Today—February 27—is the anniversary of John Steinbeck’s birth in 1902. My favorite work by Steinbeck is East of Eden, which is in some respects more of a book of American philosophy than a novel.
There’s one passage in particular that stuck with me (and tends to stick with anyone who reads the book). The main protagonist, Adam Trask, is discussing the topic of free will and sin with the characters Samuel and Lee. Lee, a pre-civil rights Chinese-American servant, explains the difference in translations of the biblical Creation story from Genesis:
“[T]his was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin (and you can call sin ignorance). The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ That makes a man great and that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”