Evil is not good's absence but gravity's
I've increasingly come to believe that the inability of the more honest denizens of the Left to reconcile their political beliefs with the pathologies that those beliefs cause is inducing a kind of schizophrenia in many of them. Some examples we've looked at here in the past include : In Defense of Elitism (1994) (William A. Henry III 1950-1994)andLiberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream (1997) (Jim Sleeper). Andrew Delbanco's nearly good book, The Death of Satan, falls into this category too. Mr. Delbanco is infamous for a statement he made in The New Republic several years ago, that "[religious] belief is really not an option for thinking people today." The contempt and close-mindedness evident in that snide remark unfortunately end up deforming this book too and prevent him from following where his own analysis has led, leaving the reader with a serious sense of anticlimax.
I first saw Mr. Delbanco in a PBS interview with Bill Moyers on September 12th, 2001, discussing the awful events of the day before, and was immediately struck by how rare it was to hear someone in the liberal media talk about evil as a reality. You'd expect it on Fox News or in the pages of National Review, but with PBS and Moyers you expect to hear a lot of inane chatter about root causes and how someone can't really be blamed for their own actions. But here was a guy unequivocally stating that evil exists in the world, and that we'd just seen an example of it:
BM: Do you believe in evil?
AD: I don't see how anyone can have experienced even
indirectly as you and I sitting here
BM: Evil is defined as?
AD: Well, for me I think the best I've been able
to do with that question is to try to
BM: The absence of a moral imagination, the ability
to see what the consequences of your
AD: Yes, the inability to see your victims as human
beings. To think of them as instruments
BM: You have written about your concern that Americans
have lost the sense of evil. Is
AD: I think it simmers. It's dormant in all of us.
We don't want to acknowledge it. We want
That's pretty strong stuff, especially from a network dedicated to bringing us such drivel as John Bly and Joseph Campbell and P.O.V. specials about evil Christian evangelicals. So Mr. Delbanco's book seemed like a worthwhile read. Well, it is, and it isn't.
Mr. Delbanco frames the issue of Satan's death as follows :
[T]he work of the devil is everywhere, but no one
knows where to find him. We live in the most brutal century in human
I have written it out of the belief that despite
the shriveling of the old words and concepts, we cannot do without some
Now, as a threshold matter, it is important to note that there's a huge portion of the society for whom the existence of evil has always remained a central tenet of both religious and political beliefs. Much of the American populace is, after all, still Judeo-Christian, and has little doubt that Man is Fallen and prone to succumb to Satan's blandishments. But beyond the religious believers, conservative political philosophy (including that of the Founders, which means the philosophy upon which our republic rests) proceeds from the understanding of Man as a selfish, acquisitive, and violent beast whose basest impulses must be restrained by religious, governmental, and social institutions. These may not be the kinds of circles that Mr. Delbanco travels in, but it seems odd, even arrogant, to discount the beliefs of at least half of his countrymen. Still, he's off to a good start as far as analyzing what has gone wrong with the other half of society, so we're intrigued, eh?
Much of the book that follows is quite good and parts of it are really insightful. But in other places his disdain for any Republican verges on the psychotic, as when he compares Ulysses S. Grant to a character from a Jim Thompson novel and refers to him as a "modern monster". This is an outrage, of which Mr. Delbanco should be ashamed. A finer, more decent, man than U. S. Grant has never graced our public life. That he was willing to accept the responsibility for the butchery that ended slavery and destroyed the Confederacy in a few short years puts us all in his debt. He deserves better treatment than this. Elsewhere, discussing the defeat of Communism, he says condescendingly that Ronald Reagan "confidently" named the USSR the 'evil empire.' One wonders if Mr. Delbanco, no matter how Democratically orthodox, still seriously thinks that it was not. But, at any rate, he walks us through the crises and trends--from the Civil War to industrialism to racial struggles to postmodernism--that served to loosen the grip of religion and of the certainty of evil upon our minds. And, as the grip loosens, the times get bloodier and bloodier, until we can not doubt that Mr. Delbanco has identified a serious problem with our modern world. We have been sorely diminished and our society catastrophically degraded by the failure of imagination that has killed Satan (and God) and, in the process, done away with the basis for morality. We are more than ready to hear his solution. Lead on, MacDuff!
So we reach the denouement, and Mr. Delbanco describes the previous world--in which we still had imagination, rather than pure reason--but then concludes :
Although there would be a certain satisfaction in
living imaginatively in such a world, on balance it is probably a good
Where Mr. Delbanco had begun by telling us "we cannot do without some conceptual means for thinking about the sorts of experiences that used to go under the name of evil," now he tells us that instead :
[T]he story I have tried to tell is the story of
the advance of secular rationality in the United States, which has been
From here on, things get really muddled, as having just surrendered to a worldview that even he has acknowledged leaves us with a gaping void in our lives and fuels our inhumanity toward one another, we next find him telling us that the "party of secular humanism, of which I consider myself a member, has deluded itself into believing that human beings can manage without any metaphor at all" and then that "the idea of evil is not just a metaphor that 'some people find...useful'; it is a metaphor upon which the health of society depends."
This really leaves him no other option but to try and construct a secular metaphor for evil. Tellingly, he turns to (and apparently misinterprets) St. Augustine for help. He says that St. Augustine rejected the idea that evil could be objectified (as Satan or as some other person or group of people), and instead identified evil as 'an essential nothingness.' Mr. Delbanco has decided that the "nothingness" of which this version of evil consists is a kind of absence of sufficient love for others in our own hearts. Of course, the objections to this idea are too numerous to address completely, but a few will do. First, having rejected the idea of universal truths, how does Mr. Delbanco decide what actions are evil to begin with? What is wrong with the Holocaust or the Killing Fields or Jim Crow if there are no universally valid meanings of good and evil? Second, note that by defining evil as an absence of something you, in effect, deny the existence of evil. The lack of something can not be that thing. Hunger is the lack of food, not the absence of hunger. Third, when St. Augustine spoke of evil as a lack of something he didn't mean some generic kind of thing, but the absence of good, or godliness. Unfortunately for Mr. Delbanco, when he earlier in the book disposed of universal truths and of evil, he necessarily threw the concept of good away too. Fourth, the very essence of the story of Man's Fall is that evil lurks within us all. Strongly held religious beliefs may sometimes lead to unfortunate prejudices, and they will necessarily lead us to harsh, but often just, judgments about the behavior and beliefs of others, but Judeo-Christian (which is to say American) religious beliefs also recognize the evil that is an immutable part of our own souls. In the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn :
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously
committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them
In his purblind secular humanist resistance to even his own analysis, Mr. Delbanco simply can not admit the power, never mind the truth, of the Judeo-Christian metaphor, that Man is Fallen, and has within him not only the capacity but the barely controlled (and not always controlled) desire to do evil to his fellow men. It is important too to note that this metaphor lies at the heart of conservatism but must be utterly rejected by liberalism, for if Man is not essentially good, then, all things being equal, he can not be trusted to behave well, as all philosophies of the Left assume that he will. Mr. Delbanco's political philosophy lies smoldering in the same ash heap as his attempted metaphor.
And so, Mr. Delbanco concludes :
My driving motive in writing [this book] has been
the conviction that if evil, with all the insidious complexity which
The former way--evil as the other--is, at least at
first, physically rewarding. The latter way--evil as privation--is
As near as I can tell, the suggestion here is that the religious metaphor for evil gives us racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, etc., but that his secular metaphor shows us that all we really need is more--more love, more stuff, more whatever... In the end, Mr. Delbanco has achieved nothing more than to bring us back to where we started. Having started out by telling us that we can't exist without having a framework by which we understand evil, he ends by offering one that, though compatible with his science, is totally inadequate to our needs.
Mr. Delbanco is fond of citing examples from popular culture, but there's one artifact that he's somehow missed : The Exorcist. It's absence from this book is particularly noticeable because his predicament so resembles that of the hero. If you'll recall, Father Damian has lost his faith in God, but is suddenly confronted by a monstrous evil. As he gradually comes to believe that the evil is a manifestation of Satan, so too is he able to once again believe in God, and this gives him the strength of will to defeat the evil. In a strange way, it takes acceptance of the antithesis to restore his faith in the thesis.
But really, it's not so strange; if you accept that evil is real, how can you not accept that good is real? And if pure reason suggests that these are merely words, just definitions and not realities, but every fiber of your being tells you that they exist and that you can differentiate the one from the other and that one is preferable to the other, then who will not choose to believe and who will not choose good over evil? And having just this once chosen to doubt the efficacy of reason and its baneful cosmogony, mightn't we eventually be willing to make a kind of Pascal's Wager and once again embrace the transcendent wisdom of the religious metaphor, despite its superstitious taint? If subjecting ourselves to the thralldom of reason leaves us abandoned in a world that we find atavistic and repulsive, mightn't we choose to view reason as a useful but limited tool, ultimately incapable of explaining existence or our purpose in life to our satisfaction? It may be true that the "beliefs" that most of us hoi polloi share and upon which Western Civilization was erected are not an option for the "thinking people" with whom Mr. Delbanco consorts, but if he is so unhappy with the option they've chosen instead, perhaps the problem lies not in our "beliefs" but in their "thinking".
-EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Death of Satan : How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil By Andrew Delbanco
-EXCERPT : First Chapter of Required Reading by Andrew Delbanco
-ESSAY : The Decline and Fall of Literature (Andrew Delbanco, The New York Review of Books, November 4, 1999)
-ESSAY : Melville Has Never Looked Better (Andrew Delbanco, October 28, 2001, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY : Life, Literature and the Pursuit of Happiness Ý(Andrew Delbanco, July 4, 1999, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY : Converting Life into Truth: Seminars for High School Teachers (Andrew Delbanco, January 1997, Ideas)
-REVIEW : of LOVE UNDETECTABLE : Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival By Andrew Sullivan (Andrew Delbanco, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW : of The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays by Lionel Trilling, edited and with an introduction by Leon
Wieseltier (Andrew Delbanco, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW : of ACTIVE FAITH: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics By Ralph Reed (Andrew Delbanco, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of WOMEN AND THE COMMON LIFE Love, Marriage, and Feminism By Christopher Lasch. Edited by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Andrew Delbanco, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW : of Walt Whitman The Song of Himself. By Jerome Loving (Andrew Delbanco, NY Times Review)
-DISCUSSION : Is Satan Dead? (PBS Think Tank, 1/18/96)
-DISCUSSION : Moby Dick (The Connection)
-INTERVIEW : America Responds : Andrew Delbanco (Moyers in Conversation, Broadcast September 12, 2001)
-BOOK LIST : The University : We Asked Five Academics To Recommend Their Favorite Books - Old And New - About The University (ANDREW DELBANCO, Lingua Franca)
-PROFILE : America's Best Social Critic : Civic Booster Scholar Andrew Delbanco is a patriot who doesn't wave the flag but
uncovers its hidden meanings in America's greatest works of literature (John Cloud, TIME)
-ARTICLE : Time Names Andrew Delbanco 'America's Best Social Critic' (James Devitt, 10/01/01, Columbia News)
-ARTICLE : Teodolinda Barolini, Andrew Delbanco Elected Membership to American Academy of Arts and Sciences (James Devitt, Columbia News)
-ESSAY : Better late (New Criterion, November 1999)
-ESSAY : Debunking the Myths of the Puritans : A REVISIONIST ARGUES THAT HISTORIANS HAVE TURNED THE AUTHORITARIAN, CONFORMIST PURITANS INTO REFLECTIONS OF THEIR OWN COMPLEX, HARVARD-EDUCATED SELVES.
(MARIA RUSSO, 11/25/98, Salon)
-ESSAY : Evil, Race, and Us (John A. Buehrens, October 1999, Journal of Liberal Religion)
-ARCHIVES : Andrew Delbanco (PBS Think Tank)
-ARCHIVES : Andrew Delbanco (NY Review of Books)
-ARCHIVES : "andrew delbanco" (Find Articles)
-ARCHIVES : "andrew delbanco" (Mag Portal)
-REVIEW : of The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. By Andrew Delbanco (Walter Sundberg, First Things)
-REVIEW : of Death of Satan (Gary Carden, An Appalachian Country Rag)
-REVIEW : of Required Reading : Why Our American Classics Matter Now by Andrew Delbanco (Jonathan Rosen, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Required Reading (Jay Parini, Boston Globe)
-REVIEW : of Required Reading : Why Our American Classics Matter Now by Andrew Delbanco (Alex Pitofsky, Sycamore)
-REVIEW : of Required Reading (Jim Morris, Civnet)
-REVIEW : of THE REAL AMERICAN DREAM A Meditation on Hope. By Andrew Delbanco (Richard Rorty, NY Times Review)
-REVIEW : of The Real American Dream (Christian Century, Martin E. Marty)
-REVIEW : of The Real American Dream (Commonweal, Eugene Mccarraher)
-REVIEW : of The Real American Dream (Merle Rubin, CS Monitor)
-REVIEW : of The Real American Dream (Becky Ohlsen, Willamette Week)
-REVIEW : of The Real American Dream (Lewis Vaughn, Free Inquiry)
Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: The problem of good: The existence of evil is not all that requires some explanation (Andree Seu, 8/11/04, World)
-ESSAY : St. Augustine on the Problem of Evil (Enchiridion, 10-12)
-ETEXT : The Rule of St. Augustine
-ETEXT : The Confessions of St. Augustine
-Catholic Encyclopedia > Life of St. Augustine of Hippo
-Catholic Encyclopedia > Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo
-Augustine [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
-The Philosophy of St. Augustine (The Radical Academy)
-Island of Freedom - St. Augustine
-AUGUSTINE of Hippo (Patron Saints Index, Catholic Forum)
-ESSAY : The Scriptural Roots of St. Augustine's Spirituality (Stephen N. Filippo, sacred Scripture)
-ESSAY : Augustine, The City of God (R.J. Kilcullen, Macquarie University)
-REVIEW : of Augustine and the Limits of Politics by Jean Bethke Elshtain (Mary Ann Glendon, First Things)
-REVIEW : of Love and Saint Augustine. By Hannah Arendt. Edited and with an Interpretive Essay by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark. (George McKenna, First Things)
-ESSAY : The Mystery of Evil (James Hitchcock, January 2002, Touchstone)
-ESSAY : Evil (Jennifer Szalai, 18th March 2002, New Statesman)
-ESSAY : Take cover: evil is back : George Bush talks of the axis of evil, and Tony Blair peppers his speeches with the word. But what is evil in a society of unbelievers? (Barbara Gunnell, 2/12/02, New Statesman)
-REVIEW : of Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline by Richard A. Posner (Alan Wolfe, New Republic)
-REVIEW : of Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline By Richard A. Posner (Carol Posgrove, American Prospect)
-REVIEW ESSAY: The Conundrum of Evil a review of Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman (Walter Sundberg, First Things)
'Know Ye Not Me?': America sees and defeats the face of evil. (DANIEL HENNINGER, April 18, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd