Surely, you must have heard of the Genesis story featuring the downfall of two brothers whose nature appears to have been at odds. It is the story of Cain and Abel, which, till this day, is still narrated in schools, by parents, dramatized in Art, and, unfortunately, echoed in reality. Such is a story which speaks of the death of an innocent man, Abel, thus delineating the scapegoat mechanism that was, and still is, prevalent today together with the resentment of a brother who, enslaved by his own shadow, is rendered murderous.
And yet, such an analysis is not surprisingly new: the representation of Cain and Abel as the good guy and the bad has diffused almost everywhere. Here, by contrast, I intend to portray the story and its symbolism, specifically the destruction of goodness by what is rendered ‘bad’ and, mans’ loss of hope in a malevolent world, in a new light: from a psychological perspective.
In his Epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ John Milton writes,
“So farewell hope, and with hope, farewell fear, farewell remorse! All good to me is lost; Evil, be thou my Good.”
What such words signify entirely is difficult to tell, however it appears rather clear that the poet is, in part, speaking of the ‘destruction of hope’ which, when fulfilled, is consequently followed by the ‘destruction of goodness’. That being said, the question becomes – how are such concepts related? And, why does goodness seem to be dependent on hope for its existence?
Before discussing these questions we must first have a clear conception of what the biblical story states. I will start by shedding light on the words God says to Cain after the latter fails to bring the appropriate ‘offering’ and as a result, is paid no regard,
“The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”(Genesis 4:6,7)
Let us take a moment to examine such words carefully. Cain’s reaction in the face of failure and disappointment, his ‘anger’, is not so different from our reaction when things don’t go as planned, when a fork in the road pops up, so to speak; when we fail.
As Cain, when overcome by such events, we often end up blaming the ‘injustice’ of the world, and perhaps even, its people – however big the part we would have played in propelling such mishaps. For, indeed, sometimes the fault is entirely ours: which is what seems to have been the case with Cain – echoed in the nature of God’s reply,
“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”
The nature of such reply presents itself as ambiguous when held against the nature of reality: it seems to be implying that our shortcomings could ultimately be held accountable for our every failure. That we are to blame every time. Whether this is true or not is a question I will not be considering, though I do believe it withholds some kernel of truth. What I’m interested in delineating is the attitude one should adopt in the face of such ‘misfortunes’, and to show that, a failure in acting accordingly, will ultimately give way to terrible consequences.
Keeping the story in mind, it is made evident that Cain blatantly fails to take into consideration the words, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?”.
This is what leads to his downfall. Ideally, Cain ought to have changed his scheme of operating in the world, his ‘tools’, so to enhance the possibility for success, for ‘acceptance’: he should have accepted his shortcomings and tried harder. But the opposite happens. Our ‘protagonist’ falls prey to his malevolent side, the ‘green eyed monster’, the ‘Hyde’ within, and, as a result, is rendered envious, resentful and, murderous. And it is this – mans’ propensity to blame others and become indignant whenever ‘he does not do well’, which, often times, gets him undone. What happens to Cain as a result of his somewhat ‘relatable’ behaviour is more than he could bear,
“Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear.”
But why is Cain’s punishment more that he could bear?
This brings us to our primary question – the relationship between goodness and hope. The murder of Abel is symbolical of something more profound than the mere triumph of evil over good. From a psychological perspective, the murder of Abel symbolises man cutting ties with his ‘better side’, his ideal – and the ideal which, by definition, is noble and good, is precisely what offers one the possibility for redemption, for flourishing – a possibility to free himself from his ‘shortcomings’, from sin.
Abel’s death captures not only Cain’s fall from ‘from goodness’ but his rejection of goodness. By killing his brother, he kills himself. As a result of this he is thus shunned from the kingdom of the god, from the transcendant: which grants one faith in forgiveness and, a possibility for ‘salvation’,
“Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground”
When hope dies, goodness dies with it, and “Evil, [becomes ones’] Good.” When one turns his back on God, on hope, on his belief in improvement, he is, metaphorically speaking, cast in to a morass of resentment: in to a bottomless hell, with no ‘up’. Cain’s punishment is more than he could bear because, as Marlowe’s protagonist Faustus, he realises that when God and goodness are rejected no prayer or God will be enough to keep the yawning gates of hell at bay, in our case – a ‘psychological hell’. Furthermore, the loss of hope represents not only a Christian despair but the despair of humanity in the face of a world which stubbornly rejects transcendental values and embraces, nihilism. As Marlowe tells us, “No end is limited for damned souls”.
And thus, where does this leave us? One is left with a clearer conception of the human persona: its propensity for resentment and malevolence, along with its potential for goodness and, redemption. One is left, above all, with a fundamental warning: do not kill your Abel.
Mariana Debono, a 17 year old University student who’s utterly in awe of literature and philosophy. Writing has always been a passion of mine but lately, more than ever before, I felt a need to give life to my thoughts and publish them… for what difference would it make if we kept everything to ourselves? Longing improvement means working for it, and my way of doing so is through writing, conversing and of course, reading. I want my discourses to help give a clearer vision of reality, something which in this day and age has become almost surreal– it has become a sort of illusion.
We might not know the truth you see… but that doesn’t mean we can never get to it!