For the final session of my course Images of the Devil (syllabus here), I decided to write out a more formal lecture, somewhat on the model of a conference paper, to summarize and push forward the primary themes of the course, both to provide “closure” for the students and to spur myself toward developing a research project along these lines. The text follows, and readers who were skeptical of having group presentations will note that the presentations were, by and large, a great success — we’ll see about the final group papers.
I would like to begin by thanking you all for participating in this class. I conceived of the course as a collaborative research seminar, and I think that we have succeeded in making it that. Your presentations have contributed significantly to the course content, and discussion has generally been as good as could be expected for such a large class and an awkwardly laid-out classroom. I believe you have all benefited from each other’s work, and I have benefited as well—this course has spurred my own thinking in significant and unexpected ways.
What began as an attempt to follow up a strangely insistent sub-theme in my dissertation has moved closer toward a real research agenda, driven not only by the need to more clearly formulate my ideas for lectures and discussion, but also by your presentations and miscellaneous remarks in class (probably most often by remarks the students in question don’t even remember making). My goal for this paper presentation is simply to lay out my initial thoughts about how I might follow up on this class in my own scholarly work—but I hope it will be helpful in spurring your thinking as well, both for your final papers and beyond.
In the syllabus, I said that the course readings “trace a course from early Christianity to modern literature, attempting to find the theological roots of the modern tendency to view the devil as a fascinating and even heroic character—most famously in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Though we spent a significant amount of time in the biblical, patristic, and medieval eras, the real motivating question behind this course was about the modern era, a suspicion that understanding the strange fascination that the devil exerts on us might help to illuminate something about the modern West and about its relationship to its own past.
This suspicion was founded in two aspects of the modern use of the devil. First and most obviously, the devil remains an irreducibly religious or mythical symbol, and despite the fact that other cultures and religions do embrace the devil in some version or else have devil-like characters (such as trickster gods), the modern devil is still very much the Christian devil. Something about the modern West’s Christian heritage, then, seems to be haunting it. Second, the devil is most often associated with one of the most characteristically modern values, namely, the heroic self-assertion of the individual. The Satan of Paradise Lost, to name the most formative example, may have fallen as part of an army, but he exacts his revenge on God as a lone wolf.
The devil thus seems to resonate with one of the most fundamental stories that modern man—and it historically has tended to be men rather than women—wants to tell about himself, a story that is most familiar to us in the American cult of the self-made man and the lonely hero who, Jack Bauer-style, makes his own rules. Yet even in Paradise Lost, where the devil is arguably portrayed most sympathetically, he clearly remains evil—and hopeless. The devil isn’t simply an emblem of romantic self-assertion, then, but adds to that some element of “bad conscience,” some sense that modern man is uncomfortable with what he has become.
Now this “bad conscience” could stem from a suspicion that the modern secular world has betrayed Christianity, thereby depriving itself of any stable source of values or norms. In this conservative narrative, the modern world would remain drawn to a religious symbol but could no longer embrace its positive side, instead identifying with the object of God’s eternal and unremitting judgment. Here George Costanza of Seinfeld might serve as the emblematic modern man of “bad conscience.” In an episode where the pilot he and Jerry have developed for a potential sitcom with NBC is about to air, he visits his psychiatrist and asks, obviously very worried, “What if the pilot gets picked up and it becomes a series?” She gives a common-sense response—“That’d be wonderful George, you’ll be rich and successful”—to which he replies, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m worried about. God would never let me be successful. He’d kill me first. He’d never let me be happy.” When the psychiatrist says she thought he didn’t believe in God, George says, “I do for the bad things!”
This attitude is what Søren Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death”: despair. The despair of the devil himself is clear in Paradise Lost, as he comes to the conclusion that God would never accept his repentance because it could never be sincere—he could never bear to serve God again. The same despair is visible in Dr. Faustus, both in Mephistopheles, an uncharacteristically timecard-punching demon who takes no joy in his work and believes the world as such to be hell, and in the title character, whose deliberations and struggles with the idea of repentance serve only to drive him further into despair by emptying the concept of repentance of any concrete meaning.
Despair becomes defiance in Don Giovanni, who simply refuses to repent—notably without providing any reason. His refusal makes his adherence to his evil lifestyle seem like an ethical principle in itself, insofar as he sticks to his guns even when he has nothing to lose by repenting and everything to gain. (I owe this insight to Žižek.) Don Giovanni even begins to lay a kind of philosophical groundwork for his principled evil when debating with his jilted ex-lover, as they sing over top of each other, her declaring him the very essence of evil, him praising the glory and strength of humankind. Yet at the moment of truth, he can only say “no” to repentance, as the threatening fires of hell would render any talk of human strength and glory ridiculous. Like the devil, Don Giovanni is faced with an enemy he ultimately cannot defeat, limited to attaining a kind of moral purity through consistent rebellion, in his case a rebellion based in indulgence and enjoyment.
At this point, I believe the hypothesis that the modern world has a guilty conscience because it has betrayed Christianity starts to wear itself out. First of all, is Christianity really so invulnerable, and does it really have a monopoly on moral values? Our supposedly decadent and godless secular world certainly seems to do a good enough job of setting up moral norms based in the guiding principle of tolerance, and it’s not at all obvious to me that “traditional Christian values” are somehow more desirable or robust than modern liberal values—one could make the case, and many try to, but it’s hardly a slam dunk and it’s clear that it grows less and less plausible to the general public by the day. The majority of people do not appear to need the threat of hellfire to keep them in line, as social pressures and the threat of earthly punishment are more than enough to keep most of the population from descending into wanton lawlessness. There are of course some individuals, including some public figures, who appear to “need” Christianity in order to have something to rebel against, but I do not detect any culture-wide movement toward rebelling against Christian values simply for the sake of it.
I do see some value in investigating the notion of modern man’s “bad conscience,” but before doing so, I’d like to take a brief detour into the meaning of mythological thinking. If we can get a handle on myth, perhaps the role of the specific mythical figure of the devil could become more clear. So why do human beings come up with myths? What function do they serve? It seems that mythological thinking is linked to the unknown. Humans have a desire to explain things, and more than that, they have a desperate need to understand things simply for their own survival. One might speak, then, of a kind of continuum of mythological thinking, running from the purely practical—what one would call “magic” or “superstition”—all the way to the more speculative—what one could call “theology.”
Magic or superstition is, as we have seen, especially characteristic of peasant populations, who tend to live hand to mouth and to be exposed to threatening powers beyond their control, to a degree that most modern Westerners can’t fully understand. Their use of magic certainly reflects a low level of education, but more fundamentally it reflects a basic desperation, as the resources of the peasant can run out very quickly. The question of whether people really “believe” in magic is probably poorly posed, as questions of “belief” require a certain level of intellectual sophistication that is not compatible with a hard life of labor and deprivation—instead, it’s probably better to think in terms of magic as a potential solution that one “might as well” try, that one would “be a fool not to” try.
Theology, on the other hand, does not seem to be driven by such desperation. It is an academic pursuit that normally takes place in situations of relative privilege. It is easy to think of magic as a kind of aspiring science—Kurt Vonnegut has famously said that “science is magic that works”—but that is not the case with theology, which at its best has remained responsive and adaptive to scientific progress, despite the fact that fundamentalist theology tends to have the best PR and therefore to be the public face of theology in general. Thinkers with integrity, and often with considerable intellectual sophistication, have found themselves able to engage in theological speculation with access to the full range of modern knowledge. And even if the elite classes of our society have tended not to explain the world in terms of Christian theology, various mythical figures have continued to exercise their pull on the elite imagination—as the very overcrowding of this class on the devil illustrates.
It could be the case that this simply reflects the fact that we haven’t had enough scientific progress and that the role of myth will grow smaller and smaller as time goes on. I would like to advance the case, however, that there is something necessary about mythological thinking that goes beyond the contingent historical fact that we don’t yet know everything—even beyond the claim that we probably won’t ever literally know everything. Based on my recent reading of the German philosopher Markus Gabriel—who draws on what is arguably the pinnacle of modern philosophy, namely German Idealism (Kant, Hegel, Schelling, etc.)—I would instead propose that human knowledge is always necessarily incomplete. This is not because human begins can never in fact assemble every bit of data, say because the sun will burn out before we can finish the job. Rather, it is because even if we did literally “know everything,” there would still be one thing that knowledge cannot account for: that there is knowledge. Reason cannot account for the fact that there is reason. Even an eye big enough to see everything could never see itself. The human subject is the ground of reason, but it can’t use its reason to ground itself.
If we investigate the figure of the devil, we can see that it fits uncannily well with this sense that the human subject can never quite get ahold of itself. We identify with the devil as a “sympathetic” character, a character who is “more human” than God, and yet the devil is always somehow superhuman or subhuman—and the super- and sub- can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. As an angel, the devil is a being of pure reason, of pure calculation, and therefore more powerful than us (like the usual image of an alien)—and yet he can also be somehow strangely machine-like, as in Dante’s Satan who chews mechanically for all eternity. He is normally portrayed as an animal, above all a reptile—those strange inscrutable cold-blooded creatures with whom we can never really empathize—and is associated with sexuality, that part of us that sometimes seems most “animalistic” (reminding us that we are, as the song puts it, “nothing but mammals”). Yet at the same time, sexuality in the modern period has increasingly promised us a form of self-transcendence that religion seems no longer capable of providing—it is perhaps not an accident that the sin preferred by the sociopathically principled Don Giovanni is precisely sexual pleasure.
Perhaps our identification with this superhuman and subhuman character, in whom the superhuman and subhuman can sometimes become difficult to tell apart, is our way of unconsciously acknowledging that our “humanity” is impossible to pin down—that what is most human in us is what is most inhuman. To that extent, the devil may be a positive myth, or at least an honest one. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, I believe the devil also has his dark side, or dishonest side—a side that pushes us to deny our humanity in a very important respect.
This humanity-denying side is what I have tried to put forward as the “political” significance of the devil. Based on Gregory of Nyssa’s “Address on Religious Instruction,” I have argued in my dissertation and in class that the devil also represents the social order as such. The social order is superhuman insofar as it governs us from above and is beyond the control of any single person, yet it is also strangely subhuman insofar as it seems to corrupt us, or at least to hold us back from achieving our full potential as human beings. Modern society has its own myth for the foundation of the state, namely the “social contract” which every member of society is regarded as having agreed to.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke are among its more famous adherents, but Thomas Hobbes’s formulation of the social contract seems most useful to me here. Hobbes envisions human beings as starting out in the “state of nature,” which he characterizes as a “war of all against all”—all human beings are potentially subject to unlimited violence from all other human beings, because all human beings have the right to use all their force toward whatever end they choose. Hobbes characterizes life in the state of nature as “nasty, brutal, and short.” In order to end this state of affairs, everyone gets together and agrees to transfer their right to use violence over to one individual, namely the king. This monopoly on the legitimate use of force is the basis of the state.
Interestingly, however, the king actually remains in the state of nature, that is, in the state that comes before the civilized, law-governed human being—he is both above us as our ruler and yet below us as representing an earlier stage of development. Hobbes recognizes that this turns the state into a kind of monster, as indicated by the title of his treatise: Leviathan. This social contract increasingly represents a deal with the devil. Instead of being faced with a multitude of individual foes, the contract subjects you to one single power—the state will avenge you if someone subjects you to illegitimate violence, but the violence you really need to worry about is that of the state itself. As I’ve said before in lecture, the state is a protection racket. And if the state wrongs you, you have no recourse, or at least only have the recourse that the state allows you to have—think of the fact that resisting arrest is inherently a crime. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, trying to protect yourself from the police by running away still subjects you to criminal penalties, just in itself. Of course, using any kind of violence against an officer of the law leads to the worst possible retaliation, a fact that some individual police officers abuse by trying to incite a person in custody to hit them. And getting away from the law enforcement scenario, the state still has the right to order you to march to your death in its defense, whether you agree with the war it’s fighting or not.
Clearly whoever signed this social contract got more than they bargained for, just as Adam and Eve’s act of betraying God and subjecting themselves to the devil in Gregory of Nyssa led to unintended consequences. They were promised they would be like gods, and they became slaves instead—just as the original signers of the contract were promised freedom from violence were instead subjected to a much more comprehensive violence. Nevertheless, in both cases the agreement remained binding, just as we are still subject to contracts that we sign without reading the fine print.
Coming at the problem from another direction: Like Faust, we wind up selling our souls all too cheaply, and yet we can’t quite convince ourselves that we can opt out of the agreement. The very fact of participating in the agreement somehow cheapens us, just as Faust winds up wasting his infinite demonic power—which he once aspired to use to rule over all the world—on cheap parlor tricks. One thinks of the well-meaning graduate of an expensive liberal arts college who goes to law school hoping to do public interest law, then winds up working in corporate law as that’s the only way to pay off the debt. If this “deal with the devil” lasts long enough, that idealistic soul might find himself or herself married and with children—or in any case, it’s likely that one’s standard of living will rise to meet one’s income and any downgrade will come to seem increasingly impossible. A life that could’ve been spent helping people winds up being spent becoming rich, then working long hours to make sure you can afford to remain rich. In another overlap of highest and lowest, a life devoted to getting ahead winds up impoverished. We all know that this is the case, and yet we somehow also know that anything else is “unrealistic.”
It is here that I would like to return to Gabriel’s discussion of myth. As I’ve said, Gabriel claims that the ground of reason lies outside the purview of reason—it is the realm of mythological thinking. He recognizes that mythological thinking can be dangerous. If we regard myth as giving us actual information, for instance, it can lead to religious fanaticism. If we regard myth as a kind of allegory that can be shown to be reasonable, then we’re guilty of the mental short-circuit of “ideology.” Yet he believes that there is the possibility of a responsible use of myth, a self-conscious use of myth to ground a new kind of community of interpretation. And the way myth can be responsible is precisely by acknowledging that we are responsible for myth—that it is a human creation, even if it is not created consciously. We have not created the world, but we have created the frame through which we interact with the world, the categories through which we categorize and manipulate the world—and that is because, for Gabriel, there is no one else who can have created them.
If modernity means anything, it means that humans are thrown back on themselves to make a human world, and if they don’t, they have no one to blame but themselves. Insofar as the devil encourages fatalism, then, he starts to become a destructive and irresponsible form of mythology. Above all, I find this fatalism to be in the way the symbol of the devil encourages us to think of ourselves as having sold our souls irrevocably to the social order—which in our era effectively means that we have sold our souls to money itself.
Yet there is also a deeper fatalism and despair in the most characteristically “modern” aspect of the devil myth, namely his uncompromising and rebellious self-assertion, because that very self-assertion serves only to demonstrate that victory is absolutely impossible. In reality, the rebellious devil and the devil who offers you a contract for your soul go together, creating a claustrophobic world in which principle means self-destruction and endless compromise is the only means of survival. The devil himself is, after all, the ultimate idealist who saw the light and sold out to The Man—so much so that he’s become The Man.
The rebellious devil is tragically beautiful, and the devil who offers what he assures you is a fair price for your soul is fascinating, but both are ultimately insidious. I suspect that it might be more promising to dwell with the more repulsive devil, the devil who is a terrifying monster or a cold machine, the devil who represents what is inhuman in the human—perhaps that devil could show us a way to a rebellion without fatalism and a social order that would be something other than a protection racket and a rip-off.
Or perhaps to arrive at that goal, we will need another mythological symbol altogether. I have suggested in previous lectures that Christ, as he appears in the “ransom theory” of the patristic authors, might represent such a symbol. Working from within the terms of the “ransom theory,” if the devil in the modern world is us, then we have weirdly sold ourselves to ourselves—or better, sold ourselves to the very act of selling—in a way that has backfired tremendously. We need someone crafty enough to out-devil the devil, to set us free so that we can then get to work setting ourselves free. Obviously the symbol of Christ has certain aspects that work against the guideline of human beings taking responsibility for themselves—above all his divinity, which proves to be his trump card in the fight against the devil. We will have to find some new trick to invalidate our contract other than the bait-and-switch of getting the devil to overreach by claiming control over the divine, if only to avoid the “consolidation loan” offered in Anselm’s account of the Christ who comes to pay off the debt of sin.
I don’t know what that trick will be, but to conclude, I’d like to suggest that Milton’s Satan provides us with some guidance. After he falls from grace, what is the source of all his torment? Obviously the punishments of hell are painful, but he is able to escape from them, and he is subsequently able to make hell into a realm of activity and invention, even of philosophy. The hell he carries around with him everywhere he goes is heaven—his irrecoverable loss. The true punishment for his fall is the very belief that he has fallen. Perhaps one way forward, then, is to overcome the myth of the fall, to view ourselves not as what we have lost but as what we are and what we can become.