Learning About Sin from Milton’s Satan

At last week’s Touchstone conference, Tony Esolen gave a talk about Milton’s Satan, in which he unpacked some of the psychology of evil. In the course of his lecture, Dr. Esolen shared the following passage from Paradise Lost.

With what delight could I have walked thee [earth] round,
If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange
Of Hill, and Vallie, Rivers, Woods and Plaines,
Now Land, now Sea, and Shores with Forrest crownd,
Rocks, Dens, and Caves; but I in none of these
Find place or refuge; and the more I see
Pleasures about me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries; all good to me becomes
Bane, and in Heav’n much worse would be my state.

I have been meditating on this extraordinary passage throughout the week. Here Satan is surveying the land of his exile and recognizes his inability to delight in the natural beauties that surround him. But as much as he hated the beautiful hills, valleys, and rivers of his earthly exile (so that the more he sees, the more he feels torment within), he yet preferred these to the suffering he would undergo if faced with the beauties of heaven. Paradise Lost, like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, explores the paradox of becoming so corrupted that it is possible to prefer misery to the infinite pleasure of the beatific vision. Why would a being prefer to be miserable? Therein lies the irrationality of evil. And yet, lest I be too hard on the devil, consider how all of us fall into the same stupidity whenever we follow sinful passions while knowing them to be mere empty cheats.

For those of us involved in education, I think there is an important take-home point here. Education, properly conceived, is nothing other than the project of producing men and women who can delight in the good and enjoy the beautiful, rather than those who, like Milton’s Satan, come to recoil before the good, the true, and the beautiful.

C.S. Lewis brings this out in his wonderful little treatise on education, The Abolition of Man. Here Lewis suggested that the process of training a student’s deepest dispositions occurs even before a child has learned to reason, as he or she is nourished in the right attitudes – attitudes that ultimately determine what sorts of thing the student will find delightful.

“The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful…. From his earliest years [he] would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”

Cultivating correct dispositions is hard work and requires years of right habits—habits that may seem drudgery at the time but which have as their reward the flowering of a certain sort of person. It’s easy to misunderstand the nature of this type of reward, since often the rewards we receive from hard work have no organic connection to the labor. For example, when I tell my son I will pay him $5.00 after he has mowed the lawn, or when I tell my daughter we will go to the lake after she has cleaned her room, there is no natural connection to the work and the reward. But sometimes we do experience rewards that are organically connected to the work that earned them. For example, the enjoyment of reading Virgil in the original language is organically related to the work of studying Latin and learning to appreciate good literature. Or again, the enjoyment a man derives from having a relationship with a modest, virtuous woman is organically related to the work of becoming virtuous himself. One who has not worked to appreciate good literature may puzzle why another would prefer Virgil over comics, just as a man who has not worked to cultivate virtue may find it hard to understand why another man would enjoy having a relationship with a modest, virtuous woman.

On the same principle, when we say that education is its own reward, we mean that becoming a certain sort of person is the natural reward of our formative educational habits. We want to become people with dispositions attuned to reality, people of gentle heart, people with rightly-ordered affections. These goals are achieved through habits that may not seem particularly educational or pleasant at the time. But the real value of these good habits is that they orient us towards the end of rightly-ordered attitudes—ultimately, being able to recognize what is lovely, being able to be attracted to what is right, and being able to derive genuine enjoyment when discord resolves into harmony, and when chaos gives way to order.

Through virtuous habits, our hearts are ultimately prepared for the rewards of heaven. But like I mentioned earlier, we often misunderstand the nature of future reward and reduce it to something like, “Be good and then God will reward you with more treasure in heaven.” A better way to think about future rewards is to realize that your aim is to become the sort of person who will be able to enjoy God’s presence. To return to the example I gave earlier: just as the enjoyment a man derives from having a relationship with a modest, virtuous woman is organically related to the work of becoming virtuous himself, so the unfathomable joy of being eternally united with Christ is organically related to our present-day struggles to grow closer to Him. By growing deeper in our relationship with Christ through spiritual disciplines and habits of virtue, we gradually become the type of man or woman who can enjoy Christ’s presence, both in this life and in the next. As C. S. Lewis remarked in The Problem of Pain, “the joys of Heaven are, for most of us in our present condition, ‘an acquired taste.’”

But just as we can acquire dispositions that enable us to delight in what is good, true, and beautiful (ultimately in God Himself), it is also possible to corrupt ourselves so that heavenly joys are perceived as torment. And that brings us back to that marvelous passage from Paradise Lost: “the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me.” We can extrapolate from this to better appreciate the Church Fathers’ teaching on hell. Future judgment isn’t so much that the wicked are deprived of heavenly pleasures when they die, but that their soul-corrupting habits have created a condition whereby they cannot receive heavenly pleasures as pleasure, like Milton’s Satan could not delight in the hills, valleys, rivers, woods and plains of his earthly abode.

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