“Never forget, when you hear the progress of the Enlightenment being praised, that the devil’s cleverest ploy is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist.”
— Charles Baudelaire

Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

Leszek Kolakowski was an unusual man of letters. A fierce critic of the Church as a young man, he was a leading Marxist philosopher in Poland until he asked too many awkward questions about Soviet life under Stalin and got exiled to the West.  He went on to become a fan of John Paul II and one of the great scholars of the last century.

Exactly 30 years ago, Kolakowski gave a lecture at Harvard entitled “The Devil in History.” Early in the talk, the mood in the room became restless. Many of the listeners knew Kolakowski’s work. They knew he could be playful and that he had a wicked sense of irony. But they couldn’t figure out where he was going with his lecture.

Present that day were the historians Tony Judt and Timothy Garton Ash. About 10 minutes into the talk, Ash leaned over to Judt and whispered incredulously: “I’ve got it. He really is talking about the devil.” And in fact, he was.[1]

It was a moment when the little bigotries of our intellectual class were laid bare.  Apart from Judt and Ash, the audience was baffled that an urbane public intellectual, fluent in five languages, could really believe in “religious nonsense” like the devil and original sin. But that’s precisely what Kolakowski did believe.  And he said so again and again in his various works:

An example: “The devil is part of our experience. Our generation has seen enough of it for the message to be taken extremely seriously.”[2]

And: “Evil is continuous throughout human experience. The point is not how to make one immune to it, but under what conditions one may identify and restrain the devil.”[3]

And: “When a culture loses its sacred sense, it loses all sense.”[4]

Kolakowski saw that we can’t fully understand our culture unless we take the devil seriously.  The devil and evil are constants at work in human history and in the struggles of every human soul.  And note that Kolakowski (unlike some of our own Catholic leaders who should know better) was not using the word “devil” as a symbol of the darkness in our own hearts, or a metaphor for the bad things that happen in the world.

He was talking about the spiritual being Jesus called “the evil one” and “the father of lies” — the fallen angel who works tirelessly to thwart God’s mission and Christ’s work of salvation.

This is why the evangelization of culture is always, in some sense, a call to spiritual warfare. We’re in a struggle for souls. Our adversary is the devil. And while Satan is not God’s equal and doomed to final defeat, he can do bitter harm in human affairs. The first Christians knew this. We find their awareness written on nearly every page of the New Testament.

The modern world makes it hard to believe in the devil. But it treats Jesus Christ the same way. And that’s the point. Medieval theologians understood this quite well. They had an expression in Latin: Nullus diabolus, nullus redemptor.[5] No devil, no Redeemer. Without the devil, it’s very hard to explain why Jesus needed to come into the world to suffer and die for us. What exactly did he redeem us from?

The devil, more than anyone, appreciates this irony, i.e., that we can’t fully understand the mission of Jesus without him. And he exploits this to his full advantage. He knows that consigning him to myth inevitably sets in motion our same treatment of God.

So what’s the point of my column this week?

Jeffrey Russell, who wrote a remarkable four-volume history of the devil, noted that the Faust character is the most popular subject in Western paintings, poems, novels, operas, cantatas and films after the characters of Jesus, Mary and the devil himself.[6] That should tell us something. Who is Faust? He’s the man of letters who sells his soul to the devil on the promise that the devil will show him the secrets of the universe.

Faust is the “type” of a certain species of modern man; a certain kind of artist, scientist and philosopher. Faust doesn’t come to God’s creation as a seeker after truth, beauty, and meaning. He comes impatient to know, the better to control and dominate, with a delusion of his own entitlement, as if such knowledge should be his birthright. A prisoner of his own vanity, Faust would rather barter away his soul than humble himself before God.

There’s a lesson in Faust for our lives and for our culture. Without faith there can be no understanding, no knowledge, no wisdom. We need both faith and reason to penetrate the mysteries of creation and the mysteries of our own lives.

That’s true for individuals, and it’s true for nations. A culture that has a command of reason and the byproducts of reason — science and technology — but lacks faith has made a Faustian bargain with the (very real) devil that can only lead to despair and self-destruction. Such a culture has gained the world with its wealth, power and material success. But it has forfeited its soul.


[1] Tony Judt, “Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009),” New York Review of Books, September 24, 2009

[2] Leszek Kolakowski, My Correct Views on Everything (South Bend, IN, St. Augustine’s Press, 2005), 133

[3] Ibid., 128

[4] Ibid., 271

[5] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1986), 33.

[6] Ibid., 58