The Devil’s Distractions: Whittaker Chambers on Satan in the Age of Reason
Religion & Liberty Online

The Devil’s Distractions: Whittaker Chambers on Satan in the Age of Reason

Paradise0038New York magazine’s fascinating interview with Justice Antonin Scalia offers much to enjoy, and as Joe Carter has already pointed out, one of the more striking exchanges centers on the existence of the Devil.

When asked whether he has “seen evidence of the Devil lately,” Scalia offers the following:

You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore…What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

As my friend Irene Switzer kindly reminded me, Whittaker Chambers set forth a similar hypothesis in an elegantly written essay for Life magazine in 1948. “When the Age of Reason began,” the sub-head begins, “the Devil went ‘underground,'” his strategy being “to make men think he doesn’t exist.”

Setting the scene at a New Year’s party in “Manhattan’s swank Hotel Nineveh & Tyre,” Chambers constructs a fanciful conversation between the Devil and a “pessimist” — a Modern Man what-have-you, who exhibits familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr and C.S. Lewis (an indication of rejection over ignorance, no doubt).

After meandering a bit, Satan outlines the origins and aim of his present scheme, a portion well worth excerpting at length:

“It seems but yesterday that I launched Hell’s Five Hundred Year Plan. I still remember when the inspiration struck me. I still remember the disdainful laughter with which Hell and its reactionaries heard the plan—the most luminous plan, perhaps, that ever lit the darkened mind of fallen angel. I had had a look at the record—thousands and thousands of years of tempting stubborn saints and seducing all too willing mortals, pandering to the grossest vices of a breed already depraved by original sin; years of frightening dim-witted peasants with horns and hoofs and tricks that a side-show conjuror would be ashamed of; years of making theatrical blood pacts and mixing obscene love potions for senescent scholars whose libidos had outlasted their wits; years of dancing on drafty mountaintops with bevies of bearded hags who wanted to be Rockettes for a night; years of tormenting damned souls until the mouth of Hell smelled like the open door of a cafeteria kitchen. And where had it got us? In all those years Hell had not advanced one inch. It was all just leftism, infantile leftism. A new revolutionary strategy was in order in keeping with the progressive nature of the times we were living in.

“It was the 18th Century. The Enlightenment had begun. As I read Voltaire and Diderot, Locke and Helvetius, and pored over the Principia Mathematica of Sir Isaac Newton, I saw that mankind had reached one of the decisive turning points in its history. The Middle Ages were liquidated. Faith in the human mind had supplanted faith in God. I saw that Hell must write Progress on its banners and Science in its methods.”

“What’s wrong with Progress and Science?” asked the pessimist.

“Absolutely nothing,” said the Devil. “Only the most primitive mind would suppose there was. They are, in fact, positively good. That was the nub of my inspiration. Hitherto Hell had tried to destroy man by seducing him to evil. My revolutionary thought was to destroy man by seducing him through good. Intellectual pride has always been my specific sin and, like most sinners, I have always felt secretly a little proud of my fault. Now, I perceived, all mankind had sinned the same sin. I saw that Hell had only to move with the tide and leave the rest to rationalism, liberalism and universal compulsory education…Only Hell must be careful not to show its hand. That is why Hell went underground. That is why for 250 years I have ceased to exist. It was even easier than I anticipated.”

All of this, we go on to learn, is driven by Satan’s desire to pervert the goodness of creation. “Not to know goodness is not to understand creation,” he says. “In no way is my mark more clearly on the modern world than in the death of the creative imagination.”

Whittaker Chambers
Whittaker Chambers

As the Devil notes, such distortions stretch into all areas of life, even when driven by the diversions of our own intellectual pride: the “inhuman industrial oppression of men,” the materialistic back-filling of “secular man’s” inner emptiness, the “inhuman horrors of communism, socialism and anarchism,” the “world wars with millions of men dying by all the horrors contrived by secular genius.”

Indeed, belief in the Devil is about much more than checking off some box on a quirky dogma checklist, and its implications merit much more discussion, inspection, and critique than armchair ponderings by journalists about whether we might be so presumptuous as to think that they might be going to that place. What we believe about the origins and forms of evil matters, for ourselves and the world around us, in this life and the next. How we understand the sources and dynamics of order and chaos will inevitably feed into how and whether we respond.

But how will we respond?

In Witness, Chambers’s stunning memoir, he explains how many of his former comrades converted away from communism’s “rational faith in man” due to what began as the quiet cry of the “logic of the soul.” In the “Devil” essay, written four years prior, Chambers seems to believe that Satan duly acknowledges this threat.

“And yet it is at this very point that man, the monstrous midget, still has the edge on the Devil: he suffers. For at the heart of all human suffering is the anguish of the chance that the creative seed of goodness…may not perpetuate itself, that a man can leave this life, this light, without communicating that one cell of himself which is real. Not one man, however base, quite lacks the capacity for this specific suffering, which is the seal of his divine commitment…

“…It still lies with man to make the choice: a skeleton beside a broken wall on a dead planet purged of all suffering because purged of all life; or Him, with all that that entails.”

The conversation concludes with the pessimist cutting off old Satan with a brief but pleasant, “Happy New Year,” after which we can only assume that he walks away with a shrug. Let us not be so content.

Read the full essay here.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.