- Purchase/rental options available:
Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 347-350
[Access article in PDF]
The Sin of Knowledge:
Ancient Themes and Modern Variations,
The Sin of Knowledge: Ancient Themes and Modern Variations, by Theodore Ziolkowski; xvi & 222 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, $29.95.
After thirty-five years of teaching and administrating at Princeton University, dozens of books, and innumerable articles, the eminent Germanist Theodore Ziolkowski has turned his attention to a theme appropriate for someone so immersed in the intellectual life: the sorrow and grief that accompany human knowledge. Although Ziolkowski has made great contributions in standard studies of genre (notably the elegy and the twentieth-century novel) and authors (Mann, Hesse, and Broch), he became especially well known for his theorization and implementation of thematic studies, ranging from the sublime--fictionalizations of the life of Jesus--to the humorous--talking animals in literature. The figures whom Ziolkowski has selected for analysis of the sin of knowledge are Adam, Prometheus, and Faust, each of whom he views through both an ancient and a modern lens.
All three of these mythic heroes violate "divine prohibitions against the new knowledge" (p. 69). Less heroically, all of these myths treat women misogynistically. Generally, Ziolkowski sees each of these stories as having emerged in a time of crisis, when new opportunities presented humanity with knowledge both alluring and disruptive. Because these are highly elastic myths, able to provide meaning in a variety of contexts, they have all mutated in modern times. Adam's Fall comes to represent the human transition from innocence to consciousness, Prometheus becomes a symbol for socialism's promise, and Faust turns into a representative of the American way of life.
Looking at the ancient legend of Adam, Ziolkowski notes that sexuality and wisdom are linked in many of the oldest texts in humanity's recorded history. The emphasis on knowledge, however, is especially strong in the Hebrew myth. While many Near Eastern traditions have stories with similarities to the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, only Hebrew mythology has the Tree of Knowledge. For Ziolkowski, the fact that this story was probably set down during the reign of King Solomon explains this emphasis on knowledge. Because the Age of Solomon was a time of unparalleled wealth and power for the Hebrews, [End Page 347] Ziolkowski argues that the tale of Adam and Eve is the kind of myth "produced by cultures that have reached a certain level of sophistication . . . and look back with a degree of nostalgia at an imagined simpler, happier existence" (p. 23). According to Ziolkowski, knowledge becomes a sin for the Hebrews as they come to terms with the limitations of everything that their knowledge has brought them even at the height of their power and glory.
In the modern era, Ziolkowski continues, the story of Adam has become secularized, representing the transition of humanity from a state of innocence to one of consciousness. He finds references to the Fall in Voltaire's Candide, Kleist's The Broken Pitcher, E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Golden Pot, Melville's Billy Budd, and Hesse's Demian. The overall trend of these representations of the rise of consciousness has been increasingly negative, culminating in sentiments like those expressed by the East German author Günter Kunter, who argues that "our whole present misery and all the problems of industrial civilization" can be linked to "the moment when man used the first firestone as a tool, the Fall" (p. 107). As Ziolkowski concludes: "Two centuries of secularization have brought the modern Adam to a depressing end" (p. 108).
Citing Nietzsche, who compared Prometheus to Adam (and Pandora to Eve), Ziolkowski looks first at Hesiod's depiction of Prometheus as a trickster and then to Aeschylus' hero. Unlike the authors of the story of Adam and Eve, though, Aeschylus depicts Prometheus' claim to divine knowledge in a positive light: "Rather than a humankind declining from a glorious golden age to the present deplorable iron age, Aeschylus sees humanity progressing by means of knowledge--the crafts, arts, and sciences--from blindness and ignorance...