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Spinoza’s Retelling of the Story of the First Human

Date:01 June 2018
Author:Li-Chih Lin
Moni Ayou Nikolaou Adam naming animals (wikicommons)
Moni Ayou Nikolaou Adam naming animals (wikicommons)

The story of the Fall could be seen as a basic motif for early modern thinkers, for the story crystallizes mankind’s moral and intellectual struggle. Let’s look at what Spinoza says about it in the Ethics:

And so we are told that God prohibited a free man from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and that as soon as he should eat of it, he would immediately fear death, rather than desiring to live; and then, that, the man having a wife who agreed completely with his nature, he knew that there could be nothing in Nature more useful to him than she was; but that after he believed the lower animals to be like himself, he immediately began to imitate their affects and to lose his freedom. (E4p68sch)

I would like to approach Spinoza’s story-retelling from within his philosophical framework, so as to offer a parodying double to the popular Christian reading.

In Spinoza’s retelling of the “history of first man,” it is Adam’s imitation of the affection of beasts that leads him astray. That is to say, the fall of man does not result from disobeying divine command, nor from seduction by Eve. Unlike the traditional reading which views the “history of the first man” as indicative of an original perfect condition– both morally and intellectually–, in Spinoza’s version, Adam is just like us, with limited intellect and is subjugated by passions (TP 2.6). In Spinoza’s retelling, Adam has neither perfect intellect nor knowledge at the very beginning. Elsewhere, Spinoza writes, “Adam knew none of God’s attributes.”(TTP 2.14) What is worse, he falsely identifies himself with the beasts. Given the false judgment, it becomes clear that, for Spinoza, Adam does not have any supreme knowledge of Nature.

Adam does not see the essential differences between humans and animals. And, according to E3p27 “If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.” However, imagination per se is not error (see E2p17sch). The issue here is not just that Adam imagines the similarity and makes the connection between himself and beasts. Although Adam sees that his wife agrees with his nature completely, he still holds onto the false belief of identifying himself with animals. That is to say, Adam could have discarded the false belief but he fails to do so—he sees the better but follows the worse. The Fall is the effect of an intellectual failure in knowing one’s self. At the same time, it seems that to know oneself is not merely intellectual; it is intertwined with a state of affection that is not only related to the state of the individual intellect state, but also to the interaction between the individual and the surrounding environment.

To make Spinoza’s terminology clear, desire is “appetite together with consciousness of the appetite” (E3p9sch); meanwhile, appetite itself is defined as “the very essence of man, insofar as it is determined to do what promotes his preservation” (E3p9sch). Thus, Adam’s failure to identify himself with the Eve will have a fatal consequence, at the expense of his self-preservation. In E3p57sch, Spinoza writes:

From this it follows that the affects of the animals which are called irrational (for after we know the origin of the mind, we cannot in any way doubt that the lower animals feel things) differ from men’s affects as much as their nature differs from human nature.Both the horse and the man are driven by a lust to procreate; but the one is driven by an equine lust, the other by a human lust. So also the lusts and appetites of insects, fish, and birds must vary.

 What separates the human from the animal is, then, not the orientation of the desire—procreation, in this context—but the object of such a desire. In the Ethics, lust is defined as “an immoderate love or desire for sexual union” (E3p56sch) and “a desire for and love of joining one body to another” (E3d48). From Spinoza’s definition of “lust,” I would like to emphasize the sense of union in Spinoza’s retelling of the story of the first human. Lust indicates an individual’s relationship with others; moreover, the core of lust is the drive for the bodily union—that is, a corporeal completion within its own kind. On this point, I would like to push my reading a step further from Spinoza’s own terms by considering other popular interpretations of Genesis 2.18-22.   

Lust—the desire for bodily union—is another oft-discussed theme for the Fall. Such a desire does not come from nowhere; instead the yearning for union in bodily sense rises from the awareness of the differences between man and animal. After God says that: “it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner,” all creatures are brought unto Adam and Adam gives names to the animals.* Shortly afterwards, there is the birth of Eve. On some readings, Genesis 2.18-22 is interpreted as symbolizing the tension between and intertwinement of intellect and passions, which is expressed by John Milton in this way:

I named them, as they passed, and understood

Their nature, with such knowledge God endued

My sudden apprehension: but in these

I found not what methought I wanted still. (Paradise Lost, VIII. 352-355.)

In Milton’s poetic interpretation, Adam’s act of naming animals is read as “bespeaking” his perfect knowledge which leads him to recognize his yearning for union—that is a transition from the state of intellect to that of passion. Milton’s reading is not peculiar in the history of commentary on Genesis 2:18-22: Calvin also links Adam’s act of naming with the search for a companion.** Through naming animals, Adam realizes that no animal will ever be like him; thereby triggering his desire to find a mate of his own. In the end, his affection toward Eve brings about the human fall.

However, in the Ethics, the story goes the other way around. The fall is caused by intellectual failure when Adam tries to imitate animal affects. Although Spinoza’s version is different from the standard exegesis, we can still find the sense of union as the shared theme of these two kinds of readings. In the popular reading, Adam’s knowledge triggers the desire for the union with his own kinds: in Spinoza’s version, Adam mistakes the similarity between human and beast, which leads him to break ties with Eve. In the popular reading, knowledge separates human from non-human, which also leads to the ultimate separation, namely the Fall. In Spinoza’s version, there is no such thing as perfect knowledge or perfect union to be lost; instead, at the very beginning, what Adam has is a very limited intellect, and the separation is always already there.

In other words, in Spinoza’s retelling, the story of the first human is no longer about the Fall—falling from an original state, both morally and intellectually. Then, what does Spinoza aim to do by retelling the story in the Ethics? To answer this question, we have to look back to E4p68 in which he writes: “If men were born free, they would form no conception of good and evil so long as they were free.” In the scholium to the same proposition, he writes that Adam began “to lose his freedom.” So it seems that, in Spinoza’s retelling, the Fall indicates the loss of freedom. From this perspective, indeed, Spinoza’s retelling fits into his own psychological account, and in line with the theme of E4p68. Intriguingly, in the very beginning of E4p68sch, he writes “It is evident from P4 that the hypothesis of this proposition is false”—that is to say, “if man were born free” is false. Then, what is the point of telling a story that starts with a false assumption and yet is consistent with his account? I think the answer lies in rhetorical concern. Here, Spinoza’s retelling could be read as a subtle polemical parody which aims at challenging the authorized reading of and belief in biblical story. His reading is no longer an exegesis—for explicating the meaning behind biblical narration—but a modification of the biblical story to serve his philosophy. The story of the first human is no longer taken as the historical event of the Fall; instead, it is provocative rhetorical praxis. To read the Ethics with rhetorical consideration will lead us to question Spinoza’s theory of language and his own linguistic usage. But this is a topic for another time.


*For the English quotation, I use New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV).  

**On the construal history of Genesis 2.18-22, see also Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundation of Science (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) ; Kristen E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing, and Valarie H. Ziegler (eds.) Eve and Adam: Jewish. Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).


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