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The Tree of Knowledge

The more I have contemplated that ancient story of the Fall, the more it has seemed to me within the range of probability, and even of experience. It must have happened somewhere for the first time; for it has happened only too many times since. It has happened, as far as I can ascertain, in every race, and every age, and every grade of civilisation. It is happening round us now in every region of the globe. Always and everywhere, it seems to me, have poor human beings been tempted to eat of some "tree of knowledge," that they may be, even for an hour, as gods; wise, but with a false wisdom; careless, but with a frantic carelessness; and happy, but with a happiness which, when the excitement is past, leaves too often--as with that hapless pair in Eden--depression, shame, and fear. Everywhere, and in all ages, as far as I can ascertain, has man been inventing stimulants and narcotics to supply that want of vitality of which he is so painfully aware; and has asked nature, and not God, to clear the dull brain, and comfort the weary spirit.

This has been, and will be perhaps for many a century to come, almost the most fearful failing of this poor, exceptional, over-organised, diseased, and truly fallen being called man, who is in doubt daily whether he be a god or an ape; and in trying wildly to become the former, ends but too often in becoming the latter.

For man, whether savage or civilised, feels, and has felt in every age, that there is something wrong with him. He usually confesses this fact--as is to be expected--of his fellow-men, rather than of himself; and shows his sense that there is something wrong with them by complaining of, hating, and killing them. But he cannot always conceal from himself the fact that he, too, is wrong, as well as they; and as he will not usually kill himself, he tries wild ways to make himself at least feel--if not to be--somewhat "better." Philosophers may bid him be content; and tell him that he is what he ought to be, and what nature has made him. But he cares nothing for the philosophers. He knows, usually, that he is not what he ought to be; that he carries about with him, in most cases, a body more or less diseased and decrepit, incapable of doing all the work which he feels that he himself could do, or expressing all the emotions which he himself longs to express; a dull brain and dull senses, which cramp the eager infinity within him; as--so Goethe once said with pity--the horse's single hoof cramps the fine intelligence and generosity of his nature, and forbids him even to grasp an object, like the more stupid cat, and baser monkey. And man has a self, too, within, from which he longs too often to escape, as from a household ghost; who pulls out, at unfortunately rude and unwelcome hours, the ledger of memory. And so when the tempter--be he who he may--says to him "Take this, and you will 'feel better'--Take this, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil:" then, if the temptation was, as the old story says, too much for man while healthy and unfallen, what must it be for his unhealthy and fallen children? In vain we say to man--

"'Tis life, not death, for which you pant; 'Tis life, whereof your nerves are scant; More life, and fuller, that you want."

And your tree of knowledge is not the tree of life: it is, in every case, the tree of death; of decrepitude, madness, misery. He prefers the voice of the tempter--"Thou shalt not surely die." Nay, he will say at last,--"Better be as gods awhile, and die: than be the crawling, insufficient thing I am; and live."

He--did I say? Alas! I must say she likewise. The sacred story is only too true to fact, when it represents the woman as falling, not merely at the same time as the man, but before the man. Only let us remember that it represents the woman as tempted; tempted, seemingly, by a rational being, of lower race, and yet of superior cunning; who must, therefore, have fallen before the woman. Who or what the being was, who is called the Serpent in our translation of Genesis, it is not for me to say. We have absolutely, I think, no facts from which to judge; and Rabbinical traditions need trouble no man much. But I fancy that a missionary, preaching on this story to Negroes; telling them plainly that the "Serpent" meant the first Obeah man; and then comparing the experiences of that hapless pair in Eden, with their own after certain orgies not yet extinct in Africa and elsewhere, would be only too well understood: so well, indeed, that he might run some risk of eating himself, not of the tree of life, but of that of death. The sorcerer or sorceress tempting the woman; and then the woman tempting the man; this seems to be, certainly among savage peoples, and, alas! too often among civilised peoples also, the usual course of the world-wide tragedy.

But--paradoxical as it may seem--the woman's yielding before the man is not altogether to her dishonour, as those old monks used to allege who hated, and too often tortured, the sex whom they could not enjoy. It is not to the woman's dishonour, if she felt, before her husband, higher aspirations than those after mere animal pleasure. To be as gods, knowing good and evil, is a vain and foolish, but not a base and brutal, wish. She proved herself thereby--though at an awful cost--a woman, and not an animal. And indeed the woman's more delicate organisation, her more vivid emotions, her more voluble fancy, as well as her mere physical weakness and weariness, have been to her, in all ages, a special source of temptation which it is to her honour that she has resisted so much better than the physically stronger, and therefore more culpable, man.

As for what the tree of knowledge was, there really is no need for us to waste our time in guessing. If it was not one plant, then it was another. It may have been something which has long since perished off the earth. It may have been--as some learned men have guessed--the sacred Soma, or Homa, of the early Brahmin race; and that may have been a still existing narcotic species of Asclepias. It certainly was not the vine. The language of the Hebrew Scripture concerning it, and the sacred use to which it is consecrated in the Gospels, forbid that notion utterly; at least to those who know enough of antiquity to pass by, with a smile, the theory that the wines mentioned in Scripture were not intoxicating. And yet--as a fresh corroboration of what I am trying to say--how fearfully has that noble gift to man been abused for the same end as a hundred other vegetable products, ever since those mythic days when Dionusos brought the vine from the far East, amid troops of human Maenads and half-human Satyrs; and the Bacchae tore Pentheus in pieces on Cithaeron, for daring to intrude upon their sacred rites; and since those historic days, too, when, less than two hundred years before the Christian era, the Bacchic rites spread from Southern Italy into Etruria, and thence to the matrons of Rome; and under the guidance of Poenia Annia, a Campanian lady, took at last shapes of which no man must speak, but which had to be put down with terrible but just severity, by the Consuls and the Senate.

But it matters little, I say, what this same tree of knowledge was. Was every vine on earth destroyed to-morrow, and every vegetable also from which alcohol is now distilled, man would soon discover something else wherewith to satisfy the insatiate craving. Has he not done so already? Has not almost every people had its tree of knowledge, often more deadly than any distilled liquor, from the absinthe of the cultivated Frenchman, and the opium of the cultivated Chinese, down to the bush-poisons wherewith the tropic sorcerer initiates his dupes into the knowledge of good and evil, and the fungus from which the Samoiede extracts in autumn a few days of brutal happiness, before the setting in of the long six months' night? God grant that modern science may not bring to light fresh substitutes for alcohol, opium, and the rest; and give the white races, in that state of effeminate and godless quasi-civilisation which I sometimes fear is creeping upon them, fresh means of destroying themselves delicately and pleasantly off the face of the earth.

It is said by some that drunkenness is on the increase in this island. I have no trusty proof of it: but I can believe it possible; for every cause of drunkenness seems on the increase. Overwork of body and mind; circumstances which depress health; temptation to drink, and drink again, at every corner of the streets; and finally, money, and ever more money, in the hands of uneducated people, who have not the desire, and too often not the means, of spending it in any save the lowest pleasures. These, it seems to me, are the true causes of drunkenness, increasing or not. And if we wish to become a more temperate nation, we must lessen them, if we cannot eradicate them.

First, overwork. We all live too fast, and work too hard. "All things are full of labour, man cannot utter it." In the heavy struggle for existence which goes on all around us, each man is tasked more and more--if he be really worth buying and using--to the utmost of his powers all day long. The weak have to compete on equal terms with the strong; and crave, in consequence, for artificial strength. How we shall stop that I know not, while every man is "making haste to be rich, and piercing himself through with many sorrows, and falling into foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition." How we shall stop that, I say, I know not. The old prophet may have been right when he said, "Surely it is not of the Lord that the people shall labour in the very fire, and weary themselves for very vanity;" and in some juster, wiser, more sober system of society--somewhat more like the Kingdom of The Father come on earth--it may be that poor human beings will not need to toil so hard, and to keep themselves up to their work by stimulants, but will have time to sit down, and look around them, and think of God, and of God's quiet universe, with something of quiet in themselves; something of rational leisure, and manful sobriety of mind, as well as of body.

But it seems to me also, that in such a state of society, when--as it was once well put--"every one has stopped running about like rats:"--that those who work hard, whether with muscle or with brain, would not be surrounded, as now, with every circumstance which tempts toward drink; by every circumstance which depresses the vital energies, and leaves them an easy prey to pestilence itself; by bad light, bad air, bad food, bad water, bad smells, bad occupations, which weaken the muscles, cramp the chest, disorder the digestion. Let any rational man, fresh from the country--in which I presume God, having made it, meant all men, more or less, to live--go through the back streets of any city, or through whole districts of the "black countries" of England: and then ask himself--Is it the will of God that His human children should live and toil in such dens, such deserts, such dark places of the earth? Let him ask himself--Can they live and toil there without contracting a probably diseased habit of body; without contracting a certainly dull, weary, sordid habit of mind, which craves for any pleasure, however brutal, to escape from its own stupidity and emptiness? When I run through, by rail, certain parts of the iron-producing country--streets of furnaces, collieries, slag heaps, mud, slop, brick house-rows, smoke, dirt--and that is all; and when I am told, whether truly or falsely, that the main thing which the well-paid and well-fed men of those abominable wastes care for is--good fighting-dogs: I can only answer, that I am not surprised.

I say--as I have said elsewhere, and shall do my best to say again--that the craving for drink and narcotics, especially that engendered in our great cities, is not a disease, but a symptom of disease; of a far deeper disease than any which drunkenness can produce; namely, of the growing degeneracy of a population striving in vain by stimulants and narcotics to fight against those slow poisons with which our greedy barbarism, miscalled civilisation, has surrounded them from the cradle to the grave. I may be answered that the old German, Angle, Dane, drank heavily. I know it: but why did they drink, save for the same reason that the fenman drank, and his wife took opium, at least till the fens were drained? why but to keep off the depressing effects of the malaria of swamps and new clearings, which told on them--who always settled in the lowest grounds--in the shape of fever and ague? Here it may be answered again, that stimulants have been, during the memory of man, the destruction of the Red Indian race in America. I reply boldly, that I do not believe it. There is evidence enough in Jaques Cartier's 'Voyages to the Rivers of Canada;' and evidence more than enough in Strachey's 'Travaile in Virginia'--to quote only two authorities out of many--to prove that the Red Indians, when the white man first met with them, were, in North and South alike, a diseased, decaying, and, as all their traditions confess, decreasing race. Such a race would naturally crave for "the water of life," the "usque-bagh," or whisky, as we have contracted the old name now. But I should have thought that the white man, by introducing among these poor creatures iron, fire-arms, blankets, and above all horses wherewith to follow the buffalo-herds which they could never follow on foot, must have done ten times more towards keeping them alive, than he has done towards destroying them by giving them the chance of a week's drunkenness twice a year, when they came in to his forts to sell the skins which, without his gifts, they would never have got.

Such a race would, of course, if wanting vitality, crave for stimulants. But if the stimulants, and not the original want of vitality, combined with morals utterly detestable, and worthy only of the gallows--and here I know what I say, and dare not tell what I know, from eye-witnesses--have been the cause of the Red Indians' extinction: then how is it, let me ask, that the Irishman and the Scotsman have, often to their great harm, been drinking as much whisky--and usually very bad whisky--not merely twice a year, but as often as they could get it, during the whole "iron age;" and, for aught any one can tell, during the "bronze age," and the "stone age" before that: and yet are still the most healthy, able, valiant, and prolific races in Europe? Had they drunk less whisky they would, doubtless, have been more healthy, able, valiant, and perhaps even more prolific, than they are now. They show no sign, however, as yet, of going the way of the Red Indian.

But if the craving for stimulants and narcotics is a token of deficient vitality: then the deadliest foe of that craving, and all its miserable results, is surely the Sanatory Reformer; the man who preaches, and--as far as ignorance and vested interests will allow him, procures--for the masses, pure air, pure sunlight, pure water, pure dwelling-houses, pure food. Not merely every fresh drinking-fountain: but every fresh public bath and wash-house, every fresh open space, every fresh growing tree, every fresh open window, every fresh flower in that window--each of these is so much, as the old Persians would have said, conquered for Ormuzd, the god of light and life, out of the dominion of Ahriman, the king of darkness and of death; so much taken from the causes of drunkenness and disease, and added to the causes of sobriety and health.

Meanwhile one thing is clear: that if this present barbarism and anarchy of covetousness, miscalled modern civilisation, were tamed and drilled into something more like a Kingdom of God on earth: then we should not see the reckless and needless multiplication of liquor shops, which disgraces this country now.

As a single instance: in one country parish of nine hundred inhabitants, in which the population has increased only one-ninth in the last fifty years, there are now practically eight public-houses, where fifty years ago there were but two. One, that is, for every hundred and ten--or rather, omitting children, farmers, shopkeepers, gentlemen, and their households, one for every fifty of the inhabitants. In the face of the allurements, often of the basest kind, which these dens offer, the clergyman and the schoolmaster struggle in vain to keep up night-schools and young men's clubs, and to inculcate habits of providence.

The young labourers over a great part of the south and east, at least, of England,--though never so well off, for several generations, as they are now--are growing up thriftless, shiftless; inferior, it seems to me, to their grandfathers in everything, save that they can usually read and write, and their grandfathers could not; and that they wear smart cheap cloth clothes, instead of their grandfathers' smock-frocks.

And if it be so in the country: how must it be in towns? There must come a thorough change in the present licensing system, in spite of all the "pressure" which certain powerful vested interests may bring to bear on governments. And it is the duty of every good citizen, who cares for his countrymen, and for their children after them, to help in bringing about that change as speedily as possible.

Again: I said just now that a probable cause of increasing drunkenness was the increasing material prosperity of thousands who knew no recreation beyond low animal pleasure. If I am right--and I believe that I am right--I must urge on those who wish drunkenness to decrease, the necessity of providing more, and more refined recreation for the people.

Men drink, and women too, remember, not merely to supply exhaustion; not merely to drive away care: but often simply to drive away dulness. They have nothing to do save to think over what they have done in the day, or what they expect to do to-morrow; and they escape from that dreary round of business thought, in liquor or narcotics. There are still those, by no means of the hand-working class, but absorbed all day by business, who drink heavily at night in their own comfortable homes, simply to recreate their overburdened minds. Such cases, doubtless, are far less common than they were fifty years ago: but why? Is not the decrease of drinking among the richer classes certainly due to the increased refinement and variety of their tastes and occupations? In cultivating the aesthetic side of man's nature; in engaging him with the beautiful, the pure, the wonderful, the truly natural; with painting, poetry, music, horticulture, physical science--in all this lies recreation, in the true and literal sense of that word, namely, the recreating and mending of the exhausted mind and feelings, such as no rational man will now neglect, either for himself, his children, or his work-people.

But how little of all this is open to the masses, all should know but too well. How little opportunity the average hand-worker, or his wife, has of eating of any tree of knowledge, save of the very basest kind, is but too palpable. We are mending, thank God, in this respect. Free libraries and museums have sprung up of late in other cities beside London. God's blessing rest upon them all. And the Crystal Palace, and still later, the Bethnal Green Museum, have been, I believe, of far more use than many average sermons and lectures from many average orators.

But are we not still far behind the old Greeks, and the Romans of the Empire likewise, in the amount of amusement and instruction, and even of shelter, which we provide for the people? Recollect the--to me--disgraceful fact; that there is not, as far as I am aware, throughout the whole of London, a single portico or other covered place, in which the people can take refuge during a shower: and this in the climate of England! Where they do take refuge on a wet day the publican knows but too well; as he knows also where thousands of the lower classes, simply for want of any other place to be in, save their own sordid dwellings, spend as much as they are permitted of the Sabbath day. Let us put down "Sunday drinking" by all means, if we can. But let us remember that by closing the public-house on Sunday, we prevent no man or woman from carrying home as much poison as they choose on Saturday night, to brutalise themselves therewith, perhaps for eight-and-forty hours. And let us see--in the name of Him who said that He had made the Sabbath for man, and not man for the Sabbath--let us see, I say, if we cannot do something to prevent the townsman's Sabbath being, not a day of rest, but a day of mere idleness; the day of most temptation, because of most dulness, of the whole seven.

And here, perhaps, some sweet soul may look up reprovingly and say--He talks of rest. Does he forget, and would he have the working man forget, that all these outward palliatives will never touch the seat of the disease, the unrest of the soul within? Does he forget, and would he have the working man forget, who it was who said--who only has the right to say--"Come unto Me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest"? Ah no, sweet soul. I know your words are true. I know that what we all want is inward rest; rest of heart and brain; the calm, strong, self-contained, self-denying character; which needs no stimulants, for it has no fits of depression; which needs no narcotics, for it has no fits of excitement; which needs no ascetic restraints, for it is strong enough to use God's gifts without abusing them; the character, in a word, which is truly temperate, not in drink or food merely, but in all desires, thoughts, and actions; freed from the wild lusts and ambitions to which that old Adam yielded, and, seeking for light and life by means forbidden, found thereby disease and death. Yes; I know that; and know, too, that that rest is found, only where you have already found it.

And yet: in such a world as this; governed by a Being who has made sunshine, and flowers, and green grass, and the song of birds, and happy human smiles; and who would educate by them--if we would let Him--His human children from the cradle to the grave; in such a world as this, will you grudge any particle of that education, even any harmless substitute for it, to those spirits in prison, whose surroundings too often tempt them, from the cradle to the grave, to fancy that the world is composed of bricks and iron, and governed by inspectors and policemen? Preach to those spirits in prison, as you know far better than we parsons how to preach: but let them have besides some glimpses of the splendid fact, that outside their prison-house is a world which God, not man, has made; wherein grows everywhere that tree of knowledge which is likewise the tree of life; and that they have a right to some small share of its beauty, and its wonder, and its rest, for their own health of soul and body, and for the health of their children after them.


Charles Kingsley

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