Best Not to Lose Sight of the Devil’s Hand
We lose a great deal when we stop taking seriously the devil’s role in human events.
Lucifer, King of Hell, high resolution scan of engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Canto XXXIV of Inferno from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The devil—certainly as a hypothetical—has much more brand presence in the U.S. than back in my homeland of the U.K. The latter is so much more secularized than America that any talk of the devil is almost guaranteed to raise eyebrows, generate guffaws, or receive plain derision.
I haven’t been immune to this incredulous British bias. During my time living in Texas, whenever a Catholic friend dropped in the devil during discussions of current affairs and worrying societal trends, as was his wont, while I would politely nod, inside I’d be thinking: Steady on, old chap, it’s the 21st century.
But recent events on the global stage—particularly the denouement in Afghanistan—have had me pondering the devil and his purported role in human affairs, set against the increasing unfashionableness of discussing his dark arts when in polite society.
“Hell is total separation from God, and the devil is the will to that separation,” Aldous Huxley wrote in The Perennial Philosophy, his anthology of the basic tenets that he believed link all major faiths and have underlined religious inquiry throughout human history.
In Afghanistan, where I deployed in 2009, we tasted that separation while giving the devil’s hand a good shake. I didn’t see it that way at the time, or afterwards. But ten years on, while weighing up all the evidence—ranging from the billions of dollars made by defense contractors to the torture of prisoners at the U.S. detention center at Bagram airbase—increasingly I suspect that one of the reasons things went so awry in Afghanistan and Iraq is because we in the advanced West have become rather complacent about fundamentals underpinning the interplay of good versus evil, especially the role of the devil in the latter.
This dynamic was certainly not lost on Huxley, whose interest in religion and spirituality is rarely appreciated nowadays. Huxley is best known for his 1932 dystopian classic Brave New World, and his warnings about the dehumanizing aspects of scientific and technological “progress.” While it would be a stretch to claim Huxley as a theologian—though I would argue he does as good a job as others officially labeled as such—he was that rare beast of a phenomenally talented mind interested in both science and religion. He saw them as mutually compatible, rather than mutually exclusive as many people, especially in the scientific and academic communities, do nowadays.
Underpinning much of Huxley’s prolific literary output—he wrote nearly 50 books, novels and non-fiction works, as well as essays and poems—is his burrowing into how the way human behavior intersects with religion and science typically decides whether either of those manifest good or evil.
One of his best, and most underappreciated, efforts exploring this dynamic comes in his 1952 book The Devils of Loudun, which recounts the real-life events surrounding a case of demonic possession and sexual hysteria in 17th-century France, when Urbain Grandier, a handsome and dissolute priest, was accused of conspiring with the devil to seduce an entire convent of nuns. He was put on trial and found guilty in 1634.
A major theme in the book is how, once you give precedence to focusing on evil rather than on God and His goodness, you risk being consumed by the evil you are trying to stamp out: “No man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected,” Huxley says. “To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous. Every crusader is apt to go mad. He is haunted by the wickedness which he attributes to his enemies; it becomes in some sort a part of him.”
By the end of Huxley’s account, various priests tasked with exorcising the nuns who are busy blaspheming and putting their legs behind their heads have gone insane. Something like the dynamic at play in 17th-century France appears to have afflicted our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. We became consumed by the evil we thought we were tackling—the Taliban and their harboring of terrorists—and ended up doing far worse harm than the original evil of the attack of 9/11.
Yet as this played out disastrously across two decades, did we learn anything? The trend of focusing on wrongs to such a degree that swathes of people are overcome to act in irrational ways is finding its apotheosis today, in victimhood and cancel culture, identity politics and the current battles against trendy evils such as racism and transphobia—whose stamping out apparently justifies any means. This consumes so much media discussion and attention, to the detriment of other wrongs ailing society. All the while, there is usually little or no actual talk of God and the devil (especially the latter), which might explain many of the blundering efforts to wrestle with what is truly good or evil.
Throughout Huxley’s narrative of this tussle between the forces of light and darkness—one put under the microscope in Loudun, but which has defined and underpinned human history—Huxley illustrates how the perils of religious extremism and paranoia needn’t rely on the devil’s hand but can just as easily permeate the everyday.
“Possession is more often secular than supernatural,” Huxley suggests. “Men are possessed by their thoughts of a hated person, a hated class, race or nation. At the present time the destinies of the world are in the hands of self-made demoniacs—of men who are possessed by, and who manifest, the evil they have chosen to see in others.”
Despite making his point in 1952, there’s still much here that relates to the present. As virtuous and progressive as we like to think ourselves in 2021, human nature has remained remarkably similar across the eons. As Huxley notes, there is a “fundamental identity” of humans in any time period, stemming from our “incarnated minds, subject to physical decay and death, capable of pain and pleasure, driven by craving and abhorrence and oscillating between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for self-transcendence.”
The myriad habits this fundamental identity produces mean we are just as likely today to succumb to that human tendency throughout history to point the finger of accusation and blame. It’s him! It’s her! Burn them! Admittedly the burning is more figurative these days, but it is still causing enormous harm to individuals—lost careers, the mental toll of vitriolic abuse cascading down—while polluting the ecosystem of civic discourse.
Not many days seem to go by without another sacrificial Urbain Grandier being condemned. The latest example in the U.K. is 22-year-old Shamima Begum, who recently appeared from a detention camp in Syria live on a popular TV breakfast show to ask the British public to forgive her transgressions since she fled her east London home as a 15-year-old schoolgirl bound for ISIS.
Begum’s plea for forgiveness—as well as her request to return to the U.K. to stand trial; her citizenship was canceled by the U.K. government in 2019—has fallen on many deaf ears, with pundits concluding: “You made your bed, you lie in it.” While Begum offers an apt example of someone willingly shaking hands with the devil, there are clear mitigating circumstances: She made her reckless choice when only a minor and after being groomed online. Her defenders argue she is basically a victim of sex trafficking. Regardless of arguments over the details, in asking for forgiveness Begum has invoked one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity—upon which Western civilization is supposedly founded—without which life would descend into a Hobbesian mess of never-ending recrimination and revenge. But this tenet is given short shrift nowadays.
“There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love,” Huxley says, noting the “aching void of boredom” permeating modern society and how “nature abhors a vacuum, even in the mind.” This combination and the resulting societal order within which people now live seems increasingly capable of driving some people round the bend as their blood rises and their faces contort at the latest perceived indiscretion or threat.
“Congenially aggressive, they soon become adrenaline addicts, deliberately indulging their ugliest passions for the sake of the ‘kick’ they derive from their psychically stimulated endocrines…‘feeling good,’ they naturally assume that they are good,” Huxley says. “Knowing that one self-assertion always ends by evoking other and hostile self-assertions, they sedulously cultivate their truculence. And, sure enough, very soon they find themselves in the thick of a fight. But a fight is what they most enjoy; for it is while they are fighting that their blood chemistry makes them feel most intensely themselves.”
All of which would please only too well a certain Father of Lies as he flashes a knowing grin amid sulphureous fumes while admiring the resulting fracas.
James Jeffrey spent nine years in the British Army, serving in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, before attending journalism school in Austin, Texas. Since 2012 he has freelanced in America and the Horn of Africa, writing for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com .