Forbidden Knowledge

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

If there is one defining principle in modern secular thought, at least in its academic incarnations, it is probably the belief that the pursuit of knowledge must be absolutely unfettered. What, then, are we to make of Professor Shattuck, a scholar who dares to raise an all but forgotten question: “Are there some things we should not know?”

Through a series of thoughtful and responsible readings of classical myths, including the stories of Prometheus and Pandora, as well as of literary landmarks such as Milton’s PARADISE LOST (with references to its biblical sources), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s FAUST (with references to earlier versions of the Faust myth), Shattuck establishes two points. The first is that the idea that there are limits to what humans may know has been from antiquity an important feature of human self-definition. The second is that since the Romantic era, which may include our own, this idea has been under attack. Unlike earlier Fausts, who were damned for their overreaching, Goethe’s Faust earns salvation as a reward for his striving.

The issue of forbidden knowledge has implications for the present as well. The Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb, and the Human Genome Project, with its promise of unlimited genetic engineering, raise for modern time the question of what knowledge we as humans may legitimately seek. Shattuck recommends that scientists consider devising an appropriate equivalent of...

(The entire section is 419 words.)