The Story of the Tree

"Tree," by Michael Stirling.
“Tree,” by Michael Stirling.

In the Book of Genesis in the Bible/Torah, a story is told about the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) being created by God. They begin living out their lives in a garden designed for them. In this garden, the story goes, were the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God tells Adam and Eve that they can eat anything in the garden, but that they need to stay away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Eve, and, subsequently, Adam, get deceived by a serpent, who tells them that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil will make them divine. They eat the fruit of knowledge, become aware that they are naked, and make clothing out of leaves for themselves. God asks them who told them they were naked, and the two of them admit to having eaten of the tree (during which, Adam accuses Eve of having led him astray). They are Consequently banned from the garden, and left to survive on the virtues of their labor and wits.

The Metaphorical value of the Story

This is a story which has tremendous metaphorical value to the study of philosophy. I won’t go too far into depth here, but rather just introduce how the story helps to understand some deep philosophical concepts.

The Two Trees and Meta-ethics

"Silhouette Tree," by George Hodan.
“Silhouette Tree,” by George Hodan.

What is the role of ethics? Should ethics be viewed in deontological terms, in terms of values, or in terms of utility? For the ideas about ethics held by some philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Coehlo, this story has tremendous value in understanding their ethical thought. To thinkers such as these, principles of deontology castrate man’s ability to live out his values; and his values are informed and shaped by his life experience.

The Tree of Life, in this analogy, is what generates the values which enrich a man’s life, whereas the Tree of Knowledge generates the social deontology and norm that attempts to chain him down to the limitations imposed by others.

The Two Trees and Epistemology

Is knowledge atomic and clear and distinct, or is every concept inherently related to and dependent on every other? If knowledge is clear and distinct, then that lends itself to a very rigid, mathematical view of the world. If knowledge depends on intelligible relations, then the world becomes a much more ambiguous and interactive place. The former is analogous to the Tree of Knowledge, and the latter to the Tree of Life. This analogy has great value in analyzing the epistemologies of many different philosophers, most notably Descartes, Aquinas, and Quine.

More to Follow

As you can see, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the use that this story, taken metaphorically, has to understanding all sort of philosophical subjects. I will be referring back to this post in the future to clarify my use of the story as a philosophical analogy.

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