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The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil Paperback – October, 1996

4.1 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Columbia University literary scholar Delbanco (The Puritain Ideal) weighs in with a plea for revival not of old-time religion but of the sense of personal responsibility fostered by traditional religious notions of evil. His subject: "the incessant dialectic in American life between the dispossession of Satan under the pressure of modernity and the hunger to get him back." Delbanco argues that in contemporary America, the Devil and the evil the Devil represents are stranded between the liberal tendency to explain heinous acts as the consequence of bad social luck and the fundamentalist hunger to demonize one's enemies. The author takes his most useful notion of evil from St. Augustine by way of Jonathan Edwards, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr., who, he argues, all saw Satan not as an invading other but as a symbol of "our own deficient love, our potential for envy and rancor toward creation." When we cease being able to imagine and name this evil (whether in horror movies or serious literature or daily conversation), Delbanco argues, it will have truly gained mastery over us. This is serious cultural history, as witty and elegant as it is impassioned. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

That our society absolutely requires a sense of evil to maintain its cultural center forms this work's hue and cry. Irony, which now permeates our modern sensibilities, has come to dominate not only the formation of the American sense of evil but its current obsolete status. In its place is a secular liberalism, a cultural wasteland that Delbanco (The Puritan Ordeal, Harvard Univ. Pr., 1989) claims, "has deluded itself into believing that human beings can manage without any metaphor at all." Steeped in literature, history, and theology, Delbanco's critique of the unique American psyche as discerned through its sons (mainly) grapples with the reality of something we feel "that our culture no longer gives vocabulary to express." Masterly and thoroughly presented, this is a discussion, not a diatribe. Delbanco's national spiritual biography aptly chronicles the modern malaise. Recommended for specialists and informed readers.?Sandra Collins, SLIS, Univ. of Pittsburgh
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Noonday Pr (October 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374524866
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374524869
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #903,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book takes an interesting look at the way in which the modern world has steadily lost its fear of perpetual damnation since we have begun to pull ourselves out of the pit of a lost history. And, in some regard, Delbanco's thesis holds strong. He points out that the loss of fear and belief in the idea or actuality of Satan (depending on how you look at it) has steadily lost its power since the pilgrims landed on the proverbial Plymouth Rock. This book looks at various ideas about fear, evil and modern cynicism, and it leaves the reader with a choice that seems somewhat miniscule at first, but monumental in the long run: What are we to believe about a concept of evil when our Norh American culture works so hard to rid the world of it? Delbanco points to the rise in trully horrific and violent forms of entertainment in the past century.
Overall, it's a great book, with a lot of insight into who we are. Probably, it will be better recieved by religious liberals than cynics and fanatics.
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This is a rich and subtle book whose prose is so smooth and lucid that it risks masking the depth of its thought. While it is a book of literary and cultural history it has philosophic roots and impulses without the dense language that often accompanies them.

The title is straightforward enough--an account of the ways in which Americans have lost their sense of evil (which was often embodied in a fallen archangel). The author begins with the colonies--the old enemy coming to the new world--and proceeds across history to our own period.

Ultimately, this is a book about secular rationality, secular epistemology, secular relativism--the current world in which intellectual elites (by and large) live and move and try to find their being. There are specific historical arguments. The horrors of the civil war and the first world war, for example, undercut our belief in providence and focused attention on luck and chance. (Of course, the Roman Goddess Fortuna and fortune's wheel were much in evidence in the Middle Ages and Renaissance despite the rise of Christianity, so we are talking here about stresses and emphases, not absolutes.) The rise of science obviated the need for certain religious/quasi-religious explanations. Witches largely disappeared because we had better explanations for human behavior and phenomena.

Still, the need to believe, the hunger for transcendence, persists. Exorcisms are common in popular culture even if they have faded from common experience. Satan might not be the source of explanations in philosophy textbooks, but he is almost surely alive and well at a cineplex near you.

The ultimate inspiration for Delbanco's argument is Augustinian (the Confessions remaining an important text in the general education program at Columbia).
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Format: Paperback
Andrew Delbanco's The Death of Satan carries a burden of similar shape and heft to Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and James Davison Hunter's To Change the World: to explain and alleviate how our American culture has lost its (primarily religious) language for its beliefs. Whereas MacIntyre focuses on moral language more generally and Hunter on the distinction between private/enclaved religion and the public square, Delbanco's thesis zooms further in: Americans need to believe in evil, but they have no metaphysical foundations for doing so; therefore, our public discourse about evil has spiralled into incommensurability or incoherence. If you read the rest of the reviews of the book here on amazon, you may notice this phenomenon taking place. The historical argument of the book is basically an account of American secularization. We used to believe in a personal metaphysical evil (Satan), then we believed in a personal physical evil (certain groups of other people: slaves, immigrants, the North, the South, Communists, and so on), then we had a hard time doing that. Delbanco's present-day answer to the problem of evil derives from his description of Augustinian ideas descended through Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Lincoln. Evil isn't a person or a thing, but privation--not enough good, or twisted/perverted good. The advantage of this conception of evil is that it restrains Othering. Anyone and everyone is part of the problem. We can't simplistically go after other races, nationalities, religions, etc. The disadvantage of it in Delbanco's account is that it is insufficiently theorized and lacks metaphysical grounding.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase

This is best contemporary book on evil, the best since Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem." Delbanco is an accomplished literary critic and Columbia professor. In “The Death of Satan,” Delbanco argues that the modern Western world has “unnamed” “evil”, meaning that we as a nation” have no longer have language connecting "our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes daily"…both domestically (suburban parents burning their children with cigarettes, etc.) and foreign (The Holocaust, Rwanda, Cambodia, etc.)

In the Western world the words “evil” and “sin”, if used at all, are used ironically, or in derision. A hundred years ago, or even 50, Americans believed either (1) in a “malign presence” (such as the devil) or (2) of a cosmos in which God chose to leave the people with the burden of free will, but then dangled temptations before their eyes. These concepts with the accompanying language is no longer available to us.


Now we use euphemisms like “antisocial behavior” in which the concept of personal responsibility has disappeared. The self is seen not as a “soul” subject to invasion by temptation, etc. but as a kind of machine, liable like any other, to malfunction. Morality, such as it is, is a kind of accident dependent on the happenstance of external circumstances.

Delbanco argues that, regardless of the language used, Satan, as a concept, is always with us: “always receding and always sought after.” Sometimes he has been used for the purpose of construing “the other” as a monster (“Jew”, Nazi, Communist, Teabagger, etc.
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