Where the devil is the Devil?
ii. The Devil down
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." He has learned that 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 gastro-enterologist.
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 living thing the Spaniards were afraid of.
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 'unfortunate' or 'lacking' or 'misguided' or 'disadvantaged.'" Even hell-fire preachers who make a specialty of describing in detail the horrors of the afterlife carefully avoid saying even in whispers what the church fathers of a manlier age used to say in thunder, that one of the joys of being in Heaven will be to watch sinners writhing in the hands of the Devil, a sight, said Tertullian in the second century. "of greater delight than any circus or any play." The most recent catechism of the Roman Catholic church, approved by Pope John Paul II, describes the fiery Hell, which for almost two thousand years had been assumed , on good Scriptural authority, to be the physical dwelling place of Satan and so many of us sinners, as a mere figure of speech.
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 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 The 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 may 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 which has not in some time and place been regarded as natural, righteous, even a holy duty. Slavery for instance, which is countenanced by God in both the Old and the New Testaments, or the burning of lvie babies, which was performed as a religious rite by the highly cultivated Carthaginians as well as by back-sliding kings of Israel
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
Und singt ein Teufelslied
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha Ha! Ha! Ha!
[SS marches in the enemy land and sings a Devil-song]
never meant to imply they were doing a bad thing; they were nobly offering up their lives for the greater good of the Aryan Race.
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 absolute 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 a fearful 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 be 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 told by 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 disciplinary 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 bleak 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 Megiddo in Palestine and the world (meaning the material world) will promptly 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.
©1999 Robert Wernick
portions of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine October 1999