Troublemakers in Paradise

September 21, 2015

Our struggle with controlling our behavior has a long history. The first recorded diet long pre-dated Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers; when God told Adam and Eve to avoid eating from the Tree of Knowledge, their freedom to make their own dinner plans was indeed somewhat restricted. Unsurprisingly, they responded the way most people respond to being on a diet: they went to the Tree of Knowledge “…and they did eat.”

There are many views about the purposes of mythology, but one that’s frequently mentioned is that it’s to help us understand human nature, and through that, to teach us universal truths about ourselves. The moral lesson that’s usually drawn from the Eden story is that it’s important to exercise self-control, and that when you give in to temptation, bad things will happen.

But is resisting temptation the real point of the story? Before the snake came along, the only thing Adam and Eve knew about the forbidden fruit was that they would die if they ate it. Meanwhile, they were surrounded by “trees that were pleasing to the eye and good to eat” and they were told to enjoy them all…well, except for that one—that’ll kill you. Seriously, how tempting could that fruit have been?

It seems clear that the Eden story and the concept of forbidden fruit does, in fact, describe a basic characteristic of our nature that has been observed throughout recorded history: that people simply enjoy doing what they’re told to avoid. This human tendency is usually just acknowledged with a sense of wry irony, as if that’s all that needs to be said about it. Instead, let’s examine it more closely: Of course it’s well known that people are drawn to things that are forbidden; but why?

In his book Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm points out that eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Eden story became the religious paradigm of transgressive behavior—“original sin” in Christian doctrine. But it also makes a statement about how we respond to control: “From the standpoint of the Church which represented authority, this is essentially sin,” Fromm writes. “From the standpoint of man, however, this is the beginning of human freedom.”

He appears to be suggesting that there is a basic human impulse to violate imposed rules and restrictions in order to assert independence from authority. Eating the forbidden fruit was a defiant act of liberation driven by a basic need to resist control. So there is indeed an important lesson to be learned from this story, but it’s not about temptation; it’s about why we’re motivated to want what’s forbidden. Namely, we’re naturally motivated to resist external control in order to assert our basic human need for autonomy. Maintaining autonomy, then, is an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve some satisfactory outcome; in fact, sometimes the outcome will be unwanted.