Where the Devil is the Devil?
While the world was thundering toward the fatal millennial year 2000 AD and the airwaves were crackling with predictions of plagues and firestorms and battles at Armageddon, I could not help wondering what role the Devil would be playing in this last great drama of mankind. I spent a whole day leafing through the mainstream press of America looking for some mention of him, and all I could find on that particular day was a story in the show-business weekly, Variety announcing that to welcome the year 2000 there would be a movie in which the Devil comes to New York to subvert a human bride, and after many adventures and car chases he is outwitted and undone by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The next day I applied to one of those Internet services which promises to keep up with everything being printed everywhere, and it reported 857 entries that day under the heading DEVIL as opposed to 5304 under the heading MONICA LEWINSKI.
No doubt interest in Ms. Lewinski has diminished in the following years, and her name may sound a little unfamiliar to younger people now while every one of any age knows who the Devil is. Still, what a humiliating comedown for one the mere mention of whose name was once enough to make the hair of kings stand up in terror, of whom St Augustine said, "The human race is the Devil's fruit tree, his own property, from which he may pick his fruit."
. To appreciate the full extent of that downfall, try to put yourself in the place of some good folk transported by a time machine from some place in western Europe in the year 1000, as the Second Millennium was bowing in, to some town in middle America a thousand years later After the first gasp of astonishment at all the new things - the automobiles, the skyscrapers, the half-naked women - you would begin to be struck by the virtual disappearance of so many quotidian features of 10th century life. Where are the lice and the rats, the stench of the open sewers, the people screaming or moaning as they lie dying in the streets of famine and pestilence, the long lines of Slavic slaves being whipped toward the labor markets of Moslem Spain, the throngs of dead heretics and blasphemers and pickpockets hanging on gibbets for crows to peck at, the random raids rapes and murders committed by armed men both foreign and domestic? But above all, where the devil is the Devil?
In the eleventh century and for at least half a millennium thereafter, the Devil was everywhere, you could not escape noticing him. He leered out of every church door, he capered through castle and church and cottage, his plots and pranks and temptings of humans were spelled out in lavish loathsome detail in sermons, on the stage, in pious books, in stories told in taverns or in homes at bedtime.
No corner or cranny of daily life escaped him. He lurked outside every orifice of the
human body, waiting for the chance to get at the human soul inside -- that is why to this day we
say God Bless You or Gesundheit when we hear some one sneeze..
The Devil fathered children on sleeping women, he stirred up conspiracies and treasons,
he led travelers astray. He caused boils, plagues, tempests, earthquakes, heresies, barbarian
invasions..Whatever he did, he was constantly being talked about. His name was on every one's
tongue, and he went by many names, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Belial, Mastema, the Prince of
Darkness, the Lord of Lies. In the Bible he was the Accuser, the Evil One, the Prince of this
So wide was his sway that uncounted thousands subscribed to the heresy of the Bogomils
(Cathars, Albigensians) which taught that it was Satan who, after successfully revolting against
the true God had banished him or bound him in chains, had created the material world we know,
with all its misery and pain and death, and has gone on to rule it ever since as absolute despot.
Sword and fire and the Holy Inquisition took care of these heretics, but their ideas have flickered
on, to be revived from time to time by, among others, the poet William Blake.
And yet today the Devil is a poor devil indeed. He has dropped so far out of sight that
some believe he is gone for good. It may be true that forty-eight percent of Americans tell the
pollsters they believe in the existence of the Devil and another twenty percent find his existence
probable. But though they use him often enough in common light-hearted expressions, (give
the devil his due, the devil is in the details, what the devil are you talking about?) and in the
privacy of their hearts may put the blame on him when they go to sex shops or cheat on their
income tax, they do very little talking about him out loud. You will have a hard time finding him
in the Congressional Record or the Wall Street Journal. Reported physical appearances of the
Devil are rarer than sightings of UFO's. When his image appears in the press or the
supermarkets, it is generally to advertise some spicy food or some local sports team. A couple of
years ago the TV producer Pat Robertson predicted that a great wind would destroy the city of
Orlando because it had passed an ordinance favorable to homosexuals, and a great wind
promptly did come up and destroyed several respectable God-fearing towns in Oklahoma and
Kansas. In any previous century it would have been assumed that the Devil had played a
significant role in misinforming Mr Robertson and misdirecting the tempest, and he certainly
would have been held responsible for turning Orlando into a replica of Sodom in the Bible. But
there was no mention anywhere of the Devil at any stage of the proceedings, at least I saw none
in the press, heard none on TV.
People have in practical terms banished Old Scratch from their world view. When they
hear the Ayatollah Khomeini call the United States of America the Great Satan, or the Reverend
Ian Paisley saying that if you looked at the birth certificates of the people who created the peace
accord in northern Ireland you would find that their father's name is the Devil, they have an
uncomfortable feeling that they are hearing echoes from some older dirtier century. When they
want to blame some one for everything that is wrong in public life, it is never Beelzebub, it is
always right-wing conspirators or the liberal eastern media, or, as the director of the local pulp
mill told me the other day, Coffee Goffee ("you know, the United Nations fellow, the one Billy
sold the country to in 1997").
Every one who discusses the moral standards of contemporary America in pulpits or
television talk shows or the New York Times is agreed that they are lower than they have ever
been before. Why then is the Devil not out in the streets and on the airwaves, roaring like a lion
about his triumphs? Where the devil is Devil?
It all depends on precisely what you mean by The Devil.
Theologians have been arguing for centuries (and sometimes gone to the stake for
expressing the wrong opinion) to achieve a satisfactory definition, but the average person with
no theological axe to grind, is apt to envisage the Devil these days as a sleek dark-complexioned
male figure (to the disgust of feminists, the Devil has almost invariably through history been a
male, and a highly sexed male at that), with black chin-whiskers, perhaps with a foxy glint in his
eye and a trace of a foreign accent, but on the whole handsome, worldly-wise, a persuasive
talker, a friendly sort of customer.. If he has tiny horns on his head and cloven feet like a goat,
they can be taken care of by upswept hair and orthopedic shoes. Only later, when he has talked
you into some risky bet or shady contract and comes to collect his due, do you realize you have
signed away your immortal soul..
He may tell you that he is as old as sin, but remember that he is the Lord of Lies. This
suave sardonic Devil is actually a new kid on the block, he has been around for barely a few
hundred years, a mere stutter in the long swell of human misery and woe. And the Devil in
general, the Devil with a capital D, as opposed to the legions of lower-case devils, demons,
imps, and so on, first entered human history a mere three thousand or so years ago.
But humans indistinguishable on the dissecting table from us have been around for scores
if not hundreds of thousands of years, and it seems fair to assume that from the very beginning
they were all aware of unseen powerful presences affecting their lives and everything around
them. All the ancient religions that we know of, as well as modern religions with hundreds of
millions of followers like Hinduism and Buddhism, have perceived out there a bewildering array
of such presences: gods, demigods, angels, devils, demons, sprites, imps, goblins, ghosts, elves,
fairies, fauns, gnomes, nymphs, djinns, leprechauns, poltergeists. Some of them are benevolent,
some are malignant, most of them alternate between the two. The gods of ancient Greece are
typical: Zeus was a wise and just ruler up on Mount Olympus, he became a serial rapist when he
came down to the lowlands; Persephone was goddess of life in spring and goddess of death in
None of these religions ever developed a single Devil concentrating all the essence of
evil in a single person, any more than they ever concentrated the essence of good in a single
The Old Testament, which was composed between the 10th and the 3rd centuries BC,
has little trace of the Devil with a capital D, and in its earlier books none at all. God, speaking
through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, says, "I form the light and create darkness, I make
peace and create evil, I the LORD do all these things." The serpent who tempted Adam and Eve
to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was, four thousand years after the event,
identified by Jewish rabbis and Christian Church Fathers with the Devil, the principle of Evil,
but in the second chapter of Genesis as written, he is only a snake. It took a while longer before
both snake and Devil were identified with Lucifer ("light-bearer," the Latin translation of the
Hebrew and Greek words for the morning star, the planet Venus), an epithet used by the prophet
Isaiah for a Babylonian prince who is represented as being thrown down from Heaven for
having presumed to set his throne high above the stars of God.
.Ancient Hebrew had a noun, satan, meaning obstructor or accuser, and several
satans appear in the Old Testament being sent by God on different errands, such as blocking the
path of Balaam's ass or giving King Saul a fit of depression. When the Old Testament was
translated into Greek, satan was rendered diabolos,"adversary," from which
come Latin diabolus, French diable, German Teufel, English Devil.
The first time the word Satan appears with a capital S, defining a particular person with a
particular function, is in the late Book of Job, where Satan sppears as a sort of celestial J. Edgar
Hoover, sent by the Lord to check up on the loyalty of the folks down on earth.
The first Devil, the first concentration of all evil in a single personal form, appears in
history some time before the 6th century BC, in Persia. His name is Ahriman, described by the
prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) as the principle of Darkness and evil engaged in ceaseless
conflict for control of the world with Ormazd or Mazda, the Principle of Light and good.
The Jews were under Persian domination for more than two centuries, and it is likely that
Ahriman had some influence on the formation of the figure of their Satan. He appears for the
first time acting independently in the third-century Book of Chronicles [1Ch.21.1] where the text
of the much older Book of Samuel [2S.24.10] is changed from "The LORD incited David" [to
the sin of taking a census], to read, "Satan incited David." In the next few centuries of the socalled
"Intertestamentary Period" between the compilation of the Old and New Testaments,
when a major subject of theological speculation and literature was the apocalypse, the final
struggle between good and evil at the imminent end of the world, this Satan grew in stature as
the leader and embodiment of the forces of evil. The Jewish rabbis eventually lost interest in
him, and though he runs wild through folklore, he is a very minor figure in modern Judaism He
would be a major figure, however, as the Satan or Lucifer of the Christians, the Iblis or Shaytan
of the Moslems, in the other two other great monotheistic religions which grew out of Judaism.
Whatever he does, and however powerful he may be at times, none of these religions has ever
followed Zoroaster in allowing him an independent existence apart from God. He is always
separate but far from equal, though exactly to what extent of separation and inequality has been
the subject of perpetual debate on the questions which the existence of a Devil naturally calls up:
why did an omnipotent omniscient all-merciful God, the essence of goodness, create a Devil,
the essence of evil, in the first place? And if he felt he had to, why did he give him so much
power and let him do so incredibly much mischief for so incredibly long a time? As Friday asked
Robinson Crusoe, "If god much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the devil, no
make him no more do wicked?" Might the infinite mercy of God extend to pardoning the Devil
at the end of time? (Origen the second-century church father best-known for having made
himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake, maintained that it might, and was
condemned by later authorities to an eternity of hell-fire for having said so.)
Such questions were being debated by twelfth-century scholars in Paris in Latin in
almost the same terms as twelfth-century scholars in Arabic a light-year away in Baghdad, and
they are still being debated today, with no sign of a satisfactory answer being reached..
The Christian Devil, who is the one most familiar in today's literature and art, appears
often, but with only sketchy details, in the New Testament. It took three or four centuries of
debate and speculation for the Church to settle on a unified but not quite consistent picture of his
history and functions. By most accounts, he was originally an angel (some said the first born and
highest-ranking of all the angels), who had led a rebellion in Heaven (some said out of pride,
some said out of envy either of God himself or of the man, Adam, created in God's image, some
said out of sexual lust for pretty women) and had been defeated and cast down to Hell (some
said on the very first day or hour of the creation of the world, others after the creation of Adam,
others after the Fall of Man, others at the time of Noah's flood), had tempted mankind into sin,
which allowed him to rule the world until the coming of Christ (or until the Second Coming),
and would on the Day of Judgment be condemned to perpetual torment along with all the sinners
of the race of Adam.
At the beginning there was curiously little interest in the particular features of this Devil,
who does not appear at all in the first six or seven centuries of Christian art. Perhaps the early
Christians, members of a small persecuted sect, accused of atheism and child murder and
incestuous orgies, faced with the daily possibility of meeting the representatives of the Roman
state in the form of armed gladiators, live lions, and howling mobs in arenas, did not need to
dream up faces for the Devil. After Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the early
4th century, the fight against the forces of evil changed in character. The heroes were not
martyrs in an arena, they were monks who went out into the deserts, abandoning all the comforts
of the world, to meet Satan face to face naked amid naked rocks. Satan appeared to all of them
to tempt them, and it was then that Satan first acquired a recognizable physical form, appearing
to St. Anthony the first hermit and St. Pachomius the first leader of a community of monks, in a
variety of frightening or alluring forms. Pachomius once met the Devil in the form of a young
black girl who tried to seduce him, and he rebuffed the evil apparition with a blow of his hand,
which stank thereafter for two years.
Still, for hundreds of years no one thought of putting an image of the Devil on paper or a
church wall. There is a 6th century manuscript of the Gospels in Syriac which shows a couple of
little black-winged creatures fleeing from the mouth of a man being exorcized. Not till the 9th
century, in an illustrated manuscript known as the Utrecht Psalter, does a recognizable Devil
appear, in the form of a half-naked man holding a three-pronged pitch-fork. The Devil would
appear often in the next couple of centuries like this, human or at least humanoid in form,
sometimes wearing the halo of his old angelic days in Heaven. Mostly, he is ugly, but a ninthcentury
ivory book cover of the Temptation of Christ shows a handsome authoritative Devil, a
worthy opponent for his blessed enemy.
Then, some time around the 10th century, the Devil began, all over the western world to
assume monstrous forms. He appeared on the illustrated pages of books now written for the first
time in the vernacular languages which could be understood by people who no long spoke the
learned Latin. He appeared on the painted walls and ceilings and the carved doors and columns
and waterspouts of the churches and cathedrals which were then, said a monkish chronicler,
spreading a white mantle over Europe. Everywhere you turned there were scenes from sacred
history intended to teach the illiterate masses the way to salvation, and the Devil played a
prominent, sometimes a predominant, role in these scenes.
He appeared in a thousand grotesque and horrible guises. His features might be derived
from those of old gods of Greece and Rome whose broken images still cluttered the soil of
Europe, or the newer gods of the barbarian Germans and Scandinavians, or more ancient
supernatural beings from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, even China who spread their wings on
imported silks and tapestries. He borrowed horns and hairy legs and cloven hooves from the
Greek god Pan, a hooked nose and grimacing lips from the Etruscan death god Charon, a
pitchfork from the Roman sea-god Neptune, an animal head from the Egyptian god Anubis.
Sometimes he was a furry black monkey with great black bat wings. Sometimes he was a snake,
a wolf, a frog, a bear, a mouse, an owl, a raven, a tortoise, a worm. Often he appeared as a
combination of human and animal forms, with a tail, spiky flame-like hair, an apish body, a
goat's hairy thighs, an ass's feet, a boar's tusks, a wolfish mouth, an eagle's claws, a monkey's
paws, a lizard's skin, a snake's tongue, a stallion's penis. Fighting St. Michael when he led the
revolt of the angels in Heaven, he was a scaly dragon. Enthroned in Hell, he was a pot-bellied
imbecilic old man, with snakes growing out of his head and limbs, mindlessly chewing on the
sterile souls of naked sinners as they are dropped down to him on Judgment Day.
He was meant to be both frightening and disgusting, to demonstrate both the horror and
the folly of sin. The fright was all the greater because the devices like bone-vices, spine-rollers
and red-hot prongs being used to torture sinners down in Hell on the church-walls were copied
from those being used to torture heretics and other criminals in public up on earth. Every one
knows perfectly well what fire feels like, and whips, and broken bones. This has always been the
nagging problem of religious art. The joys of Paradise, being spiritual in nature, are hard to
represent in material form, they end up like so many abstract paintings, perfectly lovely,
perfectly devoid of feeling. The taste of an audience, even a pious and righteous audience, tends
to turn more readily to realistic blood-curdling scenes of brutality and horror.
The horror was generally put on with what to delicate modern eyes looks like a very thick
hand, as in the Last Judgment of Giotto in Padua, fountainhead of all western art since the
Renaissance, where today's guides are generally careful not to point out that the fat swinish
Devil in the lower right-hand corner of the painting is simultaneously swallowing and excreting
naked sinners who are being directed to him in a steady stream by the stern hand of God in the
The static visions on the church walls were regularly brought to life in the plays which
were staged in front of churches or in public squares. Surrounded by elaborate scenery and
exploding fire-crackers, the Devil was always a popular performer when, clothed in snake-skin
and with a woman's face he dangled the apple in front of our First Parents in Eden, or, with
fanged mask and hairy goat's body he grimaced and grunted and growled as he prodded wailing
sinners into a Mouth of Hell that could open and shut and spit flames.
He was popular for an all-too-simple reason: he was more human than his Adversary. He
sinned and he made an ass of himself and he enjoyed himself in coarse impious ways, just like
you and me. It was easy to imagine yourself sitting down with the Devil in a disreputable tavern
to have a drink or two and exchange smutty stories, relaxing a bit from the constraints of
ordinary law-abiding life, in a way we could not imagine doing with the Angel Gabriel, let alone
He was often the only lively, not to say sympathetic, character in the moral anecdotes
such as the one in the collection of Pope Gregory the Great, in which a gluttonous nun comes
upon a luscious lettuce in the convent garden and grabs it and eats it without pausing to make the
sign of the Cross over it. The Devil immediately enters into her stomach and torments her until a
holy man is brought in to pull him out with prayers. The Devil cries out through the nun's
mouth, "Why blame me? What did I do? I was just sitting on the lettuce when
she came along and ate me!" The saint drags him out nonetheless and torments him with a splash
of holy water.
Another popular story in the Middle Ages was that of Theophilus of Cilicia, a 6th
century. ecclesiastic who signed a pact with the devil exchanging his soul for a powerful and
profitable position in the church. He was then able to lead a life of unbridled pride and
corruption till one day the Devil reappeared and demanded his payment. In terror he repented
and threw himself on the mercy of the Virgin Mary who took pity on him, descended into hell,
grabbed the pact from Satan, then interceded for the sinner at the throne of God. He was
pardoned, and the Devil was cheated of his due.
This tale, translated hundreds of times into all the European languages, played a major
role in establishing the cult of the Virgin in Catholic Europe. It had the subsidiary effect of
familiarizing everyone with the idea of diabolical pacts The authorities of church and state took
advantage of this when some time in the 15th century they claimed to have discovered a vast
conspiracy by a confederation of witches dedicated to the subversion of all order. There were of
course plenty of witches around, as there had been in biblical days ("Thou shalt not suffer a
witch to live," God says in the Book of Exodus, which a modern theologians has interpreted to
mean, Thou shalt not pay a witch for her services so she will have to change her profession or
starve to death), as there are to this day, mostly old countrywomen with a knowledge of
traditional herbs and chants and charms which could attract a handsome lover or stop an
unwanted pregnancy or blast the crops in an unfriendly neighbor's field. But for the space of two
or three centuries, tens of thousands of accused witches, most of them women, most of them
poor illiterates, were hanged or burned after confessing to taking part in secret midnight
meetings at which they ate babies, copulated with the Devil (all witnesses agreed he had a very
long and tireless and very black penis) and signed compacts with him with their blood. These
compacts were sometimes vomited up by the accused and produced in court as evidence by the
prosecutors with the infernal signature in big black letters at the bottom as irrefutable proof of
The witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 are among the best remembered, they
have left an indelible stain on the name of the Puritans who helped to create the new nation of
America. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them was that they were exceptional. Of all
the thousands of potential suspects living in the American colonies at the time, only the eighteen
poor women of Salem, plus one man and two dogs, were sent to join the legions who had been
slaughtered in Europe. There were no spectacular witch trials any where else in the colonies. and
within a few years of the event, all but one of the men who had conducted the trials in Salem
were repenting and begging forgiveness for what they had done.
For by the year 1700 few educated people really believed in witches any more, and
increasingly they were coming not to believe in the Devil himself.
The reason was simply that western Europe, followed in more or less short order by the
other continents, was entering the modern world, the world of exploration, discovery, science,
technology, individualism, capitalism, rationalism, materialism, democracy, secular humanism,
progress. In such a world the old goatish Devil was getting to seem both embarrassing and
superfluous. When he appeared on the stage with his monkey suits and his conjuring tricks, he
was only a scarecrow or an unsightly clown - Ben Jonson summed it up in the title of one of his
plays, The Devil is an Ass.
And when you got down to the business of explaining what was going on around you, the
Devil only got in the way. When Shakespeare's Othello learns too late how he has been tricked
into murdering his wife and losing his soul, his first, medieval, instinct, is to look down at
Iago's feet to see if there are cloven hooves there, then he pulls himself together and says, "But
that's a fable." Iago doesn't need supernatural appendages, he has all the wickedness he needs
stored up in his own human heart.
Bit by bit the Devil's possessions and prerogatives were stripped away from him. Once
he had been prince of the air, an air in which his unseen agents clustered so thickly it was said
that a needle dropped from heaven was bound to pass through at least one of them before it
landed on earth. Their number was authoritatively put by a 17th-century divine at 344,440,000,
When Benjamin Franklin called down a great spark from heaven with a mere key
hanging on a kite and went on to invent the lightning rod, all that infernal army vanished with
one spark, and the atmosphere, which had once been, along with fire and water and earth one of
the four building blocks of the universe, became nothing but a mass of nitrogen and oxygen and
other atoms, in numbers greater than scholars could count, whirling around the tiny planet earth
according to laws which Satan had never heard of and, would not have known how to subvert
the if he had -- how do you tempt a fermion or a pi-meson?.
Where the 13th century Cistercian abbot Richalm blamed the "wondrous sound that
would seem to proceed from some distemper" of his stomach or bowels on the Devil who sent
him "flatulence and gripes" to make him stop drinking the wine he loved, "to the intent that I
might cease from my wine; yet wine is good for me," a modern monk sends for a gastroenterologist.
Great storms are no longer conjured up by the devil, but by El Niño currents, and
no one blames the wreck of the Titanic on anything but navigational errors and faults of design.
Already in 1218 a scholar named Gervase of Tilbury was claiming that nightmares did not ride
into our brains from the outer air but were home-bred hallucinations, Nowadays we moderns
take it for granted that the common cold is caused by an invisible virus to which humans will
one day find a cure. People are still possessed by devils, and the Roman Catholic Church among
others provides means of exorcizing them,. But their numbers are infinitesimal compared to the
number of people who are daily put under the care of psychiatrists. And even exorcists are not
allowed by the Roman Catholic Church to exercise their art till a psychiatrist has certified that
secular science has failed.
The old-fashioned horror-show Devil began to disappear from the fine arts with the
coming of the Renaissance in Italy. Artists were less interested in creating psychedelic-Disney
monster images, they wanted breathing living humanity, and they tossed all the old medieval
paraphernalia overboard almost overnight. In 1503 Raphael painted a traditional picture of St.
Michael beating the Devil out of Heaven; the Devil is a kind of outsize science-fiction insect
with horns and wings and a madman's gasping face.. Thirteen years later he did another painting
on the identical theme, but the Devil this time, though a pair of bat wings grow unconvincingly
out of his shoulders, is otherwise wholly human, a young man writhing in the despair of defeat, a
much more arresting and moving figure than the bland self-satisfied saint who is poking him
with a spear.
One important grave-digger of the old brutal terrifying physically threatening Devil was
John Milton, whose Paradise Lost> was to influence the world's conception of Satan in
way no other work of art has ever done, though not at all in the way the author intended.. It was
designed to be an epic poem like Homer's or Virgil's, not dealing like them with brutal warriors
but with the creation of man, and his sin and his salvation, told to "justify the ways of God to
men." In outline, it is a very orthodox story of sinful pride eventually humbled by the infinite
wisdom and goodness of God. Milton's Satan follows the theologically correct process of
transformation from the most radiant of angels to the loathsome creature of Book Ten who at
what he thinks is the moment of his triumph after he has corrupted Adam and Eve in Eden and
thinks he has thwarted God, finds himself turning into a monstrous crawling hissing serpent. Few
readers, however, get to Book Ten of Paradise Lost, they are more apt to let themselves
be drowned in fascination of the Satan of the first books, a heroic figure of the first order, proud,
self-confident, self-reliant, inventive, ingenious, yielding to no obstacle, defiant, who will not
accept defeat even if defeat is inevitable, who values his own freedom more than happiness, who
would rather "reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." These might be considered features of the
tireless visionary entrepreneurs from Columbus to Bill Gates whose dreams and exploits have
shaped so much of modern history, and provided the heroes for so many modern movies..
And so it is not surprising that Milton's Satan has come down through the years not in
the form of a hissing snake but of a proud radiant young man. So he appeared to Romantic poets
like Blake, Shelley, Byron, Baudelaire, who saw him as the symbol of liberating energy,
creativity, spontaneity, joyous rebellion against what Blake called the "mind-forged manacles" of
dark tyrannical law, order, tradition, the conventional wisdom which keeps humanity in
bondage. As such he would become the hero of the various satanic cults which attracted
decadent poets in the 1890's like Swinburne, Wilde, and Yeats. For Madame Blavatsky, the
creator of Theosophy, Satan was "the real creator and benefactor the Father of Spiritual
Mankind." In our day such so-called satanic cults have brought fulfilment to bored suburbanites,
restless adolescents, and an occasional murderous little creep like Charles Manson. Tales of
such cults performing unspeakable rites provide good copy for the tabloid weeklies, but they
have never posed any serious threat to society at large, any more than the Yezidis of Kurdistan
who worship Iblis or the Andean Indians enslaved by the Spaniards and forced to work in the
deadly tin mines who hailed Satan as a god because he was the only thing the Spaniards were
Even more galling to the Devil than his loss of physical power, his control of earthquakes
and unholy wars, must be his loss of respect. In the currently fashionable phrase, he lacks.
gravitas Who would not, as Melville once said in Moby-Dick, "feel livelier and
more generous emotions toward the great God of Sin than toward yonder haberdasher, who is
only a sinner in the small and honorable way of trade?"
It is with this haberdasher Satan that the modern world has chosen to deal. The Prince of
Darkness has become, in the words of Professor Andrew Delbanco of Columbia, in a book called The Death of Satan, a superannuated athlete who has gone on the lecture circuit..
He can always get a supporting role in a horror movie like Rosemary's Baby or a science-fiction thriller about a professor of comparative literature who carves up and cooks his more attractive students. But no one takes him really seriously. He is toned down, domesticated. Bowdlerized, he has become Politically Correct..As one of the title characters in John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick remarks, "Evil is not a word that we like to use. We prefer to say
To adjust to this pallid namby-pamby modern world, the Devil has had to change his ways. Always an expert shape-changer, he now comes on most often in the form of Mephistopheles. The name was made up in a 15th century German book updating of the old Theophilus legend, which has a diabolical agent signing a pact with Dr Johann Faustus, a professor turned magician who is more than willing to trade his soul for twenty-four years of unbounded knowledge, power and sex.. Christopher Marlowe's play of Doctor Faustus would launch both the Faust story and the character of Mephistopheles on a fabulously successful career. He was followed two centuries later by Goethe is his epic drama Faust. Between them they created the modern Devil, witty, ironic, disillusioned, a much more complex and interesting character than Doctor Faustus himself, who can think of nothing more exciting to do than building a bridge from Spain to Africa, tweaking the Pope's nose, or getting into bed with Helen of Troy..Unlike Faust, however, Mephistopheles never does anything; he just talks
He talks very well, of course. He talks very wittily and convincingly in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov and in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. He is funny in a sinister kind of way when, in C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters he becomes a conscientious bureaucrat filling reams of paper with instructions to an Englishman on how to get on his mother's nerves. He looks very handsome and winning when he is played by Al Pacino in the movies.
But out in the world of commerce, politics, wars and gross national products, he is little more than a joke.
Abraham Lincoln, who was regarded by white Southerners as the Devil incarnate, once said he noticed a resemblance of utterances by Satan in Paradise Lost to those made in speeches by Jefferson Davis, who was widely regarded in the North as the Devil incarnate. When the Senator he was talking to recalled an old joke about the Scotch professor who was asked his views about the fall of the angels and replied, "Aweel, there's much to be said on both sides," Lincoln's comment was, "Yes, I always thought the Devil was some to blame."
And that air of dry detached skepticism underlies almost all contemporary thought about the Devil.
For some observers like Professor Delbanco and Professor Jeffrey Burton Russell of the University of California, whose five-volume biography of the Devil is the most recent and authoritative, this is a tragic situation, it means that America like the modern world generally has lost its sense of evil, and without a sense of evil a nation or a civilization must go straight to Hell.
Perhaps, however, he is not dead after all, he may only be hiding. A 17th century Englishman, Richard Greenham, was apparently the first to coin the phrase later borrowed or reinvented by Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, G. K. Chesterton, Whittaker Chambers and many other moralists that "it is the policy of the Devil to persuade us that there is no Devil." The Devil, after all, if he is anything, is the personification of Evil, and no one can deny that there is plenty of Evil around even in the general peace and prosperity of the last half century. Superficial observers claim there is more of it than ever before, but that is probably only a statistical phenomenon of modern times: if there are four billion times as many humans on earth as there were in the time of Adam and Eve, it stands to reason that a lot more forbidden fruit is being eaten.
. Science convince us that things we used to think of as self-evidently evil, like hurricanes and pestilences are the result of impersonal forces quite independent of our desires or feelings or state of grace. Science may convince us that acts which we regard as inhuman are derived in all innocence from genetic or social factors over which we have no control. But we remain persons, human beings, and human beings will always look for somebody or something personal, with or without a long black penis, to blame when things go really wrong. ..
There are fashions in Evil, of course, as in everything else in human life. Pascal long ago observed that shifting three degrees of latitude can change all values upside down. And the same can be done by moving a century backward or forward in time. There is probably no single human act or human thought we strong with the invincible convictions of the Enlightenment - regard as totally evil today (slavery for instance, which is countenanced by God in the Bible, or the burning of babies, which was performed as a religious rite by the highly cultivated Carthaginians as well as by back-sliding kings of Israel) which has not in some time and place been regarded as natural, righteous, even a holy duty.
It is a common observation that the deeds most people find most odious are committed not in the name of Evil but of a just Cause. Think of the knights of the First Crusade roaring out hymns as their horses splashed through the streets of Jerusalem running with the blood of its inhabitants; or of Dr Goebbels murdering his five little children one by one to spare them from having to grow up in a racially impure Germany where they would be taught to be ashamed of their father, or of the martyr-warriors of Seven-Eleven chanting the praise of an all-merciful God as they slammed their planes into the World Trade Center. The SS men marching into battle singing
SS marschiert in Feindesland
never meant to imply they were doing a bad thing by singing a Devil-song; they were offering up their lives for the greater good of the Aryan Race.
Und singt ein Teufelslied
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha Ha! Ha! Ha!
Various thinkers have proposed that Evil is only illusion or at best it is only the absence of Good, with no more existence of its own than the holes in Swiss cheese. This is little consolation for people condemned to pass their lives in one of those holes, and such people are bound sooner to later to bump up against what they recognize as tangible objective Evil, and then their cries of pain will be as loud as those of any one else..
There is much controversy these days between people who hold to a well-codified objective morality and people, invidiously called moral relativists, who hold that moral judgments vary with time and place and the personality of the judge and therefore no one should make moral judgments. In practical life there is less difference between these two groups that either would like to admit. I know relativists who would no more hear a good word for the monopoly capitalists or General Pinochet or Rush Limbaugh than their objectivist foes would for abortion doctors or Fidel Castro or the New York Times. When our lives and our fortunes and our sacred honor are at stake, we all cry with Mr. Kurtz, Exterminate the brutes!>
And since the brutes performing the evil deeds are human beings like ourselves, it is inevitable that we will want to give Evil a human form, a human name.
Accounts of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz have left us an unforgettable picture of the opening ceremony which awaited the future inmates when they arrived at the railroad station. They were herded up a long slope at the top of which sat an elegant young SS officer in shiny black boots. supporting his right elbow with his left hand. As they passed before him in single file, he would give each of them one quick look and then make a gesture with his right white-gloved fore-finger. If it was to the right, it meant he judged that this particular prisoner had the requisite physical properties to dig ditches or build secret weapons for the Third Reich for months or years till death from malnutrition or beatings put an end to it, and could therefore sent to a large concrete building to receive a shower and a tattooed number and a striped pajama uniform. If the gesture was to the left it pointed to a building where the shower nozzles spouted gas.
I suppose it would not surprise most readers in the civilized world today, apart from adherents of the Aryan Nation and Al-Qaeda, to learn that this officer was the Devil incarnate..
The officer himself would undoubtedly have been astonished and outraged to hear anything of the sort. Perhaps he was an idealistic young man who remembered what he had been ty his leader Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, that in the sacred cause of National Socialism he might have do things that would seem repellant to any decent German, but the sacred Cause came first. More likely he was an ordinary young man bound by an unyielding code to perform in all weathers and at all hours a disagreeable and incredibly boring job through endless days and endless years surrounded by endless screams and endless stench, with no relief except an occasional bottle of schnapps at the officers' mess or an occasional bout with tainted flesh in the camp brothel. But of course anything was preferable to being sent to the genuine hell of the Russian front. If he was a devil, he was a poor devil indeed. :Like the one in Pope Gregory's tale who got stuck in the nun's bowels. he might well think that he had every reason to feel sorry for himself. .
But wait. Leaving this wretched individual out, isn't there something that seems oddly familiar about that scene in the blank Polish countryside? Haven't we seen something like that before, that line of terrified figures toiling upward, the impassive figure seated at the top, the two new lines headed toward their two contrasting fates?
Yes, we have seen it a hundred times in art books and in museums and on church walls, paintings commissioned by the most pious rulers of church and state, painted by the greatest artists, a source of spiritual exaltation in admiring throngs over the centuries. It is a re-enactment of the Last Judgment.
The Last Judgment is out of theological favor these days, when even the death penalty on earth is considered barbaric. And most every one these days has taken the pledge that there will be more Auschwitzes. But such pledges have been made before. Common sense tells us that we will go on performing deeds of one sort or another that other people (even sometimes we ourselves) describe as wicked till an automated virtue machine is patented or (more likely) till the end of the world.
There are preachers on television on television every night who insist that a battle will be fought at Armageddon in Palestine and the world (meaning the material world) will come to an end, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, this year or next year or the year after that. Madame Carmelita, a psychic on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has assured me that this event will occur on or about my one hundredth birthday, February 18, 2018. At least one science-fiction writer is convinced that the world (meaning human life) will come to an in the year 2686 when a giant comet will hit the earth near Yucatan, setting fire to the atmosphere and clearing the ground for little polyps which will evolve into creatures much nicer and more spiritual than us. Scientific textbooks maintain that the world (meaning life on earth) will come to an end when our sun becomes a red giant around the year 4,000,000,000 AD. If in the meanwhile a sleek gentleman dressed as prosperous options-and-derivatives salesman offers you fantastic odds on a bet that he will not around up to the last second on any or all of these occasions, and you take him up on it, you may find that you have made a bad bet.