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."
Yet just as God remains invisible to the non-believer and is only revealed to the eyes of faith, so must Satan remain incomprehensible to agnostics like Stanford. He has diligently studied, and traced, and considered many of the conceptions of the Devil that have been formed over the centuries, and especially since the birth of Christianity. But he keeps losing sight of the essential point, which is that -- whether imagined as incarnate in some gruesome earthly shape or seen as a fallen angel or thought of as a disembodied spiritual principle or force -- the Devil always represents nothing more and nothing less than the moral and spiritual antithesis of God. Indeed, the old Latin saying I quoted at the outset (and that Stanford quotes as well) has it the wrong way around. God can exist without the Devil, but the Devil cannot exist without God.
In certain pagan religions like Zoroastrianism, and in a number of heretical Manichean and Gnostic strains within Judaism and Christianity, the Devil is a power equal to God. Stanford goes into this in some detail, and he also understands that within the mainstream of the great monotheistic creeds, the Devil must always remain subordinate to God. What he fails to grasp dearly, however, is that under the doctrine of free will (a subject about which he has very little to say), the Devil becomes an embodiment of the standing temptation within the human soul not only to disobey God here and there or on this or that point, but to do the very opposite of what God commands. It is a temptation bred by the fantasy that this (as the serpent puts it to Eve) is how to "be as God" -- in other words, transcend the limitations of the human condition. So it was in the Garden of Eden, and so it is today, when the same temptation and the same fantasy present themselves in a variety of up-todate guises.
In the public realm, the great contemporary example (foreseen by Dostoevsky in the novel formerly known in English as The Possessed but now in a more accurate translation entitled The Devils) is the utopian dream of an earthly paradise, which gave rise to totalitarianism. Under the influence of that dream, millions upon millions of people were slaughtered, and many millions more deprived of their freedom. Those who did the slaughtering, moreover, were convinced of their own rectitude. Thus Heinrich Himmler once declared that he himself, and the Nazi functionaries under his command who were carrying out the Holocaust, deserved great praise for the "glory" of performing so difficult a job without losing their "integrity." It would be impossible to find a more perfect demonstration than this of a key element of the diabolistic principle under which people are cajoled -- by themselves and by others -- into doing evil by calling it good.
In the private realm, a striking contemporary example of the same diabolistic principle at work can be detected in the changing attitude in our culture toward suicide. Suicide has always been regarded with a special horror because it violates the most fundamental of all natural laws. But the choice of death over life has also been seen in biblical terms as one of those sins that go beyond mere transgression or disobedience and strive to achieve the exact opposite of what God commands ("I have set before you life and death," runs the verse in Deuteronomy, "therefore choose life"). Worse yet, in taking upon himself the power to end his own life, the suicide is trying to do precisely what Eve did in eating the apple -- to "be as God."
What, then, are we to make of the fact that today a veritable cult has grown up around suicide? In the world of the arts, minor poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton have been venerated as martyrs largely by virtue of having killed themselves, while in the world of public policy, "assisted suicide" has become the latest cause of the enlightened American mind. What else can this be but another case of people seduced into doing evil under the spell of the illusion that they are doing good?
Such considerations are beyond Peter Stanford's range. All he seems able to take into account are the pitiable innocents who in a less enlightened era were accused of being in league with the Devil, and such homicidal maniacs of our own time as Charles Manson who have done evil knowing it to be evil and precisely because it is evil. But I would guess that an instinctive sense of the less obvious presence and the wilier manifestations of the diabolistic principle in other phenomena of contemporary society explains why so much interest continues to be shown in the Devil, even by people like Stanford, who regard a belief in him as hopelessly retrograde and irrational.
Norman Podhoretz is senior fellow, at the Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of Commentary, where he was editor-in-chief for 35 years. He last wrote for THE WEEKLY STANDARD about Bob Dole's convention speech.