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

Le-Brun-Chute-Dijon
Charles Le Brun, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, painted some time after 1680

The story so far has traced the ways in which the idea and figure of the devil has taken on a conflicting and shifting function. From relatively humble beginnings, as a way for a suffering minority to make sense of their plight to becoming the cosmic enemy of all good that must, at the end of things, be utterly defeated. Rather than small kings and petty tyrants the great Empire of Rome became the embodiment of evil. Yet, once again this isn’t the whole story – things tend to be a good deal more complicated than that. Creating an apocalyptic analog in the confrontation between Babylon and the New Jerusalem to echo the struggle of the emerging Christian religion and the Roman empire is made a little more difficult by looking at much of Paul’s New Testament writing. Kotsko quotes that famous verse from Romans 13, encouraging ‘every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.’ (NRSV) Yet, thanks to the authorities’ complicity in the crucifixion of the Jesus Christ ‘they forfeited any legitimacy they may have previously possessed.” (p. 62) The world and its institutions are (as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 6) made up of the unrighteous. In short, ‘Rome undeniably has power and wields it freely, but the Christian community has authority – above all, moral authority.’ (p. 63)

These questions of authority and the relationship between the political present and the more intangible realm of faith is what begins the shaping of another paradigm – one which Kotsko will call the patristic paradigm. After a discussion of Irenaeus and Tertullian Kotsko argues that there is a downplaying of the political significance of the devil (p. 70) and that the devil’s agents are no longer the ‘the kings of this world but the antibishops of the antichurch of heresy.’ (p. 70) Christ’s incarnation is thus a refutation of the Gnostic rejection of the world and his death on the cross both fulfill Biblical prophecy and demonstrates that the redeemer God and creator revealed in Jewish scripture are one and the same.  Kotsko pinpoints a key problem – the apocalyptic paradigm, irrevocably set in motion by the death and resurrection of Christ is dangerous and these early Christian writers have de-politicized it, shifting the polemic onto the realm of belief. Whilst to go back on the apocalyptic would mean ‘going back on Christianity as such’ (p. 71) the antagonism between believers and political powers can be displaced. In this case the displacing is away from the political into the theological. As a result, ‘purely symbolic or theological explanations of the cross followed naturally as a way of filling the explanatory gap opened up by dissociating crucifixion from its political context.’ (p. 74) Such a dissociation is perhaps understandable given that there followed another great reversal – the Empire of Rome, the figure meant to be a stand-in for the devil themselves – adopts Christianity.

Here then, there is a moment of opportunity – a gap between the patristic and apocalyptic paradigms as the relationship between Rome and Christian shifts between persecution and adoption. In this brief moment of possibility there emerges Gregory of Nyssa’s Address on Religious Instruction which, not only outlines a ransom theory of atonement but also positions Christ’s salvific work on the cross as not only saving all of humanity ‘but the devil as well.’ (p. 80) The optimism of Nyssa’s approach is later repudiated by theologians from both East and West. Kotsko provides a long and in-depth reading of Anselm specifically, who puts forward a God ‘jealous of his honour – which is to say, proud – and he is absolutely unforgiving of any debt or obligation.’ (p. 100) Anselm’s God is motivated by ‘perceived loss of status and by wounded pride.’ (p. 100)[1] Rather than accept Nyssa’s idea that even the devil could be saved, Anselm completely forecloses the possibility. Such a move makes a certain kind of sense, for in Anselm’s work, Christ’s death does not forgive humanities debt, but rather paid it – in short, ‘it makes sense that God would not be merciful to the devil, because he is not even merciful to humans.’ (p. 100-1) God, or rather the God of medieval Christianity, inflicts suffering on his enemies, over and over again, in order to restore his own honour. As Kotsko puts it, ‘the entire life of the devil … is overshadowed by divine vengeance, which the devil both suffers and carries out.’ (p. 105)

But how did he arrive there?

In the second half of the book Kotsko traces the theological ‘debates surrounding the devil’s fall from grace’ (p. 110) beginning with Augustine’s account of his own conversation. Augustine writes that his conversion, that final act of surrender was ‘not anything he could have achieved or contributed to – his salvation occurred at God’s sole initiative, as a pure gift.’ (p. 111) This raises a huge and troubling problem – namely, the problem of freedom and will. Returning to Anselm and then moving to Aquinas, Kotsko notes that all three (including Augustine) ‘all arrive at a broadly similar account of the devil’s fall: he fell at the earliest possible moment, due to an act of will that was inexplicably insubordinate to God.’ (p. 130) All three thinkers, in various ways, understand the Devil as being as evil as possible, for as long as possible – dividing and cordoning off the Devil’s rebellion ‘into a conceptual space excluded from God’s realm of direct responsibility.’ (p. 131) The ultimate problem then, (and here the connections to the current political moment seem clearer) is freedom. Freedom is, in many ways, the founding myth of Western liberal modernity, emerging into this ‘empty space discovered by medieval theology.’  (p. 133) At the conclusion of Chapter five, Kotsko points out that secular modernity still has its own demons ‘and for those demonized populations’ (women, Jewish people, the victims of racialised slavery) ‘the modern earthly city is surely a living hell.’ (p. 167) It is then from hell that we might launch a radical critique on secular modernity, and so at the close of the book Kotsko turns to Dante’s Inferno. In Dante Satan is presented as the (almost literal) foundation of all of God’s creation. In his journey through hell Dante never questions those he might find there and ultimately joins in with the devil’s henchmen in torturing the damned. As Kotsko grimly notes, ‘the God who has become the devil turns his followers into demons.’ (p. 183) From Dante, Kotsko turns (via his frequent interlocutors Foucault and Agamben) to consider both the prison and the concentration camp, sites of disciplinary punishment which, like hell, serve as gruesome spectacle. (See p. 188). But, the ‘spectacle of hell, like that of prison in Foucault’s account, is a distraction … Just as in the case of the prison, it is ultimately a distraction from itself.’ (p. 191) Yet, in a final twist, one more reversal, there remains something that God cannot control. The unruly damned, who refuse to submit to the will of divine judgement cannot be redeemed – the production ‘of bare life as pure victimization is never the last word.’ (p. 192) Or, as Eagleton puts it:

Hell is the kingdom of the … disgusting and excremental which Jacques Lacan, after the ancient God of havoc, calls Ate. It is a landscape of desolation and despair, but it is a despair that its inhabitants would not wish for a moment to be snatched from them.[2]

For Kotsko, the ‘spectacle of hell’ (p. 193) those unruly wills, wallowing in their obscene jouissance, become the foundation of God’s rule. In contrast to the peaceful stasis of God and his saints, in hell we see the truth of Milton’s Satan.

Here at least we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice

to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

In the final lines of Milton’s poem, Kotsko draws out a strange ambiguity. Driven from Eden Adam and Eve weave a solitary way from the Garden God had placed them within. Earlier, the Prince of this World promises the two that ‘league with you I seek/And mutual amity so strait, so close/That I with you must dwell or you with me.’ For Kotsko, this serves as ‘a kind of fable of the transition from Christianity to secular modernity,’ (p. 197) We are, despite our ostensible commitment to secular modernity still dwelling with Satan. For this is not mere cultural baggage to be discarded, but this Christian legacy is inextricably bound up within ‘the core value of Western modernity … that value is freedom. (p. 198) Yet this kind of freedom is not freedom at all it seems but it ‘results in a claustrophobia that is if anything more extreme than that of the medieval paradigm.’ (p. 200) Kotsko identifies what Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism as the infinite ‘horizon of creative self-determination collapses into an endlessly tautologous justification of the way things are.’ (p. 200) If anything, Kotsko’s critique of freedom is more far-ranging than Fishers (underscoring the necessity of a properly political theology) but the question remains of how to break the ‘apparatus for generating blameworthiness?’ (p. 200) What the final pages of Kotsko’s argument make clear is that there can be no return to a ‘pure’ Christianity as an answer to this – such an attempt would only succeed in making the hell we live in more of a living hell by criminalizing and prosecuting an ever-larger section of society. From what we have, we must it seems try to find ways of rethinking and reworking Christian tradition and its legacy. Here I am in absolute agreement with Kotsko that what hope there is can be found in contemporary liberation theologies that represent bold attempts to create ‘a new and unprecedented Christianity in the wreckage of Christianity’s modern afterlife.’ (p. 205) As the British Marxist China Mieville puts it, ‘its too late to save, but we might repurpose.’[3] Might that repurposing, that act of desperate salvaging be able to free us all – even the devil? Might all – even the devil themselves – finally be saved?

[1] It’s worth pointing out that in their response to Kotsko’s work Linn Tonstadt offers an interesting critique of Kotsko’s reading of Anselm: See https://itself.blog/2017/04/19/thinking-willing-blaming-the-prince-of-this-world-book-event/

[2] Eagleton, p.78

[3] http://bostonreview.net/literature-culture-china-mieville-strategy-ruination

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