- The Devil: A New Biography by Philip C. Almond
The devil, and the underlying principle of evil he is often thought to signify, are perennially fascinating objects of study. Thriving at the cusp between the demonstrable and the metaphorical, the devil has long attracted the attention of theologians, poets, artists, and story tellers. Philip C. Almond’s biography of the devil in the Western tradition presents a fresh take on the topic, accessible to both researchers and popular audiences alike.
Almond’s knowledge of the material is unimpeachable, his selection of topics and examples is judicious, and his style is engaging and precise. Historical conceptualizations of the devil have been diverse and contradictory. Almond attributes this to a fundamental tension in the very idea of a cosmic antagonist within a monotheistic religion: Satan is called upon to serve at once as God’s antagonist, and as the unwitting prosecutor of God’s will on earth. He is seen as opposing God’s will, and indeed, is sometimes seen as the source of all that opposes God’s will. Yet all of that must be reconciled to a worldview in which all that God created was created good and that nothing can truly oppose the divine purpose. Through the centuries, the devil was a locus of intersecting political, social, moral, and metaphysical beliefs. He was seen as the mechanism by which all the non-Christian religions of the world were guided astray; he possessed bodies and corrupted minds. He was thought, for instance, to be intimately involved with women’s lives and bodies during the Early Modern witch craze. Almond provides the reader with a lucid, crisply argued overview of some of the most significant thinkers, trends, and social manifestations of devil beliefs.
Almond’s implicit framework is a history of ideas approach: that is, the conceptualizations of the devil are drawn from key theologians and writers at different times. The ideas are presented in abstract tension with one another, although—given limitations of space—there is not always occasion for situating them in individual or cultural context. There are various ways one could approach such a project. For a complete understanding, evidence would have to be considered from folklore, popular religion, the medieval stage, and a rich variety of cultural and artistic manifestations. Such a comprehensive treatment would be difficult in a single volume without resorting to oversimplification. Instead Almond focuses primarily on official church doctrine and on the writings of the scholarly elite. Thus it elucidates an important dimension of the topic, and one that can most securely be grounded in the documentary evidence. [End Page 135]
The book takes its place in a venerable line of studies: Paul Carus’s sumptuously illustrated The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil (1900); Maximilian Rudwin’s The Devil in Legend and Literature (1931); Edward Langton’s Satan, a Portrait: A Study of the Character of Satan through All the Ages (1946); Henry Ansgar Kelly’s succinct The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft (1968) and his Satan: A Biography (2006); Neil Forsyth’s shrewd The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (1987); Elaine Pagels’s provocative The Origin of Satan (1996); and of course, Jeffrey Burton Russell’s panoramic four-volume study beginning with The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (1977). Almond’s book serves as a convenient occasion to reflect upon how different scholars have viewed the contemporary significance of the topic, in particular the desirability of retaining the concept of the devil (or of evil) in the modern world. All scholars are agreed that the concept atrophied significantly after the eighteenth century, when empirical sciences were on the rise and the role of religion in society was in radical transition. But not all writers on the subject are willing to consign the concept wholly to the ash heap of history.
In his 1931 overview, Maximilian Rudwin assured his readers that he was not making any religious claims, but only approaching the devil objectively as theological, literary, and mythological figure. He concludes, “it would...