The problem of evil has preoccupied Western peoples for thousands of years. In the pre-modern era the presence of an immoral impulse within human nature was often embodied in the Biblical charscter of Satan, a spiritual figure with origins in ancient Hebrew religiosity. In this early Hebraic incarnation Satan was not uniformly identified with evil, nor was his action in the world and human nature considered to be fundamentally at odds with the Creator’s agendas. One tradition of Jewish Biblical interpretation along these lines holds that Satan’s activity is complimentary to these. That is, Satan’s role as a rancorous critic of the Almighty is needed to moderate His intentions, which any unbiased look at the Bible will tell you can be alarmingly grandiose and impulsive.

This view of Satan is most clearly evident in Jewish scripture in the Book of Job, a poetic work with multiple historical sources now lost to time. It is found in that part of Jewish scripture called the Tanakh, which follows the Torah or Five Books of Moses. Here Satan is framed as an irksome, goading provocateur who gleefully pricks the Almighty’s vanity, particularly His overblown sense of His own majesty and perfection. C.G. Jung, Swiss

Tanakh Parchment
Medieval Tanakh, Containing the Book of Job

analyst and sometime follower of Freud, notes that in this role Satan appears as an allegorical, dissociated dimension of God’s total character. In his essay “Answer to Job”, Jung (1958) analyzes Satan as an emanation of an unconscious dimension of the divine psyche, one serving as a vessel for certain neonatal self-critical capacities not yet integrated into God’s consciousness. According to Jung, through the biting taunts that he directs at the Creator, Satan performs the vital function of rousing Him to pause and consider his actions, a preliminary first step in enhancing His undeveloped consciousness of self.

In the Christian theodicy the figure of Satan was increasingly split off from its relationship with the Almighty’s total being, and identified as a more independent actor seeking to usurp Heaven’s rule. His presence as an aspect of the human soul came to be considered the legacy of original sin, and the source of our sinful defiance of the Lord, now conceived as a morally “all good”, loving divinity.

However, in the late eighteenth century the first rumblings of what was evolve into the modern, post-religious consciousness of self sounded. Unabashedly maverick British poet and philosopher William Blake (1757-1827) remains a central force in forwarding what we may call a more “psychological” understanding of the allegorical Satan. Ironically, while embodying a very modern view of reality, Blake’s writings do so, in part, by reviving and modify aspects of the ancient Hebrew vision of this figure as a split-off actor in the Lord’s psyche, by portraying Satan as functioning in this same role in the human mind, in what is a microcosm of the structure of the macrocosmic Divine Mind. Contra the Christian doctrinal understanding of Satan, Blake posited him as allegorical of human creative energies, expressing amoral – rather than immoral – desires and capacities necessary for the metamorphosis and emergence of our ability to vigorously embrace life via the power of the imagination.

William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Cover Page

In his iconic self-illustrated work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, Blake (1790) forwarded an urgent, prophetic vision of the life-affirming potential of integrating these forces into awareness. For Blake, such an unorthodox synthesis included the evolution of our notion of evil from a life-denying to life-affirming dynamism hidden within overly socialized Christian consciousness. This is found, among other places, in a section titled “A Memorable Fancy” a prose piece in which he shares insights he gleaned during an imagined sojourn through Hell, now radically reinterpreted as a place of wisdom rather than the residence of damned and alienated souls:

As I was walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyment of Genius; which to the Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs; thinking that as the sayings used in a nation, mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell, shew the nature of infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments.

When I came home: on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat-sided steep frowns over the present world, I saw amighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of a rock, with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now perceived by the minds of men, & read by them on earth –

‘How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?’

The work of Blake and those like him anticipated an increasing “interiorization” and reconciliation of the Satanic imago with everyday human consciousness. With the increasing disappearance of even the metaphoric use of religious imagery in twentieth century art forms as a vehicle for imparting the idea of transcendence, it became the task of modernist poets to employ secular language to come to grips with the post-Christian existential “disenchantment” of the world. In doing so, this generation of artists sought to create a new, albeit more modest transcendence via the mind’s capacity to aestheticize the world.

One of my favorite modernist poets, American Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), devotes most of his poetry to this end, while often giving a nod to the fast-fading Christian theodicy. Steven’ works seek to find a new form of enchantment with the world. Similar to Blake, so too Stevens sees this revitalized access to reality as one wrought by giving free rein to the transformative potential of the artisitic imagination. This is movingly

Wallace Stevens' Esthetique Du Mal (1947)

expressed in the following excerpts from his 1945 composition “Esthetique Du Mal” (Stevens, 1947/1952). In this poem one senses both mourning for the loss of religious meaning, and a fledging hope that life-affirming spiritual qualities may now spring forth from within the mind. Within this piece we may note his critique of the Christian deity, which he finds overly sympathetic, hence perhaps not fit to inspire the courage needed to face the disillusionments of modernity. Stevens references hell twice in this, the poem’s third section, in the first and last of its seven stanzas. While this implies that modernity is metaphorically “framed” by a certain hellish consciousness, Stevens describes this as a collective mental ordeal drained of its former metaphysical terrors. This opens the door to the unfettered use of the aestheticizing imagination as the source of new meanings and values.

The poem opens with an individual writing letters to home from Naples, Italy. The setting is perhaps symbolic of the now departed classical era, in which religious traditions provided us with a clarity about life that is now absent in the wake of its demise:

Esthetique Du Mal – Part III

His firm stanzas hang like hives in hell
Or what hell was, since now both heaven and hell
Are one, and here, O terra infidel.

The fault lies with an over-human god,
Who by sympathy has made himself a man
And is not to be distinguised, when we cry

Because we suffer, our oldest parent, peer
Of the populace of the heart, the reddest lord,
Who has gone before us in experience.

If only he would not pity us so much,
Weaken our fate, relieve us of woe both great
And small, a constant fellow of destiny,

A too, too human god, self-pity’s kin
And uncourageous genius…It seems
As if the health of the world might be enough.

A too, too human god, self-pity’s kin
And uncourageous genesis . . . It seems
As if the health of the world might be enough.

It seems as if the honey of common summer
Might be enough, as if the golden combs
Were part of a sustenance itself enough,

As if hell, so modified, had disappeared,
As if pain, no longer satanic minicry,
Could be borne, as if we were sure to find our way.


Blake, William (1790). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Mineola NY: Dover, 1994

Stevens, Wallace (1947/1952). Esthetique Du Mal, contained in Transport to Summer. In Stevens, Holly (Ed.), Wallace Stevens: the Collected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Jung, C.G. (1958). Answer to Job. Princeton University of Princeton, 2002

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