I am fairly confident that a deep theological reflection could be written about nearly every episode of The Twilight Zone (and I may make it a life project to do so). Rod Serling was known for his strong convictions, and that core was manifested in the morality plays he put on in that series. Here we will examine one episode that gives us a look at the afterlife, with a twist, and teaches us something about the nature of human desire; and, to add a twist of our own, we’ll apply the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas to the themes in the show.
In “A Nice Place to Visit,” we meet a burglar, Henry Francis “Rocky” Valentine, at the end of his life, cut down in a shootout with the police. He awakens in the street to find himself seemingly unharmed and in the presence of a smiling man in white. The man in white tells Rocky his name is Pip and announces he is Pip’s guide, instructed to give him whatever he desires. Rocky is understandably skeptical—especially given Pip’s list of Rocky’s likes and dislikes—and despite the large amounts of cash Pip gives him upon request. Eventually, Rocky’s skepticism abates and he concludes he’s now in heaven. Rocky proceeds to revel in the accommodations provided by Pip: a fancy apartment, the company of beautiful women, and a roulette table that always brings up his number.
Still, curious as to how a robber could end up in heaven, Rocky is taken by Pip to the Hall of Records, where Rocky finds a comprehensive list of all of his crimes. Rocky is confused, but assumes he “must have done something good to make up for all that,” and resumes living it up.
After a month of wining, dining, and winning, though, Rocky becomes bored. He explains to Pip that “it’s just not the same,” that gambling has no thrill when you know you are going to win, and the company of women gives no pleasure when you know they are there simply because you wished it. Rocky even asks if he could rob a bank, provided there’s a chance he could get caught; Pip replies he could be caught if he wished, but Rocky dismisses this, and laments, “If this is Heaven, I’d almost rather be in the other place,” to which Pip replies, “My dear Mr. Valentine, whoever said this is Heaven? This is the other place!” A chilling twist to suspenseful story!
Yet it leaves us with questions. Why isn’t Rocky happy when he gets everything he wants? How could Hell be depicted in such a way, with fat steaks and winning slot machines rather than the traditional hellfire and brimstone? What does such a depiction tell us about the nature of Hell?
It might surprise us to find that the themes and ideas touched upon in this episode were treated in detail 700 years beforehand. In many ways, the essential message of this morality play coincides with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, as expounded in his discussion of happiness in the Summa Theologiae.
The first question of the prima secundae of the Summa Theologiae asks whether man has a last end. Is there something that all human beings have in common as their final purpose, their reason for being? Yes, St. Thomas says, generally, all men have as their last end the “fulfillment of their perfection”—that is, the fulfillment of their nature, of what it is to be human. But, he is quick to point out, not all men understand that end to be the same thing. Some men think that pleasure or money is their greatest end, and so they seek the maximum of pleasure or wealth. Still, while we may not all have the same idea of our perfect good, we nevertheless all naturally seek a perfect, ultimate good. Thus, as St. Thomas says: “to every taste the sweet is pleasant but to some, the sweetness of wine is most pleasant, to others, the sweetness of honey, or of something similar. Yet that sweet is absolutely the best of all pleasant things, in which he who has the best taste takes most pleasure. In like manner that good is most complete which the man with well disposed affections desires for his last end.” (ST I-II, q. 1, a. 7, c.) So, Rocky likes the things he likes—booze, beauties, big wins at the casino—and he seeks the maximum of each, thinking this will satisfy his desires. But yet they do not. Why? Rocky could find his answer in the following question in the Summa.
The second question asks whether man’s happiness might consist in any of a variety of created things: Power? Honor? Glory? Wealth? Pleasure? The answer to all of these is no, for reasons summarized and encapsulated in St. Thomas’ response, which strikes at the heart of Rocky’s dilemma. It is worth quoting at length:
It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e. of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true. Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. Wherefore God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of Psalm 102:5: “Who satisfieth thy desire with good things.” Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness. (ST I-II, q. 2, a. 8, c.)
This is precisely the point, and the mistake that many, including Rocky, make: happiness is not found in the accumulation of things. In what, then, is it found? St. Thomas then tells us the secret that we ought to know but which so often eludes us: happiness is not a thing; it is an act. In somewhat technical language, St. Thomas tells us: “happiness is man’s supreme perfection. Now each thing is perfect in so far as it is actual; since potentiality without act is imperfect. Consequently happiness must consist in man’s last act. But it is evident that operation is the last act of the operator.” (ST I-II, q. 3, a. 2, c.) In other words, since man is a creature with the ability to act, his perfection must be found in some act; it cannot be found by being in proximity to any volume of scotch, any number of lovely ladies, or any quantity of cash.
Here we can put these points together: man’s happiness is found in God, and it is essentially an operation. Thus, man’s happiness is found in an operation regarding God—specifically, in the contemplation of God. St. Thomas explains it this way: the distinctly human characteristic, and the universal human desire, is knowledge, as Aristotle tells us at the beginning of the Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” So, if it’s essential to man to desire to know, and happiness is found in the perfection of desire, then the happiness of man will be found in reaching the perfection of knowledge, not only in degree but in object—that is, knowing the ultimate thing perfectly. As St. Thomas concludes, “Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man’s happiness consists.” (ST I-II, q. 3, a. 8, c.)
Knowing this, the mystery of Rocky’s situation becomes clear. Even though Rocky has whatever he wants, he is not happy, because he does not want the right things. We could well conceive of Hell as a place where every wish is granted in eternal, miserable frustration. God will not force himself on any person; and if someone wants some thing rather than God, he will grant that person’s request. But it is only union with God, in loving contemplation, that will satisfy our inmost desires. If we have not formed our desires to want God and our wills to choose God, we may find ourselves in an eternal crap game, rolling sevens and winning everything … except what matters.