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The Devil and His Advocates

Satan is not God’s enemy in the Bible, and he’s not always bad—much less evil. Through the lens of the Old and New Testaments, Erik Butler explores the Devil in literature, theology, visual art, and music from antiquity up to the present, discussing canonical authors (Dante, Milton, and Goethe among them) and a wealth of lesser-known sources. Since his first appearance in the Book of Job, Satan has pursued a single objective: to test human beings, whose moral worth and piety leave plenty of room for doubt. Satan can be manipulative, but at worst he facilitates what mortals are inclined to do anyway. “The Devil made me do it” does not hold up in the court of cosmic law. With wit and surprising examples, this book explains why.

248 pages | 29 halftones | 6 1/4 x 8 1/4

Religion: Religion and Literature

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"Butler, a researcher at the Yale School of Drama, explores the character of the devil in literature, theology, visual art, and music from antiquity up to the present, discussing canonical authors such as Dante, Goethe, and Milton."

Publishers Weekly

"Butler's book is a scholarly tour-de-force citing the widest range of thinkers. From St Augustine to Nietzsche, Freud, and Foucault. And from the world of literature and the arts come Byron, Shelley, Mann, Blake , and Mozart; even Hannibal Lecter gets a mention. Notwithstanding the heavy duty material, the book remains a hellish good read."

Fortean Times

"Butler is effective in showing the historical development of the idea of the devil and its expression in different fields."


"In this remarkable and thought-provoking book, Butler demonstrates that far from being the goat-horned, cloven-hoofed, and barbed-tail demon of popular culture, the Devil has in fact been constantly on the move in Christian thinking. . . . Like Virgil leading Dante, Butler steers the reader through the labyrinthine intricacies of early Christian philosophy, the writings of Luther and Milton, and the profane excesses of the French Decadence. . . . Brimful with erudite and recherché learning, and written with a compelling combination of scintillating intelligence and apocalyptic verve, The Devil and His Advocates presents a grand sweep of Western intellectual history that amounts to an alternative history of evil in the Christian world. In Butler, the Devil has found his most eloquent, sophisticated, and measured advocate to date."

Nick Groom, Professor of Literature in English, University of Macau

“In this devilishly clever and fiendishly erudite tour de force, Butler tracks the peregrinations of Satan and figurations of the Satanic across millennia and genres. . . . Butler masterfully weaves history, theology, folklore, music, philosophy, literary criticism, and more into a dazzling account of the Devil's many functions in Western thought and culture. The result is the perfect genealogical demonology for our present moment—an achievement that is at once accessible, provocative, and profound.”

Patrick Blanchfield, author of "Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence"


‘Satan has something of religion in him’, Daniel Defoe observes in The Political History of the Devil (1726). This work, which is old but not dated, defends the Adversary against imputations of intrigue as practised by ‘our old Friend Matchiavel’ and other ‘sons of Adam’:
The Devil’s history is not so hard to come at, as it seems to be; his original and the first rise of his family is upon record; and as for his conduct, he has acted indeed in the dark, as to method in many things; but in general, as cunning as he is, he . . . has not shewn himself a politician at all.

Satan does not act faithlessly to achieve earthly ends. Only people do that. The Devil ‘is a believer’ and he ‘fears God’. These qualities set him apart from many, if not most, mortal servants of the Lord.

In the same spirit as Defoe’s vindication of the Devil, the study at hand proposes the forensic history of a wrongly maligned figure. Instead of presenting himself in a shower of fire and brimstone, Satan often plays the part of a lawyer. He musters evidence, makes arguments and ultimately wins or loses the case before the one – and only – Divine Judge. If Satan has a bad reputation, it’s because he has a thankless job.

For about four hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church appointed a theologian called the promotor fidei – in English, ‘promoter of the faith’ – to oversee the process of beatification and canonization. Informally, the promotor fidei went by the name of advocatus diaboli, or ‘Devil’s advocate’. A sceptic by vocation, this officer weighed proof, examined witnesses and offered alternative explanations for supposed wonders. Whenever the Church was thinking about conferring sainthood on a person, limiting factors entered the equation; other points of view had to be considered. A recent study on the psychology of influence summarizes the matter with a felicitous understatement: ‘the Church instituted this role as insurance against groupthink . . . Not everyone . . . should be sainted.’ Sometimes the minority position is right.

The Devil stands in the service of truth. The following pages seek to explain his activities in order to check the usual rush to judgement. Questions of good and evil arise, but they represent items of secondary importance. Instead, attention falls on arguments – whether explicit, as in theological debate, or implicit, as in literary discourse – that make the case for apparent wrongs, moral or otherwise. The Deity’s designs are famously obscure; the Devil serves to bring them to fruition in roundabout fashion.

Our discussion remains anchored in the Bible, where the popular image of Satan as an unbridled force of wickedness finds no support. In both Testaments, the Devil is surprisingly modest. He makes few appearances and, without a bow, vanishes from the stage when his work is done. The Devil and His Advocates explores representations of the Adversary up to the present day in light of the scriptural standard. Counter to widespread prejudice, he is not the eternal ‘bad guy’.

Chapter One, ‘The Case for the Prosecution’, establishes the frame of argument by examining Jewish and Christian sources. The Book of Job is the sole place in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, where Satan has any real stature. He is one of the ‘sons of God’. When Satan expresses doubt about Job’s virtue, God gives him leave to determine whether the righteous man will remain loyal under terrible conditions. Satan exercises rigour, but within the bounds of divine instruction. The New Testament seems to flesh out Satan and endow him with a will of his own. However, closer inspection reveals that when he tempts – or, more accurately, makes trial of – Jesus, he is acting in line with his long-standing role as a prosecutor. Once more, he loses his case. The Adversary may be unpleasantly exacting, but no more so than a policeman, bailiff or other representative of authority.

Chapter Two, ‘Satan and Salvation’, explores the part the Adversary plays in the Book of Revelation. Although he might appear to work at cross-purposes with God, his presence is welcome. This late and controversial addition to the Bible rejoices at the imminent fall of pagan civilization. As war raged between Romans and Jews, monotheists embraced a bellicose stance towards those who refused to acknowledge the Lord. The Book of Revelation does not view Satan as an enemy: he is a fearsome ally in the coming judgement of humankind, which God has willed and His followers should embrace.

Chapter Three, ‘The Adversary at Home and Abroad’, begins by examining the shape that early theologians gave the ‘other world’ as a place of punishment and reward – a conception indebted to pagan cosmology and myth. The centrepiece is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Like the scholastic philosophy of his day, Dante’s poem maps out a metaphysical reality directly connected to the physical universe; indeed, it is populated by historical figures the author knew well. Satan sits deep in darkness and cold, embodying forces that draw human beings away from life and light. The picture conforms to biblical logic: Satan represents the negative index of truth. Those who fail the tests posed by earthly existence face ‘living death’ now and, even worse, ‘dead life’ in the hereafter. Self-destructively playful devils in Dante’s poem and contemporary works are exceptions that prove the rule – reminders that God permits levity but refuses the last laugh to sinners who go too far.

Chapter Four, ‘Doubt, Dissent and the Devil’, turns to schisms in the Church and the trials they entailed. The old word for belief at variance with official doctrine is ‘heresy’, and orthodoxy had long sought to silence dissenting voices. In the Age of Reformation, rival versions of Christianity that differed on everything else shared two fundamental convictions: 1) God is great, and 2) the opponents of true religion have chosen to side with Satan. Perfect agreement on matters of principle led Christians to kill each other mercilessly – to say nothing of people who lacked sufficient numbers or organization for self-defence (such as ‘witches’). Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is discussed alongside Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, German chapbooks, Shakespearean devilry and the French Wars of Religion. The Devil thrives when confessional sophistry is more compelling than the Gospel’s simple eloquence.

Chapter Five, ‘The Devil’s Party’, looks at post-Reformation representations of Satan. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the former ‘Angel of Light’ appears as an orator and statesman in his own sovereign domain. Outside this sphere, in the Garden of Eden, he bumbles as he tries to persuade Adam and Eve to file suit against the Lord. No matter how poorly he exercises his profession, Satan remains a lawyer, by turns a legislator and a litigator. Goethe’s Faust shows the Devil as a cynical member of the bar. Mephistopheles maintains that nothing any mortal does can amount to anything. He proves as much by allowing the play’s hero to indulge his every whim; Faust does not manage even to build castles in the sky. Finally, our attention turns to how Romantic poetry displays a satanic bent by toying with social and moral convention. Humanity’s ‘enemy’ now presents himself as a ‘friend’. When Satan adopts the role of an intimate, he is playing a confidence game to expose disloyalty.

Chapter Six, ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’, digs deeper into the literary cult of Satan in the period from the French Revolution to the First World War. Rationalism, empiricism and positivist theory conjured up the Devil as powerfully as any old-fashioned superstition. Our focus is Catholic writers who disbelieved schemes of improvement and hymned Satan’s regime for body and soul. The works of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, Charles Baudelaire, Léon Bloy and Joris-Karl Huysmans are legal briefs against clemency for humankind. In an age that promised to heal the world by instituting new and better conditions of life, the reactionary vanguard prized pathology like a holy relic and turned to the Devil to find the Lord.

To put the abiding role of Satan into relief, Chapter Seven, ‘The Godawful Truth’, surveys works that would discard inherited dogma in favour of new, secular revelation. Although a man of no faith, Sigmund Freud acknowledged that religious instincts persist as urgently as sexual drives and unconscious forces eclipse rational understanding; given the human inability to control such impulses, they might as well be supernatural. Authors as varied as Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Butler Yeats, Oskar Panizza and Gottfried Benn confirm Freud’s diagnosis. Most people cannot handle a ‘godless’ world – especially without the Devil there to take some of the heat.

Chapter Eight, ‘A Satanic Symphony’, adds music to the equation. After analysing pious hymns in ancient, medieval and early modern cultures, we turn to Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus for a discussion that reaches from Germany, twentieth-century European history and classical music to globalism, geopolitics and rock ’n’ roll. Mann’s novel about a composer soaring and crashing on the wings of song offers an allegory for culture torn between opposites: nationalism and socialism, tribalism and brotherhood, atavism and advancement. Satan is our contemporary, whether he really exists or not.

A brief coda draws up the balance. It cannot be said often or strongly enough: according to biblical logic, Satan represents a secondary instance of power, subordinate to the Lord. If there’s a problem, take it up with Him. Satan gets stuck with all the dirty work and all the blame, even though he contributes to the fulfilment of God’s plans. May the poor Devil finally get his due.

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