The Magazine

On Seeing the World

The more we know, the less we seem to understand.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By AARON ROTHSTEIN
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Illustration of The creation of Eve from the 15th century

The creation of Eve, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 15th century.

In his tragedy Phoenissae, Seneca wrote “Anyone can stop a man’s life, but no one his death; a thousand doors open on to it.” For Seneca, death was a part of life, a natural process that could not be avoided. And indeed, at the time, death pervaded the world through famine, disease, childbirth, and war. But something in humanity’s way of thinking about mortality and the world has changed in recent years. Death is now far off for us. So what, exactly, does this change mean? James Kugel, director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel and formerly the Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, felt this question was especially poignant after physicians diagnosed him with cancer a decade ago, and in his book In the Valley of the Shadow, he discusses and explains this change in the context of his work as a biblical and religious scholar. Kugel has written much of what is here elsewhere, most notably in other books: The Great Poems of the Bible and The God of Old. But here he attempts to expand upon his analysis, and does so with fascinating references to poetry, literature, psychology, science, the Bible, and religion.

Kugel identifies the change as a difference between the way we perceive our place in the world today and the way we perceived it in the past. For premoderns, “their own being was existentially small, dwarfed by all that was outside of them.” We used to think of ourselves as powerless before the great world, and Kugel believes this viewpoint was the foundation of religious belief. This view, however, sets him up against evolutionary theory. Evolutionary biologists have sought to explain the invention of religion in terms of Charles Darwin’s discoveries. Kugel frames their argument this way: Human beings needed to be wary of any person or animal approaching them for fear of being killed. They had to ask themselves whether this new being was friendly or curious, or had other, more nefarious, motivations. 

“This involves making a rather complicated set of judgments,” writes Kugel, “first realizing that the advancing threat is a thinking agent, and then trying to think what he thinks, and even trying to think what he thinks I think.” Human beings then began to attribute thought processes and motivations to the environment. We assumed that some cognizant being made natural events work in certain ways for certain reasons. We could then appease these beings in order to protect ourselves from their wrath: Thus, the manmade creation of a supernatural being (according to certain evolutionary biologists) is a byproduct of “some useful feature of the evolving human brain—the hair-trigger agency detector that has otherwise proven so useful in our dealings with potential predators.” 

Kugel asserts, however, that evolutionary biologists “walk right by the very state of mind” which he identified. This state of mind consisted of seeing one’s place in the world as short and insignificant, relative to nature and time. Implicit in this view is the admission that there is some power greater than one’s self, which made people far more “open to the great Outside, to You, in a way that modern man’s not.” And just as this assertion reinforced a religious viewpoint, so, too, did the religious viewpoint reinforce the idea of the individual as a small being. Kugel uses Judaism’s view of the soul as an example: Early Jewish sages thought of the human soul as a “deposit” given to us by God, to care for; our souls return to God every night when we sleep. A human does not even own his or her soul. 

This concept of smallness is not just a monotheistic or Jewish value, either. Kugel cites the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who traveled to and wrote about sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s. “Individualism is highly prized in Europe,” Kapuscinski asserted. “[I]n Africa, it is synonymous with unhappiness, with being accursed.” Kugel also cites Claude Lévi-Strauss’s similar observation: “In the Western view, the individual is a separate autonomous entity that comprises distinct attributes .  .  . and it is these attributes that are assumed to cause behavior. Further, there is a belief in the inherent separateness of distinct individuals.” Westerners view the individual as a being completely in control of his or her own life and most of the surroundings—as undeniably big. But many non-Westerners view themselves as small in the grand scheme of the universe, their lives having meaning only as part of the collective.