The World, the Flesh and the Devil

According to traditional Christian theology, the world, the flesh and the devil are the three principal enemies of the soul. So what exactly are the “world”, the “flesh” and the “devil”, and why should we be wary of them?

In one of his most celebrated sonnets, Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending we lay waste our powers;”. There is something about the “world” that saps our energy and weakens us. It is debilitating, enervating, emasculating. It has something to do with “getting and spending”, the commerce of life, whether in a strictly shopping mall sense, or in a broader social sense.

I think it’s fair to say that both Wordsworth and the Christian theologians mean something like the “social world” when they say the “world”. They clearly do not mean the natural world, as Wordsworth’s next line makes patently clear: “Little we see in Nature that is ours;”. We are alienated from the natural world because the world of getting and spending, the social world, is too much with us.

If we let the “world” dominate us, we become muggles and muppets. Too much shopping, gossip, social media and light entertainment, and we are muggles living in a muggle world. Too much bad science, philosophy, politics or religion and we are muppets living in a muppet world. We are so entranced by the human world of culture and society, that we forget about Nature or God. We are lost in the “World Trance”.

Part of the problem is that we love problem solving, even when it’s not our problem. Whether it’s Jenny’s marriage or Jonny’s selfishness, there is always something to vicariously sort out and worry about. But it takes a lot of time and energy. Muggle logic rules that this is precisely what you should be spending your time and energy on (because you’re a muggle and that’s what muggles do).

Muppet logic demands that you focus instead on sorting out and worrying about the world’s problems, not just trivial personal ones. The Middle East Crisis, Climate Change, Nuclear Disarmament, Crony Capitalism, Big Data, China, America, Technology, Deforestation, Immorality, Godlessness. These are the kinds of problems you should be solving (even if deep down you know you haven’t the faintest idea what the problem is, let alone the solution.) No wonder all this “lays waste our powers”.

So what about the “flesh”? That’s just the prudish hangover of sexually repressed puritans, isn’t it? Maybe so, but is there any truth in it? Should we be on guard against the temptations of the flesh?

It’s surely common knowledge, from our own experience as well as the countless examples of others, that if you over-indulge your appetites you will run into difficulties. It doesn’t matter what your particular poison happens to be: Moscow Mule, Manhattan, Merlot, Weed, Vape, Coke, Porn Hub, Tinder, Grinder,  Burger and Chips, Chocolate Digestives, Café Latte with a Caramel Shot.

Of course the pleasures of the flesh are perfectly innocent and natural, up to a point. But if you’re not careful you will end up a slave to desire: you will end up a victim and an addict. As you progressively lose your ability to resist ever more insistent cravings and temptations, you will swing between the highs and lows of the victim-addict cycle, in ever narrowing turns of the screw.

The “world” is represented by the muggle and muppet archetypes; the “flesh” is represented by the addict and victim archetypes; so the “devil” must be represented by the diva and demon archetypes. So what is the “devil”?

The devil is a “demon whisperer”. He insinuates discord, enmity, suspicion, hatred, vindictiveness, resentment and simmering rage. But the devil is also a “diva whisperer”. He sows the seeds of ego with two simple, seemingly innocuous thoughts: “no-one can tell me what to do” and “I’m as good as you.” With these two thoughts, you are persuaded that there is no authority above you. You are subsequently immunized against all higher learning, but most importantly for the devil’s purposes, against all religion.

The genius of the modern day devil, is that he has succeeded in convincing people that this is actually a great and noble virtue. The intrinsic dignity of modern democratic humanism is that it bows down to nobody. The individual self is supreme. Call it “self reliance”, “authenticity” or “self determination”, the proud humanist counts all of human history, art, literature, science, philosophy and religion as nothing compared to the subjective sovereignty of his “secret, sacred self”.

If he decides that Wagner is rubbish, then Wagner is rubbish. If he concludes that Christianity is a big bag of nonsense, then so it is. What pope or priest can claim any authority over his pure humanist soul? He is the self-proclaimed arbiter of his own truth. And you can’t argue with that. If he deigns to listen to anyone else, it is only because of his infinite magnanimity and patronage, and only because he secretly likes what he hears.

So our inner “muppet-muggles” are in a World trance, our inner “victim-addicts” are slaves to the Flesh and our inner “diva-demons” are in thrall to the Devil. Could it get any worse? Of course it could! But it could also be a hell of a lot better. Waking up is a good start.