Commentary Magazine

Speak of the Devil

In the playful spirit of Milton Himmelfarb’s piece on the movement to limit population growth (p. 37), let us imagine for a moment that the Devil really exists. Only a few years ago it would probably have been harder for most of us to perform such an act of outlandish imagination than it is today. To all but a very few—the name of Norman Mailer comes to mind as a lone exception in the American literary world—the idea of the Devil was for a time even deader than the idea of God. Not everyone, to be sure, agreed that God was dead, and it was still possible in certain circles to profess a belief in Him without calling one’s sanity into question. But I doubt that a similar tolerance would have been extended to anyone who professed to believe in the reality of the Devil.

Today all that has changed. The idea of the Devil is everywhere. Rosemary’s Baby fascinates millions, and they do not, apparently, find it an implausible story. The Rolling Stones and Jean-Luc Godard sing, again to many millions, of their “Sympathy for the Devil.” Cults and churches explicitly worshiping the Devil are suddenly discovered to be springing up—enough of them to provide material for a growing descriptive literature. Charles Manson appears among us.

Well, then, let us imagine that the Devil exists, and that he is even now “going to and fro on the earth and . . . walking up and down on it.” If he exists, he is by definition the principle of evil personified. The principle of evil, again by definition, is the opposite of the principle of good which is, of course, personified in the figure of God. It follows inexorably that what the Devil wants of us must be the opposite of what God commands us to do. On that point, the Bible—surely our most authoritative source on the nature of God, if He exists—is simple and entirely straightforward. God wants us to live. “Life and death” has He set before us, and He exhorts us to “choose life.” The Devil, then, must want us to choose death; and so, by all the accounts we have of him, he does, however rarely he may risk putting it in those unwily terms. Another word for the choice of death over life is suicide. Suicide is thus the supreme act of obeisance to the Devil. If the Devil exists, he exists for the purpose of tempting or seducing us—God’s creatures—into the taking of our own lives. All at once if possible, gradually if necessary. He will settle for gradually.

God, according to the Bible, commands us to be fruitful and to multiply. This too is entailed in the choice of life over death. Being imperfect, which is to say mortal, we cannot choose to live forever. But we can choose the longest possible life—all the life there is for mortal man to live—if we accept our rightful place in the chain of the generations. If we honor our fathers and our mothers, our days (so it is specifically written in the Ten Commandments themselves) will be lengthened upon the earth. And if we are fruitful and we multiply, our days will be further lengthened through our issue on the earth. To choose life is therefore also to choose the breeding of life. Thus, according to the Bible, saith the Lord.

The Devil, if he exists, does not command us to be fruitful and to multiply. If he exists, he exists for the purpose of tempting or seducing as many of God’s creatures as he can into a refusal to choose the breeding of life. He is nothing, we know, if not cunning. The Bible suggests that he lures us into suicide through playing on our fantasies of eternal life which spring in turn from our fear of death. Lo mot t’mutun, says the serpent to Eve in a statement so emphatic that, if accurately translated, it would have to read: “You shall not surely die dead.”

Here, incidentally, we have a strong clue as to why the opiates are such wonderful instruments of the Devil. To subject oneself to the influence of heroin is to run from the fear of death into a persuasive fantasy of immortality. But the laws of the human organism are such that the user requires a larger and larger dosage to produce the same sensation until, finally, he must choose between death in the form of an overdose and life in the form of a return to the unillusioned consciousness of his own mortality. In this fashion are the innocent, who are innocent in every sense except in the sense of being free of the responsibility to choose, seduced step by step into the taking of their own lives.

With just such cunning manipulation of the laws of the human organism does the Devil lure us away from fertility and into the service of sterility. As he seduces into suicide not with the praise of death but with the dream of an escape from death, so he seduces into sterility not with denunciations of the generative act but with the promise of sexual riches and sexual delights free of all troublesome consequentially: onanism and sodomy, copulation without end and without issue. Above all, without issue; without issue above all.

Would he not, if he existed, be pleased with the size and condition of his American flock? Could even he with all his cunning have ever dreamed that so many would come to preach sterility and even to sterilize their very own selves in the name of a greater piety toward nature, a greater sense of responsibility to the future, and a greater reverence for life?


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