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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Get thee behind me

Singularly, he could be the answer to mass unemployment, for as is well known, he makes work for idle hands. His picture book has encouraged fools to lose their shirts and even their homes, but also enabled decent folk to while away their time pleasantly in the pub playing twenty-one.

Collectively, they can be trainee barristers, printers’ apprentices or innocent-naughty lads making saucy remarks to the girls. When red, they could be Billy Whelan, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Irwin or, more plausibly perhaps, Roy Keane. They have been a gift to cartoonists, and latterly advertisers, neither of whom, however, are inclined to take them too seriously. And where exactly would one seek out this multi-faceted creature? Where would one find it? In the detail.

They have inhabited our imagination for two thousand years ‑ and longer, since their origin is certainly pre-Christian ‑ but in the late seventeenth century the Leipzig and Halle professor Christian Thomasius, drawing to some extent on the work of Dutch theologian Balthasar Bekker, dared to assert that the Devil (or devils) did not exist. As the French historian Paul Hazard, in The Crisis of the European Mind (1935), channelling Thomasius, puts it:

Neither the evidence, nor the Scriptures if read aright, nor common sense, nor logic furnished any grounds for maintaining such a superstition: This sort of thing, for example – Satan presents himself to a man in animal or human shape; they strike a bargain; Satan gets the man’s soul; the man gets the power to put the evil eye on men and things ... This absurd idea about the Devil is taken from books and pious books at that. That is where – in books – Catholics, from their childhood upward, have seen the Devil in the guise of some horrible monster; that is where Lutherans, from their childhood upward, have seen the Devil in a monk’s habit, complete with cloven heel and horns poking through his cowl ... You would think ... that after Luther, after all the fables, Roman and papistical, had been exploded, the Reformers would have shed this absurd delusion. Not so; it still holds its ground in popular belief; indeed it actually seems to be gaining ground among the Protestants, among Lutherans in particular. The shame of the thing!

Thomasius came at the very start of the Enlightenment, or was perhaps even pre-Enlightenment (it is the thesis of Hazard’s book, in so far as it can be said to have a thesis, that that movement, strongly associated with the eighteenth century, began, or was at least strongly prefigured, in the last decades of the seventeenth).

It is difficult not to sympathise with Bekker and Thomasius in their challenge to the existence of the Devil and devils. Apart from what one might deem the “childishness” of such notions, the sinister trials of witches and other supposed dupes or accomplices of the Evil One resulted in the judicial murder of quite large numbers of wholly innocent people in early modern Europe.

Those who opposed superstition and championed reason, the Christian sceptics and pioneers of biblical criticism and those more daring spirits who followed them, Deists and Socinians, believed they were chipping away at extraneous, corrupt “accretions” to religion. When that necessary cleansing was completed one would be left with the original and essential – a rational religion in which one could worship, or if not worship at least ardently admire, a God who had, in a very eighteenth century scientific sort of way, “ordained” the universe and its laws and motions before retiring from any further particular intervention in the affairs of men: He did not make the cattle sick to punish idolatry, drunkenness or debauchery; He did not smite unbelievers, nor did He answer clamorous petitions. Far from it ‑ (Thank you, your prayer has been received. God is out of the office at the moment. If necessary We will get back to you.)

The moderate rationalists believed that you could throw out superstition while retaining the essentials of Christian belief. But that is not how it happens. Conservatives and reactionaries suspected that once you allowed impertinent reason into an area in which it should have no purchase, it would not be just some things that would fall away; everything would fall away. In this they were pretty much right. Not that the rationalists didn’t have their own superstitions. Much intellectual effort was spent, Hazard relates, in debunking the notion of “oracles”, privileged sites or rites or priests or priestesses who could see through a chink into the future. The sturdy freethinkers dethroned such oracles but curiously enthroned “the oracle of Reason” in their stead.

The pre-eminent century of Reason and Enlightenment, the eighteenth, was in many respects a fortunate and attractive one. Certainly it seemed so to many of those who lived through it and looked back on the devastation and high mortality associated with the religious wars of the previous one (the Thirty Years War). Those with land or income, in the absence of particular negative circumstances, tended to live in a rather pleasant way. Those without – well, not so well ‑ though perhaps not so horrendously as they did when in the following century the explosion of industrial capitalism drew them away from their villages and into teeming, filthy, insanitary towns where they were to be at the mercy of “trade cycles”. Yet throughout much of eighteenth century Europe ignorance remained general and life, for the peasantry, was short and sometimes brutish.

It may be true that many Catholic priests did not bother very much, and in many cases were not sufficiently intellectually or educationally equipped to bother with, scholarship or reason, and so they preferred to talk about the work of the Devil. The existence of this spirit may well, as some argued, be insufficiently scripturally attested. But perhaps the priests’ flocks found Old Nick easy to recognise. Unlike the progressive pastors much given to library study or the more bumptiously optimistic of the Enlightenment thinkers, peasants were well aware that their children died routinely, as indeed did women in childbirth. They knew that crops failed and people starved, that slight coughs turned into weaknesses and declines, which then turned into early deaths. Not that the less poor always fared a great deal better, but at least they died in more comfortable circumstances.

The Devil is not a notion we are inclined to accept; perhaps it is not a notion we should accept. Exorcism is now performed not by trained priests but through drugs and talking cures. But in spite of the sublime Haydn and Mozart, the sharply intelligent Diderot and the breezily confident Voltaire we cannot get away from the fact that life is not always so wonderful. Parents die. Children die. Friends die. Siblings die. We ourselves weaken or sicken, on our way to dying. And somewhere, quite far away from Europe, people die randomly every day, in a market when a car explodes and blows them to pieces because they are Shia, or because they are Sunni; or when something comes out of the sky at them because they live in the wrongly identified village next to the one where the Taliban leader might be honouring a wedding with his presence.

There may be no Devil, but there does seem to be evil, certainly an unconcern with the fates of those we do not know, which has “evil consequences” for them. How do you deal with that? The Enlightenment view that progress would moralise us all doesn’t really seem to have worked. The nation which can boast the most advanced scientific achievement is also the world’s most aggressive power.

When France was invaded in 1940 Paul Hazard was teaching at Columbia University in New York. He could have chosen to stay in the United States but instead returned home to demonstrate solidarity with his compatriots. He was elected a member of the Académie française in 1940 but was never to take up his seat. He was elected rector of the University of Paris but the Nazis wouldn’t allow him to serve. He died in April 1944, just two months before the Normandy landings. He thus didn’t live to see the particular evil which had settled on his country defeated, but one would like to think he could feel that defeat coming.