The Death of Satan by Andrew Delbanco
Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia, despairs that in a century in which evil has triumphed as in no other, Americans have lost the vocabulary to respond to it. This imaginative failure, he contends, undermines our power to face evil, and may already have removed our ability to fight it. To trace historically the changing fortunes of the American idea of evil, he follows it through the early settlement, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Progressive era, and our own postwar age.
Delbanco, who has written a book on the Puritans and co-edited an anthology of their writings, begins his survey with the New England settlers, whose world view drew heavily on what the scholar Perry Miller called the “Augustinian strain of piety.” Evil, for the Puritans, was represented by a Satan whose attributes—flattery, trickery, and, especially, pride—were invisible and incorporeal, a “maddeningly elusive abstraction.” That elusiveness is the genius of Puritan theology, in Delbanco’s view, for it constitutes an admission that evil is not something or somebody external, but exists in every one of us. To use Delbanco’s modern metaphor, the Puritans viewed evil as something akin to the id.
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