Satan and Other Fictious Moral Forces: Part 2

By the term ‘fictitious’, I mean something similar to the ‘fictitious’ organizing force that Adam Smith called the invisible hand. The phenomena are real but the term is not an explanation. It’s a description which allows concise reference to some very complex events. We’re social creatures and tend to interact in such ways that higher-level organizations form without our consciously willing this to happen and certainly without our being able to plan on specific forms of such organization.

To speak of these higher-level organizations as if they were independent of the actions of the individual human beings can be dangerous in allowing us to pretend that the invisible hand or Satan is responsible for the good or evil that’s done by us working together in specific ways and as if for a specific purpose. The invisible hands of an age and the satans of an age, are a reflection of the particular forms of moral order and disorder found in that age. There are no equations that tell us how the Presbyterian moral behavior of the residents of Glasgow organized into the morally well-ordered economy observed by Adam Smith but it’s not just coincidence that such an economy resulted from the interactions of human beings under strong social pressure to conform to certain standards of behavior.

To be sure, it’s not only the actions of men but also events in our physical environments, such as volcanoes, that cause the large-scale flows of events that we call history. History follows some cycles though the patterns are complex and overlapping so that prediction is still less possible than it is for a hurricane season. There is interplay and always some disruption due to new factors, such as the mobility that destroyed local societies and made possible world wars in modern times. One of the patterns in history since the invention of writing is cyclical changes in quality of reading skills and the tightly related quality of abstract thought.

From my sparse knowledge of the Bible, Old and New Testament, I think there was a sustained era of high-quality thought and high-quality literacy from the period in which the Torah was assembled and redacted (perhaps 500BC) and the fall of Rome. A period of low quality of literacy and abstract thought followed. There was then a rise towards the high point that was the 13th century and a rapid descent to the century of stupidity and disease and warfare that ended the Middle Ages and which colors the entire period in the thoughts of many poorly-educated human beings. This horrible century was about 1350 to 1450. A new cycle of higher-quality literacy and abstract thought followed and — according to some historians — peaked quickly in the 17th century. We’ve been on a slow decline since then. The pattern is erratic enough to be seen in its particulars only in the past, but rises and falls seem very likely though we can hope they’re not inevitable.

It’s during low-points in the quality of literacy and abstract thinking skills and that human beings fall prey to pagan images of personalized evil or to irrational understandings of invisible hands, not even noticing that the evil of their age is caused by their frenzies and their willingness to unite into evil mobs — no matter how nice and gentle they might be as individuals. It most certainly doesn’t matter that the modern form of mobs is well-organized bureaucratic hierarchies. In an era that can literalize forces which act to evil purposes, an era which can personalize those forces, Hitler can play the role of Satan. In most eras, he would have been no more than a crank unknown outside his own neighborhood.

If Hannah Arendt is right in her analysis of that Holocaust, it might be that Hitler’s right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler, was the true genius of Nazism because he consciously used the unconsciously self-organizing middle-class masses of Germany to carry out Hitler’s schemes. He nudged the invisible hand in a certain direction. Without that nudging, Hitler would have quickly failed and would have been labeled a mediocrity who simply was sucked into a moral vacuum at the top of German politics. We might not have even learned he was serious about the evil schemes he wrote about in “Mein Kampf”.

The only useful positive lesson I can see from the so-called Enlightenment is:

Individuals can look beyond their immediate horizons and gain an understanding of the larger-scale political and social and economic ‘forces’ of their day, an understanding which might allow them to move those forces in a better way.

The philosophes of France had not only wrongful ideas of human nature but also an exaggerated idea of what can be changed in society. Those Deistic philosophes who were the majority of Founding Fathers of the United States were more realistic about the need to conserve social and political structures in order to bring about any useful changes. A small group of men of more than ordinary moral integrity offered their fellow-citizens a better future than the one that was chosen accidentally while those fellow-citizens set about selling their freedom back to their own government in return for promises of financial security — as Nathaniel Hawthorne told us in the forward to the first edition of “The Scarlett Letter”. It was a reprimand and a warning that we ignored.

In his evil way, Himmler was much like those Founding Fathers. At the risk of his own life, he ignored Hitler’s orders to give the good government jobs to the true-believers amongst the Nazis. Himmler instead did what he could to conserve the short-sighted and self-centered moral and social structures of the German middle-class, allowing them to pursue their careers and pay their bills while serving Hitler. Of course, few of those nice middle-class lawyers or house-builders saw the horrors which resulted from their little acts of competence. Those lawyers and house-builders acted to organize themselves so that they nearly reached one of the most evil goals in human history.

How can we avoid the blindness, how can we overcome the self-centeredness, which allowed the German middle-class to serve Hitler while thinking they were acting in a proper way? I’ll suggest one part of the solution: we can pay attention to the world around us and we can learn how to pay attention by trying to improve the quality of our literacy and our thinking skills.

Literature does far more than provide a few moments of diversion. It’s nurtures those higher-level skills of perception and cognition which can help us to understand of the larger-scale forces which currently threaten us, threaten to kill us or to use us as tools towards some evil purpose. With some understanding, we can maybe nudge these forces in a direction that will make our societies a little better, if only far in the future. So far as I can tell from the books and movies of our age, we have fallen into a fatalistic attitude that is little different from an outright belief in the dark and ancient vision of warfare between gods and demons, with human beings as no more than pawns. Read the “Iliad” for a powerful description of such a world. It’s a horrible and false view of God’s world. Neither pagans nor Christians should wish to return to such a world but we continue to let our literature decay, allowing our minds and souls to follow.

As local populations of human beings, or even as an entire race, we can be overwhelmed by climate changes or an incoming meteor. We can sometimes be overwhelmed by social changes which we couldn’t foresee clearly. But we have a responsibility and a duty, to God and to future generations and to ourselves, to pay attention to the world around us, including the social forces which can destroy social and moral structures.

Paying attention to our world means, first of all to live up to our immediate moral obligations but also to learn how to correctly perceive the larger-scale forces which we could label as ‘principalities and powers’ or ‘invisible hands’ or ‘social and political movements’ or even ‘Satan’. These are fictitious forces but they are real phenomena, large-scale phenomena which are the result of the efforts of all of us. Though individual moral actions can be overwhelmed by volcanoes or wars, we can sometimes nudge our societies in a slightly different direction. But we can’t carry out our moral responsibilities unless we take care to develop our minds and souls, our imaginative and moral capabilities, to the point where we can perceive and understand these large-scale forces.

Explore posts in the same categories: Christianity, literature, Modern culture, Moral issues, philosophy, Religion

2 Comments on “Satan and Other Fictious Moral Forces: Part 2”

  1. PB and J Says:

    you spoke a lot about a lot of different things so i wont try to address them all.

    but i would like to contend with you about the founding fathers. the records show a quite different perspective than you assume. most of the fathers were christians, not deists. most of the fathers were VERY well educated and not “superstitious”. yet for some unexplained reason they all believed in the “superstitutious” invisible hand and in satan and God, etc.

    i think it is a very uneducated remark to say that people who are educated dont believe in “invisible” powers behind phenomena. throughout history, very well-educated people believed in such powers. look at plato, look at aristotle, look at erasmus, look at martin luther, look at kant, look at kierkegaard, look at many people throughout history who have believed in “superstitutious” powers behind phenomena. and you still see this recently. look at pope benedict or ghandhi, etc.

    yes, i do believe it is dangerous to attribute every little unexplainable thing to “satan” or “God”. very many fundamentalist christians are very blinded. but that doesnt negate the possibility of powers behind phenomena.

    does it?


  2. loydf Says:

    The records on the Founding Fathers show that John Adams raised his children to be Unitarians. Thomas Jefferson managed to translate the Gospels so that there were no miracles by Christ and no claims to divinity. George Washington was a Trinitarian Christian — which is the only kind of Christian.

    Why do you think I don’t believe in God? I’m arguing from a position of a Thomistic existentialist who believes in an all-powerful God, a God who is the only necessary being, or rather He is is own Act-of-being and is the cause of all other acts-of-being.

    In fact, I would attribute every little thing to God. That is implied by the term ‘all-powerful’ and also by my belief, not so unusual for Christians, that nothing exists for even an instant unless God keeps it in existence. My argument is that the world is a story being told by God where human beings play a special role. The world is not a pagan battleground between a lesser God and Satan. It is a story being told by an all-powerful God.

    Please do me the courtesy of reading my blogs a little and you’ll see I’m using these blogs to update Thomistic existentialism to consider modern empirical knowledge. You can go to my other blog at to see how radically I develop the idea that God is all-powerful.

    I expect most attacks on my real position, not the one you attribute to me, will come from Christians and non-Christians alike who refuse to accept my argument that the world is shaped from truths manifested by God. That is, from our creaturely viewpoint, God created truths the same way He created stuff. In fact, this claim comes from a consistent understanding of the claim of St. Thomas Aquinas that things are true and and from modern understandings of mathematics and physics. My book, To See a World in a Grain of Sand, developed the foundation of this updated and expanded Thomistic existentialism and I’ve gone beyond that in some of my postings at my other blog.

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