REVIEW: The Prince of this World, by Adam Kotsko Part One

Benjamin West, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, 1791.

REVIEW: The Prince of this World by Adam Kotsko

One of the fundamental problems with theological writing on evil is the extent to which dealing with suffering and the relative involvement (or lack thereof) of God becomes an exercise in dry scholasticism. The reality of evil in the world and the problem of suffering is usually reduced to the following schematic articulation. God is good and therefore completely benevolent. Secondly, God is all-powerful and thus capable of preventing and relieving suffering, and thirdly, suffering is real. From the abstract point of view, one of these three points (most logically one of the first two) must be conceded. However, rather than get lost in elegant abstractions, Adam Kotsko’s hugely compelling study of the devil never loses sight of the lived, material force of evil as well as showing that when theology begins from the concrete rather than the immaterial is has far more of value to add to our understanding. Christian Theology is, after all, not simply a series of logical truth propositions to which the individual must either give or deny one’s assent. Too frequently, the grotesquery of suffering and persistence of evil is justified through some banal-sounding idea, such as Richard Swinburne’s, that the horrors of life exist as God wishes for his created children to live in a real world, rather than a toy one. As Terry Eagleton responded, ‘it is hard to believe that anyone but an Oxbridge don could pen such a sentiment’.[1] Suffering, no matter how elegantly the theologians who write about it express their solutions, is not simply an academic question, but an existential one. As Kotsko puts it, it is far better to treat the problem of evil ‘less as a puzzle and more of an open wound.’[2] It’s for this reason that the introduction to his book opens with recounting the testimony of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson who claimed to be so frightened of Michael Brown, the young, unarmed black man he shot and killed. Brown was ‘no angel’ – Wilson euphemistically positioned his victim as not just inherently criminal, but as actively demonic. Yet, surely the opposite should be true though? If anyone is the demon in this situation it must be the personification of racist structural violence.

And yet…

From somewhere has sprung ‘a profound theological reversal,’ (p.4) where the demonic, once the theological tool of the oppressed seeking to explain their sufferings, becomes a weapon of those who oppress. With this as the opening context, Kotsko argues that this theological discourse emerges from a long and under-acknowledged heritage and sets himself the task of tracing the story of how this reversal has taken place and the implications of this for the secular modern politics of contemporary culture.

Split into two halves, the first section traces the emergence of Gods opponent, the devil himself, from the Hebrew Bible and the way this figure is developed further by the following Christian tradition. The second part of the book explores the devils in light of the medieval theological consensus which grappled intently with the role and function of the Devil. Throughout both halves questions of moral agency and legitimacy are revealed to be inextricably within this idea of the Devil, forming ‘one of the most powerful – and deeply questionable – legacies that Christianity leaves to secular modernity.’ (p. 5) The clearest influence, aside from Kotsko’s long-standing inspiration Agamben,[3] is Nietzsche and it is through the application of Nietzsche’s genealogical method outlined in The Genealogy of Morals that Kotsko seeks to ‘grasp the forces that made the development of a theological symbol like the devil seem both plausible and urgently necessary.’ (p. 9) That urgency is perhaps one of the best things about the book as Kotsko acknowledges that he is not writing yet another ‘narrowly “scholarly” investigation’ (p. 14) and thus, rather than provide a dry academic treatise on providence and evil, Kotsko unfolds a narrative that exposes the extent to which the concepts and ideas that so much of modernity is constructed upon are ‘dangerous and unstable materials indeed.’ (p. 15.)

So, the book begins with the confrontation between the people of Israel and Pharaoh, a figure that Kotsko sees as the ‘most relevant biblical antecedent for the devil.’ (p. 22) Pharaoh is evil, yes, but within the paradigm of political theology unfolded at this point – what Kotsko calls ‘the minority monotheism of the Hebrew biblical tradition, God’s wicked rival could only be a rival king.’ (p. 23) Jumping ahead to the Babylonian exile and the conquest of their nation, there emerges a new paradigm. Rather than turn their back on God in the face of an almost unthinkable loss, the Hebrew elite ‘in the face of their God’s apparent defeat … claimed that their local God was actually the God of all the earth’ (p. 28).  The empires which conquered the nation were, in fact, servants of the Most high God. This prophetic paradigm accelerates further by the time of the book of Daniel where ‘the stake of God’s interventions in world politics are vastly higher’ (p. 35) as prophetic visions no longer point to just the restoration of the nation but the ultimate victory of God’s chosen, people, the resurrection of the dead and a final, apocalyptic reckoning.  This apocalyptic paradigm not only removes the explanation of suffering offered by the previous paradigm (suffering in exile would spur repentance) but also sees the introduction of the apocalyptic enemy – the Devil. ‘He relives God of responsibility for unjust suffering, he also diminishes God’s power and control … by introducing the devil the apocalyptic paradigm opens up the possibility that God will become identified with him.’ (p. 45-6).

By the time of Christ and the New Testament, the relationship between the God’s implacable foe and God himself becomes complicated by the figure of the Messiah. In chapter two the older apocalyptic paradigm must be rethought – once again there is another doubling down. By the time of eschatological visions of Revelation no longer is the enemy of God a petty King, but it is now the greatest Empire on Earth, Rome itself. There is a ‘play of mirrors’ (p. 54) as Christ and anti-Christ, the city of God and Whore of Babylon confront one another forming an apocalyptic image of contemporary political situations. Here in Revelation, rather than the suffering of the righteous serving as a testament to God’s glory, here ‘the sufferings of the wicked serve to enhance the joy of the saints’ (p. 55) and given the extravagance of their torture in the lake of fire, by this point in the demonic history, the ‘stark opposition of good and evil [is] beginning to break down.’ (p. 56) From the prophetic age of God taking credit for the subjugation of the chosen people as a means to ensure their repentance, by the time of the eschatological writings of Revelation, God becomes dangerously close to his mirrored foe of the Devil and the New Jerusalem forms the divine counterpoint to the Babylon and Rome.


[1] Terry Eagleton, On Evil, (New Haven: Yale University Press 2010) p.134.

[2] Adam Kotsko, The Prince of this World, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) p. 6. All subsequent page references will be noted parenthetically.

[3] Adam Kotsko has translated several of Agamben’s work as well as authoring (alongside Colby Dickinson) Agamben’s Coming Philosophy: Finding a New Use for Theology (London: Rowman and Littlefield 2015)


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