Thinking, Willing, Blaming: The Prince of This World book event

This response in our book event on Adam’s The Prince of This World is by Linn Tonstad, Yale Divinity School. 

pid_23793Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World traces the subterranean logic by which the devil developed first as God’s opponent, then as God’s hench-fallen-angel/chief torturer in the bone-chilling settings in which the joy of the blessed in heaven is enhanced by their contemplation of the eternal torments of those who, unlike them, were not so fortunate as to have been the objects of God’s predestining, grace-filled will. Kotsko treats a wide range of figures in the book, offering creative reinterpretations not only of explicit treatments of the devil’s making and undoing, but of implicit ways in which a place for the devil came to be in Jewish and Christian imaginaries.

Kotsko is an admirably clear writer, organizing a stunning amount of material in accessible, yet never uncomplicated ways. I found the final chapter and the conclusion particularly interesting. Kotsko’s suggestion that one way to break the cycle of demonization in which we are trapped may be to allow even the devil to be redeemed strikes me as a promising option for reconfiguring the relationship between Christianity and hell-driven modernity, bent on the production of carcereal spaces and disposable persons. The interruption of various forms of production of the less-than-human is an urgent, indeed essential project, not only but certainly also in the current political climate in the United States.

Kotsko’s methodological forbears are Nietzsche, Foucault, and Schmitt, with Agamben as a conversation partner and partial target of correction. Near the start of the section on methodology, he cites the wonderful passage from Genealogy of Morals that insists on the contingency and history of struggle within which what may appear to be the ‘same’ thing is reinterpreted in unpredictable ways, “whose causes … in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion” (quoted in Kotsko, p. 9). What something comes to mean is not determined by what it meant. What ‘something’ comes to mean may also not be retroactively explainable by what it meant, for what it meant may have been subdued (“necessarily obscured or even obliterated”) in and by a different purpose, a different meaning.

The devil is one such ‘something’. In the different paradigms that Kotsko traces, what it comes to mean is not what it meant: over and over, the devil’s existence, nature, being, purpose, and relation to God are reinterpreted in new ways, and the devil does not remain untouched or untransformed in the process. But Kotsko seeks to do far more than trace the theological-intellectual history of an idea. Following Schmitt, he seeks to “rethink some of the central concepts of modernity in light of their Christian theological roots,” a “purely critical” intention (p. 14). Like Kotsko, I remain invested in critique, despite the turn against critique that has marked many humanistic fields in recent years (a turn that, many suspect, the current political climate is about to undo). Yet I was left with a few questions of different degrees of methodological and substantive significance. The easier leads into the harder; the harder accompanies many of our efforts to struggle with Christian legacies.

The easier: how do we engage with materials, thought-worlds, from the past—when the presumptions within which they operate are almost literally inconceivable to us? Here I have in mind Kotsko’s discussions of Anselm and Aquinas, particularly the former, where I sometimes found it difficult to recognize Anselm at all. I don’t want to go into great detail about each point of interpretive disagreement, since that’s probably interesting only to someone who (as I do) teaches Anselm on a regular basis. (In my introduction to theology class, Cur Deus Homo is typically paired with Delores Williams, and serves the purposes of teaching students how to outline an argument, how social context influences theologies of all kinds, and as an illustration of that against which Williams reacts in her critique of Christianity’s investment in the logic of surrogacy and substitution.)

Let me just mention two points of question, then turn to the consequences. In Kotsko’s discussion of the two affections of the will in Anselm, Kotsko reads the affection or orientation to happiness as an amoral, animal will (p. 116) that has to be subdued and sacrificed before God. “The will must efface itself before God in order to be just,” which means in effect that “every creaturely will is necessarily in rebellion against God from the very beginning” (p. 117). Here two presuppositions of Anselm’s are operative that, while clearly implausible in a modern framework, are essential for evaluating what Anselm thinks he’s doing. The first is that in Anselm’s incredible (really, incredible) metaphysical optimism, all powers naturally tend to the good. Indeed, all willing takes place under the aspect of the good. For rational creatures, reason searches out the good and gives the will its objects in so doing. The two orientations of a rational will, toward happiness and toward justice, are both in themselves good and oriented toward the good. Anselm therefore has real difficulty in explaining the origin of evil, as Kotsko recognizes. If all created powers, indeed all powers as such (since uncreated power, i.e. God’s, is intrinsically good), tend to the good, how the hell, almost literally, did anything go wrong? Anselm believes that the two affections have to be appropriately harmonized with each other in rational creatures: while it is good for us to will to eat delicious things, it is also good for us to will to eat delicious things in the appropriate amount and at the appropriate times, not simply to spend every second of our lives eating. (I say this with some reluctance as I love to eat.) But, importantly, the second requirement, that I not (for instance) steal food from others in order to indulge my love for eating, is not imposed on us from the outside, in Anselm’s view, but is a ‘natural’ orientation too.

To be a rational creature is, for Anselm, to be the sort of creature that, by nature, can evaluate what is good and do it in the appropriate degree and measure, rather than eating oneself to death or indulging one’s own appetites at the cost of others. The will’s orientation toward justice is a natural orientation of the will, and it’s that orientation on which freedom of the will depends. Both the affection for happiness and that for justice are in themselves good. But Anselm is, as Kotsko emphasizes, very concerned that there be freedom of the will for rational creatures. That freedom emerges from the possibility that the two affections may fall out of harmony with each other, may fall out of sync. It’s that possibility that is the possibility of evil. Does this mean that “if God had not imposed the requirement of the will to justice or rectitude upon him, the devil would be neither good nor evil” (p. 117)? In a sense, of course—if the devil were not a rational creature, the devil would not have the affection for justice or rectitude (although the devil would be good, because the devil, like animals, would naturally tend toward the good just like all created powers naturally do). But in Anselm’s view, the will to justice is not “imposed”—it is an intrinsic component or possibility of reason and freedom. For Anselm, unlike for Kotsko, freedom of the will does not mean an indifferent choice between one option and another. Kotsko worries that “the devil’s choice seems less like the authentic expression of freedom and more like a purely random impulse” (p. 130) and that, in the views of Augustine and Aquinas as well as Anselm is exactly right, especially the first part. For Anselm as for Augustine and Aquinas (with some differences), freedom isn’t an indifferent power for opposites. In Anselm’s view, freedom does not require the ability to sin! In fact, Anselm sees freedom as the power to uphold justice, or to remain in rectitude. (On the Freedom of the Will 1 & 3) That’s the power that Anselm thinks the devil gave up. Anselm’s explanation remains deeply unsatisfying, but, I think, for somewhat different reasons than those Kotsko identifies. He worries that “the devil’s choice seems to be more an act of sheer arbitrarity and randomness than an authentically free choice in any meaningful sense” (p. 131). But for Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, the only authentically free choice in any meaningful sense is choosing the good. That makes little or no sense to many of us today, because our notions of freedom, responsibility, and the good have radically changed. That’s why, I think, Kotsko sees a problematic analogue to social contract theory where “the original angels must simply assent to God’s chosen order without question” yet “are treated as though they had somehow already consented to be under God’s rule—as though they are already slaves who are subject to God’s will. This is the only way to make sense of the idea that the devil and his comrades are rebelling against God rather than simply choosing not to join his side” (p. 133). But for Anselm, the over-againstness that Kotsko sees here is simply not present. “Assenting to God’s chosen order without question” is assenting to the good and to justice (as recognized and recognizable by reason), and assenting to themselves—for their nature is to be naturally and rationally oriented toward the good and to justice which, for Anselm, is freedom, not enslavement (but freedom is not in its truest sense freedom to do just whatever but freedom to do the good). Anything else is, indeed, meaningless and a kind of self-contradiction.

This might still not be satisfying to us. What if they don’t want to be oriented toward the good and to justice? Anyway, isn’t God imposing the good and justice—how come God gets to decide? What if we have different ideas? Reason and the good are instruments of power and differentiation, not descriptions either of reality or human beings. And for us, because of the transformations initiated with later medieval debates over the relationship between will and goodness in God, God’s determination of the good seems almost necessarily arbitrary. But within the understanding of the convertibility of the transcendentals that Anselm operates with, the idea that choosing other than what God wants might be a perfectly reasonable, authentic expression of a will, without entailing injustice or self-contradiction, is just as nonsensical as his views seem to us. We’ve also lost the sense of what Kathryn Tanner calls, in God and Creation in Christian Theology—Tyranny or Empowerment?, a non-competitive understanding of the relation between God and creation. That is, the majority view in Christian history is that something can both be an authentically free human choice and caused by God. God and creation aren’t in an either-or relationship, but have different kinds of power. God is the source of any and all created powers, so in that sense there’s no either this power is mine or it is God’s, nor is there necessarily a sense that God’s relation to me is one of sovereignty in the sense of over-againstness. The idea, then, that “any choice we make independently is always by definition wrong, because only God enjoys the privilege of making choices that are unconstrained by any higher authority” (p. 198), is clearly right given our typical modern presumptions about the nature of freedom and the relationship between divine and human power. And it’s absolutely correct that, in this kind of model, “God effectively gets all the credit for our good choices, while we take the blame for our bad choices” (p. 199). Yet the presumptions—that God’s ‘overruling’, to use old-fashioned language, of our choices is the “constraint” of a “higher authority”—reflect the radical changes in how the relation between God and creation comes to be construed in the process of transformation running from approximately the late 15th to the early 19th centuries. (Or pick your own dates.)

What does it mean, then, to analyze genealogies of thought that are co-determining of modernity while rejecting the premises within which those ways of thinking made sense on their own terms? What worries me here is the question of what kind of blame is, in effect, being assigned where. Nietzsche’s worry about Christian morality is that it is in large part a mechanism for assigning blame, for finding someone to blame, for finding a kind of rationality or sense-making in a system of causes that doesn’t have that kind of rationality or sense-making to it. Kotsko worries that Anselm’s way of thinking about choice and blameworthiness is effectively a system for blaming—but isn’t the kind of analysis undertaken here also in part a search for the kinds of causes that Nietzsche tells us not to look for in a genealogical investigation? Is not blame being assigned? This is my bigger question, and it’s especially complicated because the standards of freedom by which God’s ordering of the world is understood as arbitrary power-over requiring submission themselves emerge from the same structures of thought held responsible for the deleterious effects of devil-thinking. Kotsko identifies the legacy of freedom as the trap of freedom—it’s not that he’s holding up modern standards of freedom as desirable and unproblematic, since he recognizes the fundamental problem that modern standards of freedom, especially as they relate to human rights, the rise of the nation state, and the history of colonialism, are dependent on the slave as their contrastive opposite. Our ambivalence about liberal conceptions of agency traps us in the dialectic of enlightenment, even as we recognize injury and seek to transform the conditions within which injury is repeated, justified, and naturalized.

Kotsko identifies the “mechanism of demonization” as “eliciting and even forcing the very choices for which an individual or group is to be judged morally inferior and worthy of punishment” (p. 201). The mechanism is a strategy by which injustice denies any responsibility for itself while assigning total responsibility to those treated unjustly. I find this description genuinely illuminating, and I recognize its operation in the contemporary examples that Kotsko cites, including the prison, racialization, and the War on Terror. But I don’t entirely recognize it in the model from which he derives it, the “moral lock-in of the rebellious angels” and “the structure of hell.” What’s being discussed there seems different to me; different in a way that matters. Again, I don’t endorse many of the presumptions of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, but I also don’t think they’re necessarily offering up a model that’s so easily transferred to interhuman relationships as all that. Or, at least, the model works in unpredictably different ways in different circumstances. Many contemporary discussions of sovereignty assume that, following Schmitt, if God’s sovereignty is the model for state sovereignty, or for sovereignty as such, then dissolving God’s sovereignty will assist in resisting state sovereignty, or human sovereignty as such. I don’t think it’s that simple. But that may be because I take quite seriously Nietzsche’s arguments that the history of ‘something’ may be, in effect, arbitrary rather than causally determined.


Linn Tonstad, Yale Divinity School

6 thoughts on “Thinking, Willing, Blaming: The Prince of This World book event

  1. Thanks for this response, Linn — as a huge fan of your work, I am honored that you would take the time out to participate.

    The critique of my reading of Anselm is well-taken. It is true that my readings of his work in various contexts have a uniformly negative tone and that basically for me he’s one of the “bad guys” (though one I also find fascinating — I think he is among the top-three most cited figures in my work overall, with only Agamben coming out clearly ahead). For that reason, I arguably did not take enough time to present his “official” views on the will in as sympathetic of terms as I could have. I would suggest, though, that perhaps one reason that you don’t recognize Anselm in my reading is that the “usual” Anselm is very difficult to recognize in De casu diaboli, precisely because the topic is such a poor fit for his theory of the will. Trying to account for the emergence of evil and rebellion — something that is especially difficult, I would imagine, from the perspective of an obedience-obsessed thinker like Anselm — causes his system to break down. If my reading appears anachronistic in terms of more modern concepts of freedom and will, it may be because this text represents an especially decisive moment of emergence of that very reconceptualization, one that surely goes against Anselm’s intentions and has effects far beyond what he could have anticipated (hence it is still genealogical in the Nietzschean sense). Yes, the later scholastic thinkers are the ones who really start to systematize it, but it’s Anselm’s characteristic boldness, his gesture of taking on the problem “directly” without the support of authority and citation, that opens up the field for them. And the sheer weirdness of the problem from his perspective is what produces the weird, crabbed character of the text — which in my opinion speaks to Anselm’s intellectual integrity and refusal to simplify the problem he has set himself.

  2. I completely agree that Anselm’s account in DCD doesn’t work on his own terms either–how could it!–but I think it breaks down at a slightly different point. In order to sin, the devil has to, in effect, “forget” everything he knows; specifically, he has to “forget” God! Which is especially impossible for an intellectual creature of the sort the devil supposedly is. On Anselm’s terms, in that first moment he doesn’t have to actively harmonize the two affections, he just has to will to maintain their harmony, but instead he sort of forgets God and forgets to maintain the affection for justice–which … makes no sense whatsoever. So he does contradict his own nature in effect, but I think it’s primarily on the level of reason/thinking rather than the level of willing. Which might then suggest a different place/origin for the fundamental flaw by which he becomes guilty.

    The point about the effects of Anselm is interesting. I’ve been thinking about why, when I can see the structure of what you describe so clearly in the contemporary examples (and even, to a certain extent, in Augustine’s wow isn’t it miraculous that God can ensure that bodies can be eternally tortured without dying, which I HATE), I can’t seem to see it in Anselm. I think it’s because I read it from the direction of Anselm trying to find some way, entirely impossible on his own terms, to explain why anything would be/go wrong when God and the universe and creation are all so fundamentally good. I didn’t talk about this in the post (because NO ONE has patience with this much Anselm except for maybe you and me) but I also read the account of redemption he’s offering a bit differently than you do (here and elsewhere)–with the emphasis not on the payment of the debt, nor on the suffering, but on the fact that God does it, and that the “Son” voluntarily complies with what the “Father” really wants, which is redemption, and that because the “Son” goes over and above what can be expected, the “Father” wants to give him a reward which he then redistributes. It’s not an account that I like, but again I see the emphasis more from Anselm’s point of view as fittingness/beauty, which is such an important independent criterion in his thinking. Obviously, for Anselm *any* imaginable reason that can be given for something effectively weighs in its favor and makes it rationally compelling absent reasons to the contrary. To my mind this is so far from how I think that, while I obviously share your general concerns about certain forms of submission/obedience to God, I simply can’t make Anselm be saying the thing that I’m concerned to critique there because almost every premise he has is just foreign to me.

    Now for the Anselm stories–because DCD played a really important role for me at the start of my graduate work. Both stories are ones I tell my graduate students regularly, because they illustrate a degree of cluelessness on my part that is pretty astonishing, as well as reminding me to be patient with students.

    So Marilyn McCord Adams, who died last month, was my advisor for my MA in philosophical theology. She, of course, was devoted to medieval metaphysics. The very first thing I said to her in her office, when I barely knew who she was, was that of course no one anymore takes substance metaphysics seriously, since that would be completely absurd. She never said anything to me about it, but it only took a few weeks of studying with her before realizing what a rude thing I had said! Nonetheless, she was really supportive of me as a graduate student.

    That first class I took from her was a seminar on Anselm. She’d lay out his premises and explain how they fit together, and I would raise my hand and challenge the fit–over and over. The two aspects that bothered me the most were why Jesus’ human death gets the ‘credit’ of his divine nature (since that’s what makes it infinitely valuable) and the account of the fall of the devil. Midway through the semester, we had to turn in a short draft of the seminar paper. I thought, well, I better write on a pretty narrow topic so that I can do a good job.

    Gentle reader, I chose to write on the knowledge of God in Anselm.

    Marilyn, with infinite patience, returned the 10-page draft to me with helpful comments that included something along the lines of, hey, this is rather a bigger topic than you can treat in a seminar paper! So in the end I wrote on the fall of the devil. It’s one of three most important papers I wrote in graduate school, in terms both of what I learned and its effect on my thinking–as well as my thinking about teaching and advising. I’ve never learned more or faster than I did that semester.

  3. My Anselm stories aren’t quite so good as yours, though he was formative for me in grad school as well. In fact, I would probably include the Major Works collection as a desert-island book! Some of the difference between our readings may stem from different strategies — I am inserting Anselm into a narrative that is, to put it bluntly, bad, whereas you are attempting, if not a recuperative reading, then at least one that is more attentive to what might be weird and interesting and unexpected in Anselm. I imagine that if I were writing a book about Anselm as such, more of those elements would come out. In fact, one of my first publications was an article comparing Judith Butler’s account of subject-formation with DCD, and I wind up finding some redeeming elements in poor old Anselm.

    In any case, I’m not sure that I see the cognitive emphasis that you bring out in DCD, or rather, I view it as a subsidiary move that still aims at setting up the problem of a rebellious will. At bottom, the devil’s will has to be in play, because that is the only site of moral judgment for Anselm — the devil can’t be evil if he didn’t will something evil. And every turn in the argument — when the student comes up with a really good objection — centers on a new complication with the will, or at least that’s how I read it.

  4. I think that’s exactly right–I’m NOT interested in recuperating Anselm, but rather in identifying everything that makes no sense whatsoever to me about how he thinks–and there’s a lot. Thus I see much less continuity between what he’s up to and ways of thinking about the world that I understand or can recognize. And that brings us back to the real question, which isn’t about Anselm as such, but about how we determine what persists, and assign responsibility (and, perhaps, blame) for such persistence.

  5. Let me enter this discussion from left field. I’ve just finished teaching the Zohar (the nice edition done by Danny Matt for the Classics of Western Spirituality series). In the Zohar, the Devil (Samael, plus his consort Lilit) is not a rebel against God’s just rule, nor does he really want to rule in place of God. Rather, the Devil wants to destroy the world and thus deprive God of any chance He may have of bringing his love of the world to fulfillment (his remarriage with Shekhinah). So, how does the Devil go about this? He actuates God’s attribute of justice (Din). He brings to God all the evidence of evil in the world he can, which of course he has some hand in. Evil is not the metier only of the Devil, though, but of the whole tragedy of creation itself, the overpowering love/light of God failing to be held within the fragile vessels of the world (this is perhaps only hinted at in the Zohar, but it becomes central to Lurianic Kabbalah). What I think is so interesting is the Devil’s metier is not evil as such but justice. As I write this, this seems consistent with Adam’s analysis. I think the Kabbalah would completely agree that Christianity God is the Devil, precisely because He is just. For the Kabbalah, there must always be an appeal against God’s justice to a higher instance, his Love. Love does not keep the universe intact, but the appeal to Love does. Noah failed because he went along with God’s commands. Abraham and Moses refused to let God exercise his justice.

Comments are closed.