A review of Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, by Jeffrey Burton Russell

No topic is more intellectually fascinating, perplexing, or agonizing than that of evil. "But choice of a mean is not possible in every action or every feeling," Aristotle wrote in Book II of the Ethics. "The very names of some have an immediate connotation of evil." Modernity has often been a brave thesis which, so it hoped with its belief in progress, promised a more perfect, more charitable human estate. But on arriving at this better world in which reason or science replaces faith, we suddenly find our children terrorized in grammar schools by "peace" studies graphically picturing "doomsday," "The Day After." "Apocalypse" is now a "secular enterprise." The fires of hell are the daily fare of modern ideologies. At times, religion itself appears so tame by comparison that even clerics seem to have become vocal pacifists so they would not be outdone on the descriptive terror front.

No examined life is worth living unless it includes an account of evil as a part of its own history, beginning with itself and extending to that of the cosmos. Yet evil remains a maddening mystery, however careful we are to clarify its core. Even if we should know of evil by our own "doing" of it, we should still "know" it by intelli­gent reflection on our own deeds. The cost of misconceiving evil, moreover, is heavy. When we minimize its presence, we end up by trivializ­ing human (and divine) actions and standards so that nothing makes any difference anyhow. Belsen, thus, differs from Mother Teresa's Cal­cutta by virtue of more than subjective preference or mere external power. When we hypostatize evil, however, in the noble hope of ridding our­selves forever of it, we tend to identify it with specific persons, nations, classes, or even angelic beings, to justify their eradication in order to eliminate evil completely so that our own lives may be pure. The classic doctrine that evil was rather a "privation" than a substance was designed, in part, to prevent this dangerous result.

On the other hand, experience suggests that Gulags bother some of us very little, while others seek to remove, say, South Africa from the face of the earth. Indeed, one of the things that strikes us about discussions of evil in modern times, as opposed to medieval treatises and tradi­tions, is that evil is today more and more political, while for the medievals it was personal and spiritual. In any case, we are not so made that we can easily leave this topic of evil alone, even if we must, in our logic, eventually accuse the divinity of having made the world rather poorly because of the amount of evil evidently found within it. In fact, this latter seems to be the conclusion to which Professor Russell's remark­able book leads, albeit reluctantly.

Lucifer is the fourth of a series of studies on the history of evil by Professor Russell, who is currently at the University of California at Santa Barbara. (His previous books were: Witchcraft in the Middle Ages; The Devil; Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity; and Satan: the Early Christian Tradition.) One naturally hesitates to suggest that "witchcraft" is again in vogue, but these studies at least suggest that supernatural evil remains a live topic, one which can lead us to abiding questions fundamental to our existence. Professor Russell's erudition is most commendable, while his concern for the subject itself is almost anguished.

One cannot help but wonder at times whether Russell's studies in the history of evil are not themselves manifestations of his own ruminations over this basic "problem" of reality. The manner in which he works his own "logic" into his conclusions makes this book seem not so much like a "history" of evil but rather a kind of scholarly autobiography about how one man accepts or rejects the various explanations of evil that have arisen during the course of history. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it does give a slant, even a certain poignancy, to his work. In the end, Russell seems to leave himself with the unsettling conclusion that this world ought not to have existed at all if it is going to be as it is.

The burden of Russell's intellectual agony is precisely a creation in which it is possible both to suffer and to give thanks. "God remains responsible," Russell concluded, "for a world in which the amount of suffering greatly exceeds that necessary for the existence of human free will" (p. 309). Just how we are to calculate this "amount" remains itself obscure. And on the hypothesis of free will we might hesitate to prefer nothingness or, even less, an alternate creation in which it is precisely our kind who could not erupt into being at all.

Russell's thesis begins, on the surface, rather like several short stories of Flannery O'Connor, with a vivid newspaper account of several wanton instances of sadism and uncontrolled slaughter. Violence is described for its own sake and seems to result from a perverted will. Russell uses this sort of account to accuse the modern mind of superficiality, of neglecting to face honestly the vast amount of evil that evidently exists in the world before our very eyes, often by our own hands. Russell does not imply that such accounts of evil do not get on the police records or in the press, but that they are simply explained away, so that they have little or no effect on our sensi­bilities. Our academic theories have made as dull to the depth of evil in the world. In a sense, our anthropomorphic theories have so made us think we could get rid of evil by ourselves that we have refused to face the fact that we have not.

Thus, Russell proposes that such violence, which he seems to take as itself a sign of evil, along with such popular culprits as nuclear weapons, ought to force us to refocus ourselves on the reality of evil. This time, however, evil is not something spiritual or abstract, as it supposedly was in earlier eras, but something in our very midst. In this context, however, Russell has recognized that the discussion about evil is a very ancient one in ail societies, so that our age, if anything, is peculiar in not recognizing the necessity to account for evil. Russell argues that evil has a concrete "history," one we must know and respect (devils, witches, and all) before we can adequately confront both the abidingness of evil in human history and the presumed inadequacies of its previous, satanic represen­tations.

In the end, however, Russell is no Machia­vellian who tells us to lower our sights before the human enterprise of goodness, but he does maintain a lawyer's brief against God about His responsibility for evil. "The idea of the Devil is a metaphor; so is the idea of God, in the sense that anyone's view of God-Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever-is a metaphor for that which passes understanding" (p. 307). If it is any consolation, Russell holds that "physics too is a metaphor." But all of this leads us to wonder "what then is a metaphor" to bear such a burden? All of this makes the older metaphysics seem rather more attractive by comparison. When Augustine and Aquinas called evil a real lack of a good, they did not intend a metaphor, however exalted.

No matter how he argues and views the tradition, Russell keeps coming back to the same conclusion, namely, that God is responsible. The main concern is clearly contained in Russell's concluding chapter, "The Existence of the Devil":

The Devil is a metaphor for the evil in the cosmos, an evil that is both in God and opposed by God: he represents the transconscious, transpersonal evil that exceeds the individual human evil will; he is the sign of the radical, unmanageable, yet ultimately transcendable evil in the cosmos. We may well be in need of another name for this force. Let it be so, if one can be found. But let it be one that does not evade, blur, or trivialize suffering. (p. 311)

This conclusion takes us back to the real problem in Russell's own theory-to wit, the identification of evil with suffering or pain. Strictly speaking, Russell's "devil" may not, as he is described, have anything to do with "evil" at all.

The question is not, then, whether God ought to have created a cosmos in which there was genuine free will-its denial, in one sense, even in the Deity, resolves the problem of "responsibility"-but one in which there was little or no suffering. Russell, in fact, seems intent on saying that there should be less evil rather than none at all (p. 309). Meanwhile, "violence can be understood as the evil infliction of suffering" (p. 20). Russell acknowledges the surgeon's knife to be legitimate, but also calls "floods" and "muscular dystrophy" "examples of violence" (p. 21). The operative definition seems to be, "The conscious and deliberate inflicting of suffering is the heart of violence and moral evil" (p. 21).

Russell carefully surveys the theories of evil that seek to relate free will and divine omni­potence and knowledge. His analysis of Aquinas and the general tradition of redemption by a Suffering Servant or a Man-God is again gov­erned by the principle, "cancer is an evil because it causes suffering" (p. 196). If evil is a lack of good in what ought to exist, God still seems to will a world in which such a lack can appear and continue (p. 197). This is the accusation:

Thomas' God, then, does not will natural evil, but he accepts it as the necessary price for the existence of the cosmos.Is that existence worth so much suffering or is so much suffer­ing compatible with the idea of a good God? Thomas assumed so. Not everyone would agree. (p. 198)

Professor Russell himself is one of those who would not agree. On what grounds? On the grounds that Thomas's "privation answer" fails to offer an explanation for natural evil. Why? Because "it is possible to conceive of a diverse cosmos that contains and limits suffering to a much greater extent than does this cosmos" (p, 198). As an example of this position, Russell uses this somewhat curious, sacrificial example: "The mouse, for example, might not have to suffer fear or pain but instead finds happiness in offering itself up to a weasel." That is to say, when spelled out, Russell evidently suggests, in refutation of Thomas, that if a mouse were created to be a being capable of voluntary self-sacrifice, it would be a better universe. But if a mouse could "by nature" do such a thing, it would be, in fact, a "rational being": A "mouse"-Aeschylus would grasp that it learns "by suffering." Russell, in other words, has "re-created" the world that already exists in order to reject this very same world that does exist.

We return to the initial question: Is there anything other than God? If we grant that two gods are intrinsically contradictory and unthinkable, we must grant that to exist, finite creatures other than God must bear their own limited being.

The "accusation" continually rephrased by Russell is that this particular world ought not to have existed. Or if it does, God cannot be God. God is thus "responsible" for any "suffer­ing," whether moral or natural, because He made this world which "might" have been made other­wise. I am quite willing to grant the possibility of some other cosmos or some other redemption. The old argument about whether this is "the best possible world" need not detain us except to enable us to grant that this is a "possible" world because obviously it is.

We have to assume, therefore, that the "amount" of actual suffering in human and cosmic existence was not a surprise to an omniscient being. What was the real alternative that exists about this particular world? It is either no existence at all, or existence with the kind of beings and capacities we possess, ones which by their working out result often in suffering. And to remove human suffering caused by human freedom, we would have to demand a world in which this autonomous freedom did not exist. That is, we would demand a world in which there were no real human beings. Does this mean then that the "cause" of evil is God, especially since God is the origin of all beings, including fallen angels? It means rather, I think, what Aquinas thought it meant: God is the cause of all "being" and that "evil" is a privation, not an entity or a source in God.

How is all this admitted suffering redeemed? In blaming God for creation in the first place? In demanding another form of "being" after the genetic engineers or the philosophical revolu­tionaries? Or are we beings born to immortality, as Plato thought, whose very existence ought to lead to the choice of the highest things? It is possible to imagine, following Russell's remark, not only a world in which there would be "less" suffering, but a world which is "evil" with no suffering. This seems to be more or less how the fallen angelic world was conceived to be by the great scholastics. But if we are to concentrate on suffering, then of course we must ask a different kind of question, namely, does suffering lead to the highest things?

In conclusion, we could say that Russell's Lucifer is but another treatise not on evil, as it seems initially to be, or even on suffering, but on the relation of reason and revelation. The problem of evil is, no doubt, one of the central themes that mankind has agonized about over the ages. Civilizations define themselves by what they believe about evil. Professor Russell does us an inestimable service to trace this record of how evil was looked upon in our tradition. But I think that Chesterton's Wesleyan grand­father was closer to the heart of things when he was willing to thank God for existence even were he a lost soul. The concern that I have for Professor Russell's most stimulating and worthy study of evil is that by concentrating on "suffer­ing" instead of evil he has made suffering into an accusation against God, only to have lost the real question of evil which Lucifer originally brought up-that is the possibility of a free creature choosing itself over a higher good, a choice with its own necessary consequences not only for itself but for the whole cosmos.

The nature of the person who receives or does good or evil, not the nature of God, is the locus for the proper thinking about evil and suffering. Whether it would be better for the recipient not to exist is the real theme of Lucifer. Yet in classical thought Lucifer is a being who remains, even in his own choice of himself, as Aquinas held, substantially good. All "evil" is dependent on what is good, on simply what is. The only real alternative to what is, is what is not, not some other form of creation in which there might or might not be less suffering.