The allegory of Pandora can suggest that something in humankind propels us to learn, to grow and find out more—in other words to be curious! It doesn’t matter if we are forbidden, or if higher authorities tell us not to. In fact, this might increase the appeal! But there is a price for knowledge. There is always a sacrifice, and nothing comes for free.
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Pandora’s Box and the practice of discretion & patience in the pursuit of knowledge
In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human female, and she was made from earth and water in the workshop of Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, masonry and sculpture. Zeus had asked her to be made in an effort at revenge after Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods and given it to humanity. The pantheon of gods all gave gifts to the new woman, whose very name means “all gifts.”
Aphrodite, the goddess of love, gave her beauty, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, gave her intelligence. Zeus, however, gave her the most curious gift of all: a stone jar (subsequently described as a “box”) that he told her to never, ever open.
Zeus then sent Pandora with all her gifts to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. Expecting revenge, Prometheus had told his brother never to accept any gifts from Zeus, but as you can guess, he welcomed Pandora and she then failed to resist and opened the jar to see what was in it.
Flooding out of the jar came all the evils of the world: sickness, death, hatred, hunger, fear, sadness… Pandora quickly tried to close the box, but it was already too late. She had “opened a can of worms” and everything had already escaped. By the time she closed it, there was only one thing left inside: hope. Evil and pestilence had been let out into the fresh world, and for what?
How should we interpret this myth today, thousands of years after its first telling? Scholars have picked apart the exact meaning, but we will likely have no need for the academic details here. The fable is certainly an evocative one, bringing to mind themes of Eve eating the forbidden fruit, or of Bluebeard’s wife opening a door in the castle she was told never to enter. It may even call to mind the story of Sleeping Beauty, who is also gifted many virtues of supernatural origin, as well as a curse from a more malicious source.
We can wonder at the nature of the gifts—beauty and wisdom naturally seem like wonderful things, but in gifting a jar of evils, was Zeus intending these things to merely bedevil humankind or are they, in a way, gifts as well? This is made more curious still by the fact that hope is included as one of the evils, and it does not make it out into the world—is having hope an essentially good or bad thing?
Though we will miss certain nuances here (our intention is not to conduct an academic analysis of the classics) we can engage with this myth as it stands, seeing what ideas and emotions it evokes in us.
There are perhaps two interpretations here that may spring to mind. The first is that the evils of the world have come to be because of a flaw in a character who does not obey orders and do what they’re told. Pandora simply doesn’t listen. It’s not that she’s a bad person, she’s simply too curious. The gods, making their wishes clear, forbid Pandora from certain kinds of knowledge (just as Eve is forbidden from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). But who wants to be told that there is something in the world they are not allowed to know—especially when no reason is given for this rule?
Unable to control herself, Pandora’s curiosity compels her to trespass and break a rule imposed on her by a higher authority. For this she is punished, and the lesson is clear: do as you’re told, rein in your nosiness and you’ll remain blissfully unaware of the bad things in life.
In fact many myths and stories take this shape: the protagonist is too inquisitive for their own good, and wants to know things that are forbidden to them, only to be punished when they really experience that knowledge. The idea is that there is innocence in ignorance, but that knowledge is somehow painful. You can probably relate to this on some level—we have the tale of a nosy wife who wished she hadn’t pried in her husband’s secrets, or the shadowy CIA agent who tells us, You can’t handle the truth.
The other interpretation is a little more subtle. Zeus only embarks on this caper because he is already angry at how much humans know—they’ve received the fire of the gods which was forbidden to them (and Prometheus has much in common with Pandora in breaking rules to spread knowledge).
Zeus did not merely unleash evils on the world, which he could have easily done. Rather, he gave humankind the choice. He must have known that in forbidding them, in concealing the evils in a jar, Pandora would open it willingly and unleash the evils on herself. This could well be seen as a punishment, but we can also see these things as a kind of gift.
The allegory can suggest that something in humankind propels us to learn, to grow and find out more—in other words to be curious! It doesn’t matter if we are forbidden, or if higher authorities tell us not to. In fact, this might increase the appeal! But there is a price for knowledge. There is always a sacrifice, and nothing comes for free.
Unlike the “good” gifts, which can be received easily as they are, the “bad” gifts come about as a result of free will. In learning more about the world, our eyes open, we cannot unsee what we have seen, and sometimes the things we learn may be very upsetting. Human progress, driven by curiosity, the desire to know and understand more and more, leads to the evils of the world. It’s akin to being expelled from Eden after learning “the truth.”
This can be seen as a lesson in maturity. Every parent wants to protect their innocent child from learning about the world too fast, from absorbing information that may be too much for them too soon. This myth is a stern warning about respecting the fact that knowledge often comes with a price. It is both a tale of what happens when you don’t obey wiser authorities, but perhaps also a lesson in how these things are inevitable—children often have to try out something for themselves to learn, and in learning that lesson, they incur some pain.
If we bluster ahead merely because we have the free will to do so, merely because we cannot contain our curiosity, we may wade into territory that we are not equipped to deal with, and make choices we cannot undo.
What is the correct attitude to learning, to progress and development? Humankind has been making advances—scientific, social and even spiritual—since the beginning of time. But some of these advances can be said to have come at an enormous price. Developments in physics are the result of an insatiable curiosity on the part of the scientists, but were used to create the atom bomb, poisons, new and deadly weapons, machines for control and torture—all things that can be said to be “evils” to humanity.
We cannot go back, just as Pandora cannot put any of the world’s evils back in the jar. But many of us would say that even though development and progress is sometimes marred with poor judgment, harsh lessons and horrible realizations that can’t be undone—we wouldn’t necessarily want them to be undone. In other words, the cost was worth it.
In our own lives, we can approach our personal development with a similar degree of consciousness and maturity: rushing ahead before we truly understand something or before we are ready for it is usually disastrous. We must rein ourselves in and exercise self-discipline. Seeking out knowledge simply because we are curious is fine, but learning must be undertaken with an understanding that sometimes the things we discover can be quite frightening, and will result in a loss of innocence.
This lesson may come across as distinctly old-school to the modern reader. It’s the equivalent of an old woman sternly warning you to take heed of your elder’s advice, or else. But perhaps this is where the modern, particularly Western reader may most benefit. From our cultural context, progress is often seen as an absolute good, and knowledge is to be sought almost for its own sake, with nobody sparing a thought for the outcomes. The idea is that it doesn’t matter whether you should, but whether you can. But there are many Pandora’s boxes that have been opened in such a spirit, and now cannot be closed again.
How can we use this wisdom in our own lives? Curiosity is a wonderful thing, and nobody would suggest you lose all wonder and interest in learning new things. Rather, when you embark on a new project of learning, be wise about it. Are you really prepared and ready for what you may learn? When we forbid young children from watching certain movies, for example, it’s not because we want to control them—it’s because we want to protect them.
When they are old and mature enough, they can truly process what they see without harm. Can you exercise the same wise discretion for yourself? Self-control and self-discipline are paramount here. They can serve as the mental equivalent of treading carefully on a hike, and making sure you don’t embark on terrain you are not physically fit enough to endure.
An obvious, practical, real-world example is that of the nosy spouse. They see their partner’s private journal that they are compelled to read, despite knowing it’s wrong. Curiosity gets the better of them. They soon know far more than they ever did—but the cost is that the “evils” that come from this knowledge are enough to damage the relationships forever. Consider also someone who asks their friend, “Tell me what you think of my screenplay, I want you to be really honest” and then is told, to their heartbreak, that the screenplay is garbage.
On a purely practical level, there is the image of a precocious novice who is told by his teacher to focus on certain tools, techniques or texts that are appropriate to his level. In his arrogance, he rushes ahead and wants to know it all at once. He uses a tool that he can’t manage and hurts himself, or reads a text that thoroughly confuses or distresses him, or sets his progress back because he suddenly realizes how far he has to go and is demoralized.
Curiosity is good, and so is learning. But self-discipline is invaluable in telling us the pace we should take in our development. Though we would like to believe otherwise in our modern and democratic times, not all knowledge is for all people at all times. There are remote and isolated tribes in pockets of the world that governments deliberately forbid any contact with. It’s because they know that encountering that much knowledge all at once, essentially millennia of progress in a single lifetime, would completely overwhelm and threaten these tribes. Rather they must be left alone to develop at their own pace.
The wisdom, then, is in knowing one’s own limitations and having the discipline to be patient, to direct one’s curiosity through the appropriate channels. Try to guard against seeking out knowledge merely because you can’t contain your nosiness. Rather, plan your path to wisdom as though you were making your own carefully considered curriculum.
Build on your knowledge in stages, take your time and digest what you learn completely before moving on. Lastly, the biggest lesson may come in the realization that knowledge inevitably brings with it a certain loss of innocence, a certain maturity. Approach this gently, thoughtfully and with awareness, and the “evils” of the world can be seen as lessons that give us wisdom.