Ivan Ilyin: On the Devil

In this 1947 essay, Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) addresses the reality of the devil in history and our own time. Tellingly, the advance of the secular and materialist outlook has corresponded with an ever-growing fascination with the demonic – along with its public justification. Translated by Mark Hackard.

In the life of the human race, the diabolical principle has its own history. On this question serious academic literature exists – not concerning, however, recent decades. Yet namely recent decades shed new light on the past two centuries. The age of European Enlightenment (beginning with the French Encyclopedists of the 18th century) undermined within men belief in the being of a personal devil. The educated man cannot believe in the existence of such a revolting anthropomorphic being “with a tail, claws, and horns” (according to Zhukovsky), unseen by anyone but portrayed in ballads and in pictures. Luther still believed in him and even hurled filth at him, but later centuries rejected the devil, and he gradually “disappeared” and flamed out as an “outdated prejudice.”

But it was precisely then that art and philosophy became interested in him. The enlightened European had only Satan’s cloak remaining, and he began to drape himself in it with fascination. There burned a desire to find out more about the devil, discern his “true form,” guess his thoughts and wishes, “transform” into him or at least walk before men in his guise…

And so art began to imagine and portray him, while philosophy attended to his theoretical justification. The devil, of course, “didn’t succeed,” because the human imagination is incapable of containing him, but in literature, music, and painting began a culture of demonism. From the beginning of the 19th century, Europe has been fascinated with his anti-divine forms; there appears the demonism of doubt; negation; pride; rebellion; disappointment; bitterness; melancholy; contempt; egoism, and even boredom. The poets depict Prometheus, the Son of the Morning, Cain, Don Juan, and Mephistopheles.

Byron; Goethe; Schiller; Chamisso; Hoffman; Franz Liszt; and later Stuck, Baudelaire, and others display an entire gallery of demons or demonic men and moods. Moreover, these demons are intelligent, witty, educated, ingenious, and temperamental, in a word, charming and evoking sympathy, while demonic men are the incarnation of “world-angst,” “noble protest,” and some “higher revolutionary consciousness.”

Franz Von Stuck Lucifer

Lucifer, by Franz Von Stuck

Simultaneously the mystical doctrine holding that there is a “dark principle,” even within God, is revived. The German Romantics find poetic words in favor of “innocent shamelessness,” and the Left-Hegelian Max Stirner comes out openly preaching human self-deification and demonic egoism. Denial of a personal devil is gradually replaced by the justification of the diabolic principle…

The abyss concealed beyond this was seen by Dostoevsky. He identified it, and with prophetic alarm sought the means to overcome it his whole life.

Friederich Nietzsche also approached this abyss, was captivated by it, and would extol it. His last works, The Will to Power, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo, contain direct and open propagation of evil…

Nietzsche designates the totality of religious subjects (God, the soul, virtue, sin, the other world, truth, eternal life) as a “heap of lies, born from bad instincts by natures sick and harmful in the deepest sense.” “The Christian conception of God” is for him “one of the corrupt conceptions created on the earth.” In his eyes all Christianity is only a “crude fable of a wonderworker and savior,” and Christians “the party of rejected nobodies and idiots.”

What he exults are “cynicism” and shamelessness, “the highest that can be achieved on earth.” He summons the beast in man, the “superior animal” that must be unleashed, whatever may come of it. He demands the “savage man,” “vicious” with “joyous paunch.” Everything “cruel, the undisguisedly beastly, the criminal” enraptures him. “Greatness is only where there is a great crime.” “In each of us the barbarian and the wild beast assert themselves.” Everything in life that creates a brotherhood of men – ideas of “guilt, punishment, justice, honesty, freedom, love, etc.” – “should be removed from existence entirely.” “Forward,” he exclaims, “blasphemers, immoralists, independents of all kinds, artists, Jews, gamblers – all the rejected classes of society!”…

And there is no greater joy for him than to see “the destruction of the best men and to follow how, step by step, they go to destruction”…”I know my fate,” he writes,

One day my name will be associated with the recollection of something frightful, a crisis as such has never been seen on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a sentence conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am not a man, I am dynamite.

In such a way the justification of evil found its utterly diabolical theoretical formulas, and it remained only to wait for their enactment. Nietzsche found his readers, disciples, and admirers; they adopted his doctrine, combining it with the doctrine of Karl Marx, and took to the execution of this plan 30 years ago.

“Demonism” and “Satanism” are not one and the same. Demonism is a human matter, while Satanism is a matter of the spiritual abyss. The demonic man is given over to his base instincts and can still repent and convert, but the man into whom, by the words of the Gospel, “Satan entered,” is possessed by an alien, supra-human force and himself becomes a devil in human form.

Judas Casts Away the Silver, by Platon Vasiliev

Judas Casts Away the Silver, by Platon Vasiliev

Demonism is a transitory spiritual darkening, its formula being life without God; Satanism is the total and final darkness of the spirit, its formula the overthrow of God. In the demonic man there rebels unbridled instinct supported by cold reason; the satanic man acts as the instrument of someone else serving evil, capable of savoring his repulsive service. The demonic man gravitates to Satan: playing along, reveling, suffering, entering into pacts with him (according to popular tradition), he gradually becomes the devil’s convenient domicile; the satanic man lost himself and became the earthly instrument of a diabolical will. Those who have not seen such people, or seeing, has not recognized them, do not know primordial perfected evil and do not have an understanding of the truly diabolic element.

Our generations are set before terrible, mysterious manifestations of this element and up to this time have not resolved to express their life experience in the right words. We could describe this element as “black fire,” or define it as eternal envy; unquenchable hatred; militant banality; shameless lies; absolute impudence and absolute lust for power; the trampling of spiritual freedom; the thirst for universal degradation; joy over the ruin of the best men, and Anti-Christianity. The man who has succumbed to this element loses spirituality, love, and conscience; within him begins degeneration and dissolution. He surrenders to conscious vice and the thirst for destruction; he ends in defiant sacrilege and human torment.

The simple perception of this diabolic element provokes in a healthy soul repulsion and horror that can transition into genuine bodily malaise, a specific “faintness” (the spasm of the sympathetic nervous system, nervous dysrhythmia, and psychological illness – that also can lead to suicide). Satanic men are recognized by their eyes, by their smile, their voice, their words and deeds. We, Russians, have seen them alive and in the flesh; we know who they are and whence they come. Yet foreigners up to this point have not understood this phenomenon and do not want to understand it, for it brings them judgment and condemnation.

And to this day, certain reformist theologians continue to write on “the utility of the devil” and sympathize with his modern insurrection.