Free will in the Garden of Eden

All afternoon I pondered the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, questioning what he meant by the words in his essays. His writings provoked questions in my mind about the individual mind and universal truths. The most burning questions being, how are individual minds compatible with universal truths, and what is this concept of universal mind?  If there is universal truth about what is right and wrong, why doesn’t everyone act for good? With these thoughts clamoring in my head I left to pick my daughters up form school. At first sight I noticed my 7 year daughter had a large paper in her hand. It appeared to be an art project. When we arrived at home she eagerly bounced through the door, and handed me her project. Her big brown eyes beamed at me as she waited for my reaction. Below is the picture she drew.

snake in a tree

Samantha Rose Bain, 2016

The juxtaposed images of the snake in a tree and my little girl’s smile, with chubby cheeks and shining eyes held the answer to my questions. In an almost blinding revelation, the image became one of Biblical importance, innocence next to the serpent represented the story of the Apple of Eden.


A great deal of political thought is inspired by the narrative of the original sin of man, and further we live in a country founded on the principles of the Bible.  So it is appropriate that a search for universal truth in the United States begins there. At this point I would like to add a disclaimer that the following thought is not meant to be an argument for or against Christianity, nor does it really matter if the creation story is true, myth, or a symbolic representation. The fact that it is intertwined in our society gives it relevance. When one reads the story, Emerson’s idea of universal truth or “certain divine laws that will not by us or for us be written on paper” (p. 104) becomes comprehensible.  Genesis opened by detailing God’s creation of the world, heavens, seas, and life. After he finished God saw that that his creation was good. Man was also a good creation; crafted in the image of God to be the caretaker and master of all that was good. This suggests that man is universally good by creation.

Next a dark cloud began to form on the horizon. God revealed to Adam that he created two trees; a tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam was warned that if he ate from the latter he would die. This implied two things; first, good and evil already existed, and Adam was first ignorant of evil, and second Adam had a choice, free will, to decide if he wanted to know the already existing truth about the knowledge of good and evil. Eve, who was also good because she was created by God, became convinced to eat from the tree by the antithesis of God, the embodiment of evil, the serpent, and then convinced Adam to do the same. Subsequently, because man was now like God and knew the difference between good and evil, God cursed them both to one day die and banished them from the Garden of Eden. All of mankind, created out of the same dust and spirit, now had the same knowledge as God. Since Eve became the mother of all mankind, the knowledge of good and evil is inherited by all people, thus a universal truth about good and evil, or a universal mind born of and shared with the creator. Emerson argues for universal goodness when he says “The time is coming when all men will see, that the gift of God to the soul is not vaunting, overpowering, excluding sanctity, but sweet, natural goodness like thine and mine, and that so invites thine and mine to be and to grow” (109).  However on the notion of this “good” I disagree with Emerson that evil is “privative” (105) and merely explained as the absence of good. The concepts of good and evil existed, Biblically, before the creation of man. Man was created with goodness, intended to be a caretaker of all things good. By partaking the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, man brought evil into the world by choice. Therefore evil is invasive to good and made possible by a positive action, and thus to the contrary, in the absence evil humans are good.

Now that a universal good and free will have been made possible through theology, how do they function together in American Political theory?  First and foremost it suggests that free will and freedom of choice, aka liberty is the most basic human right. It suggests that the first humans exercised their free will when they chose knowledge and death over ignorant eternal bliss; all decedents thereof, who suffer the same curse of death, have the same freedom of will. Everyone pays for their liberty in death and to deny it, is too steal their very personal right to act as they choose. Opponents of individualism say that society guided by individual thought will not benefit a common good. However, to say this is to deny that there is innate goodness in human character and to ignore the fact that historically individuals have chosen to act together for a common goal. In a state of nature man’s thought is not controlled, his instinct favors himself,  but without coercion he/ she stands with others, joins a political party, practices a religion, or fights for a cause. Who can explain this?  Emerson explains that “every revolution is first a thought in one man’s mind, and when the same thought occurs in another man, it is the key to the era” (p.2). Men who are born with free will sometimes think alike, and choose social action. The misstep of counter individualists is to discount that Men, inspired by the universal good, often act together. Thinkers like Emerson are not telling us to go and create chaos in the world, but instead to use our individual noggins to weigh our choices against our God given moral compasses.  We should make choices because we feel they are right, not because someone else is doing it, not because it is written in a book, not because a preacher tells us so, but because we know that deep in our being it is the right thing to do. Action coerced, purchased by money, or performed without thought has little meaning, or better put action guided by anything less personal principles is trifle.


In The Prince, Machiavelli explains that armies founded on money, instead of principle, are dangerous and unreliable, because “they have no love or cause to be on the field other than a small stipend” (1998, p48). A man who follows his moral compass is led to greatness, but like a docile cow, a man who aimlessly follows others is led to slaughter.  Which one are you?



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2 Responses to Free will in the Garden of Eden

  1. ztacner says:

    “We should make choices because we feel they are right, not because someone else is doing it”, While I do not particularly favor the “sheep” mentality I do believe in the unified mind and body of mankind. That the good of the many is better than the good of the one, and would argue that doing something not because we feel that it is the right thing to do, but because it would have a greater benefit to the community as a whole. don’t you think that the success of the population outweigh your personal mental victory, regardless of the forces used to coerce the driving force behind the decision?

  2. alxtower says:

    This is a very interesting post. For me, Emerson seemed less concerned with a universal good and more concerned with gaining an individual sense of the world through studying nature and history. As he says in self reliance, if you view your actions to be correct it doesn’t matter if others see you as acting like the devil. A morale compass is often established by a group of people based on their ideals, and just because one person disagrees doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

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