If you are old enough to have taken a Western Civilization course when it was still a staple of the cirriculum, one of the first items that confronted you in the freshman syllabus was the familiar story of the Garden of Eden from Genesis. You saw it again at the summit of Dante's Purgatorio and later in Book IV of John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Whatever your personal reactions to the story of the garden, it was intended on the literary and theological levels to be a mysterious archetype of gift and loss: a paradise given to the highest of God's creatures, man and woman, which they lost because of their rebellion. The garden story constitutes the first chapter in the grand narrative of the human race, a narrative that necessarily involves us all, believers and unbelievers alike. This story has been told again and again, with variations on its theme.
Each generation has been compelled to consider what the archetypal loss of the garden means in its own time. The garden of the Genesis story clearly made inconvenient demands upon its residents. It was the work of a Gardener who was superior to the creatures that lived within it and could command them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
So let us have the garden, some later generations came to think--but this time without the by-laws that came with it the first time. Other generations asked instead why the garden had to be created at all: Why couldn't it always have been there? Still others asked, Why can't we create our own gardens?
None of these responses is unreasonable. Because we are beings of sense before we are beings of reason, perhaps our garden should begin by satisfying all our sensual desires--and to accommodate that wish, some commentators have invented a garden quite at odds with prelapsarian Eden: the Garden of Earthly Delights, such as we find in some of the tales told by Ovid, Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims, and Rabelais (to say nothing of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch). Is this not, in fact, the way most of us wish to live our lives: in morally uncomplicated gardens of earthly delight? Is it ignoble to agree with Epicurus, the Greek philosopher, who taught in his Athenian garden that pleasure is the highest good and pain the worst evil?
But second thoughts intrude. To follow Epicurus we would have to deny the spirit, and when we deny spirit we reduce life entirely to the material--which forces us to admit that death is final. At that point we are...