The devil has fallen on hard times. He used to be a world-historical figure—and indeed, one of the goals of this talk is to show that the political and theological forces that produced the figure of the devil were the same ones that produced the idea of something like “world history”—and now he’s a half-forgotten novelty act, something out of a second-tier horror movie franchise. Where once he was offering Jesus all the kingdoms of this world if only he would bow down, now he contents himself with enticing mediocre guitar players to sell their soul. The very interest my research on the devil has generated is telling—the powerful spiritual being who triggered the fall of humanity, who set the drama of salvation into motion, who punishes the souls of the damned for all eternity, is now… fun.
This fall can’t be written off simply as the effect of the shift from the Christian Middle Ages to secular modernity. In the early modern period, the devil emerged as a powerful symbol of human autonomy, pride, and defiance. Great authors such as Milton and Goethe turned the devil and the demonic into enduring modern archetypes. Perhaps it is the shift from modernity to postmodernity that accounts for the devil’s diminished stature—in our age of ironic distance, we can no longer take seriously the distinctively modern drama of human self-assertion, with all its inherent risks and existential pathos.
Tracing the devil’s fate in modernity and postmodernity, however, will form the task of a later portion of my research. For now, I am seeking to lay the groundwork by clarifying the path that takes the devil from his origins in Jewish apocalyptic thinking—and in particular, the Jewish apocalyptic sect that we now call Christianity—up to his emergence as a figure of heroic rebellion at the dawn of 1modernity. The story is one of dramatic reversal, as the devil gradually shifts from being the very embodiment of the corrupt worldly forces that the messiah is coming to overthrow to being a kind of quasi-messiah himself, symbolizing humanity’s victory over a corrupt religious establishment. Here I can only tell a part of it.