Review of The Prince of this World by Adam Kotsko

January 3, 2019

Kotsko, Adam. The Prince of This World. Stanford: California, Stanford University Press, 2017, pp. 240, $22.95, paperback.


In this engaging study of the Devil, Adam Kotsko, assistant professor of humanities at Shimer College, offers a rigorous piece of political theology. Whilst making a trenchant contribution to critiques of contemporary modernity, this book will appeal to both specialists and a general audience alike. The introduction recalls the testimony of police officer Darren Wilson, who claimed to be frightened of Michael Brown, the young, unarmed black man he shot and killed. Brown was “no angel”—Wilson euphemistically positioned his victim as not just criminal, but as actively demonic. Yet, if anyone is the demon in this situation it must be the personification of racist structural violence. From somewhere has sprung “a profound theological reversal,” (p. 4) where the demonic, once the theological tool of the oppressed seeking to explain their sufferings, becomes a weapon of those who oppress. With this context, Kotsko argues that this theological discourse on the devil, the demonic and of evil emerges from a long and under-acknowledged heritage and sets himself the task of tracing the story of how this reversal has taken hold.

Chapter one explores the confrontation between the people of Israel and Pharaoh, a figure that Kotsko sees as the “most relevant biblical antecedent for the devil” (p. 22) because within the paradigm of political theology unfolded at this point, what Kotsko calls “the minority monotheism of the Hebrew biblical tradition, God’s wicked rival could only be a rival king” (p. 23). By the time of Christ and the New Testament (chapter two) the relationship between the God’s implacable foe and God becomes complicated by the figure of the Messiah. The older apocalyptic paradigm must be rethought—by the time of eschatological visions of Revelation, the enemy of God is not just a King, but it is now the greatest Empire on Earth, Rome itself. There is a “play of mirrors” (p. 54) as Christ and anti-Christ, city of God and Whore of Babylon confront one another forming an apocalyptic image of contemporary politics. In Revelation, “the sufferings of the wicked serve to enhance the joy of the saints” (p. 55) and given the extravagance of their torture in the lake of fire, the “stark opposition of good and evil [is] beginning to break down” (p. 56). God becomes dangerously close to his mirrored foe of the Devil and the New Jerusalem forms the counterpoint to Babylon and Rome.

This apocalyptic confrontation between Babylon (the Roman empire) and the New Jerusalem (the emerging Christian community) is complicated by much of Paul’s New Testament writing. Kotsko quotes Romans 13, and analyses how whilst Paul insists that all authority is “instituted by God”, in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, these political authorities have “forfeited any legitimacy” (p. 62) and moral authority is, instead, handed over to the Christian community.

These questions of authority and the relationship between the political present and the more intangible realm of faith is what begins the shaping of another paradigm—the patristic paradigm. After a discussion of Irenaeus and Tertullian, Kotsko argues that there is a downplaying of the political because the devil’s agents are no longer the “the kings of this world but the antibishops of the antichurch of heresy” (p. 70). The apocalyptic paradigm, irrevocably set in motion by the death and resurrection of Christ, is dangerous and these early Christian writers have de-politicized it, shifting the polemic onto the realm of belief and displacing the political into the theological. As a result, “purely symbolic or theological explanations of the cross followed naturally” (p. 74).

Here, there is a moment of opportunity—a gap between paradigms—as the relationship between Rome and Christianity shifts between persecution and adoption. In this space of possibility emerges Gregory of Nyssa’s Address on Religious Instruction, which positions Christ’s salvific work on the cross as not only saving humanity “but the devil as well” (p. 80). Yet, the optimism of Nyssa’s approach is later repudiated by theologians from both East and West. Kotsko provides a reading of Anselm, who puts forward a God “jealous of his honour—which is to say, proud—and he is absolutely unforgiving of any debt or obligation.” In short, “it makes sense that God would not be merciful to the devil, because he is not even merciful to humans” (p. 100-1). As Kotsko puts it, “the entire life of the devil . . . is overshadowed by divine vengeance” (p. 105).

Following on from this Kotsko traces the “debates surrounding the devil’s fall from grace” (p. 110). Building on the problem of freedom and the will in Augustine’s account of his own conversion, Kotsko notes that Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas “all arrive at a broadly similar account of the devil’s fall: he fell at the earliest possible moment, due to an act of will that was inexplicably insubordinate to God” (p. 130). The Devil is portrayed as evil as possible, for as long as possible, dividing off the Devil’s rebellion “into a conceptual space excluded from God’s realm of direct responsibility” (p. 131). The problem (and here the connections to the current political moment seem clearer) is freedom. Freedom is, in many ways, the founding myth of Western liberal modernity, emerging into this “empty space discovered by medieval theology” (p. 133).

By chapter five, Kotsko points out that secular modernity still has its own demons “and for those demonized populations” (women, Jewish people, the victims of racialised slavery) “the modern earthly city is surely a living hell” (p. 167). It is then from hell that we might launch a critique on secular modernity, and so at the close of the book Kotsko turns to Dante’s Inferno. In Dante, Satan is presented as the (semi-literal) foundation of all of God’s creation. In his journey through hell Dante never questions those he finds there and ultimately joins in with the devil’s henchmen in torturing the damned. As Kotsko notes, “the God who has become the devil turns his followers into demons” (p. 183). From Dante, Kotsko turns to consider both the prison and the concentration camp, sites of disciplinary punishment which, like hell, serve as gruesome spectacle and ultimately a distraction (see p. 188, 191). In a final twist, there remains something that God cannot control. The damned who refuse to submit to the will of judgement cannot be redeemed—the production “of bare life as pure victimization is never the last word” (p. 192).

For Kotsko, those unruly wills, wallowing in their obscene jouissance, become the foundation of God’s rule. In contrast to the stasis of God and his saints, in hell we see the truth of Milton’s Satan, “Here at least we shall be free… Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” At the close of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve weave their way from the Garden. Earlier, the Prince of this World promises them that “league with you I seek/And mutual amity so strait, so close/That I with you must dwell or you with me.” For Kotsko, this serves as “a kind of fable of the transition from Christianity to secular modernity” (p. 197). We are, it seems, still dwelling with Satan. This is not cultural baggage to be discarded, as this legacy is bound up within “the core value of Western modernity . . . freedom” (p. 198). Yet this kind of freedom is not freedom at all it seems but it “results in a claustrophobia . . . more extreme than that of the medieval paradigm” (p. 200). Kotsko’s critique of freedom is far ranging but the question remains: how to break the “apparatus for generating blameworthiness?” (p. 200)

What hope there is can be found in liberation theologies that represent bold attempts to create “a new and unprecedented Christianity in the wreckage of Christianity’s modern afterlife” (p. 205). As we rethink, rework, and repurpose might all—even the devil(s) themselves – finally be saved?  As a work that seeks to re-politicize political theology, explicitly connecting theological discourse to contemporary material reality, the book is a welcome corrective to dry scholasticism about evil and contemporary politics, accessible, engaging and consistently challenging to political theologians of all levels.

Jon Greenaway,

Manchester Metropolitan University, U.K.

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