(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World concludes Jeffrey Burton Russell’s four-volume history of the Devil in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim context. The series began with The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (1977), followed by Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (1981) and Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (1984), the latter a period on which Russell has written five other volumes. Mephistopheles carries the story of the Devil from the Reformation to current times. While the first three volumes traced the slow emergence and consolidation of a tradition in which the figure of the Devil played a major part whose meaning was generally agreed upon, the final volume recounts the irrevocable dismantling of that tradition and the consequent reinterpretation—or even denial—of the meaning of the Devil.

In what sense can the Devil be said to exist? This is a question to which Russell returns frequently in Mephistopheles, as in the previous three volumes. Although earlier ages believed in the literal reality of the Devil, such a belief is less accessible in the modern world, in view of the putative prestige of scientific thinking with its empirical theory of knowledge. As a spiritual or moral phenomenon, the Devil is necessarily elusive of empirical verification. His existence is limited to the mythic, theological, psychological, and historical realms of knowing. Not surprisingly, Russell, a historian, sees history (that is, history of ideas) as the most comprehensive approach, encompassing all the others, including the empirical. To the historian, the figure of the Devil provides a “long-lived and immensely influential concept aimed at the truth about evil”; he is “the best-known symbol of radical evil.” The Devil has no absolute or inherent meaning but is a construct, the various perceptions of which may be traced as they developed through the ages.

At the same time, however, Russell the medievalist seems most receptive to ideas that are determinate, coherent, and stable. Hence for him, no matter how a particular period might otherwise reinterpret the Devil image, the indispensable notion is that he is the embodiment of radical evil. Indeed one of the chief functions of the image traditionally was to personify, in the clearest possible terms, the distinction between good and evil. We need to understand radical evil no less in the late twentieth century—if anything, Russell argues, we need to understand it even more, for we lack the coherent framework of symbols and ideas defining evil that was the birthright of earlier ages. Partly because of his own objectives as a moralist, Russell is made noticeably uneasy by unstable, indeterminate, or ambiguous interpretations of the Devil as a symbol, a constraint on his understanding of periods such as the Romantic, when ideas were especially in flux.

The consensus Christian view of the Devil established during the Middle Ages in essence prevailed through the late seventeeth century. He was God’s opponent, the denier, the sower of deceit and cunning and self-regard, a tempter whose power was great yet ultimately subordinate to that of God. The Protestant Reformers basically adopted the diabolical tradition of the Catholic Church, though concentrating the conflict between good and evil on the individual soul. A significant new emphasis found, for example, in William Shakespeare’s late tragedies, was the embodiment of the demonic in the human rather than in external projections such as witches or demons. The humanization of the Devil is seen also in another late sixteenth century creation, the tale of Faust and Mephistopheles (a name defined as “he who is not a lover of light”). This shift from transcendent, external evil to “the demonic immanent in the human” was the major Renaissance innovation with regard to diabology. Yet popular belief in the old Devil was widespread at least until the end of the seventeenth century. Fear of witches, devils, and black magic was rampant. Moreover, the traditional Devil was given definitive expression in John...

(The entire section is 1692 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The Atlantic. CCLIX, January, 1987, p. 84.

Commonweal. CXIV, January 30, 1987, p. 56.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, October 15, 1986, p. 1566.

Library Journal. CXI, November 15, 1986, p. 105.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, March 8, 1987, p. 28.