What do we live for?


For what is glory but the blaze of fame,
The people’s praise, if always praise unmixed?
And what the people but a herd confused,
A miscellaneous rabble, who extol
Things vulgar, and, well weighed, scarce worth the praise?
They praise and they admire they know not what,
And know not whom, but as one leads the other;
And what delight to be by such extolled,
To live upon their tongues, and be their talk?
Of whom to be dispraised were no small praise—
His lot who dares be singularly good.
The intelligent among them and the wise
Are few, and glory scarce of few is raised.

According to Milton, when Satan tested Jesus after forty days fasting in the desert, he offered him first food, having previously disabused his lesser devils of their own idea that he could be tempted with beautiful women.  He proceeded up Maslow’s pyramid (300 years before Maslow), attempting to seduce him with wealth, and then with power, then with fame and esteem of people the world over.  Jesus, of course, demurred.


More problematic (at least for me), Satan offered him the power to displace tyrants and to relieve suffering, to rule over the masses with wisdom and justice.  He proceeded to offer knowledge and culture and beauty and the power to create beauty.

Nah, Jesus didn’t spring for any of these.

(Having failed at the top of the pyramid, the Prince of Darkness, desperate, reverted to the bottom of the pyramid, threatening Jesus that he would be scourged and spat upon and tortured to death, losing his temper and then his balance, making for a dramatic exit.)

Admirer as I am of Milton’s artistry with words, I have to wonder, from what value system the story proceeds from here. Milton’s Jesus declares that he has as much knowledge as he needs, and that all he really needs to know is what is adequate to make him a faithful servant of his Father’s will.  Such answers are unsatisfying to our post-modern sensibilities, though I hasten to repeat that Milton’s language in the telling is wondrously rich.

…This brings me to the question of what it is that we do value in itself, and what myths we might still find compelling.  We pretend to believe that physical reality is all that exists, and that our universe is a meaningless outgrowth of arbitrary mathematical laws acting on random accumulations of matter.  But this world-view offers us no light whatever to guide our aspirations or our morality or our politics.  So we leap from there to valuing life and love—and fall back to a very natural tendency to value some life and some love more than other.  And we spend great energies fending off the dark spectre of futility that threatens to remind us that all our good works must someday end in dust.

What, then, are our values.  And, were we completely honest about their provenance, how would we confess to having arrived at these values?  I’ve tried your patience too often with my answers in this web space, so I’ll leave the questions for your comments and discussion.

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave;

— Shakespeare, Richard II


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