Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The captivity and power of the devil

Here are some of the very natural-sounding phrases that come up if you search the Bible for the string "and power": strength and power, force and power, spirit and power, authority and power, faith and power, honour and power, dominion and power, glory and power.

And here's a line from the Book of Mormon which I've been brooding over recently.
[Men] are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself (2 Nephi 2:27; emphasis added).
Captivity and power. How does that work? Isn't captivity a lack of power?

In the past I always thought that, while the syntax may be a bit infelicitous, the meaning is clear enough. The "power of the devil" refers to the power which the devil himself possesses, while the "captivity of the devil" indicates other people's being in captivity to the devil. Only a tedious grammar pedant (something no one would ever accuse me of being!) would read it any other way.


After giving it some thought, though, I think that there are in fact good reasons, above and beyond over-literalism, for reading this passage as stating that both the devil and those who follow him are in the condition described by the seemingly oxymoronic conjunction "captivity and power."

The logic is simple enough. The devil tempts people to be evil and sinful, and is himself evil and sinful; therefore, whatever condition the devil himself is in, those who fall into his snare will tend toward that same condition. If Being Evil has given the devil great power, we can assume that people can also acquire great power by Being Evil. Likewise, if sin leads to captivity, we can assume that the devil, as the sinner par excellence, is also in a state of captivity. In other words, it doesn't make sense that the very same course of action should lead to power when pursued by the devil but only to captivity when pursued by anyone else.


Against this line of reasoning, there is the possibility that the arch-tempter is not also the arch-sinner -- that, like any reasonably competent pusher, the devil knows better than to get high on his own supply -- that he suckers people into committing sins that he himself isn't stupid enough to commit, thus bringing them into captivity while maintaining his own freedom.

There clearly has to be some truth to this. The devil can't possibly be the exemplar of every vice in the same way that God is arguably the exemplar of every virtue. A slothful devil couldn't be bothered to actually tempt people, for example, while a cowardly one would never have defied God in the first place. One of the litany of names applied to the devil in Revelation 12:9 is "the great," and I think we must concede that there is a sense in which he lives up to that title. If the devil were a mere nogoodnik, a congeries of vices, a contemptible sin-ridden fleabag of a spirit, he would be of no account, and there would be no need for us to so much as take notice of his existence. Fallen angels do not become vermin but dragons, roaring lions seeking whom they may devour.

But for all that, there is also a sense in which the devil is contemptible. As Lehi puts it in the Book of Mormon passage quoted above, "he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself." I think in the end we must insist on the literal aptness of the phrase captivity and power.


To try to get a handle on this, I tried to think of other instances of "captivity and power" occurring together, and the first example that came to mind was the beast of burden. A draft ox is an immensely powerful animal, a ton and a half of pure muscle, but it nevertheless lives in captivity. Or, considering political power rather than muscular strength, we might think of a tyrant, reigning with blood and horror, hated by his people and obeyed out of fear alone. How much freedom does such a man, living under the constant threat of assassination or revolution, really have? What choice does he have to bar himself up in a virtual prison, surrounded by guards? What choice does he have but to rule with conspicuous brutality, lest any show of weakness embolden his enemies? Or, coming closer to our Satanic theme, we might consider anyone who has made a Faustian bargain of the kind reportedly offered to Jesus: "All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me" (Matthew 4:9). "The captivity and power of the devil": The devil offers power, but only on condition of captivity.

What the ox, the tyrant, and the Faustian soul-seller have in common is that, while they have the ability to do things that others cannot do (power), their ability to decide which things to do (liberty) is severely curtailed. Marlowe's Faustus at first wants the devil to reveal to him the secrets of the universe -- only to find out that, sorry, that's not one of the things that sold souls are permitted to pursue. In the end, he is reduced to frittering away his Satanic powers on trifles and degradation -- playing practical jokes, trying to sleep with Helen of Troy, that kind of thing. Captivity and power.


But if the "captivity and power of the devil" simply refers to the fact that the devil offers power with strings attached, power that can only be used in certain ways and for certain ends -- well, doesn't the "liberty and eternal life" offered by God also come with restrictions? Even more restrictions than the devil's offer, in fact, since there are many more ways of being evil than of being good, just as there are many more ways of dying than of staying alive. In the same vein, Tolstoy famously observed (in words that I dare not attempt to translate, for fear of angering the ghost of Nabokov, but will paraphrase) that happy families are all alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The devil's disciples ought logically, then, to have considerably more elbow room than God's -- but the problem is that people don't want to die, or to live in unhappy families, so the "freedom" promised by those options is meaningless.

It may be readily observed that, judging by what economists would call "revealed preferences," most people obviously don't really want to be saints, either -- but at least it is possible to want to be a saint, to want good and nothing but good, and a great many of us at least want to want to be saints. We can imagine gradually purifying our hearts and our desires until "we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2). The reverse -- wanting evil and nothing but evil -- is not really possible and cannot be coherently imagined. No one, not even the devil himself, can love sin as such completely and unreservedly; all we can do is love certain aspects of sin and try not to think too much about the others. The devil's power is captivity because, in the last analysis, it is only the power to obtain what no one could ever really want.

To close with another Book of Mormon quote, Samuel the Lamanite told the wicked Nephites, "your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain" -- namely "ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity" (Helaman 13:38). That's the bottom line. Those who follow the devil are seeking what they simply cannot, by the nature of things, ever obtain. It is in that sense that the devil is the "father of lies," and that his power -- the power he offers, and the power he himself possesses -- is really only captivity.

5 comments:

Bruce Charlton said...

Very good post.

My impression from the powerful individuals I have met is that their power is essentially to do what the system wants; their reward is to have money/ resouces/ opportunities to indulge some specific desire - which is where sin comes in, since that desire is often something like some sexual thing, or showing-off, or some level of spite and sadism (inflicting suffering).

The devil himself, I tend to assume is the one who has the most long term and balanced and complete desire to destroy or inverst God's creation - rather than being distracted by the immediate satisfactions of short term selfish lusts and rages, which happens with the lower levels. The difference between the subtle, manipulative, deceptive strategies of Sauron and the squabbles of the orcs - who just want to torture, impose themselves, eat etc Now!.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Good points, Bruce.

"My impression from the powerful individuals I have met is that their power is essentially to do what the system wants"

Yes -- and the power God gives is essentially to do what God wants! But the parallelism is illusory, since no one wants or can want "what the system wants" -- because the system doesn't properly want anything at all. It has (as you have often pointed out) no object of desire, no aimed-at utopia. It is, like Heath Ledger's Joker character, a dog chasing cars.

"Give me my bow of burning gold," says Blake. "Give me my arrows of desire!" In the Mormon temple ritual, the key question -- What is wanted? -- is asked and asked again. Clarity of desire is the best protection from the devil and his system.

"The devil himself, I tend to assume is the one who has the most long term and balanced and complete desire to destroy or invert God's creation"

By comparison to the "orcs," yes -- but to call it a "balanced and complete desire" is too generous. The devil, too, is a dog chasing cars, seeking for that which he cannot obtain. Suppose he accomplishes his great mission, and makes all men "miserable like unto himself" -- then will he be happy? The question answers itself.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - Agreed - that is why I said 'most'.

It is itself an interesting fact that the extremest most multi-facteted evil would be almost instantly self-sabotaging. Partial evil is far more possible - and may be redeemable.

But at a further level of analysis I would not accept that the ultimate goal is not exactly to make others miserable - I think the demonic goal is more 'existential' than being about inflicting misery.

I find it harder to get much clearer than to see being good or evil as a matter of taking-sides; for or against God and creation. To be 'for' God is to want the same as God, as you said about the Temple ceremony. To be evil would be actively against 'what God wants'. (So, there are other possibilities - it seems possible to be neither good nor evil.)

This seems to invite the demonic riposte: who says that 'what God wants' is the same as 'good'? I think it is in trying to answer this in an objective fashion that Classical theology (with creation ex nihilo) goes astray - the attempt is to make evil irrational. But it isn't irrational really, it is an expression of an anti-God-creation viewpoint.

In the end, I feel that God has set up a project of creation, and we - as his children - are part of it. But God cannot make us agree with the aims of creation: which is why Christianity is an opt-in thing. Only willing, loving, volunteers can participate.

We are free to reject it, and (going further) are free to say creation is evil and should be opposed - and to try and sabotage the aims of creation.

But since we are a part of creation and there is nothing else other than creation but chaos, this sabotaging of creation has the consequences you describe. A clearsighted demon might shrug and say 'so be it'; 'I want to pull everything down on my own head, and reality shall return to chaos - with all consicousness obliterated or thwarted.'

To think that way probably entail no capacity for love - no love for anyone else, no love even for oneself - but I think some Beings (including some people) seem to be like that - I think some Beings will always have been like that. They have no love in them. And since Beings are ultimately ineradicable, this fact seems to me to explain a fair bit about how things are.

We are self-sorted into Heaven - as a 'happy family' - but those who (for whatever reason) do not want Heaven will still continue to exist in some way or another.

Francis Berger said...

This post really resonated with me Wm. I came to similar conclusions concerning the true nature of freedom. We are free to choose between good and evil, but an evil choice is akin to submitting yourself to slavery. We discussed this briefly on my blog last year: https://www.francisberger.com/bergers-blog/the-freedom-of-choice

In any case, I really value your insights here. So much so, I am going to share a link to this post on my blog.

Francis Berger said...

By the way, that image of the Devil not getting high on his own supply is brilliant.

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