« on: 2010-02-15 19:22:35 »
Just seemed like it should be noted at CoV; in spite of the assumptions that God is good and Satan is evil. I always liked the extraterrestrial in Arthur C. Clarke's "A Childhoods End", ennobled both Angel and Devil in a single being.
Source: The Times Literary Supplement
Author: James Sharpe
Date: January 20, 2010
The problem of evil and the origins of the devil, who has inspired Goethe, Heine, W. S. Gilbert, Paul Valéry, Berlioz, Gounod, Turgenev and Randy Newman, to name a few.
One of the problems of living in a secular society is the lack of any generalized conception of evil. The word is used often enough, notably when the headline – writers of tabloid newspapers wish to draw their readers’ attention to a particularly heinous murder. But even here, “evil” remains ill-defined, and we are in any case accustomed to having the conduct of those of our fellow citizens whom we might, in unguarded moments, describe as “evil” explained in more familiar and accessible terms by social workers and psychiatrists. Evil behaviour is the outcome of social or mental conditions rather than some abstract or personalized force.
Societies founded on a religious ethic, we might assume, would have fewer problems in developing a concept of evil. But here, too, there are difficulties. Cultures that believe in a plurality of gods have it relatively easy: some of the deities can be good, others bad, while some (and in certain cultures all) might, like human beings, combine a mixture of good and evil. But things are rather more difficult with monotheistic faiths, such as Christianity. If there is only one God, the presence of evil in the world presents a challenge: if God is presumed to be good, then evil needs explaining, as it must limit, compromise, or indeed seek to overthrow his goodness. The solution in Christianity was to create a great force for evil to oppose God’s goodness, the devil. And from the high Middle Ages (at the latest) the devil, or Satan, was a dominant figure in European Christian culture. His powers, as theologians were anxious to point out, were essentially subject to divine control; yet he acted as a constant tempter of Christians to forgo their faith, as a continual doer of evil in an uncertain and materially backward world.
Such an important cultural construct needs his historians, and P. G. Maxwell-Stuart is a very appropriate candidate for inclusion in their ranks. Maxwell-Stuart is well established as a writer on magic, witchcraft and the occult, has an in-depth knowledge of these matters over a long chronological span. One is therefore justified in turning to this volume with high expectations. But these expectations are challenged almost immediately by the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book. What is being offered, we are informed, is not a biography proper, but rather “a series of snapshots, each intended to give some idea of how people in succeeding Christian centuries tried to grapple with the idea of personified evil”. This, in what is a rather short book, is probably fair enough; but it does put rather a lot of weight on the choice of snapshots.
Much of the time, this choice is apposite and informative. In the early sections, Maxwell-Stuart shows how the concept of the devil developed, from the deviant courtier at the divine court of those early Middle Eastern religions from which Judaism emerged through to the rebel angel of the Old Testament and the great opponent of Christ depicted in the New Testament. Here the author uses his linguistic skills to their full advantage, analysing the uncertain and unstable terminology from which “Satan” and “the devil” were derived. There is also a very clear exposition of how ideas on the devil developed in the early Church, when even very basic theological issues, the nature of Satan among them, were uncertain and matters of debate.
The fullest treatment, however, comes in the period with which the author is most at home, the years between 1400 and 1700, when the devil’s presence was at its most marked. This was the period of the construction of the model of the satanic witch, who entered into a pact with the devil and who (in some parts of Europe, at least) attended the sabbat, that great inversion of the Catholic mass, over which Satan presided. It was also the period when instances of demonic possession proliferated, and when many Europeans were convinced that they had met the devil, or that he was adversely affecting their health, their sanity, or their social and familial relationships. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, a number of cultural, political and theological currents had coalesced to give Satan a new significance, and, as Maxwell-Stuart admirably demonstrates, Satan was to enjoy that significance until a new set of intellectual and cultural movements removed him from the attentions of most educated Europeans around 1700.
There are, however, other themes in the book which, despite being signalled, would have benefited from being developed further. The first is the role of the devil in popular culture and popular Christianity. Here, the devil was not a personification of evil in the learned theologian’s sense, but rather a trickster, tempter, general nuisance and folkvillain. Connected with this point, one feels that Maxwell-Stuart could have expanded his fascinating exposition of the ever-changing visual images of the devil that Christian art created, many of which, of course, would have been accessible to the population at large in the stained-glass windows and other decorations of their churches.
And, lastly, the snapshots become less frequent after about 1700: this biography does not have a lot to say about its subject’s old age and dotage. The fact that (to take a fairly obvious example) the Faust legend inspired works by Goethe, Heine, W. S. Gilbert, Paul Valéry, Berlioz, Gounod, Turgenev and Randy Newman suggests that Satan and the notion of evil he personified, less scarily perhaps, was to remain an important figure in European culture long after witch-burning and demonic possession ceased to be accepted phenomena. It is a pity that this issue was not given more coverage in an otherwise learned and fascinating book.
P. G. Maxwell-Stuart
224pp. Amberley Publishing. Paperback, £14.99.
978 1 84868 082 1
James Sharpe is Professor of History at the University of York. His most recent books include Dick Turpin: The myth of the English highwayman, 2004, and Remember, Remember the Fifth of November, 2005.