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Milton, Lust, And The Classical Classroom

The teacher comes to instruct the student on freedom, the will, sin, temptation, astronomy. The teacher fears for the safety of the student’s body and soul and is at pains to show the student how to live a happy life, how to resist Satan, and how to find joy in God.

The student wants to hear about sex, though.

I speak of the middle act of Paradise Lost.

In Book V of Milton’s epic, God is already aware that man will cave to temptation but wants to “render Man inexcusable” of his sin, a rather sinister sounding way of saying God is desirous that Adam should have every necessary tool to defend himself against the enticements of Satan. Accordingly, God sends Raphael to educate Adam. God does not want to send Adam into a fight unaware of the stakes and ignorant of the enemy. Satan stalks the cosmos, seeking whom he may devour, and the loving God does not want His friends caught unaware.

And so in Books V, VI, VII and portions of VIII, the archangel Raphael sits with Adam and unfolds for him a stunning history of sin. Adam’s education is varied, sprawling, glossing philosophy and history, theology and science. Raphael so pours himself into Adam’s instruction, he may momentarily forget the tragic nature of his task. All of Heaven has already learned that man will fall. In fact, Raphael has already passed over the opportunity to be the immortal one who dies for man’s sake. Like many a teacher caught up in the shimmering, heady heat of a pastoral explication of a classic text, Raphael loses a sense of the frailty of his subject.

When finished delivering the lessons, Adam briefly describes his own creation and lingers long on the details of his sex life.

To the Nuptial Bowre

I led her blushing like the Morn: all Heav’n,

And happie Constellations on that houre

Shed thir selectest influence; the Earth

Gave sign of gratulation, and each Hill;

Joyous the Birds…

Book IX. 510-515

The whole universe observes the consummation of Adam’s marriage, and each of the spheres inclines men’s souls towards (performative?) excellence in the midst of the act. The earth bears witness to their lovemaking and applauds, and the birds twitter hymns of approval.

Retelling the event inspires excitement in Adam in the midst of his conversation with Raphael and he immediately discourses on Eve’s excellence. “All higher knowledge in her presence falls/ Degraded, Wisdom in discourse with her/ Looses discount’nanc’t, and like folly shewes/ Authority and Reason on her waite/ As one intended first, not after made/ Occasionally,” says Adam. Wisdom is not a woman. Rather, Eve is wiser than wisdom itself. Adam was made first, but only to provide the raw material to create Eve, the superior creature upon whom Adam, the “Authority,” waites and serves.

Raphael is having none of this, though. When Adam finishes describing Eve, Raphael responds with “contracted brow” that even animals mate and that Adam should not derive the greatest pleasure from that which he shares in common with lower creatures. Further, Raphael is critical of Adam’s praise of Eve and tells him to stop “attributing overmuch to things less excellent” than himself. Receiving the message clearly, Adam responds “half abash’t” that what he prizes most about Eve is the “thousand decencies that daily flow/ From all her words and actions fair.” Put another way, after talking at length about his wife’s beauty and sexual aptitude, Raphael chastises Adam for the baseness of his thought and Adam embarrassedly replies that what he likes best of Eve is her great personality. Yet, after declaring that his wife’s graces are more valuable than her measurements, Adam asks (in line 616) whether the angels copulate. Raphael responds very briefly that they do, in a sense, and then charges Adam once more to recall his awesome responsibility to shepherd the earth and obey God’s will.

And then, thoroughly baffled that God takes pleasure in such a narrow-minded and daft creature as man, Raphael immediately departs for heaven without a word of blessing for Adam.

Without going so far as to suggest Raphael is sinfully embittered against Adam, Milton certainly retires Raphael from earth in a disappointed and exasperated mood. Raphael leaves Adam not because it is late in the day, but because he sees that Adam has a one track mind and is not much interested in cosmology or history or philosophy. I’ll wager that while Raphael might forget that Adam will certainly fall during his lectures in Book VI and VII, as soon as Adam asks Raphael if angels do it, the archangel recalls the prophesy and figures his time is being wasted.

For Milton, Adam is not (as he was for Dante) the man whose position as “Wisest Who Ever Lived” is worthy of debate. Rather, Adam is little more than an unusually eloquent 17 year old boy. All of which is to say, the good teacher has much to learn from Raphael’s failure to offer Adam an education Adam was willing to receive.

Let us take for granted that for many men of this generation, lust is the great besetting sin. Lust is the sin which men think of when they think of sin. When men think of “overcoming temptation,” they think of overcoming the temptation to lust. A man may commit other sins and feel guilt over those sins, but a man’s capitulation to lust is the most destructive. As for Adam, lust is the particular weakness of the man; it is telling that after Milton’s Adam and Eve sin together, they directly head off to the bushes. Eating the fruit makes Eve feel empowered and wise, but the fruit puts Adam in a lascivious mood. A besetting sin defines the way a man feels helpless against temptation. A man may struggle with drunkenness and pride, but he does not struggle with lust. Rather, he obeys lust like a whipped animal. A man does not feel capable of overcoming his besetting sin. He has made peace with his besetting sin. He does not often feel particularly guilty for caving to his besetting sin. Rather, a man adopts an attitude of general, ambient depression and melancholy which extends from his general, ambient disposition toward that sin. For a man whose besetting sin is lust, telling a lie is an event. Getting drunk is an event. Slamming a door is an event. Lust is no event, but an inclination, the way gravity inclines things towards the earth. When you let go of a brick, it falls. It is not an event. It is not a surprise. There is no struggle. It happens as a matter of course. The besetting sin is that sin over which a man feels truly guilty. A man quickly forgets other sins, but his besetting sin is always before him.

Imprudently, a man comes to believe that if he can overcome his besetting sin, he can overcome every sin. This is not true, but a lie of the devil to keep a man in subjection to his besetting sin. If a man believes every struggle is worthless until his greatest weakness is overcome, he quickly gives in to malaise, ennui, and acedia. He does not work to make progress, but takes an all or nothing attitude, which is a destructive posture to strike against sanctification.

Lust is a particularly dangerous besetting sin to have nowadays because Christians are yet generally loathe to talk about lust in a psychologically realistic way to high school boys, especially in mixed company. We are ready to talk about pride, avarice, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth, but we rarely use classic texts to investigate the false promises and horror of lust. Consequently, while teachers in classical schools tell high school boys that a good education means learning about virtue, excellence and overcoming vice, we do not often talk about that one vice about which so many young Christian men are desperate to hear exhortation, admonition, chastisement, encouragement and instruction. Young Christian men feel as though they are spinning their wheels learning about asceticism, atonement, natural law, cosmology… none of those things, they think, have anything to do with lust. Like Adam, their minds are fixed on a certain subject, and until their teachers engage that subject, there is no moral, sentimental, or spiritual connection between curriculum and life.

I have painted with broad strokes, perhaps, but the teacher who lucidly, knowingly addresses lust— and in prudent ways which do not embarrass or shame a coed class— will find students rapt, silent as monks, staring, relieved. There are ways of speaking to lust which are obvious to all, terrifying, convicting, instructive of the Devil’s tricks, which maintain a dignified classroom decorum. I advise seeking out such discussions of lust in Shelley’s Frankenstein (and E Michael Jones’ Monsters of the Id, which comments on the book) and Jane Eyre, Augustine’s Confessions and the chapters in the City of God which pertain to cycles of temptation, sin, and repentance.

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