“By Discovering a Death for Death”:

Maximus the Confessor Ambigua X.29 and A Clockwork Orange

Every voyage must and should end. This life meant to be temporary – and, if we believe Maximus the Confessor (d. 662), this is not the same life originally given by God to humanity. There is another life, which the saints see, “divine and unchanging, which God created in the beginning, consistent with His goodness.”[1] The saints saw through that: “from the unstable whirling about of this present life, the saints were taught that true and divine life is something different, and always remains the same.”[2]

This life, for Maximus, is marked by instability.

Maximus the Confessor, Public Domain

For some Christian writers, like Irenaeus (d. 200), this life is the best of all possible worlds because here, humanity can develop fully. Evil, for Irenaeus, is a necessary component of that moral development. Against a writer like Augustine (d.430), the world isn’t broken: this is how it was meant to be, the best possible world is ours. Suffering is not bad, even if it sucks – we were born imperfect to allow us to participate in growth. Another Christian writer, Origen (d. 253), thought of the world as hospital for souls: we were united with God, we fell away from God, and this life is useful to bring us back. Here, too, the world isn’t broken, in fact it is the safe harbor for the sick to get well. In both these schemata, evil is to some extent useful. The instability, which Maximus comments on, is the point.

All Christian theologians have wrestled with the sheer absurdity of evil – Irenaeus, Origen, and Maximus are no different. If there is a wonderful, ultimate Good, why would we ever pursue anything else? What these theologians do not question is the necessity of choice. The inherent instability in the ability to choose, in free will, is never in doubt. In this, they, along with Augustine, share some similarities with Catholic-influence Anthony Burgess’s 1962 A Clockwork Orange.[3]

A Clockwork Orange tells the story of Alex, a violent and pleasure-seeking 15-year-old gang leader who loves creating senseless violent mayhem. He is the picture of vice: raping, pillaging, causing indiscriminate violence for no purpose other than love of evil. He is arrested, and becomes the subject of a behavioral medication technique called The Ludovico Technique which conditions Alex against violence by making him watch violent films while injecting him with drugs to make him ill. Alex is cured of his love of violence (at least temporarily) – he can no longer commit violence without immediate and severe consequences. Alex no longer has free will, and  “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man”.[4] As Burgess writes in his introduction, “If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange – meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or State”.[5] As such, A Clockwork Orange claims, goodness without the choice to do evil is not goodness at all. If someone gives me a $100 gift card that can only be used to support a charity, it is not really a good deed if I then use it for a charity. That was the only option.

Photo by Matthew J Cotter Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibit, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

While Burgess imagines the moral and ethical implications of removing our free choice, he cannot imagine an end where instability vanishes but we remain essentially human. This has always been the endpoint of our journey for Maximus, though, like Origen and Irenaeus before him. Saints “wisely reflected on the futility and transience of this present life subject to the sway of the senses” and intentionally sprint towards God. They, through the Spirit, “turn the eye of the soul to that [divine] life, as much as possible for men subject to death.”[6] They do this, according to Maximus, though asceticism or practices of self-denial like fasting, all-night vigils, and abstinence. He writes:

“And since there is no setting aside of life without death, they arranged for its demise by rejecting affection for the flesh, through which death gained entry into life; and by discerning a death for death they ceased to live under the power of death and when they do die, their death is precious to the Lord [Ps 116:15], and the death that they die is the death of real death, able to corrupt corruption itself and to grant those who are worthy entry to blessed life and incorruption.”[7]

Basically, by using free will to set their sights not on the world, but on something at once more real and entirely imperceivable, the temporary nature of life changes from something to be mourned to something to be celebrated. The instability of the present life will end – and with it will come a stability that does not make us clockwork oranges or wind-up toys that dehumanize us. Instead, this is the image that Maximus gives: “for I do not think that the end of this present life is rightly called death, but rather a deliverance from death.”[8] The end of this life, he thinks, is not the same as death – because death is the setting aside of life, and this life is not true life. The end of this life, then, is freedom:

“a deliverance from death, a separation from corruption, liberation from slavery, the cessation of turmoil, the banishment of wars, passing away of confusion, the receding of darkness, rest from labors, the silencing of meaningless noise, the quiescence of agitation, the covering of shame, flight from the passions, wiping away of sins, and, to speak briefly, the end of every evil.”[9]

Maximus being beaten by Emperor Constans II in 12th century Church Slavic  Manasses Chronicle.

This freedom comes, not only when the heart stops beating, but when the saints, reject this life: “all of which the saints attained by means of their voluntary death, making themselves strangers and exiles [Hebrews 11:13] from this life.”[10] They become free by resisting the “entanglement of these senses with object of sense” to “preserve within themselves the dignity of their soul unenslaved.”[11]

Like any voyage, this life is meant to be temporary – and this life is meant to be unstable to allow room for free will and growth. But the end to that instability for Maximus comes not only at the moment when our hearts stop but also when we become free of entanglement. That is, we are free when we stop loving the world itself as a good in its own right, and start loving the world for the ways it points to the only truly loveable thing, God.

Interested in more Maximus? Fr. Constans, who translated these passages of Maximus, wrote an interesting blog post about Maximus’s view of Christ and sin, here.

[1] Ambigua X.29 all translations are from the Constans translation: Maximus and Maximos Constas, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 28–29 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[2] Ambigua X.29

[3] https://www.anthonyburgess.org/about-anthony-burgess/burgess-and-catholicism/#:~:text=Although%20Burgess%20identified%20himself%20as,and%20in%20his%20imaginative%20writing.

[4] Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986), 175.

[5] Burgess, xi.

[6]Ambigua X.29

[7] Ambigua X.29

[8] Ambigua X.29

[9] Ambigua X.29

[10] Ambigua X.29

[11] Ambigua X.29






2 responses to ““By Discovering a Death for Death”:”

  1. TG Avatar

    I’ve read A Clockwork Orange but never thought of it on these terms. Yes society punished Alex but for it’s purpose, to take away a criminal and under the giese of compassion create a domesticated machine. God gives the choice of our paths. The right one give peace. Nice pirce

  2. Adedayo Avatar

    “…we are free when we stop loving the world itself as a good in its own right, and start loving the world for the ways it points to the only truly loveable thing, God.”

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece. There is a lot to wrestle with and reflect upon. I tried to discard whatever I have known to have a grasp of the point being made here and I truly agree with Maximus’ thought on true freedom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *