Why does the Devil have such an appeal? Hundreds of television shows, books and films have featured the devil, not always as a villain, but as a charming, alluring and dangerous character. Darren Oldridge, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Worcester and author of
The Devil: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: 2012), offers us an insight into our obsession with the Devil.
I have studied the history of the Christian Devil for twenty years, and in this time one question has often struck me: why do people seem to like him? Or, to present the problem in less colourful terms: why does the idea of the Devil have such widespread appeal? The Devil seems “sexy” in a way that, say, the Protestant Reformation or the English Civil War does not. I could spend another twenty years mulling on why this is the case, but I shall attempt some brief answers in this blog.
First let me offer a word of clarification. In what follows I am treating the Christian Devil as a figure in the history of religious thought. This is because – to paraphrase the pioneer of historical scholarship in this field, Jeffrey Burton Russell – all we can really know about Satan is what people have believed about him. This is as true for someone (like Russell) who believes in the Devil as it is for someone (like me) who does not.
So why do we like the Devil? This is a problem because the historical record is clear on one point: since the time of the earliest Christian communities, people have consistently believed that he is utterly wicked. He not only hates everything that is good, but also wants to destroy it. As the demon Mephistopheles says in Goethe’s Doctor Faustus, he would gladly obliterate everything we love. What could we possibly find attractive in such a character?
The Devil’s Appeal
Let me suggest four general answers. First, the Devil is a remarkably variegated character. In his behaviour and appearance he is far more versatile than his angelic counterparts. This is because bad spirits, unlike good ones, can tell lies as well as the truth; they can also disguise themselves in multiple forms. This makes them complicated and interesting, and gives reign to the imagination of artists and writers. If you doubt this claim, look at some images of the Devil in western art and compare them to representations of angels.
The second reason for the Devil’s appeal is his role as the ultimate leader of the opposition. Whatever anyone in the western Christian tradition has held to be “good”, he has been against it. Like his fondness for disguise, this has made him remarkably flexible. Both Catholics and Protestants in the 1500s, for example, believed that Satan was the invisible mastermind behind their opponents.
At a time of intense religious belief, such accusations were treated by their targets as insults and lies. (Indeed, they were sometimes cited as evidence of Satan's dominion over their accusers!) But the slow retreat of religion from public life has allowed the Devil to emerge as an attractive symbol of rebellion, while at the same time preserving his elasticity. He can appeal to rebels of all kinds against authorities and orthodoxies of any flavour.
My third answer is based on another traditional attribute of the Devil. He is not only the enemy of goodness but also the punisher of sinners. In popular versions of this idea, Satan has frequently appeared as the scourge of obviously antisocial wrongdoers: murderers, thieves, and villains of all kinds. In English popular literature, for instance, Satan has often turned up to expose and punish criminals. In this role it is easy to imagine him – mistakenly in the view of orthodox demonology – as the defender of the innocent.
The fourth reason why I think the Devil is oddly alluring derives from another of his traditional roles: as a spirit of temptation. Recent scholarship has shown that Satan’s activity as a tempter became especially prominent during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this capacity he pursued a twofold strategy: he attacked the mind with “false religion” and the body with immoderate desires. Both were believed to be seductive and deadly.
Subsequently, Satan became a metaphor for the enticing and destructive tendencies to which men and women are prey. As the threat of supposedly “false religion” diminished, the apparent dangers of the flesh remained potent. And as the supreme symbol of these seductive impulses, the Devil retained something of his fatal appeal. After all, what is the point of temptation if it is not, well, tempting?
There are, then, good reasons why the figure of Satan exerts a peculiar fascination, and may even seem attractive in some ways. These are rooted in the complex history of his character. One consequence of this fascination may be to draw future historians to study the place of the Devil in western culture, a project that in itself contains an undeniable intellectual appeal.
Prof Darren Oldridge is a specialist in sixteenth and seventeenth-century religious history and lectures on the BA History (Hons) course at the University of Worcester. Professor Oldridge is a member of the University of Worcester’s Early Modern Research Group and his publications include Strange Histories (Routledge: 2nd edition 2017), The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England (Routledge: 2016) and The Devil: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: 2012).
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.