Eric_W's Reviews > Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World

Mephistopheles by Jeffrey Burton Russell
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's review
Nov 19, 08

really liked it
bookshelves: history-historiography, philosophy
Read in January, 1996

Jeffrey Burton Russell has, one might say, specialized in the devil. In a series of volumes he has traced the evolution of Satan and evil as perceived in religion, literature and philosophy since the beginning of recorded time. Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World traces modern man's view of the devil beginning with the 16th century to the present.
We are surrounded by different "truth systems." What may be true for science may have different validity in another truth system, e.g. art or history. Science says little about beauty, for example. A tree is a plant, but it may also be a symbol in art, a totem in religion, or the tree on which John Smith was hanged. All are equally true. So it is with the devil and evil, explains Russell. Moral evil cannot be measured by science which can only investigate the physical world.
     The devil as a concept was created to help explain evil. During the 16th century as Protestants and Catholics warred with one another, Satan grew in stature. The Pope symbolized the Antichrist for Protestants while Catholics exorcised demons from Protestants. The Devil became an important symbol for religion which philosophically requires evil in order to define good. The Faust legend metaphorically represented the changing attitudes toward evil that occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries. The struggle in medieval times had been homo centric: God vs. Satan, but God intervenes to save and protect man. In Shakespeare and Faust the struggle became more individualistic (society had become more bourgeois and competitive); the struggle a more protestant and personal one. The fight is now between man and the devil. The struggle has also become more pessimistic. In medieval times the devil was depicted as a clown, funny-looking and stupid. The sinner was invariably saved. Now, Faust turns away from God, hardens his heart and is invariably doomed. The increasing ambivalence toward knowledge is apparent. The Faustian sin is to seek ultimate knowledge and the power which comes from this knowledge. (I'm going to have to quit talking about knowledge being power). The tension between religion and scholarship still apparent today was unique to Protestantism according to Russell. The Devil has also become much more introspective and sympathetic toward his victim (The Screwtape Letters ?). The humanization and internalization of the devil became a major theme in 16th and 17th century literature.
Russell traces the changes in perception of evil from the clowning medieval simpleton to the Reformation's introspective and cunning, spiritual lunatic. The more plausible Satan reflected qualities admired by the romantics: individualism, rebellion, ambition and power; a liberator in rebellion against a society who blocks the way toward beauty and love. The Gothic novel portrayed good as a veneer covering up evil and danger. Ironically during the 17th century, belief in the devil declined as those in power became threatened by the witchcraft craze. It was one thing to let the commoners burn each other at the stake, but when the elite felt threatened suddenly it was discovered there was no scriptural basis for sorcery or witchcraft. Theologians also worried that evil had become so prominent as to make the devil virtually independent of God. Russell traces the rise of skepticism and by the late 1700s the much more common view was that God and Satan exist but rarely intervene in the world.
       Russell's final chapter is devoted to a discussion of God and the Devil's role in a modern materialistic world. He points out that while science cannot confirm the existence of God neither can it find any evidence against it. He argues that the concept of evil and the devil may be useful because it allows us to conceptualize the reality of non-good (my term.) If it were better understood that a "perceived spiritual voice may come from a power of evil, dangerous cult figures who argue that they speak with the voice of God might win fewer followers." Russell is at his best when dealing with the historical evidence of belief in Satan. His literary illusions become tendentious. Still, a book worth reading. Rather than start at the end of the series you might wish to begin at the beginning with The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, followed by Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, then Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages.

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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Titus (new)

Titus L Looking forward to reading this work :)
True that Mephistopheles and medieval 'devils' have beeen portrayed as clown-like
(see my video here, mephistopheles appears exactly as you have suggested... )
My own thoughts on 'devils' in general culture and on mephistopheles in particular(despite the perspectives of such remarkable works as the screwtape letters & the master and marghuerita) is that they are an autonomous canvas upon which we metaphorically project our fears.
Sharing something with the tibetan view of the bardo thodol, they may be expressions of energy to which we (in good quantum physical methodology) ascribe a moral perspective.
That some such forces of energy are 'chosen'(by us?!) to 'represent/embody' various perspectives may be due to their own orientation in relation to our perceptions...a vegan may consider all who eat meat to be villanous, yet he falls himself under the assesmeent of a jain who refuses to tread on an insect in passing and wears a mask to protect against breathing in microbes...for their sakes...
which demonstrates that there is some case for subjectivity in these perspectives.

Be that as it may, stereotypes are valuable tools in defining our morals and shared communal standards.

with best wishes **

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