Nietzsche and Sartre are walking in the Garden of Eden. God tells them: “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”
But the serpent said to them: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.”
Nietzsche and Sartre end up eating of the fruit because they want to be like gods.
But why did the serpent tell Adam and Eve that they would know what was good and what was evil after eating of the fruit? After all, didn’t God tell them that eating from a certain tree was evil and that eating from all other plants was good? By all appearances, they already knew what good and bad were.
But before they sinned, they only really knew the good! They had no experience of what evil or turning away from God was. And the very act of rejecting God’s laws, of rejecting God as lawgiver, puts the person into the seat of being a lawgiver, into godlike status. He who does not serve God serves himself and creates his own personal laws. And a lawgiver presumably knows what good and bad actually are.
Once one turns from God—rejecting His commandments, His inspirations of grace–one has chosen another set of prescriptions for what is right and wrong. One has chosen one’s own prescriptions for right and wrong.
Nietzsche, author of the work Beyond Good and Evil, does not think that he must follow the values that ordinary mortals hold. God is dead to him. Nietzsche is the Superman or Űbermensch who feels he’s entitled to create his own standards for good and evil.
Nietzsche sends out an invitation to others to follow that path.
God does not exist for Sartre either, and therefore, says Sartre, there is no human nature, no ideal template for us to aspire to. We are pure freedom, pure possibility. He says we are “condemned to be free.” This freedom is not the kind of freedom that has us doing the good in the sense of following the will of God, in the sense that Aquinas would maintain. Sartre’s kind of freedom is a burden because there are no rules, no standards of good and evil. We have to create those as we create our very selves because no God exists to have already done that job for us.
Sartre sends out an invitation to others to follow his path.
In eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve went beyond the boundaries of good and evil given to them by God. Adam and Eve thought that eating the fruit–violating God’s law–was a good thing for them to do. In that act, they created their own notions of what was good and what was evil. And they rejected the nature God had given them, the human nature which was preordained by God to be happy only in doing His will. In rejecting God, they became like gods. For it is the role of a god to designate what is good and what is evil and to create the essence of whatever exists.
But it is not just Adam and Eve and Nietzsche and Sartre who formulate their own moralities, as a god would. It’s not just Nietzsche and Sartre who do not accept divinely ordained constraints on one’s actions and insist on choosing their destinies in complete freedom. We do it, too, in each and every act of turning from God. When we say no to God, we are telling Him that we see something else as the good. When we say no to God, we reject the essence of our being that He created and substitute our own ideas of what an ideal human being should be.
We have met Nietzsche and Sartre in the Garden—and they are us.
(image: Elizabeth Keyser, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, http://www.jamesalder.co.uk/)