The Blog


12:00 AM, Oct 21, 1996 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
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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.