The Devil’s Reading List

Or how to disrupt religious orthodoxy in six easy steps

Mitch Horowitz
Mar 13, 2018 · 5 min read
Satan in his pandemonium, by John Martin, 1825–26.

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Evil may not be what you think it is. There exists a rich and underappreciated counternarrative of humanity’s encounter with the “dark side” in Western life, which may leave you wondering whether your search for a personal, spiritual, and ethical philosophy lies…east of Eden.

Six literary works, in some cases widely known but little read, will spur you to consider new questions about how we’ve been conditioned to understand the adversarial force called Lucifer or Satan.

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 Satan — 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 first reading) of the sparsely detailed chapter 3 of Genesis. When revisiting this familiar story, you’ll see, in virtually any translation, not only that the serpent’s argument is based in truth — the first couple do 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 tragic 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.

John Milton (1608–1674) took this ambiguous and spare biblical account and, along with a few other fragments referencing Satan in scripture, constructed his unparalleled Paradise Lost, which forever disrupted the image of Lucifer in the Western mind. In Milton’s work, the monarch of fearful depravity is transformed into a figure of defiant and even admirable rebellion — at least in the opening chapters, particularly books one and two. Milton’s epic presents the dark lord, who is unbowed following his defeat and ejection from heaven, as a diabolical optimist: “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Satan’s minions mirror his formidability. The demon Mammon at one point declares, “Hard liberty before the easy yoke.” I recently emailed that line in consolation to a friend who had suffered a political defeat. He seemed to get it, responding, “Dude!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Indeed.

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Inspired by ‘Paradise Lost,’ Blake’s painting ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels,’ 1808.

Poet William Blake (1757–1827) blew open the Western imagination in 1790 with his verse portfolio The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which he made the incendiary observation: “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.” Blake, you might say, gave the devil his due by positing the offending figure as a necessary counterpart to narrowly dogmatic virtue. Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” are particularly affecting, and filled with layered observations, such as: “All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.” Blake’s entry into the Western literary and ethical mind left a profound impact on the rising generation of Romantic writers and philosophers, including Percy and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Lord Byron, who sharpened the image of Lucifer as a misunderstood radical.

In perhaps the most alluring and underappreciated work to emerge from “Romantic Satanism,” Lord Byron (1788–1824) used his 1821 drama, Cain, to introduce the most jarring literary reconception of Lucifer next to Milton’s. Byron’s Satan, who befriends the rebellious and ill-fated Cain, is persuasive and penetrating in his denial that he was the serpent in the garden and in pointing out that the serpent greeted Eve as a sexual and political emancipator—an outlook embraced by many protofeminists and political radicals of that century and the next. Like Milton’s Satan, Byron’s dark lord is a fiery optimist and something of a socialist, who tells Cain, “I know the thoughts/Of dust, and feel for it, and with you.” Of course, the play ends with Cain’s tragic and unintended act of fratricide, leaving the reader to wonder: Are competing ideologies and human frictions the inevitable cost of awareness?

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The “Leviathan” pentagram popularized by LaVey.

The occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced myriad references to Satan from novelists, dramatists, and mystics. But the year 1966 marked a turning point. It was “the Year One, Anno Satanas,” as deemed by writer, musician, and upstart Anton Sandor LaVey, who launched his media-propelled Church of Satan. The “black pope” evangelized his self-affirming philosophy in 1969 through publication of his enduringly popular paperback, The Satanic Bible. LaVey and his acolytes have argued, rightly, that the founder was the first figure in Western history to create a lasting liturgy and structure around the veneration of Satan. Indeed, most prior talk of religious “Satanism” had arisen from baseless accusations, historical misunderstandings, or the highly individualized work of iconoclasts. Critics dismissed LaVey’s mass-market paperback as a bastardization of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, with occult frosting — to which I argue: So what? Much religious and philosophical writing is syncretic, and I see LaVey’s work as an effective popularization of those writers combined with his own shrewd insights into human nature. Some readers called the book a catalyst in their lives.

Once upon a time, Michael Aquino, a retired Army lieutenant-colonel, served as an influential deputy and collaborator to Anton LaVey. As is common in religious history, however, the officer split from the Church of Satan in 1975 to form his own order, the Temple of Set, which adopted a more spiritual and occultic approach than the Church of Satan’s self-driven materialism. While still closely aligned with LaVey in 1970, and while serving active combat duty in Vietnam, Aquino devised a short and extraordinary allegorical work called The Diabolicon, which reenvisions the story of Satan’s fall from Heaven as the rebellion of life-affirming and encouraging forces — those of Satan and his demonic collaborators — against a passive, conformity-enforcing, monolithic God. In Aquino’s inspired telling, Satan urges humanity to strive for its highest possibilities, setting the insurgent deity into dire conflict with a God who rules by fear and punishment.

There is so much else I could include in the Devil’s Reading List, such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance, not to mention a range of occult works. But I think the six diffuse volumes considered above provide a torchlight for disrupting conventional thought behind the Judeo-Christian tradition, at least in its most mainstream expressions, and supply the seeker with a new glass through which to peer darkly.

For more on rethinking Satan, check out Mitch’s recent lecture:

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