Kevin O'Brien on lessons learned from Macbeth - and from life.
Elements of Evil and the Science of Sin
On Monday, the Grunky Book Club discussed Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth is a play that illustrates the effect of sin on the human soul.
I led the discussion of Macbeth not because I'm an expert on Shakespeare, but because I'm an expert on sin. It's one of the benefits of being a lifelong sinner! In fact, as an official M.S. (Master of Sin), I can speak with some authority on this subject.
What we find in Macbeth, and what we find when we sin, can be organized into a kind of Science of Sin, whereby the Elements of Evil can be identified.
So what are the Elements of Evil that compose acts of sin? In both dramatic literature and in life, we see the following ...
- Though evil itself is the privation of good, evil beings - persons who devote themselves to evil - are objective. In Macbeth, the witches are real. They are not mere figments of Macbeth's imagination.
- Evil exists as a parasite upon the good. "I can't make anything," Lucifer complains to God in Arthur Miller's play The Creation of the World and Other Business. "But you're such an excellent critic!" God replies.
- Evil is quite powerful, but it is limited in its effects. In Macbeth, the witches can torment a sailor by tossing his ship with ill winds, but they are unable to destroy the bark upon which he rides - they can disturb him, but they can neither kill him nor damn him. As with Macbeth, he must assent to his own damnation by taking the bait or the temptation that they offer. Without that, they can do nothing of lasting consequence.
- When we sin, we seek to step out of the natural order. In Macbeth this is shown as a Rupture of Time, a break in the healthy and salubrious flow of things. Which leads to ...
- Sterility. Sin is empty, impotent, vacuous. Macbeth and his Lady, for all their horrible efforts, have no heirs.
- Sin seeks to be hidden. This is a big one. It is a huge red flag for the inner life. If you seek to do something that you must hide from others, if the revelation of your deed would bring shame and embarrassment, then you are being tempted to sin. Thus ...
- Good builds communities, evil isolates. "I am not well with being over-solitary," Dr. Faustus, the man who sells his soul to Satan, complains in Marlowe's drama.
- Sin must put up a false front. It is devoted to the Lie and to the Father of Lies. As Lady Macbeth puts it, "To beguile the time,Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,Your hand, your tongue. Look like th' innocent flower,But be the serpent under ’t."
- Sin equivocates. It is a tease. Satan lures us with grand promises that deliver only death. When we sin we "sow the wind and inherit the whirlwind". (Hos. 8:7) In Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, the sinner is promised great things in return for his immortal soul. What he gets is the ability to perform parlor tricks and an opportunity to become invisible and bop the Pope on the head. Sin never delivers the paradise it promises.
- Sin dehumanizes. Macbeth is promised that by daring to sin he will be showing his manliness. But he becomes less and less of a man as the consequences of his sins unfold.
- The effects of evil spread like ripples in a pond. Sin metastasizes. Not only the commonwealth, but nature itself and the natural order are damaged by our sin - in Macbeth even the king's horses eat each other when the evil breaks out; in Genesis all creation falls along with man.
- Since evil is empty, sin cannot satisfy. Just the opposite: Macbeth seeks "security" in his sins. "To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus ... " and this consumes him and drives him and his Lady to more and more horrendous deeds. Indeed, the greatest danger to our souls is not so much our proclivity to sin, but our insatiable desire to establish ourselves in sin, to glue together the house of cards we build upon the liquid foundation of shifting sand (cf. Mat. 7:25).
- As with certain drugs, we build up tolerance to sin. The sort of things people watch on television these days would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Macbeth commits acts that are more and more horrible, feeling less and less compunction with each deed of death, until he finally laments, "Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts / Cannot once start me."
- Sin gives us no rest. Sleeplessness haunts Lord and Lady Macbeth, and a troubled conscience torments the heart of every sinner. We incessantly seek to justify our sins to ourselves and to one another, demanding even applause from others in the form of things like "gay marriage" - but even then, even if we can bully the world into cheering our perverse and wicked deeds, we will find ourselves awake nights, unable to rest in the peace that comes only with proper order.
- "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), and really a fate worse than death. For the real fruit of sin is the nihilism and sad hopelessness in which, at the end, Macbeth finds himself ("Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ..."). With death at least comes peace and sleep; with sin comes the tormented insomnia and despair of hell itself.
For more insights into Macbeth and sin, read this excellent essay by Ken Colston at the Christian Shakespeare, and watch for The Grunky Book Club, which will premiere on our online video network Grunky some time this spring.