Satan can be fooled

The Satan in us is also an angel. And nobody is entirely free from it

Demons come from all ages and cultures. Time and again people have created something completely different for themselves that counteracts God.

For Michel Serres

God does not deceive and God does not deceive. Satan, on the other hand, cheats and man does the same. If someone deceives, deceives others, it is to win, to achieve certain goals. What distinguishes God from Satan (and humans) is that he does not want to win, that victory and defeat mean nothing to him. Satan, on the other hand, uses every possible trickery to break God's power and thwart his goodness. The rebellion of the devil against humans and thus against God described in the Apocalypse of John does not, strictly speaking, signify a war or battle, because one wants to win, the other does not mean anything.

It is no coincidence that humans, the devil and ancient gods resemble each other and not the benevolent God who is disinterested in cleverly brought about victories. Hera and Zeus are spouses and chronic deceivers who sell and betray each other in order to win: Zeus wants to deceive his wife, who wants to catch him red-handed. He resorts to a ruse and turns his lover Io into a cow so that Hera's jealousy can escape. Hera sees through the ruse and sends a biting fly to plague Io.

It's like a wild game of chess: the god subverts the game of the goddess, the goddess subverts his, it goes on and on, because both show weaknesses and attack surfaces: Hera sends Argus, who is to guard Io with his thousands upon thousands of eyes, so that Zeus himself not approaching her secretly. Zeus sends Hermes, who lulls Argus to sleep with a panpipe. Io escapes. Pan-optes, the all-seeing, eye to ear, total war. Omnipotence versus omnipotence, but not God versus devil.

Dark, beguiling, abandoned

There are demons in all ages and cultures, but devils and fallen angels can be found first in the religions of the ancient Persian empires, then in rabbinical texts of the Jewish diaspora, and finally in Christianity and Islam. However, every religion created its own Satan, figure and concept were always redefined, became ambiguous. Satan is the fallen angel who appears as a monster or as a beautiful seducer.

A dance of angels at the beginning of Advent

The contributions

Pictures by Wolfgang Beltracchi

The German artist designed illustrations for the contributions and created a special edition limited to 100 prints of the image “Engelreigen” for the NZZ. It can be purchased at nzz.ch/beltracchi.

Nowhere has the myth of the rebellion and the fall of the angels been so vividly described as in Dante's Divine Comedy, and no epoch has shaped our conception of what Satan can be but a monster as much as Romanticism: John Milton in “Paradise Lost” or Lord Byron, the fallen angel par excellence: dark, beguiling, deserted and wild in a lonely hallway.

The Brontë sisters Emily and Charlotte, who adored Lord Byron, maybe even fell in love with him, designed the male characters Heathcliff ("Wuthering Heights") and Rochester ("Jane Eyre"): mixtures of courage and meanness, narcissistic and charismatic, as attractive as it is repulsive. Oscar Wilde, punk stars, Charles Baudelaire, Ernest Hemingway - in their own way reincarnations of Lord Byron, who identified himself, if not first, then most emphatically with fallen figures, and ultimately with the “devil”. Byron was born with a clubfoot - which the ecclesiastical Inquisition had long considered a "sign of the devil". He lived a bit like the characters he wrote about - Lara, Cain, Childe Herold - or vice versa: created the characters after his life. It is not entirely clear how life and fiction interpenetrated here.

Like lightning from the sky

The book of Isaiah tells us that Satan ascended the sky and wanted to build a shining throne there, high above the stars. For this he was thrown by God into the underworld. Casually almost, "without a funeral, like a despised bastard". Gustave Doré's engraving shows Satan as a hybrid of a rejected creature and a noble knight: a shiny, strong figure with wings that falls lonely to the earth. "I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning," says the Gospel of Luke.

"His brow was like the deep when tempest-tossed," wrote Byron. The apocryphal book of Enoch drafts a different myth than that of the one who fell out of envy and arrogance: angels of God fall in love with human women and father children with them. They bring people knowledge, teach them to build weapons, even introduce them to the manufacture of cosmetics, and for this they are banished from the kingdom of heaven. Both versions of fallen angels are similar to the myth of Prometheus, the titan who brought fire to humans. The fallen angels, Mephistophelian and cunning, seduce man into knowledge that he should not have from a divine perspective.

Just as he - whether as a metaphor or "real" - encounters in the present, Satan is more subtle and perfidious, but above all: more omnipresent. The conventional angel is a mediator between different spheres: the visible (human) and the invisible (divine). Angels suddenly appear, like eddies of air, like eddies in water that you hadn't expected. If the person chosen by God for your messages wants to understand your fine and precise language, he has to listen carefully.

The devil's blind spot

Angels are the smallest refractions in perception. They are surrounded by light and gold, their eyes are mineral, and so are their bodies. Soft or flexible element of the angel's body, its wings are made of gauze - light, openwork, translucent. The angel fights (with Satan) and is guardian angel, is free in heaven. He only stays on earth for a short time and disappears as quickly as he came. Satan, on the other hand, has been cast out of heaven - but not yet banished to hell. His kingdom is the human world. Satan is present, is here with us, and his language is loud. It is not the reliable language of assured knowledge, but that of mistrust, the language of unstable relationships.

Observation creates knowledge and there are two forms of world observation. We observe human or non-human. We examine the things that surround us or the people and their relationships. In every story in which Satan appears and seduces people into knowledge, it is - as in the panoptic myth - about the latter. But the devil has blind spots, blind spots, God doesn't.

Myths, stories about the devil - it all seems so old and distant, antediluvian. But if one had to assign God and the devil to scientific disciplines, as the philosopher Michel Serres once wrote, then God watches over the classical sciences, which observe, unconcerned about victory or defeat. Mathematics, physics, chemistry create firm and clear theories. A cow remains a cow, a membrane a membrane, 2 + 2 results in 4. Satan, on the other hand, is affinity with the human sciences, the human sciences. Political science, sociology, psychology and philosophy, for example - sciences in which the powers of suggestion can suppress cold observation and hard facts, in which the correct rhetoric sometimes conceals, deceives, and perhaps also creates pseudo-truths.

Caught in Hell

Serres was rigorous: in the human sciences, the disinterested observer of pure science is replaced by the observer, who cannot help but be partial. Many posts on social networks are also minutes of self-appointed police officers and supervisor figures - after all, what are virtual human relationships but lived sociology. Nobody is free from "Satan", who once showed himself to only a few. We are trapped in the hell of human relationships.

As the devil deceives God, as Hera, Zeus and Panoptes deceived one another, so man deceives man. He crouches in the blind spot of the other, tracks down weaknesses and linguistic poverty, accuses - the Hebrew "Satan" also means "accuser". Satan, the satanic principle, creates the scandal and the scapegoat. Nothing is easier than the philosophy of suspicion, false facts and denunciation. It is the oldest trade in the world.

Sarah Pines is a writer and lives in New York.