The Devil

We say, we in­sist The Devil whis­pers hor­ri­ble things in our ear and in­spires our worst deeds

Geist - - Geist - Alberto Manguel

Whether what we call con­scious­ness was born from what we re­fer to as imag­i­na­tion or whether it was the other way round, at the be­gin­ning of the hu­man age we be­gan telling sto­ries to at­tempt to ex­plain our ex­is­tence, and we dreamt up a di­vine be­ing, a magic word, a dragon, a tor­toise, a col­li­sion of mat­ter and an­ti­mat­ter to be our “once upon a time.” Pas­cal de­scribed this as the “lit­tle shove” kindly pro­vided by a pri­mor­dial cre­ator; af­ter that, sto­ries could un­fold on their own.

The sto­ries we tell have their shadow: be­gin­nings have end­ings like day has night and con­scious life has sleep. Ev­ery plot has at least two read­ings, and ev­ery char­ac­ter is at least twofold. Above one of the doors of a small church in north­ern Que­bec is the statue of a woman: if seen from the front, her ap­pear­ance is comely, from the back can be seen a mass of worms and mag­gots crawl­ing through her ex­posed in­nards and ribs. Ev­ery­thing we con­ceive has an un­der­belly.

The scan­dal ef­fected by Ju­daism of re­duc­ing the many an­cient gods to a sin­gle om­nipresent and om­ni­scient di­vin­ity must have felt too lop­sided for a hu­man­ity ac­cus­tomed to a Pythagorean bi­nary uni­verse. Very soon a sec­ond char­ac­ter was brought onto the scrip­tural stage. He too was om­ni­scient and om­nipresent, even if ul­ti­mately sub­ject to the di­vine will, and yet suf­fi­ciently crafty to tempt even the Almighty, as in the cau­tion­ary tales of Job and Abraham. He was dark­ness to God’s light, a de­struc­tive force op­posed to His cre­ative energy, an al­ter­na­tive truth to the Truth. He was given many names, among them Satan, Lu­cifer, Mephistophe­les,

Beelze­bub, Mastema (in early rab­bini­cal texts), Ib­lis (in the Qu­ran) or sim­ply the Devil (from the Greek di­a­bo­los mean­ing “slan­derer”). In the Book of Ju­bilees (part of the Apocrypha) it is told that when Ye­ho­vah de­cided to ex­pel the rebel an­gels af­ter the flood and re­lease hu­mankind from temp­ta­tion, the Devil pur­suaded God to al­low him to retain ten per­cent of the pun­ished flock in or­der to con­tinue to test the faith of hu­mans. Be­cause of the Devil's abil­ity to de­ceive,

Je­sus called him “the Fa­ther of Lies,” (which is also the def­i­ni­tion of a nov­el­ist).

Not con­tent with this ab­so­lute divi­sion be­tween the Supreme Good and the Supreme

Bad, the Sufi poet Al-ghaz­ali imag­ined an al­ibi for the Devil and wrote that when the an­gels, at the bid­ding of God, pros­trated them­selves in front of the newly cre­ated Adam, only the Devil re­fused, say­ing that God’s com­mand was a test, be­cause “Heaven for­bid that any­one wor­ship any­one ex­cept the One Almighty.” Al-ghaz­ali doesn't say how God re­warded his faith­ful ser­vant, but in other re­li­gions, the Devil con­tin­ues to be the un­re­lent­ing en­emy of hu­mankind.

Au­gus­tine saw him as de­lib­er­ately set­ting a bad ex­am­ple and ar­gued that “when man lives ac­cord­ing to man, not ac­cord­ing to God, he is like the Devil.” Ear­lier, in the sec­ond cen­tury, Apelles said that the Devil was a demi­urge who had in­spired the Old Tes­ta­ment prophets. Dante wisely placed the Devil right in the cen­tre of the Earth, where the most beau­ti­ful of an­gels fell af­ter his re­bel­lion, caus­ing the lands of the South­ern hemi­sphere to re­treat in hor­ror, leav­ing an aquatic world senza gente. Luther (like St. An­thony be­fore him) saw the Devil as a tempt­ing nui­sance and fa­mously threw an inkwell at him, leav­ing a stain on the wall of the study in Wart­burg Cas­tle that could still be seen a cen­tury ago. Mil­ton imag­ined the Devil as a sort of Moëbius strip (“Which way I fly is Hell; my­self am Hell”). Goethe, with a pinch of com­pas­sion, sug­gested that the Devil tempts hu­mans be­cause he is mis­er­able and so­la­men mis­eris so­cios habuisse do­loris (“mis­ery seeks com­pan­ions”).

No doubt the Devil is still among us. Up to this day, in Aus­tria, Bavaria, Croa­tia, the Czech Repub­lic, Hun­gary, Slo­vakia, Slovenia and parts of North­ern Italy, the Devil (known in these re­gions as the Kram­pus) ac­com­pa­nies Fa­ther Christ­mas on his rounds, look­ing to shove naughty chil­dren into a sack and thrash them with bun­dles of birch. The Kram­pus­devil is an ugly horned crea­ture that pre­dates Chris­tian­ity, and car­ries chains to show that now he is bound to the will of the Church. On other oc­ca­sions the Devil has taken on the ap­pear­ance of a poo­dle, a snake, a dragon or even a gen­tle­man.

Dante (again) ar­gued that ev­ery­thing in the uni­verse is the fruit of God’s love, in­clud­ing sin. Fol­low­ing this idea, the Devil can be seen as the per­verter or di­verter of this di­vine pro­jec­tion, caus­ing hu­mans to love in ex­cess (lust or avarice), or not enough (pride, envy, sloth and anger), or to di­rect their love to­ward in­ap­pro­pri­ate ob­jects (cov­etous­ness and glut­tony).

Saint Bon­aven­ture wrote that our be­wil­der­ment when con­fronted with in­ex­pli­ca­ble suf­fer­ing merely shows our lack of faith in the per­fect jus­tice of God, and stems from us not be­ing aware of the whole story. We re­sort to the Devil to try to un­der­stand the in­fa­mous events that plague us daily, now and al­ways. The Devil (we say) whis­pers hor­ri­ble things in our ear and in­spires our worst deeds. It is the Devil (we in­sist) who is re­spon­si­ble for dis­ease, war, famine; for the rise to power of Caligula, Stalin, Hitler; for tor­ture, mur­der and the abuse of chil­dren. The Devil is the hazy ex­cuse for our night­mares and night­mar­ish ac­tions, but unfortunately the ar­gu­ment for his re­spon­si­bil­ity is not ul­ti­mately con­vinc­ing.

If the work of the Devil can be seen as the dark side of the labours of God, the all-per­vad­ing mis­ery of the world might be un­der­stood as a cer­tain dearth of di­vine energy, as the in­con­ceiv­able ex­haus­tion of the Almighty. The Ha­sidim tell the fol­low­ing story. In an ob­scure vil­lage in cen­tral Poland, there was a small syn­a­gogue. One night, when mak­ing his rounds, the Rabbi en­tered and saw God sit­ting in a dark cor­ner. He fell upon his face and cried out: “Lord God, what art Thou do­ing here?” God an­swered him nei­ther in thun­der nor out of a whirl­wind, but with a small voice: “I am tired, Rabbi, I am tired unto death.”

Alberto Manguel is the award-win­ning author of hun­dreds of works, most re­cently (in English) Pack­ing My Li­brary: An El­egy and Ten Di­gres­sions, All Men Are Liars and A His­tory of Read­ing. He lives in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina, where he serves as di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Li­brary. Read more of his work at and

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