THE DEVIL'S BIOGRAPHY
12:00 AM, Oct 21, 1996 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
There is an old Latin saying, sine diabolo nullus dominus, which means " without the Devil, no God." It seems entirely appropriate, then, that a year or so after being presented with a book entitled God: A Biography (by an American, Jack Miles), we should now get one called The Devil: A Biography (Holt, 302 pages, $ 27.50). But this new book, by a young Englishman named Peter Stanford, is not the only sustained attention Satan has received lately. In the past year or two alone, there have been at least five other books about him in English aimed at a general audience, and probably more than that in other languages. My impression, without having taken a careful count, is that God has not done nearly so well during the same period.
This, of course, is nothing new. Dante's portrait of Hell has always been much more popular than the section of The Divine Comedy devoted to Paradise, and the same is true of John Milton's Paradise Lost as compared with his Paradise Regained. And in Paradise Lost itself, the character of Satan is so much more vividly drawn than the character of God that William Blake could famously observe: "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God, and at liberty when of devils and hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."
Peter Stanford is not a poet, true or otherwise, but in a sense he too is of the Devil's party without knowing it. Charles Baudelaire, who certainly was a true poet and whose great collection Les fleurs du mal was practically dedicated to the Devil, once remarked: "The Devil's deepest wile is to persuade us that he does not exist." Stanford quotes this stunning aphorism, never realizing that his own book might easily be taken as an illustration of it.
For this "biography" is based on the assumption that belief in the Devil is a superstition that persists only on "the fundamentalist fringes among those whose Christianity is often medieval in its worldview" and also among others who are "bewildered by the world in all its complexity." Such troglodytic ignoramuses may still think that the Devil is real, but Stanford is too " coldly rational" for that (at least for "ninety-nine percent of the time," the other one percent being, he tells us, a hangover from his Catholic upbringing).
With this "coldly rational" perspective as his guide, Stanford has produced not a biography of the Devil but rather a history of "the idea of a devil," and a very spotty history at that. Whole eras and entire bodies of religious thought race by as Stanford traces the development of this idea from the ancient pagan world through the Old Testament and the apocrypha and then into the Christian era stretching from Jesus to our own day -- all in about 300 loosely printed pages, and in a prose style so breezy, relaxed, and colloquial that it serves in itself to make light of its subject.
Not that there is nothing worthwhile here. On the contrary, Stanford comes up with much interesting and colorful material about the role of the Devil in popular religious belief. He also provides us with useful capsule summaries of the sophisticated theological arguments for the existence of the Devil, belief in whom offered an escape from the otherwise logical necessity of blaming evil on an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God.
But what Stanford mainly tries to do is show how foolish and at the same time how dangerous the idea of the Devil has been. One tactic he uses is to poke fun at the naive personifications of the Devil that were popular in ages past. Another is to document the cruelties and injustices that have been committed in the name of fighting against the Devil and his disciples -- the torturing and the burning and the hanging of innocents like Sarah Good, who, Stanford recounts in one of the most wrenching of the many such stories he tells, cried out to the hangman as she stood on the scaffold in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 19, 1692: "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink."