1973: Gordon K. Thomas - The Doctrine of the Devil in Literature

1973: Gordon K. Thomas - The Doctrine of the Devil in Literature

G Thomas

Valedictorian of his class, Gordon K. Thomas graduated from Brigham Young University in 1959. He received his M.A. from the same institution the next year and his Ph.D. from Tulane in 1968. Appointed to the faculty of Church College of Hawaii in 1960, Thomas established an enviable reputation as a scholar, his book, Wordsworth's Dirge and Promise, having appeared in 1971. When he delivered the eleventh McKay lecture, he had recently completed a stint as Chair of the English Department at CCH from 1968-1972. Thomas received a Fulbright Lectureship to Columbia in 1970, and taught both Spanish and English in Argentina the next year, where he had previously served a mission. Other Church callings included service as a high councilor and instructor for his high priest group. Thomas and his wife Cathy met when she was one of his students; they are the parents of daughters Laura, Jennifer, Amy, and Anne, and sons Christopher and Jefferson.



There may be some here today who suppose that literature itself is a doctrine of the devil.

Alternately, there may be some who suppose that there is no devil. To both kinds of supposers I bear my sincere testimony that they are mistaken. To those who are ignorant of the eternal truths offered by literature and yet who live in an academic setting where literary experience is available, I say, break your shackles, cast off your ignorance.

To those whose little learning is a dangerous thing, who have had somewhere small and bad tastes of literature and reject all literature on the basis of such weak testing, I say, beware: remember that ignorance in defiance of opportunity and personal bias in defiance of divine truth have always been rightly denounced as sin, unholy arrogance. To those who reject the reality of Satan I recommend, in effect, the same course I have just recommended to the other group: study and pray.

The Lord God of Hosts explained to us long ago through Nephi that we must seek and study his Word wherever it is found. In 2 Nephi 29, he denounces those who claim that the Bible contains all the divine word; such men, he says, are fools, and they have not even the excuse of ignorance to justify them:

Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? (2 Ne. 29: 7)

We must study the Bible, but we must study beyond it. We must also study the Nephite record, the Book of Mormon, but we must study beyond it. We must study all the Standard Works, but then we must keep on looking for divine truth elsewhere as well. We shall find it in the records, the writings, the literature of every nation.

For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it. (2 Ne. 29: 12)

The specific divine truth to be considered here this morning is what the great writers of several nations have taught about Satan, about the personality and characteristics of him who represents all evil. As we will see, these inspired writers of truth have, over the centuries, stressed and explored different aspects of Satan; and the order in which we will look at them is not the order of time and history but rather that dictated by the teachings themselves.

The first of the great writers of truth to be considered here is Dante Alighieri of 13th century Italy, who described in his great poem The Divine Comedy the process every soul must go through on the way to exaltation and power. Dante describes this process as a journey, and the journey begins, symbolically, with a descent into the dark pit of hell, the accumulation of all sins. During the descent, the poet depicts those sins in all their variety, but always they are human sins. Only at the very bottom, at the center of hell, do we meet Satan. Here in the presence of Satan, Dante changes the traditional picture of hell; here there are no screams of torment, no smoke, no fire. In the poet's symbolism, any fire or heat would be a derivation of the light of God and of knowledge. And suffering would imply sense, feeling. So these things are missing. But Dante has a great point to make about Satan and total evil: Satan is mindless, brainless. Just as the glory of God is intelligence, or light and truth, so Satan here at the core of the Inferno is entirely without intelligence or light or truth. Again symbolically, the poet describes Satan as a kind of brainless machine, "like a whirling windmill seen afar at twilight" (Inferno XXXIV. 6).

Without intelligence and without self-control, Satan mindlessly flaps his great mechanical wings in a horrible and stubborn automatic motion which causes the waters of sin around him to freeze into an ever more solid pack of ice forever encasing him in evil which he recognizes but does nothing to escape. Our scriptures tell us that truth is knowledge (D&C 93: 24). Dante stresses the ignorance, the unthinking, the mental darkness of Satan.

Hundreds of years later, the English poet Alexander Pope surely had Dante's Inferno in mind as he looked at the desperate godlessness of the mid-eighteenth century. To Alexander Pope it seemed that the Kingdom of Satan had almost triumphed on the earth and that nothing could save the sinking forces of righteousness but a new dispensation, a renewal, what Latter-day Saints call Restoration (which actually began only a few decades later). In Pope's great epic of moral calamity, The Dunciad (1728), he describes the seeming triumph of evil in the Kingdom of Dullness--Dullness the Satanic goddess of mindlessness. The symptoms of Satanic power depicted in Pope's poem are still of useful warning: those who claim not to support Satan and his power but who do not struggle against that power actually advance the Kingdom of Dullness:

Not those alone who passive own her laws,
But who, weak rebels, more advance her cause. (IV. 85-86)

The bases of Satan's apparent power are many, but all are related according to Alexander Pope to the mindlessness of Satan which inspires weakness of intellect in human beings. Pope lists numerous symptoms--sneering at legitimate fields of knowledge (Dunciad IV. 86-87), supine homage to position instead of merit (IV. 91-92), the arrogance of usurped power (IV. 94). The particular enemy attacked by the Satanic horde, though, is the arts--music, drama, visual arts, literature. If Satan were ever to triumph, writes Pope, it would be through the death of Art and human creativity; in horrifying vision he prophesies what the final defeat of righteousness would be like:

She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primeval, and of Chaos old! . . .
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night. . . .
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all. (IV. 629-656)

In other words, Alexander Pope had seen and foreseen the arguments that the creative and performing arts are unprofitable and impractical for men. And he labeled such arguments as the final desperate act of a struggling Satan, doomed inevitably to eternal failure, but sometimes triumphant temporarily on earth.

Alexander Pope's outlook, then, was gloomy; and, indeed, cheerfulness in his situation would have been foolishness. But he never allowed himself to become negative and pessimistic to the point of cynicism or sneering disbelief in the strength of virtue. Such an attitude belongs not to the inspired poet but to Satan.

The great German poet Goethe, who lived in the next generation after Pope, wrote down the inspired wisdom of his whole lifetime in his great drama Faust (1808-1832). And the cynicism of Satan is well expressed by Goethe's devil named Mephistopheles in these lines: "I am the spirit which always denies! And justly so; for everything that is born deserves to be destroyed; hence it would be better if nothing were born" (ll. 1338-1340). But it is another ingredient of the personality of Satan which is emphasized throughout Goethe's Faust, and that is the fact that although Satan promises everything man can find the imagination to ask for, he never delivers. The promises of Satan are only empty words, a trick, a deception. He really offers only meaningless illusions.

Faust makes a bargain with the devil to give his soul in exchange for what the devil will give him. But the poet shows again and again that the devil can give nothing. Faust asks for long life, but he is given instead boredom which makes his life seem long, too long. Faust seeks beauty, a beautiful woman, but the devil gives him a drink to distort his vision so that that external beauty he thinks he sees is not genuine. Faust asks for hidden knowledge, and instead he gets superstition. Faust asks for power, and the devil buys him off with positions of high office that sound important but only feed the vain arrogance of the deceived man. He asks for an opportunity
to do good, not perceiving that he has always had such opportunities; the devil gives him political and military power with their inevitable opportunities for bossing and cruelty.

When Faust realizes how he has been cheated over and over, he exclaims: "Treacherous, abominable spirit, and you have kept this a secret from me!. . . And all this while you've been lulling me with silly diversions" (I. xxiii. 4390). Concealment, false bargains, tricks and traps, deception, illusion--these are the tactics of Satan. He asks men to give all they have for him, and in return he guarantees to give--nothing!

Only at the end of his life does Faust escape the clutches of Satan by learning the principle which is the basis for human salvation, that he himself, a man, has within him the power of choice and action, that he has not been in the devil's power but has mistakenly and evilly given his own power into the hands of the devil. He at last defeats Satan when he insists on resuming his power and freedom, forsaking all falsehood and delusion with these ringing words:

to this purpose I am wholly devoted, and this is wisdom's final conclusion: he alone deserves freedom as well as life who has to win them by conquest every day. And thus, surrounded by peril. . . I should like to. . . stand on free ground with a people free. (II. v. 11572-11580)

Two centuries before Goethe, the English poet Christopher Marlowe had also written a great play about Faust and his dealings with the devil. Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus (I588) has its own very special insights into the nature of evil. Satan, as Marlowe shows, recognizes the temporary advantage for him in the fact that men grab for puny and inconsequential things rather than wait for great and eternal values. Many a man sells his birthright for a mess of pottage, often because the birthright seems vague and far away but the mess of pottage is here now and specific, easy to define, easy to use.

It is on this basis, as Marlowe's play demonstrates, that Satan can pretend to cast himself in the r™le of a champion of progress, urging man to take small steps apparently forward which turn out to block his taking real and larger steps. The urging by Satan is done, in Marlowe's time as well as now, by methods which the forces of holiness cannot use, for this poet shows that it is both his objectives and his methods which make Satan be Satan. But essentially, the methods come under the headings of what we now refer to as effective advertising and public relations.

Christopher Marlowe was suggesting nearly 400 years ago the truth that we have been forced to see confirmed in our own time: beer and cigarettes and illicit sex fit much more comfortably onto billboards and neon lights and television commercials than do virtuous living, loyalty to truth, and awareness of the divine capacities of human beings.

Listen to this exchange where the Good Angel and the Bad Angel struggle for control of Dr. Faustus' soul in the very moment in which Faustus has decided to devote himself to evil:

FAUSTUS: Now go not backward; Faustus, be resolute.
Why waver'st thou? O, something soundeth in mine ear:
'Abjure this magic; turn to God again!' . . .
To God? he loves thee not.
The God thou serv'st is thine own appetite,
Wherein is fix'd the love of Beelzebub:
To him I'll build an altar and a church,
And offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes.


BAD ANGEL: Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art.

GOOD ANGEL: Sweet Faustus, leave that execrable art.

FAUSTUS: Contrition, prayer, repentance--what of these?

GOOD ANGEL: O, they are means to bring thee unto heaven!

BAD ANGEL: Rather illusions, fruits of lunacy,

That make men foolish that do use them most.

GOOD ANGEL: Sweet Faustus, think of heaven and heavenly things.

BAD ANGEL: No Faustus: think of honor and wealth. (II. i. 6-22)


And it is, then, wealth that Faustus thinks of, discarding the necessarily vague recommendation of the Good Angel for "heavenly things" to grab the tangible and immediate offer of evil.

When the Bad Angel in Marlowe's play urges man to "go forward," the doctrine may sound progressive, but it is, as always with Satan, a deception.

Satan acts in defiance of genuine progress; it is his desire to prevent the forward operations of the law of eternal progression. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw in our own century knew well the enmity between Satan and true progress. In Shaw's play Man and Superman (1903), the truly virtuous character named John Tanner or Don Juan tells the Devil the truth about Satan's followers by contrasting his own dedication to real progression with the Satanic smugness:

the law of my life. . .is the working within me of Life's incessant aspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, intense self-consciousness, and clearer self-understanding. . . . [By contrast, he adds of the disciples of Satan] It is the fact that they are doing your will, or rather drifting with your want of will, instead of doing their own, that makes them the uncomfortable, false, restless, artificial, petulant, wretched creatures they are. (167-168)

Human indifference is one source, then, of Satan's false displays of power, indifference which can finally become self-condemnation but never allows real growth or progress. Thus Shaw's Don Juan speaks of the devils who serve "from sheer love of servitude" (130); Satan always counterfeits honest self-understanding by false precepts which block the way to truth. And George Bernard Shaw gives us a catalog of such falsehood: puritanism in place of virtue--"an Englishman [he could have mentioned other nationalities as well] thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable" (141); public opinion and force in place of free agency--men, says the Devil in Man and Superman, "are free to do whatever the Government and public opinion allow them to do" (140), and he boasts further, "I knew that I should win in the long run by the sheer weight of public opinion" (141). Shaw depicts Satan as the inspiration for the great corruption of society, whether it go by the name of "the best people," public opinion, the Establishment (141).

One of the most chilling of all literary treatments of Satan and Satanic characteristics is that by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the very beginning of the nineteenth century. The poem is entitled Christabel (1816), and I confess that I can never read far in it without feeling my flesh crawl. The demon in Coleridge's poem is the Lady Geraldine, and at first glance she is gorgeous, but somehow frightening--on the order of an angel of light:

. . . a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandal'd were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, 'twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she--
Beautiful exceedingly! (ll. 58-68)

The poet gives us many details about this devil Geraldine--that her source of power comes from her human victims, without whose aid she cannot function; that she uses flattering language to leave her victims without language, silent and wordless; that she knows, as we have seen [in] Alexander Pope's warning, that poetry, in the sense of the purest truth most compellingly presented, is the enemy she must outmaneuver or manage to have sent away; that human selfishness, inattention, rationalizing, pride based on ignorance and arrogance--these sins are among the surest nutrients for the complete triumph of evil. It is, however, another aspect of the Satanic personality that Coleridge particularly emphasizes in this poem. That aspect is unnaturalness. Since God works by and in Nature, it is inevitable that Satan would attempt always to subvert nature. And so it is in the poem Christabel: the natural love of a father for his daughter is perverted to malice and egotism; the natural presiding responsibility of the lord of the manor is perverted to tyranny and oppression; the natural sexual feelings of a young girl are misdirected into hideous and unnatural sexual sin; even the trees in the woods are perverted until their life and greenery can be found only in the parasitic plants that feed on them.

The poet's heroine, once the fair and innocent maiden Christabel, is led captive by her own faults and by the corruption which surrounds her until she loses all control and direction of herself, until she can only follow the pattern of the demon:

And passively did imitate
That look of dull and treacherous hate! (ll. 606-607)

Coleridge thus forcefully depicts the catastrophe which befalls human beings when they are false to their own godlike natures. And amid this dreadful calamity we find a basis for hopeful and purposeful living, through reliance on our own real strengths:

men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. (D&C 58: 27-28).

The master poet of our language, the noble Shakespeare, explored in many of his plays the characteristics of Satan. The villains in his plays are complex personifications of combinations of traits both human and devilish.

But one of Shakespeare's villains has long been felt by many readers to be something special, specially evil. It can be useful to think of Iago in the tragedy Othello as Shakespeare's characterization of Satan. And in the person of Iago, the poet gives us a thorough and important picture of Satan. Many of the devilish qualities that we have already examined are apparent too in Iago. But in addition to all those, and with special stress, Shakespeare shows us the unvarying preoccupation of evil with surface things--with appearances, with talk, with what the senses can perceive instead of what the heart and mind know.

We should remember that it is Iago who makes the famous speech about "good name in man or woman," by which he means a person's public reputation, not what a man is but what others think of him, not what God sees but what people think they see:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed. (III.iii.155-161)

This much-quoted speech is, to use the later words of Iago's wife, "a lie, an odious damned lie!/Upon my soul, a lie! a wicked lie!" (V.ii.180-81). The jewel of the human soul is not what others may think of a man but what that man truly is. It is Satanic to attempt to replace reality with reputation. And similarly we can see that poor Othello has already fallen into Iago's devilish clutches when the villain begins to provoke jealousy by the insinuation that Othello's wife has been unfaithful.

Othello, after all, ought to know his wife, know her purity and sanctity. But instead he has allowed the evil seed to take root. He grabs Iago by the throat and screams:

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore!
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof;
Or, by the worth of man's eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my wak'd wrath! (III.iii.359-363)

But Iago cannot be frightened by threats, and Othello needs no proof. He has no right to ask for evidence to convince his eyes when his heart already knows the truth. Thus is his way of seeking after a sign, of falling into the Satanic trap. And at the end of the play, when Othello has indeed lost forever both his wife and his soul, he confronts Iago one final time. But now Othello knows his enemy, knows him better than anyone else in the politely civilized society of Christian Venice. As Iago is dragged before him, Othello says to himself. "I look down towards his feet--but that's a fable" (V.ii.286).

Othello has for a moment looked once more to judge by appearances, to see if Iago is a devil by checking to see if he has cloven hoofs. "But that's a fable." Othello now knows perfectly that he has met Satan, and he knows equally well that it is not his eyes but his heart and mind and spirit that have discerned that devil. Man cannot judge even Satan by appearances; much less can we tell the good man from the bad by the way they look or sound or are talked about. It is a victory for Satan if we allow ourselves to be convinced otherwise.

I have left for last the divinely inspired writings of John Milton on the character of Satan; for awesome and terrible as is Milton's depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost (1674), it is also, like all truth, hopeful in its message for the children of Adam. The Satan of Milton's great epic is a complex and developing character. We see him at the beginning already fallen from heaven, cast out for rebellion; but the poet shows him to us still falling, still in the process of degeneration, still hopeful of victory. Already, though, Satan has mastered deceit. His immediate aim is not to get even with God nor to ruin man but to set himself up above the other spirits expelled from heaven with him, always "aspiring/To set himself in Glory above his Peers" (I. 38-39). To convince the other demons to follow him, Satan lies and distorts.

He teaches the doctrine that God has won the war in heaven not because he is right but because he is powerful. He teaches that God regards his children not with the pure love of a perfect father but with contempt for their weakness and a determination to keep them weak. It is interesting to observe how Milton carefully shows that Satan in these early stages still knows when he is lying. But the fall of Satan continues, and we watch in mingled awe and justified satisfaction as the process of self-destruction continues. A later poet would write that "it is of the nature of tyranny to work to its own destruction" (Wordsworth qtd. in de Selincourt 264). The truth is a grand and comforting one. And Milton both knew it and portrayed it throughout Paradise Lost. For Satan is one of those who, Milton says, "rather than be less [than God]/ Car'd not to be at all" (II. 47-48).

Thus we see the whole process by which Satan, the son of the morning, called Lucifer for the light and brightness of his being, rebels against God and the light of truth: "I hate thy beams," he says symbolically to the sunlight (IV. 37). Having fallen he turns himself into a beast, first one then another of the "fourfooted kinds" (IV. 396-98), then a serpent:

O foul descent! that I who erst contended
With Gods to sit the highest, am now contrain'd
Into a Beast, and mixt with bestial slime,
This essence to incarnate and imbrute,
That to the highth of Deity aspir'd;
But what will not Ambition and Revenge
Descend to? (IX. 163-169)

And finally Milton shows us the self-destruction of Satan as complete: gone are his beauty, his intelligence, his way with words. He and his cohorts now address each other only in "a dismal universal hiss" (X. 508). It is the nature of all evil to work to its own destruction.

It is not merely as a curiosity that these great poets from many ages and several nations have thus probed the nature of evil and the personality of Satan. They knew, because they were inspired to know, just as we should know because we have the opportunity to be inspired, that it is right and prudent to know about the enemy. We need to be on guard against giving room in our souls to any of these Satanic attributes, whether they come to us from without or we find them within ourselves already.

We will need to recall the warnings of Dante against mindlessness and automatic reactions without thought. We must cherish human creativity, cherish poetry, remembering the dreadful vision of Alexander Pope in which he saw those lights extinguished by opposition and indifference. We need to remember the message of Goethe, that Satan promises greatly but delivers delusion, delivers nothing. We will heed Christopher Marlowe's caution against the advertising know-how of the Bad Angel, and George Bernard Shaw's demonstration of the falseness of Satan's promises of progress and social acceptability.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge will convince the honest among us to be true to the goodness of our own nature. Shakespeare's Iago will remind us always to get beyond the surfaces, to distinguish always between reality and mere appearances. And John Milton's awesome portrayal of the self-destructive nature of evil, the search of Satan for non-being, will remain a warning and a source of hope.

You and I, my brothers and sisters, will take these warnings seriously, and we will remember Alexander Pope's admonition too that the cause of evil gains its greatest strength not from evil men but from good men who are weak in their resistance. We will study the scriptures, and we will seek truth in all good books, that our resistance will be strong and meaningful. And we, or those who do these things, will triumph over evil, and Satan will be bound. I testify so in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Works Cited

The Book of Mormon.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Christabel. 1816. The Golden Book of Coleridge. Ed. Storpford A. Brooke. London: Dent, 1945. 147- 169.

Dante. Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1954.

de Selincourt, Ernest, ed. The Later Years. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1939. Vol. 1.

The Doctrine and Covenants.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. 1808-1832. Trans. Bayard Q. Morgan. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954.

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. 1588. Ed. Frederick S. Boas. New York: Gordian P, 1966.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1674. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merrit Y. Hughes. New York: Odyssey P, 1957. 207-469.

Pope, Alexander. Dunciad. 1728. Alexander Pope: Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. William K. Wimsatt, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1956. 361-449.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ed. George Lyman Kittredge. Boston: Ginn, 1936. 1243-1286.

Shaw, George Bernard. Man and Superman. 1903. Baltimore: Penguin, 1952.