Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
—John Milton – Paradise Lost
As a rebel, antinomian, and dissenter – pretty much what a contrarian converges on, I’ve identified with Milton’s Satan as a figure of revolutionary spirit against political authoritarianism since my early twenties when I first listened to my old literary prof. Dr. Huff read John Milton’s Paradise Lost out loud in his deep baritone voice… the dramatic effect was stunning and brought the figures on the page alive! Sometimes listening, rather than reading can be not only enjoyable, but help those figures and tropes become real for one in ways that just reading cannot. When one sits and reads one has a tendency to stop so very often and try to imagine these creatures of words coming alive and walking across the gallery of one’s mind as if upon the stage of the world (or, at least I do!). Maybe this is the reason our Greek forbears used the stage to dramatize both tragic and comic affairs of the moment, because it gave one not only the rhetorical flourish of the text but the instantiation and realization of it in human and dramatic form.
I read philosophy the same way: make it come alive, pit it against it’s enemies, dramatize the concepts and seek out those that oppose them, pit them against each other like pit-bulls (maybe not such a good analogy!) and see which one is left standing. Usually I discover that concepts always seem to fall out of their abstract hollow and into the world by way of politics. Even literature as great as Milton’s is more about the political times than many except the critics admit… it’s this melding of one’s fierce response to the political that has shaped our desires for the Good Life: our ethical choices, etc. Even as an atheist I admit that one does not that easily escape one’s heritage, and we in the West have a long imperial and demented history of struggles between authority and oppression, most of it based on the dictatorial sovereignty and normativity of the Christian Catholic and its schismatic children in Protestantism.
Neil Forsyth’s scholarly tracing of the figure of Lucifer/Satan in The Old Enemy through the literature of ancient Akkadian and Babylonian texts and onward into historical transmission over time, relating to Hebrew and, later, New Testament texts is probably the definitive treatment. From its beginnings in the figure of Humbaba to its English and Germanic installation in the works of dramatists such as Marlowe and Goethe as Mephistopheles, on down to Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor (a nihilist variation!) the figure of Satanic rebellion has gone through many manifestations and been used by high and low society for sustenance or anathema. One venturing into this dark terrain and territory begins to discover the fascination and fear surrounding this ancient figure of rebellion and evil, hundreds if not thousands of works have dealt with both the light and dark sides of evil as a figure/trope all through Western (and, even in Eastern lit under other guises and figures!) literature, and especially in the orthodox and heretical literature of the Catholic and Protestant Church’s. I thought of cataloguing those works in my occulture library and realized it would just take too much time since I have a few dozen different works from various disciplines of history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, literature, drama, and the arts.
Today I added another, a work by the young scholar Adam Kotsco whose latest book The Prince of This World takes a slightly angular vision of our contemporary society and its relation to evil, the daemonic, and the political and socio-cultural uses of the imagery of evil as a tool of victimization. Studying the Ferguson case he shows us just how much racism in American society is connected to an underlying religious mythos that binarizes and victimizes people of color as demons, while at the same time defending those in authority who appear to take on the hues of innocence and angels. Of course American culture has been pervaded from the beginnings by the convergence of religion and politics. As Adam says of our contemporary reporting of such events as the Ferguson case:
…in the mainstream media discourse on police shootings, the theological imagery of the demonic (or, euphemistically, the non-angelic) appears as part of a complex and seemingly contradictory discourse on moral agency. This discourse aims to legitimate, or at least explain away, unjustified and destructive actions taken by representatives of the powers that be—and to blame the victims for their own victimization.
This book aims to demonstrate that the place of theology in this heady mix is not accidental. This victim-blaming logic points back to a long theological heritage with which modernity has never fully grappled. This book provides an initial inventory, which will be necessary for taking any meaningful steps toward, if not escaping, then at least finding a new use for this explosive inheritance.1
As he traces this theological inheritance he discovers that our notions of evil have changed over time, and that evil has been used as a tool by both political and religious institutions in power, both orthodox and sovereign, to impose their brand of power-over and domination of subject peoples, heretics, and political trouble-makers, etc. As he suggests, “theology has often served as a weapon against oppression and injustice. Perhaps surprisingly, that was initially the case for demonology, which emerged in Jewish communities facing persecution and violence at the hands of imperial conquerors. Their oppression was so severe that they simply could not make sense of it in any other way than by positing that their tormenters were the agents of some kind of spiritual force that was opposed in principle to God’s justice and his plans for his people. This cosmic opponent, whom God would soon defeat, is the original form of the theological figure we know as the devil.”
I haven’t read the work to the end, but it seems worth studying. I’ve found Adam’s works to be refreshing and fused with current trends in contemporary theology and philosophy. I may not agree with everything but he has a sharp eyes and intellect and exposes us to ideas and themes that are both pertinent and of worth to any common reader. I think it’s just that, he takes off the scholars mask and speak from the gut level in words that allow complex ideas and notions to be conveyed in a vehicle that the common reader can enjoy and understand without displaces the thorough scholarship behind each statement.
- Kotsko, Adam. (Kindle Locations 112-118). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.