All Too Humans: The Prince of This World book event

This response in our book event on Adam’s The Prince of This World is by Dotan Leshem, senior lecturer in the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa.

The Prince of the World is a very ambitious and most welcome book. It offers an important contribution to the re-emerging literature that seeks to criticize the modern West by conducting a genealogy that traces its constitutive concepts in (Judeo)Christianity and in doing so forces the reader to rethink the present. Adam Kotsko does so by narrating a history of a (surprisingly) neglected figure in the abovementioned literature–Satan. In the first part of the book, Kotsko samples what he identifies as exemplary texts that capture the essence of seven different “paradigms.” Each comprises the pre-modern history of the devil, beginning with the deuteronomistic paradigm and ending with the medieval, of which the first six are the summarized in two tables (P. 44, 95). This historical narrative that follows the twists and turns of the role assigned to the devil in Judaic and Christian theology allows Kotsko to turn in the second part to a more elaborate discussion. This discussion deals, in most parts, with the problem of evil and free will of which the devil himself occupies a relatively small role in medieval Latinized Christianity with excursions into modernity. In his conclusion, Kotsko focuses on demonstrating how secularized modernity is very much trapped in a world molded in the middle ages, which for Kotsko, if one may use this term in a naïve way, is the source of all contemporary evil. Admirably, Kotsko goes one step forward from where most critical accounts in general–the genealogical ones in particular–stop and sketches some notes towards a new paradigm.

One can read Kotsko’s book as explicating the otherwise enigmatic assertion of Michel Foucault that “our societies proved to be really demonic since they happened to combine those two games–the city/citizen game and the shepherd/flock game–in what we call the modern states.” For If I understand Kostko correctly, what makes the modern state demonic is first and foremost that it is inhabited by demons (see p. 166, 184, 201). Or better yet, the secularized medieval providential apparatuses of totalizing and individualizing (to borrow from Foucault once more) demonizes us humans. As Kotsko seems to believe, we are all fallen angels who “live in the land of necessary evil, with no reference to the good” (166). As a result of secularization, the loss of reference to the good means that the loss of reference to the heavenly city that somehow kept the monstrosities of the earthly city at bay in the middle ages. As a result of secularization, we no longer aspire to freely subordinate our will to God, but instead see “the expression of an unrestrained will …(as) the essence of human dignity” (199).

It should be noted that not only God is missing from Kotsko’s world but also Satan, who lost his crucial role in the Christian providential apparatus in medieval times. This happened when God confiscated the apparatus of Christ as ransom. If you think for a moment that freedom from sovereignty, either of the King of Kings or of The Prince of the World, would grant human bodies possessed by fallen angels with no redemption in sight some sort of freedom in a new paradigm, then you are horribly mistaken, according to Kotsko. The lack of a kingdom and of foreseeable glory means that we secularized moderns are “governed indefinitely by the providential apparatuses of economy and democracy, (which) is a living hell” (168). Adding his own account to the never-ending debate concerning what is secularization (if such a thing ever took place), Kotsko seems to hold a very grim view of it. As if seeing the secularized medieval world as hell on earth is not enough, our demonic society is also governed by the apparatus of racialization. By that Kotsko means, again if I understood correctly, that our societies are stratified by race when the races which are most demonized are relegated to the lower levels of a bottomless (and satanless) hell, and their eternal suffering serves as a spectacle that entertains the higher echelons of our living hell (as a demonic kind of glory?).

How are we to escape this hellish existence? Kotsko points towards two solutions (besides escaping the Judeo-Christian tradition altogether). The two are very much loyal to the genealogical spirit of looking for remedies in times before things went awfully wrong, which in Kostko’s case means before the advent of the (Latin) middle ages. The first of these solutions calls for a return to the classical rabbinic paradigm. But such a solution seems problematic, as it doesn’t offer a governmental paradigm but leaves government all together to the mercy of evil-doers. The second solution follows Gregory of Nyssa’s Patristic paradigm and revitalizes Satan as The Prince of the World only to force him, and by that all demonized humans, to be redeemed. But what would redemption in a godless world look like? Isn’t is it a sort of a never-ending cycle of re-stratification–a Gramscian hell–in which the so called “redeemed” get to enjoy the spectacle of demonizing other racialized humans?

Surely, I do not have a get out of hell card up my sleeve. But it seems to me that if we were to look for a new paradigm, one that will not return to willingly submitting unto God nor to the Devil, but, on the contrary, a solution that will re-secularize modernity looking for a new paradigm, then a good place to start looking may be our bodies. This is not only for the reason that our bodies are what make us distinct from both angels and demons altogether, but also, as Foucault says in reference to the demonic nature of our societies, “Liberation can only come from attacking, not just one of these two effects, but political rationality’s very roots.”

The Prince of the World is indeed an extraordinary book and as Kotsko declares in a disclaimer of sorts (p. 14), it is not your usual scholarly book. On top of the unusually long history the thin book covers in 206 pages that testifies to the extraordinary scholarship of its author, Kotsko hardly refers to secondary literature (and when he does, it is unclear why this particular reference was chosen), and (admittedly) its choice of this or that text as a representative of this or that paradigm may seem idiosyncratic. Some scholars who specialize in this or that author, paradigm, or field (such as “devil studies”) may hold this against Kotsko, especially when his interpretation goes against the received view in the literature. As a reader who is not a scholar of demonology nor of angelology, let alone of most of the authors and periods Kotsko discusses I would have found it helpful if the references to the scholarship were more abundant. But this choice in no way diminishes from Kotsko’s achievement in this thought-provoking book.


Dotan Leshem, senior lecturer in the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa

One thought on “All Too Humans: The Prince of This World book event

  1. Thanks for this, Dotan. I almost wish you had gone first, since you give such a thorough overview. To begin at the end, your point about the scholarship issue is well-taken. As someone in a teaching-intensive position without research support of any kind, a thorough scholarly apparatus feels like a luxury to me. I realize that’s a weak point, but it was a sacrifice I felt like I needed to make — if I got bogged down in the scholarship, the book may literally never have gotten written. My wager is that the overarching narrative is interesting and plausible enough that lapses in scholarship on individual texts can be forgiven.

    On the issue of a “get out of hell free card” — I don’t have one either, unfortunately. I’m not exactly saying that the modern world is hell tout court, though I entertain that hypothesis from Agamben. The whole medieval world structure is present. If you’re extrapolating from the fact that the “truth” of that structure is hell, though, then I guess that makes sense.

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