Milton’s lustful ghosts

“But when lust,

By unchaste looks, loose gestures, and foul talk,

But most by lewd and lavish act of sin,

Lets in defilement to the inward parts,

The soul grows clotted by contagion,

Imbodies, and imbrutes, till she quite lose,

The divine property of her first being.

Such are those thick and gloomy shadows damp

Oft seen in charnel vaults and sepulchres,

Lingering, and sitting by a new made grave,

As loath to leave the body that it lov’d,

And linked itself by carnal sensuality

To a degenerate and degraded state.”

Milton, Comus

No, not lustful goats, lustful ghosts. And “oft seen!” I wonder whether such phenomena were more common in Milton’s day, less impeded by the narrow rationalism of western modernity, or simply more widely accepted.

These verses are taken from Milton’s 1634 masque, performed not far from me at Ludlow Castle, as an homage to the now unfashionable virtue of chastity. Its titular character, the Greek deity Comus, urges the mysterious protagonist known only as “the Lady” to give into her natural impulses and urges, sophistically persuading her that what is natural and instinctive must surely be right.

The Lady, surely a type of that pure Wisdom known as well to the Greeks as to the ancient Jews, resists on what are clearly Platonic grounds. An addiction to any of the things of this world enslaves the soul rather than liberating it, even if it is to things which are, by their beauty, reflections of the divine Beauty to which all beings are orientated. So, we hear in the above verses, ghosts represent the souls so firmly chained by their desire for the material world that they cannot escape it even after their bodies have died.

But does this leave Platonists and Christians alike with a body-hating dualism of soul and body, a desire to escape from the material world and the lusts of the flesh into an unadulterated spiritual purity? Hardly – that would be a difficult position to equate with the teaching of the Incarnation, in which the Word of God enters the world of flesh and blood as Jesus, the Christ. So where does this leave us?

Perhaps St Augustine, both a Christian and Platonist, with no mean experience of fleshly pleasures in his youth, might help:

Too late came I to love thee, O thou Beauty both so ancient and so fresh, yea too late came I to love thee. And behold, thou wert within me, and I out of myself, where I made search for thee: I ugly rushed headlong upon those beautiful things thou hast made. Thou indeed wert with me; but I was not with thee: these beauties kept me far enough from thee: even those, which unless they were in thee, should not be at all.

Augustine, Confessions X:27 (Loeb translation)

The Christian and Platonic way is not to despise beauty, including the beautiful people of this world or the fine foods and wines and many diversions we enjoy here. Rather, it is to see them as shadows – wonderful shadows! – of Beauty itself, and to treat them with due reverence rather than merely to use them for our own immediate satisfaction. The mistake is in thinking that these things constitute the end of our desires, when in the fulness of reality, they are only the beginning.

It is up to us whether we let our desires trap us into slavery to the ways of this world, to the objectification and consumption of nature, or liberate us into the supernatural goodness in which the realm of physical nature plays an intermediary part.

The Way of the Cross is the way of liberation not from the world, but through the world.