This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 2 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
In the human heart burns a yearning to be free — to live by our own discretion, to choose what we think good, and to stand responsible for the lives we have lived. Theologian Robert Spaemann insists that freedom is basic to the structure of the human person;1 and philosopher Roger Scruton argues that human beings stand unavoidably accountable to each other for their lives — a responsibility that entails freedom.2 This same yearning, though, goes easily awry: the legitimate human desire for agency swelling into a desire for absolute autonomy.
But the desire for absolute autonomy, even from divine authority, leads to frustration with the limits of being, turning us against the moral (and even the physical) structures of the world; for structures are, by nature, limited and limiting. We may even turn against the structure of our own person. Such a turning begets acedia — a vice marked by spiritual malaise or boredom. Acedia is sadness at the divine proclamation that being is good.3 It arises when our frustration at limits overturns our conviction that being as such and our being in particular are good. According to R. J. Snell, “Freedom [as absolute autonomy] is, now, an idol, and our conception of freedom is so absolute that we increasingly perceive limits as illicit and impermissible….So total are the demands of our new god that even our own human nature is thought a trap.”4 But if our own nature is a trap, then our existence is a trap. And traps must be escaped.
The Unbearable Burden
Paradise Lost, by John Milton (1608–1674), an epic poem foundational to the British literary canon, explores the relationship between the demand for absolute autonomy and acedia, a vice which cripples the characters’ lives by depriving them of the sense that a divine goodness sustains their being. In the existential abyss that this loss opens, some descend into a stale, paralyzing depression. Others — the angelic beings especially — take upon themselves the burden of relentless achievement as they labor to justify lives that now have none but themselves to speak on their behalf. In place of the divine pronouncement that their being is good, they substitute their own efforts to make it good. This is the burden of the contemporary world too, a burden assumed first — in Milton — by the character of Satan, who transfers it to Adam and Eve. In high epic style, the poem retells the biblical story of humanity’s rebellion against God and its subsequent loss of paradise. Like classical epics, Paradise Lost begins in medias res: Satan and his angels have been cast out of heaven and into hell. There, as they recoup themselves, they resolve upon perpetual rebellion and concoct a plan to corrupt humanity.
Satan, though, first appropriates the burden to make himself good when he conceives himself to be God’s equal. His claim is fundamentally ontological, even though between Satan and God there is a manifest difference in power.
Because the poem opens with Satan defeated, the question of power has been indisputably settled. Satan even refers to God as “the Almighty.”5 Unable to equal Him in power, Satan claims, instead, to be His equal in reason and to be, therefore, justified “To found this nether empire [in Hell] which might rise /…in emulation opposite to Heaven.”6 Denying the divine origins of his own being, and insinuating that he is self-begotten, Satan determines to construct his own cosmos in hell, one that includes his own system of value and merit.7 Because, however, Satan is not self-existent, he cannot give once-for-all permanence to the system he creates. His system is one whose validity he must perpetually re-assert because it rests on nothing more potent than his own will to rebel.8 Rejecting divine providence but unable to overthrow it, Satan can hope only to pervert it. In his new identity as rebel, though, he can never rest; for to all that he says, “No,” God has once-and-for-all said, “Yes.” The goodness of the divinely established order remains unshakably present, flowing as it does from the eternal goodness of God.
With intentional irony, Milton makes clear that even Satan’s power to rebel depends — perpetually — upon the power of God. To be a perpetual rebel, Satan requires the ontological priority of a God against which to rebel, a God who provides an order strong enough to ground Satan’s rival order. Were Satan to succeed in overthrowing the divine order — as opposed to rebelling against it perpetually — his own order would collapse, as well, for it would lose both its model and foundation. Indeed, Satan needs the goodness of the divine order if he is to have something to pervert. To have a conception upon which to build his identity as Rebel, Satan even requires the ontological priority of his former identity as an angel subordinate to God alone. Because everything about Satan depends upon God, Satan would, in overthrowing God, overthrow himself. Satan’s enterprise is, therefore, essentially negative, and thus, essentially evil. For evil has no being of itself; it is mere privation, parasitic upon a prior-existing good.
Nevertheless, Satan hates the divine order. Because this order includes his own being as created by God, he also, by necessity, now hates himself. He cannot love the being he was created to be because doing so would require that he acknowledge God’s goodness and superiority in creating him. So, he denies both that God is good and that God is Creator. Conceiving God as a tyrant who has surreptitiously usurped his own right to equal authority, Satan succumbs to acedia, alternating between self-pity and self-promotion.9
A Hell of His Own Creation
The lush beauty of Earth — its perfection and the divine love for humanity that it reveals — arouses jealous despair as Satan recognizes that he is refused paradise forever.10 Arriving on Earth and seeing the sun, he laments its beauty because it reminds him of heaven, which he has lost.11
Paradise, a place of perfect happiness, can only make Satan sad. Twisted by hatred, he is offended by any place built by God, whose right to rule he rejects. Desiring God’s place on the throne of the universe, Satan cannot affirm anything which He has made. Asserting the right to create being and value from himself, he rejects anything that exists prior to his own will. Because, however, God is creator of all that exists — Satan included — Satan rejects everything — himself included. When, therefore, Satan declares “Evil, be thou my good,” he is really embracing nothing.12 In Satan, two centuries before Nietzsche, Milton provides the perfect portrait of a petulant nihilist.
Satan even affirms his own curse because, to have the freedom he desires, he must decouple himself from God. Of himself he says,
Nay cursed be thou since against His thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell, myself am Hell,
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.13
As perpetual rebel reaching for absolute autonomy, Satan plummets into a slough of despond, willfully relinquishing joy because it requires that he accept the world as God’s good gift.
To Satan, trapped in acedia, existence is an insufferable burden because it does not yield to his arbitrary will. On the contrary, it is a reality that demands he yield before it — for the gift of existence is the condition upon which he possesses any liberty at all. Surrender, though, requires only that he accept this gift gratefully. To surrender to the gift is simply to receive the gift. As Satan himself admits, “a grateful mind / By owing owes not but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged. / What burden then?”14 To enjoy his existence as one of God’s wondrous creatures, Satan need only accept it with gratitude. His only alternative to gratitude is to reject perpetually the gift whose presence he cannot escape because it is continuous with his being. The world and himself as created by God, or himself as the hell of his own creation — these are Satan’s only choices.
Freedom Doomed to Frustration
Seducing Adam and Eve with his view of freedom, Satan convinces them to rebel, too. To Eve, he suggests that God cannot impose any prohibition and still justly declare her and Adam rulers of the earth: “Hath God said that the fruit / Of all these garden trees ye shall not eat / Yet lords declared of all in earth and air?”15 As far as Satan is concerned, either Eve’s authority is absolute, or Eve is a slave. He will not admit that her fullest freedom is found in submission to the utterly good will of her Maker.
Introducing Adam and Eve to freedom via rebellion, Satan introduces them — almost simultaneously — to acedia. Rejecting God’s essential goodness and, therefore, His declaration of their goodness, they lose their peace as they lose the grounds for knowing themselves to be good. As they decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, they leave the protective umbrella of divine favor, suffering deep anxiety as a result.16 Existentially adrift, they lose control of their passions whose perpetual, conflicting demands denude them of their former serenity. Now spite, competition, and conflict erupt as they justify themselves to themselves and blame each other.17 By turning their backs on who they were created to be, they lose their bliss, trying, with fig-leaf aprons, to hide their newly impoverished souls.18 So distressed is Eve at her own degradation, that she contemplates suicide,19 while Adam declares God a bumbling tyrant who would have done better to leave Adam uncreated.20 Of course, the divine imprint on his being will not forsake him, however much he may wish to forsake it. Thus, Adam’s sadness grows as he feels the weight of existence without its joy.
Suicide, then, is a reasonable conclusion given their new philosophy of freedom. For if existing as a contingent and therefore dependent and therefore subject being — if existing as such a being is an unjust violation of their autonomy — then the only thing they can do to escape this injustice is to end their existence. Like Satan, they hate that their existence depends upon a God who acts prior to their own will-to-exist. They, too, seek a freedom doomed to perpetual frustration. To become the autonomous beings they wish to be, they must first cease to exist as the contingent beings they are, then will themselves back into existence. But ceasing to exist would necessarily destroy everything about them, even the will-to exist. There would be nothing left to do the willing. With this impossible demand, Milton foregrounds how absurd is the desire for radical, ontological autonomy.
The Way Back
Understanding that only a renewed sense of the goodness of God could overcome the acedia to which Adam and Eve are vulnerable, Milton recalls, at this moment, the promise of a savior.21 This announcement serves as the point of renewal in the poem, the way back to joy from despair. Another gift of God, it also renews the first gift — that of being itself — drawing both Adam and Eve back to deep gratitude, to the sense that God is good, that He is not a nit-picking tyrant concerned to assert His power through arbitrary rules but a generous giver of life who freely shares all that He has and is with humanity.
If the demand for absolute autonomy begets acedia, it does so because it leads us to conclude that neither God nor being are good. In this sense only are Satan’s words true: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”22 Anyone who turns from God turns to hell, enters it and, indeed, becomes it. We escape acedia, though, not by revising our philosophy of freedom but by renewing our gratitude for the gift of being — a gift continuous with our persons — by way of gratitude for the gift of salvation. For at the Incarnation, our creation was reaffirmed; and at the Resurrection, we received our lives back again, transformed and renewed — a gift twice given.
Stephen Mitchell teaches English at Covenant Day School, in Matthews, North Carolina. He holds a PhD in humanities.
- Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something,’ trans. and ed. Oliver O’ Donovan (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996), 197.
- Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 110–11.
- Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 119.
- J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2015), 61.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Gordon Teskey (New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2005), I, 247–49, 259.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, II, 296–98.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, V, 853–64.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, I, 158–65.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 718–20.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IV, 114–16.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IV, 32–39.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IV, 108–10.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IV, 71–78.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IV, 55–57.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 656–58.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 1121–26.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 1131–89.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 110–15.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 1000–1001.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 743–48.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 1028–48.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, I, 254–55.