Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Devil is in the Mirror, Antonin

In a recent interview, one of our Federal Supreme Court Justices, Anonin Scalia, acknowledged that he believed in the devil. Or should I say Devil, as a proper noun.

Not symbolically, as in a belief in the presence of evil in the world. Not figuratively, as an acknowledgement that we all from time to time behave in ways that later make us ashamed. His belief is as literal is it possibly could be. He believes, heart and soul, in a material, human-like creature with tangible, physical presence who leads the forces of evil. The Prince of Darkness. The Ayatollah of Evil. The Quarterback of Creepiness.  A devil that deserves a personal pronoun, as in "He is actively engaged in getting people not to believe in him or in God."

This is, mind you, one of the nine highly educated individuals who interpret the law of the land for the most powerful nation on earth.

James Garner as Jim Rockford.....Oh wait, no. This is our Justice,
Antonin Scalia, as he recognizes the Devil about to argue
before him in court.
Sigh.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Scalia is correct, I'm sure, when he says that 70% of Americans actually believe in a physical flesh-and-sulfur devil complete with horns and pitchfork. But I still can't quite get my ahead around the idea that at my recent recent department meeting of 10 souls, 7 of them actually subscribe to the literal reality of this mythology. According to these stats, 70% of us are actively concerned with resisting the wiles of a real character; they worry about the King Demon's personal hatred for them.

Now, I wouldn't argue that Evil doesn't exist in the world. It's as real a force as the life-affirming strain of energy we call Good. It can and should be discussed at length by serious people.  And there's really nothing wrong with enjoying a fairy tale of assigning mythological figures to represent these principles. A version of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. But a fully literal belief in the symbols themselves, rather than the principles they represent, is another matter entirely. Further, it seems to me that pinning the source of evil on a Devil is a way to shirk personal responsibility for it. In the background, I can hear Flip Wilson's line,  "The Devil made me do it."
"Pull my finger, Satan!"

Joseph Campbell once wrote that primitive man was (and is) more in touch with the spiritual side of existence, not because he believes literally in the presence of his dead ancestors in the totem spirits of trees and rocks, but precisely because he knows these things aren't literally true but chooses the playful path of seriously pretending. Campbell argues, persuasively, that it is the spirit of playfulness, of imagination, that's actually crucial to a genuinely spiritual life. Modern religious dogma, he'd argue, in its insistence on an completely illogical but literal subscription to these imaginary creatures, actually kills the soul. "Live and practice the 'what if'" is ultimately Campbell's prescription for fulfillment. Campbell says nothing about the value of checking your brain and common sense at the door.

Insisting on the literal and rejecting the symbolic is a sure-fired way to kill the magic in life. Follow Scalia's court participation for awhile, and you're quite aware that the man enjoys no magic whatsoever.

Makes me want to pray for his soul.


  1. Interesting post. I personally believe in "the devil", but as a force synonymous with "evil". Now God, on the other hand....he's REAL. He looks just like George Burns. ;)

    1. Yes, after posting this I recognized that there could be controversy here, given that calling into question the reality of the devil also has some implications for one's belief in God.

      But there, too, my own feeling is that "God" is a very real principle that dwells within us, not as a mythological personage. In that, I'm well aware I'm in a small minority of Americans, most of whom see something more literal with they speak of God.

      A interesting and very personal question: how do you define God for yourself?

    2. You don't get space or time without entropy. Clearly, nature is the language of the universe but disorder is part of its character. Likewise you don't get God without Satan. Everything behaves according to formation and decay --except thought. Everything obeys the entropic arrow of time except thought. Anything that messes with thought, interferes with its search for expanding layers of organization, is contrary to every cosmology, and not very life-affirming. Unfortunately, too many churches consider thought an aberration -- a treat from a talking snake, so to speak-- instead of a manageable gift from the whole universe.

    3. I agree that God and the Devil, good and evil, order and disorder define one another, and do not exist alone outside the context of the other. But I'm not sure you can say thought is exempt from entropy. Close examination suggests that mental processes arise, coalesce, then decay, just like every other element of nature.

      Interestingly, I just read an essay by Barry Lopez that posed the same definition of time—as the conscious recognition of the one-way direction of entropy.

  2. What you've posted has no doubt initiated a lot of cerebral gymnastics. You posit, as do your correspondents, a circuit of thought and pondering that take on the power of a koan. Good and evil, light and dark, a cosmic equilibrium that must create a kind of mandala, if only we had the ability or the vantage to see it. Christian apologist CS Lewis said he did not believe that God had an opposite because that would mean the absence of all that is good and without that there would be nothing. He did believe in little devils, fallen angels and thought their dictator or leader was the opposite of Michael, the archangel. Martin Luther said to "jeer and flout him for he can not bear scorn. Thomas More said he can not endure to be mocked. Lewis reminds us that he is, among other things, a liar. Is that who Scalia believes in?

  3. Here's a simple riddle, something of a koan, that could be considered: "In an environment where no human beings exist, does Satan/the Devil/Evil still exist?" In other words, in the middle of primordial forest devoid of sentient humans, does evil exist? Is the windstorm that fells trees and kills squirrels a force of evil? I think that answer is clearly no, the existence of evil is something subjective that dwells within the human experience, and as hence does not exist as a separate entity in any way.

    That's not to dismiss its reality, any more than you should dismiss "honor" or "love" or "courage" or any other manner of nouns that have no concrete referent. But it does indicate that evil is a philosophic and moral principle, not a physical creature with a tangible presence.

    Simple logic would lead to the conclusion that the Devil and other manner of cultural deities are projections, symbols of a inner human experience. It detracts from the meaningful consideration of evil to continue to "worship" an imaginary deity known as "the devil."