Merton on the Devil

The selection below is Chapter 13 of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. It’s called The Moral Theology of the Devil.


The devil has a whole system of theology and philosophy, which will explain, to anyone who will listen, that created things are evil, that men are evil, that God created evil and that He directly wills that men should suffer evil. According to the devil, God rejoices in the suffering of men and, in fact, the whole universe is full of misery because God willed and planned it this way.

Indeed says this system of theology, God the Father took real pleasure in delivering His Son to His murderers, and God the Son came to earth because he wanted to be punished by the Father. Both of them seek nothing more than to punish and persecute their faithful ones. As a matter of fact, in creating the world God had clearly in mind that man would inevitably sin so that God would have an opportunity to manifest His justice.

So according to the devil, the first thing created was really hell – as if everything else were, in some sense, for the sake of hell. Therefore the devotional life of those who are “faithful” to this kind of theology consists above all in an obsession with evil. As if there were not already enough evils in the world, they multiply prohibitions and make new rules, binding everything with thorns, so that man may not escape evil and punishment. For they would have him bleed from morning to night, though even with so much blood there is no remission of sin! The Cross, then, is no longer a sign of mercy (for mercy has no place in such a theology), it is a sign that Law and Justice have utterly triumphed, as if Christ had said: “I came not to destroy the Law but to be destroyed by it.” For this, according to the devil, is the only way in which the Law could really and truly be “fulfilled”. Not love but punishment is the fulfillment of the Law. The Law must devour everything, even God. Such is theology of punishment, hatred and revenge. He who would live by such a dogma must rejoice in punishment. He may, indeed, successfully evade punishment himself by “playing ball” with the Law and the Lawgiver. But he must take good care that others do not avoid suffering. He must occupy his mind with their present and future punishment. The Law must triumph. There must be no mercy.

This is the chief mark of the theology of hell, for in hell there is everything but mercy. That is why God Himself is absent from hell. Mercy is the manifestation of His presence.

The theology of the devil is for those who, for one reason or another, whether because they are perfect or because they have come to an agreement with the Law, no longer need any mercy. With them (O grim joy!) God is “satisfied”. So too is the devil. It is quite an achievement, to please everybody!

The people who listen to this sort of thing, and absorb it, and enjoy it, develop a notion of the spiritual which is a kind of hypnosis of evil. The concepts of sin, suffering, damnation, punishment, the justice of God, retribution, the end of the world and so on, are things over which they smack their lips with unspeakable pleasure. Perhaps this is why they develop a deep, subconscious comfort from the thought that many other people will fall into hell which they themselves are going to escape. And how do they know that they are going to escape it? They cannot give any definite reason except that they feel a certain sort of relief at the thought of all this punishment is prepared for practically everyone else but themselves.

This feeling of complacency is what they refer to as “faith”, and it constitutes a kind of conviction that they are “saved”.

The devil makes many disciples by preaching against sin. He convinces them that the great evil of sin, induces a crisis of guilt by which “God is satisfied:. And after that he lets them spend the rest of their lives meditating on the intense sinfulness and evident reprobation of other men.

The moral theology of the devil starts out with the principle: “Pleasure is sin.” Then he goes on to work it the other way: “All sin is pleasure.”

After that he points out that pleasure is practically unavoidable and that we have a natural tendency to do things that please us from which he reasons that all our natural tendencies are evil and that our nature in itself is evil in itself. And he leads us to the conclusion that no one could possibly avoid sin, since pleasure is inescapable.

After that, to make sure that no one will try to escape or to avoid sin, he adds that what is unavoidable cannot be a sin. Then the whole concept of sin is thrown out the window as irrelevant, and people decide that there is nothing left except to live for pleasure, and in that pleasures that are naturally good become evil by the de-ordination and lives are thrown away in unhappiness and sin.

It sometimes happens that men who preach most vehemently about evil and the punishment of evil, so that they seem to have practically nothing else on their minds except sin, are really unconscious hates of other men. They think the world does not appreciate them, and this is their way of getting even.

The devil is not afraid to preach the will of God provided he can preach it in his own way.

The argument goes something like this: “God wills you to do what is right. But you have an interior attraction which tells you, by a nice warm glow of satisfaction, what is right. Therefore, if others try to interfere and make you do something that does not produce this comfortable sense of interior satisfaction, quote Scripture, tell them that you ought to obey God rather than men, and go ahead and do your own will, do the thing that gives you that nice, warm glow.”

The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. “Faith” in this theology is really not the acceptance of a God Who reveals Himself as mercy. It is a psychological, subjective “force” which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one’s own whims. Faith is a kind of super effective wishing a mastery that comes from a special, mysteriously dynamic will power that is generated by “profound convictions.” By virtue of this wonderful energy one can exercise a persuasive force even on God Himself and bend Him to one’s own will. By this astounding new dynamic soul force of faith (which any quack can develop in you for an appropriate remuneration) you can turn God into a means to your own ends. We become civilized medicine men, and God becomes our servant. Though He is terrible in His own right, He respects our sorcery. He allows Himself to be tamed by it. He will appreciate our dynamism, and He will reward it with success in everything we attempt. We will become popular because we have “faith”. We will be rich because we have “faith.” All our national enemies will come and lay their arms at our feet because we have “faith”. Business will boom all over the world, and we will be able to make money out of everything and everyone under the sun because of the charmed life we lead. We have faith.

But there is a subtle dialectic in all this, too.

We hear that faith does everything. So we close our eyes and strain a bit, to generate some “soul force”. We believe. We believe.

But nothing happens.

So we go on with this until we become disgusted with the whole business. We get tired of generating “soul force”. We get tired of this “faith” that does nothing to change reality. It does not take away our anxieties, our conflicts, it leaves us prey to uncertainty. It does not lift all responsibilities off our shoulders. Its magic is not so effective after all. It does not thoroughly convince us that God is satisfied with us, or even that we are satisfied with ourselves (though in this, it is true, some people’s faith is often quite effective).

Having become disgusted with faith, and therefore with God, we are now ready for the Totalitarian Mass Movement that will pick us up on the rebound and make us happy with war, with the persecution of “inferior races” or of enemy classes, or generally speaking, with actively punishing someone who is different from ourselves.

Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, and patient understanding and love, and thus help one another to find the truth. On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everybody wants to be absolutely right himself, or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong. Those who are wrong, in turn, convinced that they are right… etc.

Finally, as might be expected, the moral theology of the devil grants an altogether unusual amount of importance to.. the devil. Indeed one soon comes to find out that he is the very center of the whole system. That he is behind everything. That he is moving everybody in the world except ourselves. That he is out to get even with us. And that there is every chance of his doing so because, it now appears, his power is equal to that of God, or even perhaps superior to it…

In one word, the theology of the devil is purely and simply that the devil is god.

On Cancel Culture

Where did we get this idea that to be admirable, you must never have erred?

That to be respectable, you must never have stumbled?

That to be honorable, you must never have been shameful?

I know people who reject even their own mother for holding “backwards” views on one issue. People who will deny anyone even a modicum of respect because of one mistake or slip of the tongue.

How sad.

All have sinned. And the magnitude of our sins is often directly proportionate to the magnitude of our efforts to improve ourselves and the world around us.

Our highest moral calling is not to find reasons to “cancel” each other, or to uncover every impure motivation behind each other’s convictions. Rather, it’s to purge our own hearts of these motivations, and to regard others as more important than ourselves.

“Fire and water do not mix. Neither can you mix judgment of others with the desire to repent. If a man commits a sin before you at the very moment of his death, pass no judgment, because the judgment of God is hidden from men. It has happened that men have sinned greatly in the open but have done greater deeds in secret, so that those who would disparage them have been fooled, with smoke instead of sunlight in their eyes.”

St. John Climacus

RR Reno on Death’s Dominion

Valuable essay here. A summary selection below:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn resolutely rejected the materialist principle of “survival at any price.” It strips us of our humanity. This holds true for a judgment about the fate of others as much as it does for ourselves. We must reject the specious moralism that places fear of death at the center of life.

This sentiment is hard to swallow, maybe. But you should glean something from this, whether or not you agree with the author.

He’s right. It’s not a whole-hearted defense of life (even that of the very-elderly and terminally-ill) driving this drastic pandemic response. For why, then, is there no similar response to the genocide of the unborn? Or to other behaviors — more destructive than this virus — that diminish both the quality and quantity of life for millions?

What’s driving this response (or, at least, the rhetoric surrounding it) is an underlying sentimentalism — a vague insistence that we ought to live in a world without triage (the necessary prioritization of medical needs). And the erroneous belief that, somehow, we can.

“If it saves one life” is not a realistic strategy, nor one that anyone actually follows. But worse than just being impractical, it trivializes other virtues and values (justice, beauty, honor) — implying that they are worthwhile only when the most important concern (or, as Reno says, the “false god”) of preserving life at any cost is satisfied.

That said, perhaps this is simply the Governor’s role within the cadre of competing human authorities. Where Reno is wrong, I think, is in failing to recognize that many actions policymakers have taken DO balance other concerns with virus suppression (i.e. we aren’t all confined to our individual bedrooms, which would certainly eradicate the virus quickly). And I do suspect we’ll all take economic realities into more consideration soon enough, whether the virus is defeated or not.

But if not the actions, then much of the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic response belittles any concern other than “life at any cost.” That’s not fair. This is a complex medical and spiritual episode in the life of humanity. There is no one obvious solution. There are only trade-offs.

Be safe and hygienic. Avoid close proximity with at-risk persons. But be open-minded, too. And don’t ridicule someone for choosing to be less anxious than you.

My Fundamental Argument Against Socialism

Prices are pieces of information that facilitate coordination between actors.

They communicate changing supply and demand conditions, allowing actors to make real-time, rational judgments about how they ought to allocate resources if they are to be efficient and if their ventures are to be successful.

As Hayek writes, the price system is a “machinery for registering change.”

Prices arise from the decisions and valuations of individual actors who, by their observation and closeness to the sources and uses of commodities, understand how changing conditions—in the earth, the skies, the minds of men—affect the supply and demand associated with those commodities. Most intimately, they begin with the owners of such commodities, whose livelihoods depend on rational and sustainable allocation of such commodities as objects of sale to their fellow human beings.

This is key: That prices begin as subjective valuations in the minds of those with a personal stake in the priced commodities, and that these valuations are then informed incessantly by the valuations of others with different perspectives and understandings of dynamic supply and demand conditions. These prices are affected even further by the uses of these priced commodities down the structure of production—influences that extend back up (and down) the production structure to communicate changed conditions at any point.

It is simply fact, then, that a socialist society has no prices, and thereby no means to allocate resources such that changing supply and demand conditions at any point in any good’s production structure proportionally affect a good’s price.

A socialist society, understood as an arrangement where the means of production are owned by the state (representing, in theory, the common interest of all members of society) and not by individual actors, divests anyone in the society of the incentive and uniquely-associated knowledge to adequately adjust prices to reflect changing conditions. Whereas shifts in demand and supply are, in a free market economy, observed in the behaviors of actors exchanging their produce—in ever-changing volumes—for some goods more than others, such behaviors ostensibly do not occur in a socialist economy, where materials are not owned by individual actors, but are owned more-or-less by all, with no one person having a greater stake in some commodity than another.

Prices, therefore, carry no use as information regarding changing supply and demand conditions in a socialized society. They do not communicate from one actor to another the unique knowledge possessed about how events might and do affect the value of some good. Rather, they serve simply to direct actors toward or away from certain goods as deemed appropriate by those with the duty of setting prices (they direct actions toward here or there, but they do not guide actions toward true efficiency). Though perhaps not entirely arbitrary, assuming some methodical rationale on the part of such bureaucrats, prices in a socialized system do not serve to communicate changing real world conditions, but assume the role of communicating someone or another’s interpretation of how changing conditions ought to affect price.

Socialism divests prices of their use in reflecting real conditions and informing actors (that is, connecting them to the real world and to all their fellow actors), and instead imagines some imputation of value by prices onto goods, based on some schema rooted in something other than actual, true valuations on the part of actors with a personal stake in relevant goods.

This is true only so long as planners do not possess the means to predict the valuations of all a society’s actors. Such a means would be some feat, indeed—it entails comprehensive, real-time knowledge of not just all changing material conditions, but all shifts, at all times, in human needs and preferences, and the simultaneous rational synthesis of all such data. Absent this capacity (that is, in the conceivable real-world as we know it today), valuations in a socialist system occur in a parallel universe, where markets for commodities do exist and thereby influence the subjective interpretations of actors in a world unmarked by socialism whatsoever even after private ownership is verboten

Prices in a socialist context, therefore, are not prices at all, but fiats. Their use is merely to advance some end (be it even so noble as maximizing human welfare). They possess no characteristic of market prices—they do not communicate changes in supply and demand rooted in the minds of individual valuators with a personal stake in valued goods. They do not facilitate efficient adjustments to ensure a steady and rational flow of goods toward their most valued ends—Hayek’s “machinery for registering change.” And they do not economize on information and guide actors’ behaviors regarding their productive energies, as such entrepreneurship is of no use when all production is planned, and decreed valuations say nothing, with certainty, about how energies might be spent toward productive ventures.

Mises writes, “There is no such thing as prices outside the market.” This is a fact of nature. What alleged prices may exist in a completely planned and socialized society will direct activity toward some end or another, but will not accurately inform actors of changing real conditions nor guide them toward efficient goods allocation relative to what goes on the real world of subjective wants and valuation.

How sentimentalism steals from your happiness

Lots of people today—especially teens and young people—have an unhealthy obsession with “making memories” and trying to fully realize the value of an experience in real-time while it’s still happening.

I call this real-time memorialization.

It’s a form of cheap sentimentalism. It’s a way of avoiding the more uncomfortable emotions inherent in all of life’s more notable occasions, and replacing them instead with a catch-all feeling of “I’m-going-to-miss-this!” (a feeling that, of course, is tenuously-held and inevitably fleeting).

What happens, then, is we become sad (and only sad) when thinking back to times gone by. Because at the time, we insisted on being happy (and only happy) by ignoring all the reasons—big or small—why such occasions were less than perfect.

And we make it all worse for ourselves by documenting everything with photos and looking back with nostalgia at those photos even while the documented event is still happening.

All of this replaces deep engagement with the present moment. It steals from the actual progress we can make by being fully-present, engaged, and critical with our time and what we’re doing. And ultimately, it fills our heads not with memories, but with vague feelings of wistfulness and “memories of memories” that can never fulfill us in the way actual, organic memories can.

It applies our highest mental and emotional energies toward continually scanning for experiences that might be worth real-time memorializing, rather than toward a goal of personal progress without (or, at least, with much less) regard for how things are going to make us feel.

The result of all this is an emptiness inside. Pervading melodrama. Missing things we’re not even sure we can remember, and being sad of that fact. Perpetual longing for times gone by that were, when they happened, nowhere near as joyous as we remember and that during which, in fact, we were much less happy than we are today.

This is a self-destructive tendency. It’s cynicism in disguise. It will steal from your happiness. Fight it.

Politics and Nutty People

Wisdom from Robert Higgs’ Facebook page:

When I was growing up, without ever dwelling on the matter, I thought of most people as “normal,” that is, like me. What I saw, they saw; what I felt, they felt. Of course a few were weird, and even fewer were bat-shit crazy, but these outliers dwelled, or so I supposed, well outside the realm of us normal people.

As I passed beyond my youth, I became more and more cognizant that the crazy ones were much more numerous than I had supposed while growing up, and I learned rather early in my adult life that I was one of the crazy ones. What I saw, many others did not see; what I felt, many others did not feel; and vice versa.

Now, at an advanced age, I am inclined to regard “normal” people as quite unusual in the overall population. I don’t mean to suggest that lots of people are psychotic or schizophrenic—that is, completely nutso. But I do mean that almost everyone has some twisted or bizarre psychic aspects that make people shake their heads, even those who are equally nuts but in a different way.

In view of how common crazy people are in the overall population, it’s nothing short of a miracle that society and economy hang together at all. That they do testifies, I think, to the fact that even nutty people can usually respond rationally to incentives, that they are sane enough to continue to play a value-yielding role of some sort in the socio-economic order. When they engage in political life, however, their nuttiness is free to run rampant without immediate, visible adverse consequences for them—indeed, they may even be rewarded for acting crazily—so nuttiness tends to be the norm in mass political participation.

Robert Higgs