Satan, the Radical – JSTOR Daily



When the political climate becomes extremely serious, some radicals find that the best way to attract interest is to shock with ambiguous and ironic rhetoric. This may seem like a product of the age of edgy memes and “dirt left” podcasts like Chapo Trap House. But, as the historian of religion Per Faxneld writes, there is a long tradition of leftists presenting one of the most avant-garde ideas of the moment: praising Satan.

Faxneld writes that sympathy for the Devil dates back to John Milton’s ambivalent treatment of the fallen angel in his 1667 book lost paradise. Milton was politically active during the English Civil War. It is possible to interpret his depiction of Satan’s rebellion as an allegory of the Republican uprising against the king.

More than a century later, in 1793, the radical writer and philosopher William Godwin (yes, Mary Shelley’s father) presented his own vision of Milton’s Devil as a sort of admirable egalitarian: rebelled against its creator? It was, as he himself teaches us, because he did not see a sufficient reason for this extreme inequality of rank and power that the creator was assuming.

It was certainly an unusual message. But Godwin was not alone in his sentiment. Back then, both conservatives and radicals alike routinely used satanic imagery to vilify their political enemies. For example, in an argument for Irish political reform, Godwin’s future son-in-law, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, quoted Milton’s Satan: “Wake up! – arise! – or be forever fallen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, anarchists throughout history have taken Satan as their role model. French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon criticized the Catholic Church of his day for calling freedom an evil. Addressing conservative forces in 1858, he wrote: “Freedom, symbolized by the story of temptation, is your Antichrist; freedom, for you, is the devil. Come, Satan, come, he who is slandered by priests and kings… Your works, O beloved of my heart, are not always beautiful or good; but only they give meaning to the universe and prevent it from being absurd.

Radicals have also used evil imagery to attack Christian views on marriage, gender, and reproduction, as in the case of the Kansas freethinker magazine. Lucifer the bearer of light, founded in 1883. Four years later, the founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, began publishing another journal called Lucifer. Theosophist thought combined Western occultism, Hindu cosmology and modern science while aligning itself with female suffrage, anti-colonialism and social reform. Blavatsky did not call for true worship of Satan. But she used Lucifer as a symbol of rebellion that went beyond formal politics into what one might call spiritual territory.

For others, especially for Revolutionary Socialists in Sweden, Satanism was an exaggerated form of violent rhetoric that accompanied calls for assassinations and bombings. Swedish revolutionary Atterdag Wermelin, for example, parodied the Bible with the “Ten Commandments of Lucifer” from 1886, including: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, unless she covets only you, but his ox. and his donkey and all the capital that belongs to you shall take it from him and make the property of your brethren.

Is this a joke? A real call for the expropriation of the means of production? As with many modern political memes, ambiguity can be part of the problem.


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By: By Faxneld

Numen, Vol. 60, n ° 5/6 (2013), pp. 528-558




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