East of Eden and the Source of Human Dignity


I finished John Steinbeck's East of Eden a few nights ago after being urged by several friends and family members to read it. I listened to the audiobook version and its superb narrator only improved the experience I'm sure. The story was refreshingly honest as he detailed the flaws and strengths of a vast array of characters. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in large part for his work on East of Eden and wikipedia reports he viewed it as probably his greatest novel. Personally, Steinbeck is now my favorite American author (bumping out Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy) in large part because of his belief in the potential for transcendent goodness or stunning evil in every human being. His work rings true to me on the deepest levels.

Steinbeck's key insight - and the foundation on which the entire book is based - is that a person's dignity comes from the ability to actually choose good over evil. The novel contains a discussion about the Biblical story of Cain and Abel in which God instructs Cain to confront the sin "crouching at the door." The King James translation of these verses rendered the message to Cain "thou shalt" triumph over sin. Other versions of this verse translate it "You must master it" or "you must rule over it." Steinbeck lays out, however, that the best way to translate the specific Hebrew word "timshel" in this context is "Thou mayest."

Even if some bible scholars would disagree with Steinbeck and his characters on the precise translation, the overall implications for human life are the same: if God gave people the ability to actually choose good over evil, he grants us genuine responsibility, power and dignity. No matter what situation we are in, we all have the ability to choose how we respond to our circumstances - even if we're limited to our minds in terms of how we respond (as Victor Frankl has illustrated).

Here are some key quotes showing the excitement felt upon realizing the power and dignity behind the ability to choose good or evil:

"But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

"But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there."

"Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

"And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

## Image: C.Drumm