What the Devil
The Death of Satan: How Americans have Lost the Sense of Evil
by Andrew Delbanco
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 274 pp. $23.00
Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia, despairs that in a century in which evil has triumphed as in no other, Americans have lost the vocabulary to respond to it. This imaginative failure, he contends, undermines our power to face evil, and may already have removed our ability to fight it. To trace historically the changing fortunes of the American idea of evil, he follows it through the early settlement, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Progressive era, and our own postwar age.
Delbanco, who has written a book on the Puritans and co-edited an anthology of their writings, begins his survey with the New England settlers, whose world view drew heavily on what the scholar Perry Miller called the “Augustinian strain of piety.” Evil, for the Puritans, was represented by a Satan whose attributes—flattery, trickery, and, especially, pride—were invisible and incorporeal, a “maddeningly elusive abstraction.” That elusiveness is the genius of Puritan theology, in Delbanco’s view, for it constitutes an admission that evil is not something or somebody external, but exists in every one of us. To use Delbanco’s modern metaphor, the Puritans viewed evil as something akin to the id.
In a religious community that was at the same time a growing commercial power, such a sensibility was doomed. For one thing, the crafty, opportunistic Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost (a work which New Englanders devoured) had a lot in common with the typical businessman; as “ambition and entrepreneurship became recognized as talents and even virtues, Satan made less and less sense as a metaphor for the overweening self.” Meanwhile, the rise of secular and rational habits of mind led people to look to external phenomena rather than to a loss of God’s grace as the root of evil. Already by the time of the Salem witch trials, the Puritan clergyman Increase Mather could lament that, as Delbanco puts it, “the first reaction of educated people to dreams and visions [was] a determination to find some physiological—and spiritually meaningless—explanation.” Satan was dead, and in his place was a variety of more worldly villains.
Delbanco is here at the edge of a very old theme: whether any meaningful morality can be constructed in the absence of religious faith. It is not a question he ever directly poses, but when his narrative arrives at the Civil War it becomes apparent that he, at any rate, views politics as the most likely candidate to replace religion as moral lodestar. Indeed, he casts that conflict as a holy war, writing that the “discovery of slavery as the devil’s work was a spiritual liberation.” Lincoln, in Delbanco’s reading, was “the greatest Augustdnian in our history”: by identifying himself with the country, and taking on its sins as his own, Lincoln resuscitated in political form the old, inner-directed Puritan sense of evil.
The recidivists who followed were a different story, rolling back Lincoln’s moral regeneration with Robber Baron capitalism, Jim Crow, and eugenics. “Racial fear introduced a new way of thinking about evil,” Delbanco asserts; in Darwin’s wake, “biological transmission of character . . . could be construed as an updated version of the idea of original sin.” In our own century, this defective sense of evil would lead to the greatest crimes in human history. Although those crimes did not occur on American soil, Delbanco leaves little doubt that Americans—with their stunted sense of evil and their unfounded suspicions of immigrants and “others”—bear a sizable share of the blame:
[An American] dentistry professor [held] forth on the analogies between primitive biological entities and these new, outlandish Americans. . . . The writer, perhaps thinking of the bacterial sludge he scraped every day from his patients’ teeth, regarded certain human beings as fungi hidden in the damp crannies of the body politic. . . . It would not be long before a word in another language came into use as a description of what would be left after the requisite cleaning. It was a German word, rein, as in Judenrein.
* * *
As late as 1938 (the year, in another country, of Kristallnacht), a Harvard anthropologist published a scholarly book devoted to the classifications of deviants. . . .
The Horrible thing for our own era, Delbanco thinks, is that our moral awareness has not advanced in equal measure with evil’s peril—it has actually shrunk. “Evil remains an inescapable experience for all of us,” he writes, “while we no longer have a symbolic language for describing it.” This he blames on our “corrosive spirit of irony,” hastened by the assassinations of the 1960’s, which “drove an entire generation away from politics as an arena of hope.” For liberals in particular, the old symbols of evil are now mere accoutrements of irony or camp, devoid of orientation. Liberal impotence has in turn left the field open to those—i.e., reactionaries—who do not hesitate to see evil in “the threatening other” (Delbanco takes the phrase from Garry Wills). That role was once filled by Communists, but
now that this last devil (which Ronald Reagan confidently named the “evil empire”) has disintegrated, the question is: what will come next in the Satanic succession? . . . If the privative [Augustinian] conception of evil continues to be lost between liberal irony on the one hand, and fundamentalist demonizing on the other, we shall have no way of confronting the most challenging experiences of our private and public lives.
The problems with this passage are the problems with this book. The argument is tortured, the syllogisms slippery, the prose opaque—and yet here is a moral schema just as rigid and polarized as that of the Puritans. Delbanco, in short, buys into the same moral one-dimensionality he decries, but has made things worse by politicizing them. The Puritans would surely not have considered vague notions like “the threatening other” a sufficient basis for weighing good and evil. Morality, after all, is about drawing distinctions. Some “others” do not threaten, but some do. Among threatening others, some are somewhat evil, some are quite evil, and some are ultimately evil. It may not always be easy to make such discriminations, but it would nice if a professor of humanities were capable of writing about such homegrown American ogres as Theodore Bilbo, Joseph McCarthy, and Father Coughlin without succumbing, as Delbanco does, to juxtapositions with Goebbels.
For Delbanco, evil is often merely synonymous with racism, a conveniently elastic rubric under which he lumps any manifestation of American national feeling he happens to dislike—including the use, by the wrong people, of the word “normal.” Thus: “Less than a month before becoming Speaker-elect of the House of Representatives in 1994, Newt Gingrich of Georgia spoke on national television about Democrats as ‘the enemies of normal people.’ ”
This suggests a larger problem, namely, an inability to tell the difference between morality and one’s own ideology. Delbanco may be correct to contend that the Augustinian “idea of evil . . . is extremely difficult to possess in an age that has lost faith in all essences.” But he is living proof that ours is not such an age. Far from having lost our sense of evil, we seem to have a feeling for it that is exquisitely overdeveloped: we can see evil in the “hostile environment” created by someone hanging a wrong poster, or enjoying a cigarette (“the evil weed”) too close to a building, or even daring to use the word “normal” in public discourse. Whether an incapacity to distinguish between such annoyances and the very worst crimes humanity has ever committed fits one to write a book on evil is a devilish question.