The Optimism of Satan

Is power only for the corrupt, or is its pursuit part of our nature?

Mitch Horowitz
Jul 11, 2019 · 8 min read
“Eve Tempted by the Serpent,” Defendente Ferrari, circa 1520

A friend of mine once had the opportunity to ask the Dalai Lama a single question.

“Who was your greatest teacher?” he asked.

The exiled leader replied, “Mao Zedong.”

I once felt provoked in my own sphere by a similarly unlikely teacher — Donald Trump.

Years ago, Trump the Developer asked an interviewer: “What good is something if you can’t put your name on it?” His comment is indelibly stamped on my memory, though I confess I cannot find a source for it. Did I imagine it? The sentiment, while coarse and easily rebutted, came to haunt me.

Did Trump, the showy conman obsessed with naming rights, capture a nagging truth of human nature — a side none of us can deny or push away, other than by an act of self-regarding hypocrisy? And did I, hopefully in a more integral way, share a kernel of his outlook? Was the voice even his — or something within me?

Soon after hearing Trump’s remark, I received what struck me as a bit of ridiculous advice from the editor of an academic spiritual journal. I told him in candor that I wanted to find greater exposure for my byline. “You don’t have to put your name on everything you write,” he replied. Such a principle could ring true only in the world of abstraction.

Trump’s statement about self-exaltation, however ugly, captured half a truth. The whole truth is that our lives, as vessels for various influences — some physical, some perhaps beyond — are bound up with the world and circumstances in which we find ourselves; and within that world we must, at the stake of personal happiness, create, expand, and aspire. Whatever higher influences we feel or great thoughts we think, or are experienced by us through the influence of others, are like heat dissipated in the vacuum of space unless those thoughts are directed into a structure or receptacle. Our purpose is to be generative. Questions of attachment and non-attachment, identification and non-identification, are incidental to that larger fact.

The ethical or spiritual search, not as idealized but as actually lived, is a search for power.

I came to feel strongly about this several years ago when I found that my spiritual search, a path of radical ecumenism with a dedication to esoteric interests, was failing to satisfy me. I began to suspect that I was not acknowledging what I was really looking for, either in spirituality — by which I mean a search for the extra-physical — or therapy. I came face-to-face with an instinct that few people acknowledge, and would deny if they heard it spoken. But they should linger on it. Because what I discovered captures what I believe is a basic if discomforting human truth: The ethical or spiritual search, not as idealized but as actually lived, is a search for power. That is, for the ability to possess personal agency. We pray, “Thy will be done.” We mean “my will be done” — hoping that the two comport. This is why, at least in my observations after thirty years as a publisher, seeker, and historian of alternative spirituality, many seekers in both traditional and alternative faiths are ill at ease, fitful in their progress, and apt to slide from faith to faith, or to harbor multiple, sometimes conflicting, practices at once.

Power is supposed to be the craving of the corrupt. Is it? The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, surveying the modern occult scene, wrote in 1967: “We are all black magicians in our dreams, in our fantasies, perversions, and phobias.” And to this I would add, in pursuit of our highest ideals. As Singer detected, we are not very different from the classical magician when we strive, morally and materially, to carry forth our plans in the world — to ensure the betterment of ourselves and our loved ones; to heal sickness; to create, sustain, and, above all, to generate things which bear our markings, ideals, and likenesses. All of this is the expenditure of power, the striving to actualize our drives and images.

I do not view the search for individual power, including through supernatural means (a topic I will clarify and expand on), as necessarily maleficent. Historically and psychologically, it is a fundamental human trait to evaluate, adopt, or avoid an idea based upon whether it builds or depletes our sense of personal agency. “A living thing,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power…” The difficulty is in making our choices wisely, and ethically.

I know how far I’m extending my chin by quoting Nietzsche. I sound like a dorm-room libertine. A critic once accused me of harboring an adolescent wish to power. To that, I plead guilty — but with a catch. I do believe in universal reciprocity, an indelible oneness of existence, and I operate from a ground rule of nonviolence. By that, I do not mean abstention from self-defense but rather an unwillingness to violate the sanctity of another’s search, to knowingly do anything that would deprive another of his or her own pursuit of highest potential. And since the political question is never far away, I’ll note that my policy preferences run to a mildly redistributive social democratic state with single-payer healthcare, labor unions, and consumer protections with teeth.

As alluded, sensitive people often deny or overlook their power-seeking impulse, associating it with the tragic fate of Faust or Lady Macbeth. It can be argued, however, that all of our neuroses and feelings of chronic despair, aside from those with identifiably biological causes, grow from the frustrated expression of personal power. We may spend a lifetime (and countless therapy sessions) ascribing our problems to other, more secondary phenomena — without realizing that, as naturally as a bird is drawn to the dips and flows of air currents, we are in the perpetual act of trying to forge, create, and sustain, much like the ancient alchemist or wizard.

The ultimate frustration of life is that, while we seem to be granted godlike powers — giving birth, creating beauty, spanning space and time, devising machines of incredible might — we are bound to physical forms that quickly decay. “Ye are gods,” wrote the psalmist, adding “but yet shall die as princes.” Immortality and the reversal of bodily decline is the one magic no one has ever mastered. The wish to surpass the boundaries of our physicality is behind some of our most haunting myths and parables, from the Trojan prince Tithonus, to whom the gods granted immortality but trapped in a shell of misery and decay for failing to request eternal youth, to the doomed scientist Victor Frankenstein, who sought the ultimate alchemy of creating life only to bring destruction on everyone around him.

We live in a sphere of limitations. But we cannot desist from pushing against its limits. It is our heritage.

Without the rebel, the malcontent, the usurper — the snake in the garden — how could humanity claim sentience?

Many of us grew up learning the story of humanity’s fall from grace in the biblical parable of the garden of paradise, where the serpent — long associated with the Great Adversary (a guest who’ll soon be arriving) — seduces Eve, and then she Adam, into eating forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But take a fresh reading, or a first reading, of the sparsely detailed chapter three of Genesis. When revisiting this familiar story in virtually any translation, you’ll see not only that the serpent’s argument is based in truth — the couple does not perish for eating the apple, and their eyes are, in fact, opened to good and evil (indeed, some scholars contend that the garden’s two trees, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, are the same)— but also that Eve, contrary to a shibboleth about feminine nature, does not seduce Adam, who requires little coaxing. The serpent even suggests, as augmented in other texts, that Yahweh displays cruel hypocrisy by forbidding intellectual illumination, even as its availability sits in the garden’s midst.

We’re taught, too, that the denouement of Eve’s misstep was her son Cain slaying his brother Abel. But Cain’s tragic act of fratricide may reflect, in discomforting realism, the unavoidable consequence of creativity: friction. Competing ideologies and the wish to measure and evaluate may be the inevitable cost of awareness. But without the rebel, the malcontent, the usurper — the snake in the garden — how could humanity claim sentience?

Lord Byron used his 1821 drama, Cain, one of the dramatist’s most alluring and under-appreciated works, to take the marked brother’s side. And to introduce the most jarring literary re-conception of Lucifer next to Milton’s. Byron’s antihero, who befriends the rebellious Cain, is persuasive and penetrating in his denial that he was the serpent in the garden, yet he points out that the serpent greeted Eve as a sexual and political emancipator — an outlook embraced by many proto-feminists and political radicals of that century and the next. Byron’s dark lord is a fiery optimist on the side of the malcontents: “I know the thoughts/Of dust, and feel for it, and with you.”

I began to question whether the forces of creation with which I most identified — whether parabolic or metaphysical — were these same forces of Promethean defiance. Forces of aspiration who rallied to the cry of the demon Moloch in Paradise Lost: “Hard liberty before the easy yoke.”

Now, one could ask: why think of any of this other than in material terms? Why not put away my Bhagavad Gita in favor of Atlas Shrugged? Because, as noted, I believe that truth is not contained within flesh and bone alone. I think we participate in an existence that goes beyond the five senses. And I believe that our ancient ancestors were correct in deifying certain energies and understanding oneself in relation to them; they gave them names like Thoth, Hermes, Minerva, and Set. Hence, I began to take a long and considered look at such an energy, to which I have been alluding, but which I have not yet named: Satan. This term has its own complicated past, it has gotten me cast out of a garden or two myself, but I employ it both to acknowledge its colloquial primacy and as a bow to bluntness.

There exists a rich and underappreciated counter narrative of humanity’s encounter with what is called “Satanic” in Western life particularly, but not only, in the literature of the Romantics. This countercurrent of spiritual, political, and cultural history — and present — has been insufficiently understood, historically confused, and blurred by entertainment, conspiracy theorists, sensationalism, and fraud (such as the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s).

Again, Satan is an optimist. Me too.

My wish then, is to encourage a second look where we’re not supposed to be looking — that is, to take a more unadorned, elucidating, and even hopeful perspective on the Satanic. Milton has Satan say: “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Again, Satan is an optimist. Me too. No cards under the table: my journey — and perhaps yours — includes constructively wondering whether my own search for a personal, spiritual, and ethical philosophy (I have one — and it’s vital to me) lies east of Eden, or within what is popularly but incompletely called the “dark side.” That’s what I’ve been describing.

Darkness is not a void; it’s a womb. And in the territory of truth and consensual experiment, there exist no boundaries of exploration.

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