The New Demonology

Dr. Peter Chojnowski
Reprinted with permission

It is with some expectation that I opened Andrew Delbanco's 1995 work, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. The expectation experienced was similar to that experienced when some 10 years ago, I discovered the newly released The Closing of the American Mind. Here surely was a validation, again by a fundamentally secularist author, of the social criticisms and critiques which have come from traditionalist Catholic authors for the last 200 years. Just as Allen Bloom had recognized the decadence that had come to shape academia due to the relativistic philosophies emerging from nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany, so too, surely, Delbanco, himself also a secularist Jewish professor, would lament and identify the bitter fruit which has resulted from contemporary America's transformation of the concept of evil into the "politically incorrect" and the "abrasive." In a way similar to Bloom's hope for a return to the study of Aristotle and the ethos of the ancients, so too was it to be expected that Delbanco would at least wax nostalgic for the morality and the culture of the past, which both clearly identified and tried to contain, through social customs and the propagation of moral norms, the evil tendencies inherent in human action. There was, of course, some intimation of a serious problem which contemporary man was confronting. As Delbanco says, "A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it."1 The "evils" which our language and conceptual apparatus will not allow us to satisfactorily grapple with are things such as "deforestation, erosion, siltation, exhaustion, pollution, extermination, cruelty, destruction, and despoliation." Even with this, rather, superficial conception of the modes of evil, and much of this simply refers to man's "anthropocentric" attitude towards the "eco-sphere," there is some recognition that there are forms of human action which could be denominated as "bad," or even as "evil." Surely, this recognition of what the author calls "radical evil"2 in the world, would at least incline him to recognize, also, the sanity of the moral tradition of Christendom. Perhaps what needs to be "recovered" is a right understanding of the devil, sin, the Fall, man's moral responsibility to God, and punishment for sinners. Such a recovery would fill the conceptual void which leaves contemporary man, volitionally "speechless" in front of what he knows, in the innermost recesses of his being, to be outside the boundaries of the good.

As became quite clear early on, it is not such a "recovery" which Delbanco is looking for. In this regard, he says, "Our understanding of evil needs to be renewed not restored."3 This intellectual myopia, will lead Delbanco to spend most of his book giving a historical account of the "death" of the concept of Satan and evil or their "decline into invisibility,"4 much as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the "death" of God. Before he engages in this purely historical survey, however, he sets out in a jarring way the essence of the "problem." The scene which he focuses our attention on is one from Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs. Here the young, soft-spoken, methodical female FBI agent, encounters a psychiatrist, standing, straitjacketed, inside his Plexiglas cage. The young woman had previously sought the doctor's help in pursing another serial killer. The words of the serial killer psychiatrist to the agent are telling: "Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling . I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences. You've given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You've got everyone in moral dignity pants - nothing is ever anybody's fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say that I'm evil?"5 The author's only response to this "honest" display of evil, is to state that "these words are an epitome of modern horror - the horror of knowing that we cannot answer the monster's question."6 There are those who do, however, still claim to know how to answer, and understand, the challenge posed by the murderer/cannibal. These people, according to Delbanco, still have "a coherent view of the world as a moral order reflecting God's purposes and physically sensitive to the moral conduct of human beings."7 A return by society at large to such an intellectual vision of an unchanging moral order, where the good are rewarded and the wicked ultimately punished, is rejected on account of its producing people who, for instance, "believe that the victims of AIDS are being justly punished for ungodly behavior and that the disease of their bodies manifests a corruption of their souls. It is easy to dismiss such thoughts as primitive, superstitious, and inhumane - and so they are."8 Such a statement, so early on in the work, effectively dismissed any hope one may have had for advocacy of a return to the perennial theological and philosophical concepts relating to such realities as a just God, Hell, Satan as a intellectual, spiritual being and not a mere "concept," the Judgment, vice, sin, and the forgiveness of sin. Again, "our understanding of evil needs to be renewed not restored."9

This refusal to return to the traditional understanding of the nature of evil,10 does not, however, mean that the secular academic does not have his/her own conception of "evil," complete with a new demonology which consists of those individuals and socio-political forces which, in some way, stand opposed to the new liberal conception of the "good" man and the "good" society. In this regard, we find an interesting fact. Just as the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church could only speak about evil insofar as it related to the good, so too, liberal academia can only identify what they consider to be "evil," by first pointing to their, rather trite, conception of the "good" human life. Unsurprisingly, it is the nontraditional man, freed from all universal and absolute "constraints" not of his own making, which emerges as the postmodern paragon of "virtue." Citing the statement of John Dewey that "evil was the failure of the imagination to reach beyond itself, the human failure to open oneself to a spirit that both chastises one for confidence in one's own righteousness and promises the enduring comfort of reciprocal love [?]," Delbanco seeks to validate the statement by Ralph Waldo Emerson that "the only sin is limitation." Here we find a new liberal definition of evil, which diabolically parallels the traditional definition of evil as "privation." According to Delbanco and the liberal American "tradition," evil can be understood as "incompleteness."11

To understand liberal America's view of "evil," we need only think of ways in which one man, social and religious traditions and norms, or the divine law itself can cause a man to be "incomplete." These "limiting factors" are precisely those which produce the "savages" who have "identified their experience with rigid adherence to their past customs."12 To be among those immersed in the "evil" of limiting social, religious, and moral traditions is unfortunate enough, however, to be a perpetrator of such inhibiting systems is to be a "demon" according to the classification of the new demonology. In this category of individuals, along with the typically nondescript "Nazi," you, also, have the "crusader," "by far the worst kind of barbarian," who "construes evil as a malignant, external thing - a thing alien to himself ." Moreover, "the struggle of the twentieth century was to keep this proficient hater from seizing the world."13 Along with Adolph Hitler, we find that the new liberal demonology includes the man who, through his introducing Christian civilization and the Catholic Religion, "inhibited" an entire two continents of fulfilled natives. According to the New Demonology, Columbus' discovery of America "was commonly presented as a story of heroism. Now it is more usually told as the upheaving of European hypocrisy onto clean shores - the invasion of a virgin continent by a culture whose record was 'deforestation, erosion, siltation, exhaustion, pollution, extermination, cruelty, destruction, and despoliation.'. . . We have now reached the point in the career of this story where the 'discovery of America'. . . is regarded as something of a pornographic joke. . . . Columbus . . . has become a semi-crazed charlatan."14

A) The Goodness of the Real

When we seek to find an alternative to this erroneous and fundamentally "dated" conception of evil, we must look to the perennial philosophical tradition to answer the question which the liberal academicians believe can no longer be authoritatively answered, What is evil? When we search the tradition for an answer to this question, we find that the answer has metaphysical roots plunged deep into the soil of being. In fact, it was precisely a philosophical conflict over the nature of being, which provoked a Doctor of the Church to pose the very question which we have made it our task to answer. St. Augustine, writing, preaching, and combating heresy in the late years of the fourth century and the early decades of the fifth, had to deal with the very real question as to whether or not there were things which by their very nature were evil. St. Augustine was well aware of the dangers of such a view, since he himself had, for about thirteen years, been a part of a sect which held as its central doctrine that there was positive evil in the world and that positive evil was existing matter itself. The view of this sect, the Manicheans, named after their founder Mani, was that the entire cosmic structure of the material universe was created by an evil god who was perpetually at war with the good god of the spirit. These two principles of good and evil, spirit and matter, once came together in a cosmic clash which resulted in "parts" of the spiritual god being broken off and imprisoned within the enshrouding darkness of matter. According to Mani, the human soul was precisely this "spark" of the divine light which had been unwillingly trapped in the darkness of a flesh which was evil by its very nature. This dualistic doctrine (i.e., the idea that there are two equal, mutually antagonistic principles in the universe) of the Manicheans, had many moral repercussions. Some of these seem amazingly "modern." Along with advocating things like "assisted suicide" (why keep souls prisoner in the evil cell of the body?), contraception, and homosexuality (why continue to "imprison" innocent souls?), they, also, advance an ancient form of the behaviorism which says that "the body made me do it." Since this doctrine caused him to reject all moral responsibility for his own actions, St. Augustine understood it to be the most pernicious: "I still thought that it was not ourselves who sin, but that some sort of different nature within us commits sin. It gave joy to my pride to be above all guilt, and when I did an evil deed, not to confess that I had myself done it, so that you might heal my soul [O Lord], since it had sinned against you."15

Even though these strange doctrines, which were always advanced as being a "spiritual" form of the Christian Religion, facilitated St. Augustine's early life of dissipation, it was an intellectual difficulty which caused him to embrace these Manichean solutions. The difficulty was that he could not understand how a good God could be the ultimate source of a world in which so much evil existed. Wouldn't it mean that the One God Who was the source and cause of all things, would, also, be the source and cause of the evil in the world? As a consequence of this philosophical inability to understand the nature of evil, "I believed that evil is some such substance and that it possesses its own foul and hideous mass, either gross, which they styled the earth, or thin and subtle, as is the body of the air . . . Because some sort of reverence forced me to believe that a good God would create no evil nature, I postulated two masses opposed to one another, each of them infinite."16 It is when he converts to the Catholic Faith, which, earlier, he has always considered to be too "earthy," that he firmly and adamantly rejects this idea of evil possessing a positive ontological status (i.e., that it is an existing thing or substance), and, instead, affirms the now long-standing Catholic philosophical principle that evil, in itself, has no being, but is, rather, a "privation" of being. It is a supreme negation of all that is. We might call it a black-hole in the heart of reality. In this regard, both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas agree that things, insofar as they exist, are good. They are good, because they mirror the goodness of their Creator, while, also, being good because they possess the highest and most essential of all perfections, the perfection of existence. Because of the Manichean accusations against material creation, the Scholastic doctors spent much time philosophically defending the notion that goodness is a transcendental property of being; that is, wherever there is being there is goodness.17 Even the being of the Devil himself is good, insofar as it is that which stands outside of nothingness.1

B) Evil and the Will

Just as St. Thomas is going to understand "goodness" in a broad sense, including all which possesses being, form, and perfections, so too is evil understood. Evil will be a "lack of a due good" in a being. This reality is very clear with regard to natural being. We can speak of a "natural evil," which is not something which is morally evil, but rather, is a lack of some power or perfection which should characterize a being of a specific nature. For example, we would speak of blindness in a man as a physical evil because it involves the loss of a power which ought to be present in a sentient being. Such a physical evil does not, of course, in any way manifest necessarily any type of moral evil. Neither is physical evil a thing; blindness is not a thing, but rather, a deficiency characterizing a thing. It is a lack of a perfection, in this case sight, which ought to be present in order for the being to fulfill its inherent capabilities. In this same way, we could characterize death as the supreme natural evil. Hence, the fittingness of black as the color of mourning. When we set out here to intellectually plumb the nature of evil, we did not intend to focus mere physical evil. Such evil, when appearing in the nonrational order of creation can be considered a necessary aspect of God's created plan. When it appears among men, we can understand it to be a consequence of the Fall and an accidental deficiency which does not hinder man's advancement towards his true and ultimate end. Moral evil, however, is of quite a different nature. Moral evil is "evil" as most people, even secularists, understand the term.

When trying to achieve a grasp of the essence of moral evil, we must not at all put aside what we have learned through our consideration of evil on the metaphysical and physical plain. What makes an action "evil," is precisely its lack of some aspect which ought to be present as a constitutive element of the act. For example, an act can be evil, if there is some unfittingness in the intention, the circumstances, or the means employed in the act. The act of killing for the sake of vengeance is an evil act, the killers intentions are wrong and, hence, evil, whereas killing someone because you intend to fend off an attack on your person or that of those you are responsible for is not evil, but can even be meritorious. Some actions are evil by their very nature, irregardless of the circumstances, the means, or the intention. Abortion is one such act.

With this said, what exactly is it which makes certain actions evil actions? What makes them evil is their deviant nature. They deviate from the right rule of reason which is ultimately determined by the Eternal Law resident in the mind of God. Evil actions, since they deviate from the path charted for man by the Divine Reason, are also evil because the will which initiates those actions, is not in accord with the Divine Will which wishes to bring all beings to their preordained end (i.e., the possession of God).19

Whereas animals and other nonrational beings, can only be "deflected" from their divinely appointed path by some physical impediment or other physical agent (e.g., a predator), man can "deflect" himself through an act of his will. Here we run up against the true "mystery of iniquity." Why would any creature choose, with even the slightest movement of the will, to divert himself from his movement towards that which he was made to achieve? The first thing that we must assert here, is that the evil which characterizes truly evil actions, is always in some way embedded within the good. This is the case, since it is the good, whether seen as the advantageous, the satisfying, or the morally right, which is the proper object of the will. In this, we encounter the fundamentally fraudulent character of evil. It always appears to be something it is not. All the main motives for objectively evil actions, pride, envy, concupiscence have as their objects some good which satisfies human capacities, but which contradicts the plan in the Divine Mind as to how those human capacities ought to be satisfied. So the deviance of pride will act for and hide behind the good of honor and self-preservation, envy behind righteous indignation, and concupiscence behind simple enjoyment and relaxation. These actions are evil because they divert man from his ultimate goal which is the attainment of God, they are only "good" insofar as they employ natural powers and other beings which are part of the integral goodness of God's creation. Evil actions are those which refuse to follow the ordering laid down for all things at their creation. Evil refuses to assume its proper place within the whole.

C) The Personification of Evil

It is one thing to say that evil is has no metaphysical status, that is, it is not a thing or substance. It is something else to attempt to describe how evil can be manifested in a human action. It is, however, something else to pose the question as to whether or not we can speak of individual men or, perhaps, merely certain human personalities as "evil." In answer to this question, I would have to say that we can. The evil man would be one who has made a habit of evil actions, to such an extent that he no longer feels "bound" by what is morally good. St. Thomas Aquinas refers to this human type as "the sinner." The "sinner" is not someone who commits evil or sinful deeds, he is the man who lives his life, intentionally, outside of God's grace. Here we are not merely dealing with ignorance, but with a positive "turning away" from God, not merely in a specific act but in all of one's actions.

What is the problem with this type of man? What is he after? Why does he uproot himself from the very foundations of his existence (i.e., the divine order). The explanation which St. Thomas gives of the modus vivendi of the "sinner" is that he associates himself with the "outer man," and forgets about or rejects the "inner man." Therefore, rather than understanding himself to be that which he really is a being made in the image of God and meant to live in perfect union with God, he lives as if he were an aggregate of his bodily desires, his passions, his appetites. If we can say that purity of heart is to will one thing, namely God, we can also say that the evil man, who turns away from God and his Law, becomes a divided being, this, on account of the fact that the objects of his desire are multiple. By associating himself with those desires he, subsequently, is pulled apart by the simple multiplicity of the objects of his passion. He that would be his own lawgiver; he that would be the "ground" of his own being, instead becomes a slave of those things which he desires. In this regard, Delbanco hits upon a great truth when he, speaking only about the "idea" of Satan, of course, mentions "Satan's need to believe in his own self-creation, or to govern himself without higher authority. . . . Satan is a being without a center. . . . As a picture of his physical appearance. . . he is often a creature of mingled parts. . . he subverts and inverts the structures and customs of ordinary life.20 So the man, or the archangel, who seeks to become absolute master of his own life, becomes the slave to his inner drives which have become "unhinged" from the Eternal Law. Whereas the Devil can be enslaved by pride and envy, a man can, also, be enslaved by concupiscence of the flesh.

Once the evil man or the evil society begins to "lose himself" to his or "its" disordered desires, how does he try to "regain" his psychological foothold if he will not repent and convert? He does this by "revaluating" values. What was previously seen, and universally understood to be good, now becomes "evil," and that which was seen to be evil, is now seen to be "good." Here we, again, see the fraudulence of evil. It will always make itself appear to be "good." Once this psychological/moral revaluation has occurred, black appears white and white now appears as black. What this conscious or subconscious psychological move does is to relieve the pressure which builds up in the mind of the sinner or the sinful society as a result of habitually acting against that which you know to be right. Man always wants to feel that he is doing what is good. This moral revaluation, also, allows the evil man to reek some revenge upon those whom he had previously understood to be doing what was right, while he himself was doing what was evil. Now those who were good become "dark" figures performing deeds and possessing attitudes which are "abnormal." We have seen precisely this moral revaluation take place in our own society. "Weird" is no longer that which is out of place according to the outlines of the Eternal Law or the classical tradition, rather, "weird," and then "dark" and then "evil," has become that which precisely conforms to that old outline. Why is piety, true masculinity, large families, women in dresses, pregnant women, manners, respectful and clean-cut youth, modesty, sobriety, paternal authority, discipline, priests in cassocks, nuns in habits, community based on an absolute religious faith "sinister" or "weird" or "dark"?

I think the only way we can understand this "devilish" new tact of Iniquity, is to remember what motivated the evil society or individual to engage in the moral revaluation in the first place. The man or society who is enslaved by his lower appetites is one who "sees" all things according to whether or not they satisfy one of his needs. Objectivity, that which judges all things by their actual status and worth, is the first thing lost for the evil man. The evil man projects an egocentric world in which everything is either pleasing or displeasing for me. By projecting a "world" based on egocentric desire, the man who kept encountering all those stubborn moral strictures and prohibitions, is now faced with a world whose "purpose" is to satisfy his own desire. Evil's drive for mastery has thus conquered a "world."

Now that which embodies or obviously upholds objective and eternal truths and values is going to be met with unconditional resentment and even hatred by the evil man or the evil society. The man enslaved by base desires will not object you if you simply indicate in some way to him that all you are doing is seeking to satisfy your own subjective desires and will quietly allow him to satisfy his. There are two things which cannot be tolerated by evil, however, that which upholds objective values and laws and that which practices or embodies self-sacrifice. That is one reason why evil men always will attribute bad motives to good people, because they themselves know of no other motives. Since moral evil's very reason for being is to "satisfy" the self, that which sacrifices base and low desires for the higher or even highest good, shows evil to be the moral weakling that it most certainly is. The good forces evil to, at least "subconsciously," admit that it has lost control over itself. That it is slave and not master.

What we must remember in the days ahead, in which evil will increase and goodness will more acutely feel its pressure, is that evil is both eschatologically and metaphysically fighting a losing battle. Since evil is itself a type of "nothingness," a failure to affirm and embody what is good and real, it cannot live off of itself. It must live by attacking and seeking to undermine the good. It is the task of the good to both show evil for what it is and to fight it, thereby healing the wound which it has ripped into the heart of God's created goodness.


1 Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995), p. 3. [Back]

2 Ibid., p. 191. [Back]

3 Ibid, p. 15. Also, Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), p. 29. [Back]

4  Delbanco, p. 23. [Back]

5  Delbanco, p. 19. Cf. Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs (New York: St. Martin's, 1988), p. 21. [Back]

6 Delbanco, p. 19. [Back]

7 Ibid., p. 15. [Back]

8 Ibid., p. 15. [Back]

9 Ibid. [Back]

10 Cf. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978), p. 85. Here, she asks, "How can we find our moral bearings when we have a sense of evil but no longer the religious and philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil?" [Back]

11  Cf. Randolph Bourne, "Trans-National Amercia' (1916) in David Hollinger and Charles Capper, eds., The American Intellectual Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), vols., II, p. 179; John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916 (New York: The Free Press, 1966), p. 86; Also, Selections from Emerson, Whicher, ed., "Circles" (1840), p. 171. [Back]

12 Dewey, p. 86. [Back]

13 Delbanco, p. 183. [Back]

14 Ibid., p. 30. Cf. Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (New York: Knopf, 1990), p. 82. [Back]

15 St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. John Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1960), Book 5, chap. 10. [Back]

16 Ibid. [Back]

17 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 14, Art. 10, Obj. 1. Also, ST, I, Q. 48, Art. 1 and Art. 3. [Back]

18 ST. Q. 63, Art. 4. [Back]

19 ST, I-II, Q. 18. [Back]

20 Delbanco, pp. 26-27. [Back]