Adam 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