The Emperor of the kingdom dolorous
From his mid-breast forth issued from the ice;
And better with a giant I compare
Than do the giants with those arms of his;
Consider now how great must be that whole,
Which unto such a part conforms itself.
Were he as fair once, as he now is foul,
And lifted up his brow against his Maker,
Well may proceed from him all tribulation. (Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV)
In our world we often witness those who have attained greatness suddenly fall from grace, losing all their wealth and fame and success in a moment. Other times it is a slow and withering descent into obscurity. In either case, like a comet whose tail flashes brightly for an instant and fizzles back into the emptiness of the night, so is man in all his glory, like the grass of the field, as the scriptures say.
We all wish to be something, to be somebody. We desire for our actions to be infused with greatness, and sometimes in that pursuit we can go awry and falter in major ways. This even makes its way into our popular lexicon- nothing ventured, nothing gained; the bigger the risk the bigger the payoff.
And, of course, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
In a previous post I considered the betrayal of Judas in light of some of the more modern approaches which tend to infuse Judas’ betrayal with motivations beyond simple lucre. Whether a revolutionary wanting Jesus to get on with it or a disillusioned follower for whom Jesus was not all he was cracked up to be, maybe there was some mitigating circumstance deeper than a quick money grab.
I concluded that the traditional explanation is still the strongest one, but while mowing the lawn this morning I had time to think through it some more. Rather than wondering why Judas might want to betray Jesus for money, I began to think about why we would want him to betray him for more. One way or another it is a betrayal, but somehow money feels like a dirtier motivation. Some of the others can even make Judas seem a bit more, well, noble.
I was instantly reminded of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Immediately after the Fall of the angels Satan and his band find themselves cast out of heaven, disoriented from the expulsion and absent from its joys. Faced with eternal doom and misery, Satan picks himself up and gives a rousing a speech, and one that it is- dare it be said- almost noble in and of itself:
Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. (John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, 250-263)
There is something maliciously inspiring about these words, for even in the face of seeming hopelessness Satan appears to find a way to bring good out of it. Milton is either very clever here or very dense, for the nature of sin is contrary to such an act. I would tend to give Milton the benefit of the doubt, as Satan’s plans and promises ultimately come to not. But even though he blazes bright as a comet only to fizzle out into the nothingness of Hell, there is something that appeals to the emotions and the nobility here; after all, everyone loves a rebel. There is a cosmic significance here, and even if it is a lost cause it feels important, like everything is hanging in the balance.
It is this tendency to imbue our actions and motivations with inordinate significance which forms not only the genesis of our sin, but also the way in which we can try to mitigate the force of them.
After all, we also say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The fact that it lands you in Hell doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good intention, right?
The insidiousness of our sin is that we tend to take our contemplation off of God and place it onto something else, or to give inordinate importance to something which doesn’t deserve it. Sin ultimately settles for second best, for while it aims towards a good it ends up missing out on the Good itself. It is a noble thing to persevere through adversity, but it is sinful to plot the fall go humankind as a part of that.
As I considered Judas’ betrayal further in light of these thoughts, the traditional interpretation seems to carry more and more weight. It seems silly; this is Jesus, after all, and it seems like his betrayal should involve something grand and, well, at least more sinister. We would rather have a giant morality play than face the truth: sin is usually quite boring.
One of the arguments in favor of Judas’ motivation for betrayal being money is found in the sheer banality of the motivation. We are told by the Gospel writer that Satan entered into Judas, and this is linked to the betrayal itself. In our Manichaean fancies we often consider Satan to be the opposite of God or a slightly less powerful contrary to fill out the duality of good and evil, but since evil is only a privation of good there is no duality, only a parasite. In the end Satan’s speeches to his fallen fiends create merely an ancient leech, latching onto the good to drain it away.
The yawning monotony of it all is broken occasionally by flashes of inspiration (see Jesus’ temptation) only to descend once again into mindlessness. As we see from a former speech of the fallen arch-angel:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. (John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, 105-111)
Ultimately evil becomes depressingly boring, forever pressed into its self-will and locked into a singular focus which has no possibility of expansion. The early church fathers often wondered whether Satan knew what Jesus’ death would mean and if he tried to stop it; I think it is likely that he not only knew (since he certainly knew the scriptures) but also went forward with the program fully aware it would usher in his own defeat. Evil promises freedom of will, but it becomes the ultimate bondage, for one can no longer escape the chance to lash out like an angry boy who doesn’t get his way, who can no longer keep from indulging the appetite for rage and hate and revenge.
In this manner Satan surely become an unwilling pawn in God’s plan of salvation, both in spite of himself and to spite himself.
Thus, in Dante’s vision Satan sits encased in ice, forever imprisoned in his own appetite. He does not speak, he cannot move, but merely chomps away endlessly, a pathetic wisp of his former glory whose will has become one with his appetite, dissolved into mindlessness and monotony.
Every one of our sins leads into the ninth circle of hell, for we all slip on the ice which leads further in to the point of which there is no escape. We always wish to credit our actions and motivations with nobility or to mitigate them with some accompanying good, but at the end of the day sin is simply banality, an appetite which dispenses with reason and simply aches and groans to be sated, like the emptiness of nothingness which always gapes to be filled.
Judas took leave of his soul for his appetite, as the clink of a few metal coined were deemed savory by an unchecked concupiscence. We are everyone a Judas, for every sin is a betrayal of God, a turn of the gaze to something lesser, something duller. Over time the mind can become dull itself and the soul shrivel from the joys and pleasures of lesser things, until like Satan in the Inferno we become merely what we desire, abandoned forever to chew away at what remains.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, indeed.