Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil

What has the devil done to merit a five-volume biography? If you had asked me just a few years ago, I would have scoffed, but lately I am not so sure. Perhaps the subtitle – Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity – sheds some light on my dilemma. In the eyes of Jeffrey Burton Russell, an historian and professor of religious studies, “the devil” is less a monster than a metaphor, one that has evolved over thousands of years to help mankind ask fundamental questions about the nature of evil, human suffering, and life itself. The first volume in this ambitious work tackles the earliest representations of evil, from eastern and western civilizations, under an assumption that I am beginning to share: “The concept – what people believed to have happened – is more important than what really did happen, because people act upon what they believe to be true.”

The opening chapter, “The Question of Evil,” reinforces – in a modern audience, unaccustomed to the evils of want, privation and disease, for example – the striking relevance of human suffering. We apprehend that human beings suffer, on a scale that defies imagination. We die, in myriad painful ways, before old age claims us; we watch loved ones suffer terribly, and feel powerless to intervene; and we inflict terrible pain on our fellow human beings, or feel the pain they inflict on us. “You see that evils are not only general,” Russell tells us, “but universally present in human experience. Evil has touched all places, all times, and the life of every mature individual. We understand that evil is cosmic.” And because it is cosmic, as ineluctable as the sun and the stars, it figures very heavily into pre-modern man’s understanding of the universe – an understanding that found its highest expression not in science (which did not yet exist) but in literature, mythology and art. Russell also rejects a dichotomy that moral philosophers have sought to make between evil – a conscious choice made by human beings – and inescapable suffering, resulting, for example, from some unavoidable natural disaster. No doubt there is utility in keeping the distinction, especially where human culpability is concerned, but Russell rightly points out that the problem of evil cannot be so easily side-stepped, particularly for pre-modern man, whose understanding of the universe was at stake. What kind of god would create a world in which human beings suffer so needlessly and flagrantly?

In “The Devil East and West,” Russell examines the parallel developments of the concept of evil, noting the striking similarities (where these exist) and differences in the eastern and western religious traditions. Prior to the Christian concept of the devil, evil was often a component of god (in monotheism) or of particular gods (in polytheism). In Hinduism, for example, “Brahma is called ‘the creation and destruction of all people.’ He creates ‘the harmful or benign, gentle or cruel, full of dharma or adharma, truthful or false.'” Three concepts, in particular, seem to have attached themselves to the concept of evil from a very early time: lying, or falsehood; sex and sexuality; and death. Of the three, dishonesty seems to be the most unambiguously evil, while both sex and death have positive dimensions:

The underworld, the realm of the chtonic, is frequently associated with the principle of evil. On the one hand, the underworld symbolizes fertility, partly because of its association with the womb, but even more strongly because it is from beneath the earth that the crops and the green grass of spring push forth. It also yields gold, silver, and other desirable minerals. But on the other hand the underworld is associated with the tomb or grave. It is there that the spirits of the dead wander in a land of darkness or shadow. The underworld of the Mexicans, like that of the Romans, was a place where the dead found repose more than punishment. The lord of the underworld (Pluto, for example) is god of both fertility and death, which helps account for the Western tradition that Satan is not only lord of evil and of death but is also associated with fertility and sexuality, a trait evident in the witches’ orgy and in the horns that the Devil often wears.

Here we glimpse some of the sophistication made possible by symbolism, and to drive that point home this book is replete with images – photographs, usually – of ancient sculptures, mosaics, paintings and other works of representation: an eighteenth century Tibetan monster clutching a wheel of time, symbol of the creative and destructive nature of time itself; a two-sided statue of Quetzalcoatl, Mexican god of life and death: one side, smiling and benign, the other sinister and menacing; a bust of Dionysos, with deliberately androgynous features, “combining the most beautiful of masculine and feminine.”

The concluding chapters in this book examine the early Hebrew and Christian representations of the devil, with particular attention to the influence of Greek philosophy on the concept of evil. “The philosophers formulated a rational conception of moral law that was applicable to all intelligent beings. This permitted a rational and moral definition of evil.” The Hebrew and Christian traditions shifted the burden of evil (though not entirely) off of god and onto another figure, a rebellious angel, a counter-force to god. This entailed a shift from monism to dualism, and had immense consequences for the Judeo-Christian worldview. But it did not represent a radical break from pre-modern thought; on the contrary, the devil of the Judeo-Christian tradition borrows heavily from ancient religions: his horns, for example, or his forked tongue; his association with the night, with serpents, with goats and wolves. There is also an obvious contradiction at play: can god be all-powerful without also taking responsibility for the existence of evil?

In spite of the efforts of generations of theologians to reduce or abolish the role of Satan, the concept of the Devil has persisted. Christianity is in fact a semidualist religion. On the one hand it rejects the full dualism that asserts the opposition of two eternal cosmic principles. But it has also generally rejected the monist complacency of the hidden harmony. The tension between monism and dualism has led to inconsistencies in Christian theodicy. But the tension is also creative.

Where, exactly, Christianity would take that concept is the subject of the subsequent volumes, though it’s a good bet that it will involve the internalizing of the concept of evil, and the growing focus on human beings as moral actors unto themselves. The Devil is a worthy introduction to the topic, and a powerful rebuke to those people – myself not least among them – who have tended to view religion as antithetical to philosophy, rather than complementary to it.