Thursday, December 13, 2007


so anyway, i've been thinking about Satan. not a religious conversion type thing, don't worry. but thinking about the concept and how it works. there's a great post in that, but this won't be it. sometimes i think about things and they stew instead of brew, iykwim. this will be a pot pourri, rather than a well-rounded essay.

i began thinking about Satan a while back, when i was reading something about muslim philosophers. they struggled with the concept that a transcendental god could create a universe that is made of matter and governed by time. how could Allah interact with matter? it's fairly abstruse but i think it's a reasonable question for a theologian.

the same question struck the gnostics, but from a slightly different angle. the question they had was how could a god that is good create evil? this is a recurrent question in christian theology. their solution was that god did not create the world at all, but employed a demiurge to do it. i think their notion that the demiurge must be evil is not just wrong, but uninteresting. people who can only see things in polarities are unlikely to stumble on insights, if only because the world is not on the whole polar. there are ways in which it is, of course -- handedness in molecules comes to mind (although my understanding is that they are not evenly two-handed, and that chirality is not oppositional) -- but seeing it that way limits your understanding, particularly when considering more complex elements of the world, such as human behaviour. concepts such as good and evil are not ultimately useful in thinking about what people do, and why they do it, because their motives are rarely unitary, and indeed can be seen in different ways from different perspectives. for instance, you may do what you think is necessary, and i may fail to see the need. does that mean you are evil because from my perspective what you do is bad? maybe so, because evil is a value judgement as much as a description.

but whatever the reason for believing that a transcendental god could not or would not do the "dirty work" of creation, we can allow that it's plausible that he did not, and also plausible that he willed into being something that could or would. so i don't think it's difficult to imagine that Satan created the world.

but i also think that it's not necessary to see Satan as evil. he can equally well be considered to be disappointed. imagine. he (it, realistically; it's a bit weird to think of angels, or any other semigod, as gendered) is practically a god. he has awesome powers, and has used them to make a world that is not just intricate, but is fascinating, wonderful, in some ways deep. (when we say world, i think we are saying universe in this case, because surely god did not make anything material in this scenario. but i am perfectly happy to agree that Satan made only the earth, and other demiurges, angels, whatever, made the rest of the material universe. god, after all, does not have to be limited in how many angels he can make.) Satan, by any measure, did a good job. but he doesn't get the credit. god insists that he doesn't. when man comes to be, he praises god, not Satan. indeed, he does not even reocgnise Satan when he presents himself. worse, although Satan has been granted dominion over the earth, he does not get to rule over men's souls. we mean by this only the deeper part of them (if such exists; we are not passing judgement on the ideas, just thinking them through). when men feel there is something more, something greater, Satan is affronted. the ingratitude stings. Satan feels he should be praised, worshipped even, yet men want more. so not only does he not get credit for his work, it is implicitly criticised.

the concept of Satan is rooted in its originators being nomads, or at least pastoralists who were making the (long) transition from a nomadic to a settled life. the theme that nomadic life is superior to settled life is presented strongly in the bible, even into the new testament. the clash between the modes of existence is most famously allegorised in the story of cain and abel. here a shepherd conflicts with an agriculturalist, and the shepherd is strongly favoured. (it's interesting that priests are conceptualised as shepherds, not judges or cultivators, which are symbols of settled life.) god himself can be seen to favour nomads. his chosen people are wanderers who usurp the settled Canaanites. it's not coincidental, surely, that the most prominent city that the Jews overwhelm is Jericho -- possibly the world's first.

but it isn't just in the old testament. Jesus is too a nomad. he urges his followers to give up all their goods and follow him. he is an itinerant and encourages others to become itinerants with him. his forty days are spent in the wilderness, not contemplating things in a settled place. he takes a journey into the wilderness. i find the forty days an incredibly interesting part of the Jesus story. it doesn't really fit with most conceptions of Jesus. I'll explain what i mean.

what is Jesus? it's a serious question. is he a man with intimations of godhood or is he god in human form? i am talking in an abstract sense, not asking what your personal conception of Jesus is (i know that anthony, for instance, will have a readymade answer here, which he will find incredibly difficult to defend because it is dogma, not reasoned; if i have him wrong, i apologise, but i find most of his notions of religion to be dogmatic, which is not intended as an insult, rather than outcomes of reflection -- i don't expect most religious people think their faith through; they either accept or don't accept, and they will tend to believe it in toto, not pick and choose; after all, they did not work it all out for themselves!). people have struggled with this question. indeed, it was a major source of conflict in the byzantine world: people actually fought in the streets basically over whether Jesus had two natures, human and divine, or just the one. (of course, this was the pretext for conflicts over resources, power and so on, rather than something people on the whole believed was worth fighting over -- or at least something that people could be swayed into fighting over by other guys who didn't care how many natures Jesus had.)

in the wilderness story, Jesus is clearly a man. after all, Satan is able to tempt him, even if unsuccessfully. if he were all god, how would that be possible? clearly, the passion suggests that Jesus is human too. god cannot forsake himself. (these are not original thoughts, and i don't claim them to be. it's all in the synthesis, baybee.) what is going on with Satan and Jesus though? i think Satan perceives Jesus as a brother. they are both semigods (i am using this word advisedly, because demigod would imply a hierarchy of gods, and i want it to be clear that nothing i am saying challenges christianity's, or islam's, basic monotheism -- even if each has problematic areas of its scripture that suggest that they are at least ambivalent on the issue.) they both have some area of dominion that has been devolved to them. they both could expect, and both want, god's love. Satan is bitter, i think, above all that god does not love him. a son who is not loved becomes a man capable of doing evil. it is that fundamental. it's never really clear in christian theology what challenge Satan made to god. he cannot have really challenged him, because of course god is omnipotent, and consequently you could never hope to defy him. maybe it is simply that he successfully tempted Eve?

a quick digression. i've often wondered about whether god can, or does, limit himself. he is in principle unlimited. he is omnipotent and omniscient. i think both are largely outcomes of being transcendental. omniscience definitely is. god lies outside the universe, so can see all of its unwinding as though it happened in the same instant. nothing is hidden from him because the universe is spread out like a blanket before him. worst case, he has had eternity to figure out what is what. even if the world was not apparent to him at a glance, he is not restricted in investigating it. but i accept the thesis that he understands everything, knows everything, without need of investigation, and that he can do anything without limit. but here's the thing. i also accept that he might, for some reason, not have done the physical creating. not because he couldn't, but because he chose not to. i accept two possibilities: first, that he may be omnipotent but not necessarily able to choose the means of doing what he wants -- it may help to see what i mean by considering cycling: i can cycle so i am cyclopotent, but i cannot do it without a bicycle! i mean, i'm not restricted in any way in my ability to cycle -- i'm able to do it whenever i choose and i'm good at it -- but without the means of doing it, i am impotent. second, god may choose to limit himself for reasons we do not understand. perhaps he believes that our relationship with him needs to be mediated (although i have more to say about that later, and cannot strictly accept this as a motive for god because of other elements of his story), or perhaps he is willing to suspend his knowledge of the outcomes of allowing Satan to make the world (by just not looking, perhaps) because it would be interesting to him to be surprised. you don't think so? even gods need entertainment, no? and maybe that is why he sends Jesus. letting Satan create the world ended up badly, and Jesus is just god's weird, slightly cryptic way of fixing it. anyway, of course i am accepting that god can limit himself. he is omnipotent but does not have to be all-capable if he doesn't want to be. isn't closing your eyes to what's going on also a power in itself?

so Satan has the ability to tempt Jesus but, of course, he fails to do so. or at least, if Jesus is tempted, he doesn't seal the deal. you understand the moral of the story, of course. each of us is a mini-Jesus. we are all men with an element of godness. and we are all tempted to do wrong for worldly reward. and there's the key. Satan can offer Jesus the world. he can offer dominion, to be a king, to be rich, anything Jesus wants. but Jesus must give up eternal life to have it. no matter how good a salesman Satan is, and he's good, he cannot sell that to Jesus. even if Jesus is not certain about his godhood, he is fairly sure that he will have eternal life. after all, he understands his mission to be to offer it to all mankind.

this story is instructive, because in it we can see the meeting of the nomad and the citizen. the nomad is materially poor but feels himself to be spiritually rich. he is an ascetic, whereas the citizen is to his eyes decadent (more about this in a moment). he is quite sure that accepting a settled life means giving up his soul. it's my belief that the notion of hell was tacked on to christianity, and does not fit, unless it is descriptive of life in the city. because what is at stake is not an eternal life in bliss or one in torture, but an eternal life or none at all. god does not actively punish the sinful. he does not hate them after all. he withdraws his favour. (we have already allowed that god can choose not to know that you will sin when he creates you. this is essential to any scheme of reward and punishment. if god is compelled to know what you will do in your life, you cannot be held responsible for it.)

i think christianity can very much be seen in this frame: the nomad religion that despises the city. in this light, Satan makes more sense. he is the god of the city. he demands that you give up your spirit, your freedom, to become chained to a field, a routine. and your god. the old testament god is approached man to man in the wilderness. Moses has to wander to find him, and he is solitary. so, of course, is Muhammad. it should not be surprising that the gods of people who still felt their nomad roots are desert gods, gods that you have to walk a way to find, personal gods that talk to you in the quiet of the desert night. in the city, religion becomes organised, codified (it's not for nothing that Jesus clashes with the Pharisees -- they have religion but no god). worship is done in crowds, and there is no communion with god except through the crowd (or that is what churches tell us; i don't recall Jesus ever saying we should congregate).

the nomads were scared of cities. they were not just places of decadence. they would even then have quickly become crowded. they were places of disease and squalor. nomads were clean people; at least, they did not accumulate dirt. cities would have been riven by epidemics, stinking cesspools of places. and cities breed slaves. not just those taken by force into servitude, but those who no longer provided their own food, but needed others to give them a living. working for others is servitude. Jesus offers us a way out of servitude, does he not? he says, do not need things. become poor. wander. he is clearly saying, become nomads again and you'll be free.

Satan is the god of cities. he is an artisan himself. he relies on another for his livelihood in a sense. the lack of independence in artisanry must have struck the nomads as hateful. Satan represents the temptation of the apparent ease of the city. he beckons you on, offering relative comfort, never mentioning the downside. the temptation is real. when we look at the skeletons of nomadic people, we can see that they had periods of starvation. in bad seasons, they must truly have suffered, and they must have seen the weaker, or more unlucky, among them die. the temptation lies very much in stored food.

but you must give up your soul to have it.

a question remains though. why is christian morality so tied up in sex? i think the answer is fairly simple. a tribe is a group of related people. it wouldn't necessarily be very large. because pasturage is limited, a nomad band must be fairly small. but it is in the interests of the band to be as large as it can be. it is quite important to the nomad band that its members do not fight, and certainly that they do not kill each other. among groups of young men, women are a major source of conflict.

this isn't women's fault. you can blame our hormones. but men, recognising that they fight over women, try to find ways to prevent conflict. in a civil society, with lawmakers, it is easily done by passing protective laws. but nomads do not have laws. they have no one with the lasting authority to make them. nomads -- traditionally at least -- do not have kings. they do not have hierarchy. their leaders are chosen by acclamation, not because of nobility of birth.

you could argue, and i am doing so here, that nomads were (are, those few that remain) egalitarians. they respected wisdom, and age. these are much the same thing for the following reason. nomads need to understand the whole of their culture. they need to be able to do everything that their people know how to do. nomads do not specialise. the transition from boyhood to manhood for a nomad is long and involved. nomads do not have depositories; they do not have libraries and they do not have specialists, such as scribes or lawyers. they have to rely on the knowledge that the band shares, but to be able to pull their weight, they must internalise this knowledge themselves. contrast this with the citizen, who is a specialist. nomads do not have specialist cooks, fighters, artists, makers. they must each be all of those things. of course, there are some who are better at one thing or another, so there will be trading. but no one can just be a jeweller, or a builder, or a soldier.

above all else, nomads do not need strict organisation, and citizens do. one reason is that nomads in a band all know each other, while cities have far too many inhabitants for them all to know each other well, even if the early cities had few enough for them all to know each other in small measure. another is that nomads have space. they do not have to encroach on each other, and do not particularly need to regulate space. agreements over grazing, yes, rules about property, no.

what i am stumbling around is a central difference between citizens and nomads. citizens have laws; nomads have codes. laws are outcomes of specialisation, trade, hierarchy and, of course, property. codes are outcomes of the need to regulate behaviour. it is no wonder fundamentally mounted cultures have all had strong concepts of honour. a nomad needs honour much more than he needs property. if you do something for someone else, how can you tally that? if the person you have assisted is honourable, you will not need to. (in a city, he pays you, of course.)

sex is central to human life. why it is so important may not be salient to us in our daily lives, but we cannot ignore it. so much of what we think about is to do with it. and men, on the whole, think about it a lot, and their target is generally women. for young men, it's young women. and they are willing to compete for them, even fight for them. in a rougher age, that would have involved spears. that's disastrous for the nomad band. a fit young man represents years of investment of resources for his family. to lose him is a real tragedy. to lose him to another member of the band, who now must in turn be killed, or at least banished, is doubly bad. important too was that there were few young women, and because nomads favoured men (fighters, herders and providers in their view), they probably outnumbered women. if the men wanted sex, and what young man doesn't, they would have had to find their own woman (not easy) or stolen someone else's (much easier). so nomads invented codes of honour surrounding women. but they were in some measure realistic. they didn't bind men with their codes. they bound women.

whether you agree with their reasoning, or not, this is what impelled them. the reason women in some places walk around completely hidden, if they walk around at all, is because nomads felt that the best way to prevent men fighting over attractive women would be to deny them information about who was attractive. they also codified the notion that women could not choose. they were bound to men, and could not choose who to have sex with, because this choice would make them stealable. (i won't go too deeply into why men feel it is important that their partners do not sleep with other men, but it's fairly obvious that particularly in societies that place very strong emphasis on blood ties, not being sure of someone's patrilineage is a bad thing.)

even in tribes that did not practise purdah, there would be strict codes governing sex, built on notions of honour. these codes, then as now, were as strict for women as for men, more so even. they existed to prevent conflict and to defend the only capital, bar livestock, that mattered to nomads.

in cities, much of this becomes meaningless. there is no shortage of people, and family ties are not so important. you do not need to rely on your family group so heavily because you have other linkages. your livelihood can be gained in more specialised ways. sexual codes become (a little) looser. a little looser can spill over into very loose, and to the nomad, a city very much resembles a den of iniquity. they have codified sex as a source of conflict, a bad thing, and now they see places where people are having sex. a lot.

so Satan, god of cities, becomes god of sex too. when he tempts Eve, he tempts her with sex. (her punishment is childbirth, which says a lot about how the early Jews saw sex. and of course christians still see it that way. antiabortionists do not want women to escape their righteous punishment.)

what is strange is that we are not nomads. we are citizens, all of us. i wonder why this schema, born in the desert, still appeals to us. maybe we feel that our lives lack depth, that we too would like to wander out into the wilderness and find our own gods. we owe Satan our lives -- much more comfortable, much more materially rich than those of the nomads -- but even we spurn him. how sad his existence has been, to be king of a world that is ungrateful for what he provides.


Anonymous Paula Light said...

I enjoyed this.

December 14, 2007 at 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Don said...

It looked long. What was it about?

December 16, 2007 at 10:00 AM  
Anonymous Don said...

Sorry. I did catch something about the influence of the nomadic life on religious philosophy. That is a very sharp observation. It seems urbanization created a psychological rift that we are still struggling to close. It is amazing how close psychologically we are to our forest- and desert-dwelling ancestors, and how very much our continuing conflicts over the consequences of agriculture are externalized (and how painfully).

December 16, 2007 at 10:07 AM  

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