Adam Kotsko is a prolific writer and scholar whose work has tackled subjects ranging from the Church Fathers to prestige TV to contemporary American politics. His latest book, The Prince of This World, offers a remarkable genealogy of the idea of the Devil, from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament to the Church Fathers to the Middle Ages to the Reformation and beyond. It’s also a nonpareil exploration of the work the concept of the Devil does in terms of political theology, both in those eras and in ostensibly secular, contemporary ideologies. Adam joins The Revealer’s Patrick Blanchfield to talk about his latest book and more.
Blanchfield: What prompted you to take up the subject of the Devil in the first place?
I was raised in a conservative evangelical Christian environment, but the devil was not a big part of anyone’s thinking in that setting. I dabbled with apocalyptic speculations, which often include some notion that the devil is secretly manipulating world events, but I quickly grew bored with that pursuit when I realized that people who are trying to predict the Day of Judgment are essentially making stuff up. And to the extent that the devil appeared in preaching, he was more of a metaphor for the idea of temptation in general, rather than a figure that people seriously envisioned trying to interfere with their lives. So as I drifted away from the church, the devil was not a theme that I was predisposed to carry with me. The fact that the devil is so central to my research now is something that would not have made sense to me at virtually any point in my life before it actually happened.
The real origin of this research interest come from the summer before I started my PhD. It was going to be the last time in my life for the foreseeable future when I did not have any assigned reading or deadlines, and I asked my doctoral advisor, Ted Jennings, if he had any advice for how I should spend my time. He recommended that I read through some material that I likely would not read otherwise—for instance, the early Church Fathers. That made sense to me, especially because I had done a lot of research into the Catholic tradition in college (fun times!) and therefore had some background to contextualize it.
The standard approach to the early Christian thinkers known as the Church Fathers, or patristic writers, is to show how they anticipate the doctrines that would eventually be taken as orthodox—in other words, to show that orthodoxy was true “the whole time,” not a later development or innovation. I was determined to read them against the grain on that, and there was one topic in particular where that proved to be surprisingly easy: the question of why Jesus needed to come and die on the cross in the first place. Somewhat shockingly, this question, which would seem to be absolutely central to Christianity, has never had a set answer. You could be tortured or exiled for having the wrong opinion about the precise relationship between the divine and human wills in Christ, but there is no official orthodox teaching on the whole reason we’re presumably doing any of this in the first place.
The most familiar contemporary answer to the question of why God sent Jesus is encapsulated in the slogan: “Jesus died for our sins.” In other words, Jesus’s suffering and death represents a vicarious punishment for our guilt, which we can cash in on (whether through baptism, fervent belief, or some combination thereof). The answer I found in the Church Fathers was radically different: Jesus came to rescue us from the devil. In a weird version of Social Contract theory, the Fathers claimed that when Adam and Eve followed the devil’s advice to eat the fruit in the Garden rather than God’s command not to, they submitted to the devil rather than God as their ruler. Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection represents a strategy to get humanity out of its contractual obligations to Satan. The key here is that Jesus is not only human, but divine—so when the devil demands obedience and then arranges for Jesus to die as punishment for his failure to submit, he is actually claiming to have power over God, which is impossible. Hence the spell is broken.
I was fascinated by this strange story, which seems so foreign to Christian teaching from the medieval period to today. I decided to do my dissertation (which I ultimately published as The Politics of Redemption) on the transition from this early narrative to more modern conceptions of salvation, and the more I thought about it, the more the role of the devil was the crucial point of contention. It quickly became clear that the devil was in danger of taking over my entire dissertation, so I got myself to focus by promising myself that I would devote a whole book to the devil later on. And now here we are.
Blanchfield: One of the running themes of the book is how the idea of the Devil is yoked to attempts to reckon with the problem of evil, the problem of suffering in a universe supposedly governed by a beneficent God. But, as you document, once created and invoked, the Devil has a way of exceeding the purposes to which he’s put – a transition from a “theological tool of the oppressed” to a “weapon of the oppressor.” This slipperiness is as pervasive as it is perverse, especially when it comes to a truly scandalous reversal – the “story of how God became the devil.” I wanted to ask – do you think this kind of trajectory is built into Western Christian theodicy as such? Must such theodicy always boil down to “denying the existence of unjust suffering”?
I do think that the possibility for such a reversal is built into Western monotheism, which is torn between two impulses. On the one hand, there is the rejection of the polytheistic equivalence among local gods: it’s not that we have our gods and you have yours, but rather that we have the God and you have a delusion at best and a dangerous lie at worst. This radical claim necessarily entails that the one God has to be in charge of everything in the world. On the other hand, what makes this claim plausible as something more than ethnocentric chauvinism is the conviction that the one God is necessarily a God of justice. He’s not like the Greek gods, manipulating human beings for their own amusement—he wants to hold us accountable to moral laws, and he also makes commitments that he sticks to. (For more detail on this, I would point people to Jan Assman’s The Price of Monotheism, which is a short, very readable, and very powerful book that I highly recommend.)
The notion of a God of justice is what generates the problem. If we did not expect God to operate according to moral principles, then the existence of suffering would not be a problem—God presumably has his reasons, and who are we to question? But if God is supposed to be just, then we very much do have the right to question, as shown most famously in the Book of Job. This is something that I think is really cool about the great monotheistic traditions, and it’s not something I would want to jettison for the sake of logical consistency. Unfortunately, historically most theologians have tended to disagree with me on that point, particularly when monotheists shift from being marginal protest movements to collaborating with the powers that be. Then the demand for justice gives way to the enterprise of explaining away our experience of suffering as deserved punishment, as contributing to a greater good, or what have you.
That’s when the demand for justice transmutes into apologetics for injustice—producing an order that is, in its own way, much more cruel than, for instance, the ancient Greek scenario in which the gods are openly messing with us because that’s just the way they are. And it leads to a situation that is much more claustrophobic, because there isn’t the possibility of playing off the gods against each other. God is the only game in town. That being said, however, I don’t know that it makes much sense to call for a “return” to polytheism, especially since even in Greek culture itself, people like Plato and Aristotle were very uncomfortable with the amoral nihilism of the gods and started developing ideas very much like monotheism as a remedy. This is not to say that we are dealing with a necessary progression, only that it’s not realistic to try to get rid of the idea of monotheism altogether—eventually, someone is likely to stumble upon it once again.
Blanchfield: In your work, you draw on Alexander Weheliye’s concept of “racialization,” bringing it to bear on categories of persons both very real and hypostatized – from racial and ethnic minorities like Jews in Medieval Europe and African-Americans in the contemporary United States to demons and angels and witches and more. I know I’m shamelessly exploiting your knack for lucidly explaining complicated concepts, but this notion of racialization may be novel to some of our readers – could you expand a little on it, in its own terms but also on what it means for you and for The Prince of This World?
The first step is to recognize that at a biological level, race is not real. Yes, there are some clear patterns where people who can trace their ancestry back to different regions display certain differences in their appearance, but the concept of race has never ultimately been about simply classifying such observations. Race is a political concept, not a biological one. The term “racialization” highlights this fact: being a member of a certain race is not something inherent, it is something that is done to you. And it is done to you in order to mark you out as something that needs to be tamed, controlled, and subdued. It is a way of naturalizing an order of domination.
Where I push Weheliye’s concept in a slightly different direction—and I wouldn’t say it’s a critique at all, just a matter of emphasis and context—is by emphasizing that racial theory also carries with it an element of moral guilt. It’s not that Africans, for instance, are thought simply to be inferior and only suited for work. Within the Christian worldview, they have to deserve their suffering. And Christians already have a readymade model for this weird notion of deserving to suffer for something inherent: original sin. In terms of this doctrine, which Martin Luther was hard at work radicalizing right as the drive for colonization and slavery was really starting to pick up steam, one of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God is that all their descendants (i.e., all of us) are born with a distorted will, such that we cannot help but sin. Yet because the problem is with our will, and the free will is the seat of moral responsibility, it is a moral problem. Babies are literally born guilty of rebelling against God, and theologians are quick to remind us that original sin is a sin like murder is a sin—so babies are morally at fault through no fault of their own.
The example of the Jews is crucial here, because for traditional Christian theology, they represent a kind of doubling-down on original sin. When they reject Christ and say, “May his blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25), that means that they are renouncing their covenant with God and joining forces with the devil—a condition that is subsequently passed down to all Jews, who are “naturally” aligned with the demonic and yet still morally accountable for their supposedly nefarious deeds. (Joshua Trachtenberg’s The Devil and the Jews is a great account of this disturbing theological tradition.) Similarly, when it comes time to justify the enslavement of Africans theologically, we get the rather absurd invention of the “Curse of Ham,” which takes an obscure story from Genesis and uses it to argue that Noah cursed the ancestor of all Africans to perpetual servitude. (If you read the actual story you will see that Ham is not actually cursed at all. Rather, his son Canaan, who conveniently shares the name of the land that the Israelites will conquer after the Exodus, is the one whose descendants are doomed. It’s not a very edifying story in any case, but it clearly has nothing to do with Africans or modern slavery at all.)
So in short, racialization is a secularized version of certain Christian strategies for group-based victim-blaming. (I approach this question from a different angle in this blog post.)
Blanchfield: Let’s turn to the nominally “secular” legacy of the Devil and contemporary politics more broadly. Taking a page from Carl Schmitt (and Giorgio Agamben, for whom you are also the primary English translator), you trace how what some may think of as a quaint or defunct concept of the diabolic actually has a recognizable, powerful impact on post-Medieval and even very modern configurations of sovereignty, revolution, freedom, personal responsibility and more. Your reading of Social Contract theory, of thinkers like John Rawls, and more is really great stuff – I won’t spoil it in favor of just commending it to readers (unless you want to)! But reading the book now, in 2017, I felt a real desire to hear you relate that political-theological genealogy to our contemporary moment in a sustained way, and tying in some of the thinking you’re doing now as part of your next project. So, unless you object, can we do that?
Thank you for not spoiling the Social Contract analysis—it is one of my favorite parts of the book, and something that actually took me by surprise (at least in the specific form it took). It’s when I start to come up with results that even I don’t expect that I realize that I’m really on to something!
In the conclusion of The Prince of This World, I start to gesture toward more specifically contemporary concerns—as opposed to the broader generalizations about modernity as such that appear throughout the text—but I didn’t have the time to develop them more fully. I took advantage of some lecture opportunities to start thinking more intensively about the relationship between my devil research and neoliberalism—which was a major theme in my pop culture trilogy and which forced itself upon me as a real-world concern when I had the good fortune to finish up my PhD just as the Global Financial Crisis was really getting underway.
I have posted a transcript of the lecture on my blog and also expanded it slightly into a journal article for those who want more detail, but the basic idea is that neoliberalism is a vast mechanism of victim-blaming. It gives us just enough free choice to blame us for our failures, but not enough to give us any meaningful agency or opportunity for change. I draw a theological parallel to the situation of the fallen angels (better known as demons), of whom the devil is the leader.
One of the most challenging theological questions is how angels, who are created perfect by God, can rebel against him. The answer that the Western tradition gradually settles on is that in the instant after they are created, God makes a unilateral demand for submission to the divine will, and a certain percentage of the angels resist. This whole scenario seems to lack everything we associate with a morally relevant decision—it is instantaneous, free of deliberation, totally shorn of any meaningful context, etc., etc. Yet God uses this arbitrary impulse of resistance as a pretext to curse the demons forever, locking their wills into a permanently rebellious state (similar to original sin, but with no possibility of redemption). This is entrapment in its purest form: the demons have only the narrowest sliver of freedom necessary for God to blame them for their condition.
On the basis of this parallel, I claim that neoliberalism is a social order that tends to demonize its subjects. It does not directly legitimate itself by pointing to its positive results—which are increasingly meager—but indirectly justifies the state of the world via victim-blaming. Hence it’s not the case that the authorities set up a situation where the only source of economic growth was unsustainable asset bubbles. Instead, a critical mass of people just up and decided to buy houses they couldn’t afford, leading to a financial crash. And lest you think I am exaggerating, the infamous “Santelli rant” that launched the Tea Party was explicitly focused on punishing the “losers” who had caused the crisis through their bad choices.
Blanchfield: I know you’re doing a lot of work on neoliberalism. But although it’s a venerable term that’s entered the mainstream lexicon in a big way since the Democratic failure in the elections of 2016, good definitions of it can be hard to come by. Some of this seems to be a function of there being different schools of thought, but part of it also seems to be a deliberate reticence on the part of its advocates (and practitioners) to identify it as a singular ideology or even as an ideology at all. If anything, I’m reminded of the section of The Prince of This World where you read Irenaeus’s denunciation of a supposedly Satanic magician-figure whose teachings, Irenaeus claims, are the source and core of all heresy: “his successors do not publicly confess his name but keep it a secret…furthermore, they do not teach a united message but constantly modify it.” Sounds as protean and as deliberately mystified as neoliberalism to me! Against that, can I ask, what’s the most interesting and suggestive definition of neoliberalism you’ve come across, and/or come up with?
You are right that neoliberalism is deliberately slippery. In fact, for those who want a sneak preview of the book I’m working on (Neoliberalism’s Demons), the first line of the first chapter is: “Neoliberalism loves to hide.” The term is very seldom used for self-identification, but there is one noteworthy exception: Milton Friedman’s lecture “On Neo-Liberalism and Its Prospects.” There he calls for a return to the pre-war free market order—which he calls “liberalism,” in virtually the opposite of the American usage of the term—but one that has learned the lessons of the intervening years (hence “neo”). Where the classical liberalism of the 19th century had imagined that the free market emerges spontaneously, neoliberalism recognizes it as a human construction and a choice. (Melinda Cooper, in her excellent book Family Values, defines it similarly but more narrowly: neoliberalism is an attempt to build a new form of free market liberalism in the wake of the welfare state.)
While they tend to feed the public libertarian bromides about how the market is a natural condition that the stupid government is constantly disturbing, true neoliberals know that the free market is something that has to be created and sustained through state activity. And the reason they think that the free market is desirable is because it represents the greatest possible range for the expression of human freedom.
Blanchfield: In The Prince of This World, you write:
The shift from God to humanity is certainly a radical secularization of the Medieval paradigm, but it results in a claustrophobia that is if anything even more extreme than that of the medieval paradigm. What initially appears as an opening to the infinite horizon of creative self-determination collapses into an endlessly tautologous justification of the way things are. And this is because freedom remains the modern answer to the problem of evil.
So much of the neoliberal order seems to be precisely about fetishizing the idea of choice and personal responsibility while also justifying the status quo of an essentially static and oppressive social order which individual choices cannot change – freedom becoming just another “apparatus for generating blameworthiness.” With that in mind, I have to ask, what do you think might be a political theology of (and for) neoliberalism?
Kotsko: Political theology is another one of those confusing terms, which tends to be used imprecisely to refer to any kind of parallel or connection between the political and theological realms. In The Prince of This World and even more in the new book, I try to define it more rigorously by tracking down the root of the parallels we see between the two realms—which turns out to be the fact that both theology and political discourse are trying to provide a holistic account of how the world is and ought to be. More specifically, both discourses are responding to a stubborn problem. On the theological side, it’s the problem of evil, of how a good and all-powerful God can allow suffering and injustice to happen. On the political side, it’s the problem of legitimacy, of vindicating the right of the governing authorities to hold power. I contend that the two are ultimately not separate problems, but are deeply intertwined: the problem of evil is the problem of whether God really deserves to rule the world, while the problem of legitimacy is the problem of how to account for the negative results of the social order.
So if we ask about a political theology of neoliberalism, we are really asking about how neoliberalism attempts to legitimate itself, how it justifies itself in the face of the suffering and injustice that it allows or even generates. And the core of its strategy is, as you have noted, to point to human freedom. Neoliberalism allows for the greatest expression of human freedom, and hence anything bad that happens must be something we have all, collectively, chosen in some sense. This is a very powerful strategy, because it plays on the deep structures of guilt and shame that modernity has inherited from Christianity. It allows neoliberalism to get into our heads, to get us to focus so much on our own failures and disappointments that we can’t see the bigger picture. It’s an amazingly elegant mechanism for creating a whole society full of isolated individualists. Yet it is also a fragile and increasingly brittle strategy, because it depends on neoliberalism offering up at least some modicum of rewards to go along with its punishments—and that is something that it is increasingly unable to do. How long can people be expected to blame themselves for failure when success seems impossible?
At the same time, a political theology is not something that people can simply up and decide to turn away from. The social structures of legitimacy form us deeply, and one thing my research has convinced me of is how desperately people try to cling to those structures of meaning even as they begin to crumble. In Why We Love Sociopaths, I suggested that the anti-hero trend in “high-quality television” represented a way of doubling down on a broken social contract. By lionizing and idolizing characters who lie and cheat and steal their way to success, people were still trying to hold onto some shred of hope that success was still possible. Far from being edgy and subversive, then, such shows were actually an attempt to shore up people’s investment in the neoliberal order. It’s not hard to draw the connection between that trend and our current political debacle, where a vocal plurality of our fellow citizens appear to virtually worship the worst man alive—not despite, but because of his nihilistic pursuit of wealth and fame.
Blanchfield: Two more questions, the first, lighter, to queue up for darker one. Your book is primarily concerned with really high-level (but lucid!) accounts of the Devil in philosophical and theological texts. But readers who are familiar with your other work (Why We Love Sociopaths, Awkwardness, and Creepiness) know you’re also a keen consumer and trenchant critic of television, films and popular culture more generally. So, what have you found to be the most interesting portrayals of the Devil in the modern Hollywood cannon? Which have you hated, which have you loved?
One of the dubious benefits of being the guy who wrote a book on the devil is that everyone is constantly asking me if I’ve seen some particular pop-culture manifestation of the demonic. The truth is that I have made no systematic survey of the devil’s pop-culture presence. I may yet do so—a kind of sequel to The Prince of This World about the devil’s weird secular afterlife, not only in pop culture, but in literature, opera, etc., could be a fun project—but in the meantime, I have been reluctant to let the devil take over my downtime. That being said, I do have one contrarian opinion: The Devil’s Advocate, which many people have praised to me, is actually pretty simplistic and predictable. Yes, it’s fun to watch Al Pacino chew the scenery in a certain way, but as far as “self-justifying sociopath” speeches go, his rant about how humanity and the devil deserve each other does not even break the top ten in my opinion.
My personal favorite is actually an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, called “The Devil’s Due.” It’s the closest thing to the weird early Christian narrative of redemption I have ever seen in pop culture form. The Enterprise is visiting a planet, and suddenly a being appears who claims to be a deity that their ancestors sold themselves to in exchange for peace and prosperity. Now, by the terms of the contract (a literal written document!), she is collecting her payment. Obviously, Picard believes she’s a fake and tries to prove it, but in the meantime they set up a trial (with the impartial emotionless Data as the judge) to dispute the terms of the contract and find some way to wriggle out of it. In the end, no divine incarnation and self-sacrifice proves to be necessary, and more generally, it’s unlikely that the writers had the patristic writers in mind. But by pushing a familiar “selling your soul to the devil” narrative onto a social-political level, they inadvertently tapped into a much older vision of the devil.
Blanchfield: You close the book on a really tantalizing and poignant note – observing how the desire to obliterate or cast out one Devil has a way of merely installing new ones, and contemplating that the path forward might involve recuperating neglected speculation on what it might mean to redeem or “save” the Devil. Without pushing you to say anything you might not want to, what do you think this might look like or entail? Is there room for the Devil, and for saving the Devil, in this world of human vulnerability versus abstract, impersonal destructive forces, from the market to global war to climate change?
That note was poignant and tantalizing to me as well—it did not represent a fully-formed concept or definitive formulation, but an intuition of where my investigation might lead, beyond the boundaries of this particular narrative and argument. It felt to me like the only way I could end the book (and in fact, I must have tinkered with it and then changed it back to the way it was a couple dozen times prior to submitting the manuscript), even if I could not fully account for that intuition. Thinking about it from the distance of a couple years at this point, and particularly as I am finishing up a second book project that follows up on many of the intuitions of the conclusion of The Prince of This World, I feel like I am better able to articulate what I was getting at. (In fact, this response may turn out to bear an uncanny resemblance to portions of my as-yet unwritten conclusion to Neoliberalism’s Demons, where I will hopefully make another concluding gesture I cannot fully account for….)
Somewhat surprisingly, in the early centuries of Christianity, there was a durable minority position to the effect that the devil would be saved. Ultimately that view was condemned as heretical, and what interests me is how vehemently theologians rejected it—the emotional gut reaction always seemed out of proportion to me. And the argument, such as it is, always boils down to the same thing: if the devil can be saved, that misses the whole point of having the devil in the first place. It is as though Christian theology gradually came to need a hard core of eternal, unredeemable blameworthiness, a permanent scapegoat who can never escape.
Hence, when I talk about the devil being saved, it’s not just a question of one more creature being added to the “saved” ledger. If the devil can be saved, if there is no outside to salvation, then the whole meaning of moral obligation seems to be overturned—why should we maintain this whole structure of guilt and punishment at all, if it is only going to be set aside as irrelevant to our ultimate destiny? This gets at a real tension within Christianity itself: on the one hand, it wants to transcend the order of reward and punishment, but it nevertheless can never seem to break with it.
So what I’m asking is not so much what it might mean to forgive Dick Cheney or the big bankers or Rahm Emanuel or whoever, but what it would mean to come up with a politics that, at its deepest level, was not structured around blame and merit, reward and punishment. That is easier said than done, as 2000 years of Christian history shows us, in part because it is so hard to imagine what could replace it. (“Love” is often put forward as a candidate—and let’s just say I have my doubts.) But we have to find some way, if not to replace it altogether, at least to restrain it through some other principle, because the logical endpoint of the mechanism of blame is to consign us all to a living hell.
Adam Kotsko teaches in the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College. He is the author, most recently, of The Prince of This World, and he blogs at An und für sich.
Patrick Blanchfield is the Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.