The Post-Modern Self   /   Spring 2017   /    The Post-modern Self

The Devil We Know

Or do we…?

Elizabeth Bruenig

IDIOS (detail), 1985, by Antony Gormley (b. 1950), courtesy of and © the artist.

Convincing us to believe he doesn’t exist might be the finest trick the devil has ever played.

The devil just isn’t what he used to be. Glimpsing him in passing the other day on Fox—not in a news segment, where he is often in much better form, but in a comedy-drama adapted from a comic book—I found him downright approachable. The eponymous antihero of Lucifer is played by a perfectly decent-looking man from Cardiff, whose neat haircut and pressed but casual attire lend him only the vaguest air of bourgeois menace. He’s as unsettling as the nouveaux riches generally are, and only in that same register.

So it goes with the devil these days. Where medieval manuscripts and illustrations find him towering and glowering, seething with hot, rancid breath and countless animal fangs, the go-to depiction of humankind’s ancient enemy is today often of a being polished though flawed, a little tragic, more cordial than hypnotically tempting. He has his dignity, anyway, and usually his existential angst.

And that’s a shame. Not strictly because it is, I think, a good idea to detest Old Scratch (and older art is helpful in that regard), but also because his new look bespeaks a detachment of his character from the matter of evil. Everyone loves a renegade, but in the average bad boy’s intrigue lies the possibility of his redemption, and Satan’s essence is his refusal of that gift. Milton was correct, from a traditional theological standpoint, to observe that the devil is, in comparison to God and his goodness, a withering and vanishing thing, ashamed—if he has any sense left—of his own smallness: “…abashed the devil stood, / and felt how awful goodness is, and saw / Virtue in her shape how lovely—saw, and pined / his loss…”11xJohn Milton, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, ed. Gordon Campbell (London, England: Vintage, 2008), 102. Paradise Lost originally published 1667. Satan is defined by loss because he is evil, and evil is diminishment, lack, absence, the turn toward non-being.

And yet, as the great Catholic thinker Michael Novak once told me, that evil is privation is no reason to imagine that it’s weak: It’s like a vast and drawing void, like a black hole or quicksand.22xPersonal conversation with the author in 2015. Perhaps the new, subdued devil is meant to be insidious and subtle rather than obvious and extravagant: thus, Satan in business attire rather than hooves and horns. But the devil is pretty well divorced from how we consider evil these days, even though we’re just as fascinated by evil as ever, and for our own modern, liberal, democratic reasons.

From Fact to Farce

In the past, people had plenty of reasons to dwell on evil. In the Middle Ages, even the wealthiest were beset by all kinds of calamities, from plagues to wars to famines. (The poorer were then, as now, often more affected by these disasters than the rich.) A world fraught with danger requires explanation, which medieval theologians like Saint Thomas Aquinas found in the idea of natural evil, or the inevitable afflictions arising from the corruptibility of material things.33xThomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981), question 49. But the medievals were also quite aware of moral evil, that which is more familiar to us: the wrongs people inflict upon one another and themselves.

The medievals saw Satan’s work in nature and in the decisions of human beings.44xJeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984). And that recognition carried over into the early modern period, when the first European settlers crossed the Atlantic to North America. As Andrew Delbanco, author of The Death of Satan, writes, these colonists were also seasoned observers of evil, and keenly aware of its satanic character: “He lurkes amongs yow, Cunningly hee waites,” one seventeenth-century visitor to New England put it, expressing a view quite in keeping with widespread Puritan awareness of diabolical meddling.55xAndrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995). In the New World evil abounded, sheltered by endless expanses of thick forest and detected all around by the heightened senses of a particularly pious population of settlers. In his 1693 postmortem on the Salem witch trials, The Wonders of the Invisible World, Boston’s own Cotton Mather counseled each of the faithful to maintain “an Holy Jealousie over his Soul, at this time and think; May not the Devil make me, though ignorantly and unwillingly, to be an Instrument of doing something that he would have to be done?”66xCotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World, Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England (London, England: John Russell Smith, 1862), 23. Mather freely owned up to such a suspicion, by his account. The devil was understood to be present and industrious, and America’s earliest forebears were quick to suss him out by his evil works.

But then something happened—or perhaps two things, somewhat related. Americans lost their eye for the devil, and with it, Delbanco argues, their eye for evil. “Among the relics of the overturned world where metaphysics and facts had once seemed connected was the entire machinery of Christian symbolism for evil,”77xAndrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan, 92. he writes, meaning that Satan went from a real figure directly related to the fact of evil in the world to a farcical rhetorical device. Simultaneously, as liberal democracy and industrialization matured on American soil, liberal individualism, that peculiar ethics of capitalism, similarly reduced the very idea of evil to an antiquated superstition. Delbanco observes that encoded into individualistic market societies is the belief that one’s loss is another’s gain, that one’s status is ever tied to one’s utility, which is a function of vulgar rules of supply and demand. Maintaining order in such circumstances means ascribing what would’ve once been deemed outright satanic evil—the misery and hellish struggling of so many of the poor and vulnerable—to a question of mere luck. This is, in fact, the world we find ourselves in: One in which the devil and evil are often used as analogies to other things, but rarely taken to be real phenomena themselves.

And it isn’t difficult to imagine why that might be. Life in modern America is significantly different from life in colonial New England or premodern Europe; we now live in the WEIRD society88xJoseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Volume 33, Issue 2–3, June 2010, pp. 61–83, The acronym WEIRD refers to Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. par excellence: The most westerly of the Western world, we are well educated, highly (if increasingly post-) industrial, stupendously rich, and, for the time being, democratic. Religion—at least the organized sort that would compel belief in a real and powerful devil who seeks to enact evil—is on the decline,99xBenjamin Wormald, “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, November 03, 2015, and violent crime rates are bumping along at historic lows1010xMatt Ford, “What Caused the Great Crime Decline in the U.S.?” The Atlantic, April 15, 2016, which, considered in the context of world history rather than national, are impressively slight.1111x“Despite the Headlines, Steven Pinker Says the World Is Becoming Less Violent,” National Public Radio, All Things Considered, interview with Steven Pinker, July 16, 2016, It is rare, now, to see bodies rotting in the streets or criminals executed gorily in public; no longer do we have much reason to contextualize ourselves as persons struggling for our souls in a bitterly embattled world. The stakes simply feel lower than that. Our circumstances are mainly stable, and when they are not, we have already settled on the matter of luck.

Yet even liberal theorists cede that human affairs seem difficult to describe without the occasional reference to evil.1212xFor example, Martha C. Nussbaum, “Radical Evil in the Lockean State: The Neglect of Political Emotions,” Journal of Moral Philosophy, Vol. 3, issue 2 (2006), 159–178. After all, the apparent certitude of liberal democracy is always threatened by the shadow of illiberalism, and we denizens of these atypically peaceful societies have good reason to wonder from time to time if all that seems given might just as easily be taken—and, if it is, by what. Our distaste for the idea of evil hasn’t extinguished the fact of it, in other words. Perhaps this is why we’re still just as alert for a glimpse of it as those early Puritans, if vastly less aware.

The Artfully Televised Devil

Consider the world of prestige television: No longer is situating oneself in front of the screen and spending hours engrossed in programming considered unfashionable or provincial by the gatekeepers of elite culture. Rather, artfully produced and well-acted television series now find their status equal to that of fine filmmaking, and their viewership equally well-heeled and avid.

In its first season, True Detective, which debuted in 2014 on HBO, provided an Inferno-like tour of evil, visiting case after case of commandments broken: Murder, adultery, covetousness, greed, lies, and perversion drift through the show’s haggard pinewoods scenery, transfixing the eye with decay both physical and moral. Constantly, the principle characters are engaged in acts of un-making: In the pursuit of knowledge carnal and otherwise, friendships, marriages, families, and lives are lost. Fittingly, one of the show’s key symbols is a spiral, a visual representation of dissipation into nothingness.

True Detective’s protagonists are police detectives in search of a killer whose murders seem occultic. An early victim is discovered kneeling as if in prayer at the base of a tree, with a pair of antlers attached to her head with ritualistic care. Another is found in a similar horned state, though suspended from a bridge in a pose of crucifixion. Pictures of past victims show blindfolded children in saintly white, and a final push into the killer’s lair reveals an altar-like structure strewn with tatters and bones, an inversion of the finery and vitality associated with more conventional Christian altars. (Indeed, the series is thick with crosses and Bible verses.) And while True Detective flirts with nihilism, it certainly seems to locate evil in the realm of the real—Nic Pizzolatto, the show’s creator, has said his heroes were meant to face down “abstract evil” with “an amorphous nature,”1313xKate Arthur, “The ‘True Detective’ Creator Debunks Your Craziest Theories,” BuzzFeed, March 6, 2014, and that its dread-filled atmosphere was influenced by the satanic ritual sex abuse panic of the 1980s.1414xAs depicted in Richard Beck, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2015). The devil himself never makes an appearance, but the sense that the detectives are confronting pure evil is bolstered by the shadowy presence of horned figures and bloodied altars always hovering at the periphery.

A year before the first episode of True Detective aired, Hannibal premiered on NBC; it concluded a three-season, thirty-nine-episode run in 2015. Where True Detective looked to the ragged woodlands and feverish swamps of rural Louisiana to find the devil’s visage, Hannibal turned to an urban setting, finding its antiheroes ensconced in sleek apartments fitted with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. And instead of Deliverance-like rednecks with facial deformities and genetic abnormalities, Hannibal’s principals were educated members of the elite with smooth skin and expensive tastes.

Of course, the plot was suffused with murder and un-doing and, yes, the shadow of the devil. “I stopped watching ‘Hannibal’ in Season 1, after a corpse was carved into a cello, its vocal cords splayed like strings, then ‘played,’” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote of the show’s gory allure. “I stopped watching again when Dr. Frederick Chilton, played by the redoubtable Raúl Esparza, got his guts tugged out of his abdomen, like red-sauced linguini, while he was still conscious.” Like those in True Detective, these murders were symbolic: In one episode, a corpse is discovered impaled face-up on the antlers of a beheaded animal, like an offering left to a god; in another, victims’ skin is flayed from their shoulder blades and pinned with wire to create the impression of angels in flight. The perpetrators of these killings perform a perverse kind of “creation” through the act of murder, evil mocking good with its un-making.

That motif, combined with the ongoing drama of the evil Hannibal attempting to crush the moral and psychological resolve of the initially benevolent Will Graham, led many viewers to an obvious conclusion: Hannibal was a stand-in for Satan himself. “Hannibal Lecter is not a mere lie,” one critic mused in Religion Dispatches. “He is truly beautiful in his way, but only because—even if he is Lucifer himself, a fallen angel—he is a creature that participates in the beauty of the Good.”1515xNicholas Lancetti, “Hannibal Returns: Is TV’s Favorite Serial Killer the Devil Himself?” Religion Dispatches, June 23, 2014, Later in 2014, National Public Radio reported that such an interpretation had been acknowledged by Hannibal’s creators, noting that “showrunner Bryan Fuller [had] mentioned that it’s entirely possible that Hannibal Lecter is the devil himself made manifest.”1616xLibby Hill, “God, the Devil And ‘Hannibal,’” National Public Radio online, May 23, 2014, Actor Mads Mikkelsen, who portrayed Hannibal, suggested as much as well.1717x“Mads Mikkelsen talks Hannibal,” ShortList Magazine online, August 28, 2013,

That the infamous Dr. Lecter was the Prince of Darkness himself was never confirmed. But perhaps it didn’t need to be. As in True Detective, traces of the satanic were evident enough in the relentless, graphic evil that the show so thoroughly committed itself to depicting. But why would a sensible, safe public be interested in this kind of viewing to begin with?

Expiation without Exposition

My favorite books on evil and my favorite books on the devil have something in common: They both open with descriptions of real and terrifying murders.

“Fifteen years ago, two ten-year-old boys tortured and killed a toddler in the north of England,” begins the introduction to Terry Eagleton’s On Evil.1818xTerry Eagleton, On Evil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 1. “On March 8, 1981, the Los Angeles Times reported the activities of the convicted murderer Steven T. Judy,” starts Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. He pithily encapsulates the Times story describing the diabolical torture and murder of a woman and her children with one line: “Evil is real and immediate.”1919xJeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, 19. Eagleton, of course, arrives at the same conclusion and gives due consideration to Satan. (Delbanco would be well pleased.)

We know, of course, that these sorts of crimes are rare. It isn’t common to be killed in our WEIRD society, and especially not by a stranger or strangers in a random act of violence, artistic or ritual or not. (The Radford University Serial Killer Database estimates that on average there have only been around forty serial murders in the last decade.)2020xM.G. Aamodt, The Radford University/Florida Gulf Coast University Serial Killer Database, September 4, 2016, So why spend so much time contemplating these extraordinary acts of pure, unmitigated evil?

“In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible,” Roland Barthes writes of wrestling’s spectacular allure.2121xRoland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, ed. with intro Susan Sontag (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, ninth printing, 1995), 30. In these staged fights and fictional feuds, audiences are able to perceive clearly what is occluded in contemporary life: moments of true justice and reckoning, examples of moral grandeur and heroism most people have few chances to either observe or exhibit in the day-to-day thrum of modernity.

Liberal democracies sow, in their own way, a kind of moral confusion. On the one hand, as political commentator Matthew Bruenig writes, “in ideal liberal theory, citizens themselves are the source of all governmental action.” Bruenig adds that “this is a unifying principle of what makes a liberal theory a liberal theory.”2222xMatthew Bruenig, “Rethinking Noncombatant Immunity,” Theoretical and Applied Ethics 1, no. 1 (November 2010): 26–32, Reader, I married him. Thus, individuals living in liberal democracies have plenty of reasons to consider themselves accountable for the various damage wrought by their states: wars, conquests, inequalities, inhumanities, and so on. Yet at the same time, as Barthes intimates, these societies stress an individualist ethics that ultimately makes accomplishing much moral good impossible: You can consider yourself morally pure for buying free-trade coffee at a co-op, but such individual acts of rectitude never amount to a reduction in, say, drone warfare or child poverty. Something much larger is required for that, but liberal subjects are given few analytical tools with which to distinguish their place—and thus their moral agency—in collective actions or mass movements. To take moral issue with systems is, as Delbanco rightly points out, a bizarre proposition in liberal societies, where systems are imagined as morally neutral.

But in entertainment like True Detective and Hannibal, the massive, amorphous, and conspiratorial is reduced ultimately to the individual. There is always a killer or a handful of them; there is always a breakthrough, a clue, a culprit. All of the evil in the world that is ambient and ever-present but impossible to characterize or categorize is condensed into one or two bad actors whose discovery and extermination cleanses society and expiates the viewer’s own guilt. With very few opportunities to confront the true moral stakes of life—the fact that, obvious or not, evil is real and is imminent and can pull you down like quicksand—these depictions provide a way for us to touch this reality, however briefly, and emerge with clarity. When the devil was still feared, he and his narratives served this purpose; this is why Delbanco mourns his passing, and why, I suspect, Satan still lingers vestigially in our best efforts to depict evil.

Entertain a thought experiment: Suppose that the devil really was real, and so was evil, and the complex systems of politics and society were not morally neutral but as rife with moral intent and meaning as anything else made by human hands. If all that were the case, wouldn’t these pop-culture glances at evil provide the thrill of confrontation without shedding any light on the confusion that necessitated them? I wonder if all this expiation without exposition is really any better than the neat-looking devil with his good intentions and half-tragic pose. What if, with all our catharsis, we’re surrendering more of evil daily to the realm of fiction—confirming the (admittedly pleasant) notion that real, radical evil is mostly if not totally the stuff of the imagination? To do so would be dangerous indeed. It would be, as Charles Baudelaire might observe, the finest trick the devil ever played.