Skip to main content

Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World

Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World
Written by Jeffrey Burton Russell and published in 1986

The book gives a detailed historical account and analyses of the concept of the Devil and how it has changed, spanning from the sixteenth century to the end of the twentieth century. Russell draws upon all of the major religious and philosophical ideas, developments and thinkers that emerge throughout the period, as well as major literary works and authors who deal with the subject of the Devil. The book also includes a number of illustrations – examples of how Satan and evil is portrayed in art throughout the years.
    The first chapter, “Evil”, clarifies the books objective. He briefly delineates the notion of evil before moving on to the Devil, writing: “The Devil is the symbol of radical evil. But does he exist, and in what sense?” (18). Russell applies particular emphasis upon the question of “in what sense” and continues by discussing the ontological and epistemological concerns about gaining truth and absolute knowledge. Russell points out the limitations of the human condition: “We know only one thing directly and absolutely, and that is that “something is thinking” (19).  He explains that tracing the history of mankind’s notion of the devil will help us gain a greater understanding of the nature of evil.
    The second chapter, “ The Reformed Devil”, focus on the sixteenth century. Russell writes that “it was a period that witnessed a profound shift in the center of gravity of perceptions of evil” (25). It explores the religious divisions of the period and discusses the belief in magic and witchcraft. He writes: “The theology of Luther and the rise of the witch craze both encouraged belief in the Devil” (28). The occult scenes in Goethe’s Faust reflect the beliefs of Christians during the witch craze in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Faust’s own deal with the devil mirrors that of witches:

“According to the Christian theology of that era, witches were people who had formally given themselves to the Devil by making a pact with him: in return for their service, Satan rewarded them with magical powers, which they used for evil purposes.” (28)

Faust differs in that he uses his magical powers to gain knowledge and power, not just for evil purposes.
Russell gives a detailed account of the beliefs of Luther concerning evil and the devil. In order to approach the concept of the devil, God must first be considered. Luther believed in the omnipotence of God, which means that “The Devil is God’s tool” (37) and he must therefore surely hold God responsible for the evil in the world. God is loving and good, and so a dilemma arises: why would God allow evil? “All evils come from both the Devil and God” (38). The response to this dilemma is given as follows:

    “Through Christ’s love we can understand that in all the apparent harshness of the world, God’s loving presence and purpose are never absent”(38).

    “Though the Devil does evil under God’s command, God hates the evil and wishes us to fight against it” (38).

    “Satan’s power over us is shattered by the incarnation of Jesus” (42).

 Russell goes on to discuss Calvinism, which take a similar view. He discusses a string of theorists (too many to include) and ideas, which includes how the Devil intends to corrupt us: “ The Devil seeks to convince us that worldly pleasures and sensual delights will make us happy” (51). Mephistopheles takes this approach in his attempt to gain Faust’s soul.
    Russell comments on the depiction of the demonic in art of this century and notes “ the transference of demonic qualities to human beings” (54), as in Hieronymus Bosch’s (1450-1516) painting “Christ Carrying the Cross”
The “gloaters”, as Russell calls them, “are human, but they have crossed into the realm of the totally evil” (54).
    Russell discusses the Faustbook, and describes Faust as “the single most popular character in the history of Western Christian culture” (58), after Christ, Mary and the Devil. He comments on Faust’s individualistic strivings, relating it to the “antischolastic bias of the Protestant Reformation”.  He points out that “Faust desires to obtain knowledge by his own efforts rather than to receive it by grace” and that this rebellion makes him the “prototype of the Romantic and modern revolt against authority”(59).  Russell discusses the origin of the name ‘Mephistopheles’, “a purely modern invention” (61), and then the nature of Faust’s sins:
“ Faustus’ original sin is the prideful desire to obtain knowledge for its own sake and for the sake of the power it gives” (64)

    “To his original sin of pride and folly, Faustus adds the final and unforgivable sin of despair” (62).

After recounting the story of Faust, the author moves on to discuss evil characters in Shakespeare and gives an interesting and detailed analysis of the devil in Hamlet (worth reading) claiming amongst other things that the ghost is in fact the devil and that Hamlet’s hatred leaves his mind and soul open for the devil to enter.
    The third chapter, “The Devil between Two Worlds”, focuses on how the devil fits into the conflict between the traditional Christian world and the emerging rational  and materialistic world of the Enlightenment. Russell discusses various philosophers, such as Hobbes, Descartes, Locke and Bacon, and their theories regarding God, the Devil and how the world fits in between them. The rationalists rejected the Devil, and anything “not consonant with reason” (84). Descartes believed “God created the universe with its natural laws and then withdrew to allow it to function mechanically” (83) – thus he is not responsible for evils such as natural disasters. After discussing a selection of view points Russell embarks on a detailed analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Satan’s ambivalent characterisation as hero/evil.
    The fourth chapter, “Satan Expiring”, focuses on the eighteenth century, where belief in the Devil began to waver significantly, thoroughly trodden on by the Enlightenment.  The author discuss Voltaire, Hume, Kant and Diderot’s beliefs concerning good and evil and delineates the beliefs and logic of Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), the man behind sadism.
    Returning to the Devil, Russel writes: “Although we are incapable of discovering what the Devil is as a thing in itself, we are capable of establishing with complete certainty what the Devil is as a human concept, because we have created the concept[…] the Devil is the tradition of what he has been thought to be” (152). The natural idea to follow this assertion is that the devil was created so that man can shift blame from the individual onto another being.
    It is at this time that Goethe emerges with his Faust and reimagines the devil in a form that sticks with him until this very day. Russell writes that Goethe intended his Faust “to express the complexities and incongruencies of his own mind, of his culture, and of Western civilization as a whole” (158). Goethe’s Mephistopheles “has the ironic, aloof, critical, cold, judgemental qualities of the academics who Goethe despised” and possessed “slick intelligence and superficial charm” but “on a deeper level he is a fool, for he fails to grasp that the essential reality of the cosmos is the power of love” (159). Goethe’s Faust represents the whole of humanity, constantly striving to find truth. One of his (and our) main problems is his failure “to understand the importance of love” (162). Russell concludes that “it is the failure to love that makes Faust a tragedy”(165).
    Chapter 5, “The Romantic Devil”, discusses the Romantic’s view of the devil, which is somewhat strange as they manage to turn him into a symbol of good. The romantics viewed Satan as the “symbol of rebellion against the unjust order and tyranny of the ancien regime” (169) and through Milton’s portrayal of him and through the concept of the sublime he becomes a Romantic hero.
    “The Romantic Hero is individual, alone against the world, self-assertive, ambitious, powerful and liberator in rebellion against the society that blocks the way of progress towards liberty, beauty and love” (175).
Satan is thus split into two: ‘Good’ Satan and the traditional evil Satan. The good Satan was the symbol of the ultimate revolutionary, striving for liberty. The evil Satan was the tradition figure, responsible for suffering and disaster. More than ever in literature, the devil is reduced to a comic figure, thanks to gothic novels. Since Faust, “the favourite theme among American writers has been the bargain with the Devil” (212). Russell explores numerous writers in this chapter, including Blake, Shelley, Byron, Hugo, Baudelaire and Poe. Russell ends the chapter with a brief remark on the influences of the devil and the demonic in classical music and literature of this period.
    Chapter six, “The Devil’s Shadow”, discusses the Devil in the world of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. The Chapter primarily explores the theories and beliefs of these philosophers in relation to the Devil and God. Unsurprisingly, Freud claimed that “the Devil is clearly nothing other than the personification of repressed unconscious drives” (228). Russell later remarks that during this time Satan becomes the “symbol of the demonic in the human mind” (238). The author explores the life and work of Dostoevsky in particular detail, analysis the role and influence of the devil on the characters and plot.
    Chapter seven, “The Devil in a Warring World” examines the devil in the twentieth century and its shocking events: the world wars, Hiroshima, the camps and genocides, etc. The late twentieth century saw the emergence of “Satanism” in music – an expression of “cultural despair” (257) and, more cruelly, in the followers of the Manson family. A sceptical reinterpretation of the bible occurs, questioning Christ’s depiction and his interaction with the Devil, whom the world no longer believed in as anything other than a symbolic personification of evil. Throughout the book Russell repeated recalls Baudelaire and others’ belief that the Devil’s greatest trick was to convince mankind that he doesn’t exist. Russell analyses the literature of Bernanos – who suggests that Satan finds entrance to our mind through our intellect (278) – and Mann, who reworks Goethe’s Faust in “Doktor Fautus”, with a more pessimistic outlook, reflecting the historical-political events of twentieth century Germany: “Demonic forces of darkness, madness, and negation permeate the novel” (282). The author also examines the somewhat terrifying works of Flannery O’Connor, who makes great use of the Devil in her works but, despite the murder and rape, offers the reader hope through the grace of god:

“More than in the Devil,” she wrote, “I am interested in the indication of Grace.” […] The Devil is a comic figure in spite of his ability to cause real suffering, because God turns his every effort into an occasion of good so that he is always accomplishing ends other than his own.”(288)

This too is the case in Goethe’s Faust. “The one thing that could save us from destruction [is] loving God and neighbour” (281).
    Russell concludes by commenting on the evil and potential devastation of the arms race of the cold war which were underway as he wrote. He describes the demonic qualities of nuclear warfare and urges us to put an end to it. He writes: “Evil can never be fought with more evil, negation with more negation, nuclear missiles with more nuclear missiles” (301). He also suggests that in today’s world the Devil is receiving too little attention and implies in his final paragraph that love is what must be used to fight him with.