Try as I might, I can’t find anything to say, or even really believe, about the Devil and the demons as such. Whether they can be said to exist in a way that we say anything else exists, and if so what they are, how they originate, and what their powers–I have no idea. In practice I answer the first question “No,” since my choices and actions are not touched in the least by the possibility that some demonic power may shape their results. This renders the other questions fascinating but strictly, as it were, speculative.
But I do love reading about the Devil and his angels. Milton shows us Satan struck to a standstill by the beauty of Eve. For an instant, the Evil One “abstracted stood / From his own evil, and for the time remain’d / Stupidly good.”1 Ivan Karamazov hallucinates a demon who sighs that he, like the atheist in a fable he has just told, will one day give up his revolt, walk his penitential quadrillion miles, and enter Paradise. The Devil visits a solitary country farmer, not saying or doing anything untoward, repeatedly, until a neighbor happens in and asks who the oddly dressed, caprine fellow is. “My nephew,” the man says. After the neighbor leaves, the Devil throws his arms around the man’s neck and exclaims “Uncle!” I spent weeks tracking down a citation for that story, which I read ages ago, before giving up and setting it in Wisconsin for a sermon.
Without these shadows of pathos—the demons are lonely, longing, despairing—the demonic images of pure menace fall flat. To be sure there are plenty of terrifying forces in the world: tsunamis, cancer, Big Data. But they are impersonal. We can anthropomorphize them, but their terror comes from their lack of interest in us. Demons are different. They recognize themselves in us, as we recognize ourselves in them. It’s only the sliver of fellowship with human suffering that gives the demons their haunting power.
Augustine, for example, has no more satisfying an explanation for the existence of the fallen angels or false gods than anyone else does. But his description of their place in the cosmos is astounding and poignant. The “impious and arrogant gods” are
deprived of [God’s] changeless light which is shed upon all alike, and are therefore reduced to a poverty-stricken kind of power, and engage in a kind of scramble for their lost dominions and claim divine honours from their deluded subjects.2
They are deprived of God’s changeless light, Augustine maintains, because unlike the good angels they were not given a secret assurance by God that they would persevere in blessedness. In their ignorance they plunged from bliss altogether, and cobble together whatever approximation of their former happiness they may in their exile. Their might in earthly things, which is considerable, is “poverty-stricken” in comparison with the real thing. Their empires (including Augustine’s own Rome) are, in the end, nothing but a parody.
I’ve been reading City of God every morning for over a year, and this is one of the passages that has stuck with me. Deprivation, poverty, scrambling, delusion—that these should be the motivations for all malice in the world, and the root of all religious error, however beautiful, noble, and respectable, is a difficult thought to bear. Who scrambles and I do not scramble? Whose power in this world is not, ultimately, defined by its poverty? Milton’s Satan does not rest in stupid goodness because he demands more and will, paradoxically, accept less. That’s not sin hatching from the egg, but it is certainly sin on the wing.
Demons have never left us, and never really will, because we will never be able to resist the urge to see how we look in a cracked mirror. And we cannot rid ourselves of them because however far our own scramble for dominion proceeds, and however immense our power becomes, it will only introduce us to new and more terrifying experiences of limitation.
Yet whether consciously or not, these vivid imaginings of evil forces show us something of God, too, by a sort of inversion. If there is such a thing as poverty-stricken power, there may likewise be a power-stricken poverty. The mad scramble suggests the possibility of rest, and the delusion the possibility of truth. Tragically, comically, ironically: demons suffer for a permanent lack of something we can attain to. Perhaps the tears of the demons are precious in their way.