The Devil cannot help but be a moralist. Aristotle—admiringly called “The Philosopher” by no less a theologian than Thomas Aquinas—proved as much long ago.
By moralist, I understand someone who cares about the good, someone who desires what is good, someone who makes choices trying to obtain or experience what he believes to be good—even if his understanding of the good is less than perfect.
Let us now see if this definition and description fit the Devil.
WHAT’S IN A NAME, BEEZLEBUB?
Let’s begin by supposing for the sake of argument there is a Devil: a being who is conscious, willful, self-aware, and supremely nefarious, malicious.
If it helps to give him a name, then name him: Satan. Lucifer. Beelzebub. Antichrist. Or even Mephistopheles. There are many Biblical names for the Devil. Other names come from various literature, including works of prose and poetry. And of course many religious traditions and many non-Biblical holy books include references to Devil-ish or Devil-like beings.
If the Devil is conscious, self-aware, and willful, then he is capable of making choices and he is self-aware that he can make choices. This is the premise of all morals and moral responsibility, yes?
For the Devil to be morally responsible for his choices and actions—for the Devil to be either praise-worthy or blame-worthy—then the Devil must be free and self-aware. After all, if the Devil is not aware of himself and his capacity for making free choices, then he’s not much different than any irrational beast driven by mere instincts and appetites.
If the Devil cannot make free, willful choices, or if the Devil is unaware that he can make choices, then we should not hold the Devil morally accountable, just as we don’t hold lions, tigers, or bears morally accountable.
But what if the Devil is conscious, willful, and self-aware? Well, that means:
- the Devil makes choices, freely,
- the Devil is consciously aware of the choices he makes,
- and the Devil is consciously aware of his capacity for making choices.
If the Devil makes choices, freely, and is consciously aware of the choices he makes as well as his capacity for making them, then he can be asked the first question of moral philosophy: “Why do you make the choices you do?”
MIGHT MAKES RIGHT: NOT VERY IMPRESSIVE
If the Devil possesses a philosophic soul, he might ask this question of himself. If not, maybe some other more philosophic soul might pose this question to the Devil.
If the Devil refuses to consider or discuss the question—if the Devil has no patience for thinking and talking and self-examination, and he insists merely on dishing out punishment to those around him (perhaps including the person who asks why the Devil makes the choices he does)—then it becomes a contest of sheer power. The Devil tries to punish or hurt or harm others around him, and those others push back, resist, and try to stop him. It’s a battle.
Will the Devil win that battle? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless of what power the Devil might have, if he refuses any philosophic quest for truth, including the truth about himself, then it seems he’s not capable of rising about the simple, barbaric principle of the jungle: Might Makes Right.
And if the Devil is nothing but a devotee of the principle that Might Makes Right, then the Devil would show himself to be quite ordinary, hardly remarkable or distinguishable, certainly not impressive. He would show himself to have the soul of a simple tyrant. Or less.
He would show himself to have the same kind of soul as every beast, whose right to devour another being is synonymous with the power to devour another being. Might Makes Right is the simple way of simple beasts who possess only instincts and appetites, who lack the combination of consciousness, reason, willfulness, choice, and self-awareness.
SIMPLE VERSUS COMPLEX SOULS
Human beings are superior to beasts precisely because the souls of humans are not simple, they’re complex: Humans possess consciousness, reason, willfulness, a capacity for choice, and self-awareness in addition to animal instincts and appetites.
In this regard, every human truly is equal to every other human: Each human being possesses a complex, not a simple, soul. Each human being is capable of making choices, freely; each is aware of those choices; each is aware of the capacity for choosing; and each is able to reflect upon why they make the choices they do.
All humans are all that!
If the Devil wants to be understood as less than human, as sub-human, as inferior to humans, as no more than an irrational beast, that’s his prerogative, I suppose. But a simple, beastly soul seems hardly fitting for a being who allegedly once claimed the right to rule the universe, who allegedly claimed the authority to rule all men, beasts, and God!
More, it seems hardly like the kind of being all humans should fear. If the Devil is but a dumb beast, then what he most deserves from us is pity or sympathy. Maybe some treats now and then when the Devil obeys our commands? But an irrational beast incapable of understanding itself doesn’t deserve great fear from reasoning, thinking, superior human beings.
But if the Devil does agree to participate in an analysis and dialectic discussion of his own choices and why he makes them, then the insights he’ll gain will lead him in the direction of the good. Philosophy will reveal the inner moralist of the Devil.
PHILOSOPHIZING WITH THE DEVIL
Imagine the Devil reflecting upon the following:
“Mr. Devil, you make choices. Every choice you make is either to preserve the way things are from some change for the worse, or to improve things, to make things better. The concepts worse and better are intelligible only in light of the good. The idea of the good is implicit in the ides of worse and better. Worse means things moving away from the good; better means things moving toward the good.”
Here we might remind the Devil that this is why Aristotle opened his books The Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics with essentially the same sentence: All conscious choices aim at some good.
But let us continue speaking with the Devil:
“So, Mr. Devil, in making choices, you cannot help but indicate or imply or suggest that there is indeed some kind of good toward which or at which your choices aim. Even if the good you desire merely and only serves you, you’re still trying to obtain some kind of good. (Curious thing for a Devil to do, eh?) What IS this good you seek? Is the good the object of all your choices, Mr. Devil? If so, let us try to discover and understand what the good is, best we can, as clearly as we can. What could possibly be more important for a free willed, self-aware, choosing being like you, Mr. Devil?”
And with that simple line of questions, the Devil heads on a philosophic quest to know the good as best he can. If he is a thinking being, that is.
IDEA OF THE GOOD: WHY EVERY THINKING BEING IS A MORALIST, INCLUDING THE DEVIL
The idea of the good and the capacity for conscious, rational choice are intrinsically woven together. Each is inseparable from the other.
So even if the Devil claims something as being good merely for HIM, his argument will point to SOME principle of goodness above and beyond him.
Suppose that the Devil replies and explains that his choices aim at increasing his own power. Very well. Then it seems “power” is connected somehow to what is good. And we can ask the Devil: What is this good of which power is a part?
Or suppose the Devil states that his choices aim at increasing his own pleasure. Very well. He is arguing that, in effect, that which is pleasurable is synonymous with that which is good – much like ancient Epicureans did. And thus we can ask the Devil: What is this good of which pleasure is a part?
The point is that even the Devil—if he is conscious, self-aware, and possesses a free will and the capacity for making choices—is capable of moral philosophy and moral education. Even the Devil has the capacity of glimpsing the good, or at least chasing after it philosophically, if he can reason.
And if the Devil cannot reason, then he’s not very interesting. Certainly not worthy of being considered the greatest threat to mankind.
PHILOSOPHY: ARMOR FOR THE SOUL
A philosophic soul has nothing to fear from the ideas or arguments of any Devil. A philosophic soul searching for truth has nothing to fear from any ideas or arguments. In fact, a philosophic soul welcomes all ideas and arguments because they might be insightful, they might contain seeds of truth, or they might help identify what is not true.
It’s far from clear that a Devil could be devoted, ultimately, to any principle of badness, wrongness, immorality or evil, because all choices a Devil makes are choices for something he perceives as good, desirable, preferable. Even if the Devil says that he chooses evil because that’s good for him, that still opens the path to philosophizing with the Devil: What is good?
In short, moralistic philosophizing and philosophic moralizing are inescapable for rational, free, conscious beings, no matter their name or reputation or ranking among men or angels.
Should I someday confront the Devil (which some probably believe is likely), I will encourage the Devil to speak freely. And I shall raise the kinds of philosophic questions I mention here. And more. Maybe, just maybe, I can help the Devil understand that he too is a moralist, that he’s merely confused on what the good truly is that he seeks and wants and values through the choices he makes. And everyone listening to the conversation, myself included, will learn as we think about the discussion and the ideas and the lines of argumentation.
Or maybe not. It all depends on how intelligent the Devil is and how willing he is to think philosophically.