntas Tua // Thy will be done
All beings are creative beings.
We commonly think of creativity as a talent—a stroke of genius—reserved for those who are simply born with it. And to a certain extent, that is true. But in this context, creativity is not an adjective to describe those with artistic endeavors, rather, it describes a way of being (i.e., a human proclivity). Creating is not just what we do, it’s who we are and it comes from deep inside us. Whether it’s a new recipe that we’ve developed through trial and error, a new route we take for morning walks, or an email we’ve composed to our colleagues, we are constantly creating. That is to say, we are constantly self-expressing and bringing newness to the world. We are constantly pulling significance out of randomness and rearranging what’s in front of us until they make sense, both to ourselves and those we choose to share our valuable creations with.
So, what is human?
To be human is to build against entropy. To be human is to turn indifferent reality into useful and meaningful things. It’s to invent, to write, to assemble, and to calculate. It’s to build carriages and then upgrade them into cars. It’s to engineer planes that go faster, towers that reach higher, and medicines that heal faster.
There is something divine about creating. From building a software to writing a book to completing a self-portrait, every act of creation is a miniature Genesis. We are all alchemists at heart: to create is to transform what we are given into something of significance—specifically, something that lives into the future long after we are dead. This is what we call a legacy.
To create is to reveal what only we can see to everyone else, using ourselves as an instrument to deliver beauty out of what’s in front of us. To create is to bring forth something from nothing: to have something exist because of you, to be able to leave your fingerprinted talent on the world. Perhaps, being able to create is the evidence that we really are made in the image of God; we, too, are capable of creating things in our own image—does, for example, a teapot have a handle for any reason other than letting the pourer hold it comfortably and safely away from the temperature of its contents? Our creations are designed for our usage. We have created technology in our own image. We are the Maker’s makers.
And so, what should we use our creativity towards?
Build the company you want to work for, that’s how you become an entrepreneur. Write the book you want to read, that’s how you become an author. Create the artwork you want to see on your wall, that’s how you become an artist. What you do will become who you are—you become an entrepreneur, an author, or an artist not by watching others work, but by doing it yourself. What you create creates you.
The path to creating something is difficult and full of risks. But the risk of venture has clearly not deterred everyone from creating new and better ways of living—certainly not Prometheus. Certainly not the people who crafted the device you’re reading from. Certainly not the engineers who designed the light fixture above your head or the stove that cooks your dinner. Certainly not the thinkers who invented the languages and mathematics that you use. Certainly not the pioneers who developed the machines that make your keys, pillowcases, and eyeglasses.
Everything we depend on came from members of our own species who took risks and stole fire from the gods. The Prometheus of our history gave us what we have today, and so to create is also an expression of appreciation.
“We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow.”
— Steve Jobs
What we create creates us and those who live after us. So, to create is not just what makes us human, it is also our will to leave the world slightly better than the one we inhabited.
Thank you for reading. Leave your thoughts in the comments if you’re so inclined—I would love to see what great ideas are inspired by this piece. :)
Until next time,
P.S. The subheadings (Fiat…) were taken from Walter Miller Jr.’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. If you enjoyed this essay and general topics surrounding technology and human faith in science, you might find this post-apocalyptic science fiction pretty brilliant.
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