All posts by Sara

The Psychology of Evil

Below is a video of a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, an experiment to which Paul referred in his comment on Jess’s recent post.

In this talk Zimbardo raises a number of questions about the nature of humans and their capacity for evil which intersect, in many ways, with a good number of the texts we read (and especially Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

The talk also raises interesting questions about the capacity of humans for evil (and good) which might prove pertinent as you think about the readings about Sade for Monday.

TED Talk: The Psychology of Evil

Frankenstein Archive Online

I am writing to draw your attention to a new archive, just put online, of the manuscripts of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel went through several drafts and revisions, and the digital copies provide an interesting insight into the process of writing and revision that Mary Shelley undertook while crafting this classic piece of literature.

The Frankenstein Notebooks

 

 

Oedipus the King and Self-Knowledge

In all of the texts we’ve discussed so far, we’ve seen that knowledge often comes at a price. This is certainly also the case with Oedipus in Oedipus the King. Oedipus’ struggle to plumb the depths of his own history reveals for him a terrible secret, though ironically, it’s a “secret” he knew all along. The play is a meditation on a type of knowledge that we haven’t seen much of yet—self-knowledge—and this raises a number of questions.

How much do we really know about ourselves? How much do we want to know? Can we, like Oedipus, often be blind to our own inadequacies? These problems take on a contemporary flair if we consider the ways in which science and technology have made it possible to know things about ourselves that we could never know before. Genetic testing, for instance, can now give us insights into our susceptibilities to certain diseases. How should we react once or if we know our likelihood of dying from a particular malady? Can we change our lives to lower our risks, or is such behavior, like Oedipus’ attempts to change his fate, ultimately futile? If you could find out whether something terrible awaited you in the future, would you want to know?

Part of what Oedipus shows us is that this sense of control that we feel over our lives and ourselves is illusory, and this is a scary message indeed. Despite having the best of intentions, Oedipus could not escape his destiny.  This lesson applies to us too: even if we solve all of the riddles and get to the bottom of all of all of our questions, this does not necessarily grant us the power to change what it is that we actually find. And, what’s more, once we have made the discovery, we must still decide how to react …and live with the consequences.

Jocasta gives the following advice to Oedipus as he barrels down the pathway of discovering his true identity: “[it is] best to live lightly as one can, unthinkingly” (978). While this is certainly one way to react—to tamp down our thirst for knowledge entirely—to live a blissful life of ignorance—Oedipus himself also provides a model for how to seek out knowledge: once he finds the truth, he faces it and bears its consequences with a sense of dignity and personal responsibility.  Oedipus suffers dreadfully, but perhaps some amount of suffering is the price we must pay for knowing ourselves.

 

On a lighter note, do please enjoy this re-enactment of the Oedipus story with vegetables as actors: http://vimeo.com/19152100

Does Knowledge Alienate us from God?

We discussed in class today some of the broader similarities in worldview that one can discern in Gilgamesh, Genesis, and in Hesiod’s account of Prometheus and Pandora. All three deal fundamentally with what it means to be human and what we can and should, therefore, know or not know. In all three, we see how gaining knowledge has certain trade-offs and often comes with stiff consequences…

Of all of the characters we have read about, Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Babylonian flood story, seems the most fortunate in the whole gaining-of-knowledge shtick. He manages, though somewhat haphazardly, to survive the flood and is therefore granted the gift of immortality. For him, knowledge does not lead to death (or some other bad outcome), though his experience also seems like a bit of a fluke. As we learn from Gilgamesh, who fails multiple times in his quest for immortality, it seems near impossible to bridge the gap between man and god, immortal and mortal.

The other two stories seem to imply that knowledge alienates us from the divine—or at least that knowledge creates a sort of antagonistic relationship between us (humans) and them (God/the gods). In these stories, knowledge inspires wrath or punishment; and in the story of Adam and Eve in particular, it leads to a break-down in the relationship between humanity and their creator. Whether or not we accept any of these stories as part of our religious faith today, we see this conflict play out in contemporary terms in the science vs. religion debate that is a regular part of the “culture wars.” Does the knowledge offered to us by scientific progress (think of scientific theories like the Big Bang or Evolution) end up separating us from God? Does the accumulation of scientific knowledge diminish our belief in the divine? If it does, what have we lost? What have we gained?

 

We didn’t talk a lot about Pandora today, but it’s not uncommon to see the metaphor of Pandora’s box applied to the human thirst for knowledge more generally. We, like Pandora (or Eve?), can’t control ourselves when it comes to hunting down new discoveries and exploring new ideas, but in the process of opening that box, we often don’t slow down enough to consider the value of what’s flown out once the box is opened–let alone what the consequences of opening the box are in the first place!  We will explore this theme more fully at a later point in the term, but for now, it is worth considering whether religion and faith are a casualty of scientific progress and whether this is good, bad, or somewhere in-between.

 

Welcome!

Welcome Preceptors! If you are reading this, you have successfully located our course blog. We will discuss the mechanics of making a post and leaving comments in class on Friday, so please remember to bring your computers to class.