In John Milton’s Paradise Lost
there is a point where Satan, thinking through how he is going to tempt Adam and Eve to fall, comes up with this plan, “I will excite their minds with vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate desires…”. For Satan, this plan is hatched from his own recollection of the fact that, “lifted up so high I thought one step higher would set me highest.” What Milton gives us through his depiction of the fall of both Satan and man is this picture of the inflamed desire for more. What seems to be at the heart of both “falls” is this illusory hunger for more.
In another text, Death of a Salesman, the lead character, Willy Loman, unravels to the point of madness, despair and suicide because he is always chasing “the wrong dreams.” He dreams of respect, identity, and acceptance even though he has everything he needs right around him in the form of a loving wife and two doting children. His inflamed desire for the illusion of happiness beyond what he has already sends him on a downward spiral that ends in him taking his own life.
There seems to be a great danger inherent in these “vain aims” and “inordinate desires” that is very costly to the human condition. To hunger for more seems paradoxical, given that we don’t usually find stuffing ourselves to be a very pleasant experience once we’ve done it. And yet, over and over we desire this illusion of “more” at the great expense of our relationships, marriages, careers, livelihoods, sanity and health.
What concerns me is that our very culture is built upon this hunger for more. I can imagine, without too much difficulty, a team of advertising folk sitting around a table, using much of the same verbiage Satan uses in Paradise Lost for whatever product they are trying to pitch: “What can we do to excite their minds with vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate desires in order to get them to feel incomplete until they buy X?” (Check out this familiar Best Buy commercial that seems to play upon this very idea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ufw2D8oMJ64). In fact, this seems to be the very thing that greases the engine of consumption we call business (it might not be coincidental that the product I am using to create this blog post has as its symbol an apple with a bite out of it).
This Thanksgiving, not long after the turkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie have worn off, the sacred ritual we call Black Friday will commence whereby normal, rational, sane individuals will be transformed in the wee hours of the morning into hungry, insatiable consumers, willing to obtain a deal at any cost (see this heartbreaking story of a man trampled to death by his fellow shoppers on Black Friday last year http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2008448574_shop290.html).
If this cult of desire seems to have its roots in very “demonic” aims and means, why is it that we venerate it throughout our culture? What are the consequences of a society whose very ethos is built upon that which causes the fall of so many? And what, if anything, can be done about it?
I think what we must do is address this very dangerous trap that we have fallen into whereby our basest desires are glorified at the expense of our humanity, decency, and virtue. That we have vain aims and desires is part and parcel of the human condition; that we glorify and center our culture around them with such “hellish” consequences is scary. As Aristotle taught centuries ago, it is not easy to do the difficult work of being virtuous, but it begins in refusing to listen to the seductive voices calling us to worship desire at the expense of being whole. Though we may have traded Eden for Sodom, we don’t have to stay there. The counter, I believe, is anchored in the Hebraic idea of shalom: a life wealthy in wholeness, a being complete, a mind at rest. The life rooted in shalom sees through the clutter and the noise, is able to resist the temptation to “step one step higher,” and refuses to worship at the altar of Mammon, that god of gluttony, consumption, and avarice. Jesus was right; it is impossible to serve both the God of shalom and the god of Mammon.
May we be wise enough to choose correctly.