121. The Demonic, Part 3: Evil is Self-Defeating and Inscrutable

It is popular these days to think about evil from a scientific perspective that sees evil as, for example, a function of an improperly working brain. Such approaches typically remove free will and the more traditional parameters in which discussions of evil have taken place such as moral accountability, damnation, turning away from God, etc. These changes can be helpful since many actions once perceived as a function of free agency are indeed determined by brain functions over which we have no control. But in many cases these approaches seem to explain away, rather than explain, evil. So it may be helpful to meditate for a while on a view of moral evil firmly grounded in human freedom and our fear of it. After 25 years I continue to be amazed by this account and its explanatory power.

In chapter 4 of his eccentric work The Concept of Anxiety (1844), the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), via his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis, claims the demonic person has “anxiety about the good” which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the good. This ambivalent anxiety gives rise to defiant actions that are evil insofar as they seek to undermine the good in various ways. But what is the good? The good, for Kierkegaard, is freedom or self-integration; and so the demonic person acts in defiance of freedom (for my overview of Kierkegaard’s notions of selfhood and freedom see here). Indeed, the demonic is “unfreedom that wants to close itself off”. I have explored this account in relation to music and fashion in two earlier posts (see here and here). In this post, I want to show how the three interrelated modes of demonic defiance – shut-upness, the contentless or the boring, and the sudden – can help us see how evil is both self-defeating and, unfortunately, partially inscrutable or incapable of being understood. Perhaps understanding these results can help us grasp evil to whatever extent we can and cope with it to some extent. I close with an existential explanation of why there is demonic evil and a helpful summary. I will be quoting from the Princeton University Press version of the book.


Kierkegaard argues that the good, or the freedom of self-integration, can come about through passionate action. Passionate action—something Kierkegaard also refers to as “earnestness” or “inwardness”—serves an integrative function in the self by fusing our inner thoughts and outer deeds. All too often we are disintegrated insofar as we think one way but act another. This disintegration leads to inauthenticity and despair. But passionate action allows us to reveal ourselves to ourselves and others by coming to understand what we really take to be true. Kierkegaard calls this “subjectivity” which denotes something “very plain and simple, namely, that truth is for the particular individual only as he himself produces it in action” (138). He goes so far as to say that it is through passionate action that I become self-conscious: “self-consciousness, therefore, is action, and this action is in turn inwardness” (143).

But if revelatory action is one way to the good of self-integration then it is not surprising that the demonic person’s fundamental strategy is to shut himself up with himself to prevent such action. Kierkegaard refers to this as shut-upness or inclosing reserve and notes that the demonic individual “becomes more and more inclosed and does not want communication” (124). Since the expansive, communicating power of language is “precisely what saves” (124), the demonic person ultimately seeks muteness. According to Kierkegaard, “a legend has already represented [Mephistopheles] correctly. It relates that the devil for 3,000 years sat and speculated on how to destroy man—and finally he discovered it. Here the emphasis is on the 3,000 years, and the idea that this brings forth is precisely that of the brooding, inclosing reserve of the demonic” (131).

The Self-Defeating Aspects of Shut-upness

Kierkegaard asserts that a complete break with communication “is and remains an impossibility” (123) since selfhood, even evil selfhood, presupposes language and the intersubjective action that language involves. Of course, this isn’t to say that the demonic individual can’t remain mute, talk to himself, and mime to the extent that, for all practical purposes, the person remains shut up. But complete isolation is incoherent. As a result, we should expect that the goal of muteness may be thwarted by involuntary disclosures. The demonic individual, when confronted with manifestations of the good, may become so anxious that he will unfreely disclose something he has hidden: some cruel remark, some spiteful glance, some odd bodily gesture will betray the weakness of his stronghold. Such disclosures of lunacy will have an uncanny dimension since the demonic person will seem possessed like a dummy through which a ventriloquist—or perhaps even a legion of ventriloquists—is speaking (129). On such occasions we may come to understand what particular form of the good someone is anxious about: love, dialogue, beauty, meaning, truth, trust, confidence in their own abilities, intimacy, etc.

The Inscrutability of Shut-upness

Involuntary disclosures may reveal something about the demonic person. But in many cases adequate understanding will elude us. Kierkegaard expresses this when, after discussing shut-upness, he writes: “However, I dare not continue further, for how could I finish even a merely algebraic naming, let alone an attempt to describe or break the silence of inclosing reserve in order to let its monologue become audible, for monologue is precisely speech, and therefore we characterize an inclosed person by saying that he talks to himself” (128). Indeed, in The Sickness Unto Death (Penguin Publishing), the task of breaking the silence is characterized as self-contradictory: “What is the corresponding externality [to demonic despair]? Well, there is no ‘corresponding’ externality, since a corresponding externality which corresponds to reserve is a self-contradiction. If it corresponds then it discloses” (104). In the end we may have to face the fact that the demonic individual “is like the troll in the fairy-tale who disappears through a crevice that no one can see” (104). One thinks here of the many descriptions given by people who were acquainted with individuals who committed acts perceived by many to be evil like “he was so quiet”, “we never knew much about him”, “who would’ve thought he’d do something like that”, “never really talked much”, “I can’t believe it”, etc., etc.

The Contentless or The Boring

The fact that the demonic individual’s reserve disappears into a crevice doesn’t imply he or she lacks all continuity with the world: he or she still talks and interacts. But this interaction, rather than being authentic, will seek to negate the meaningful, sincere, and lively content that true acts of freedom reveal. Such acts of negation result in the second aspect of the demonic, namely, the contentless or the boring. The two terms are related: once there is little meaningful, sincere, and lively content then we usually end up with boring clichés, abstract principles, and other formulaic responses with very little life. And we can see here the role of defiance: the demonic person, to stay in a state of shut-upness, must defy those sources of the good that call him out of his hiding place. It isn’t about hiding alone; it is about undermining those sources of meaning that promise integration – sources the demonic person is anxious about.

For example, chatter, or empty talk, provides a doppelgänger—an evil double perhaps—of real conversation that can stand in for sincere and meaningful connections with others. Another example arises in Kierkegaard’s book Stages on Life’s Way (Princeton) through the troubling words of a demonic “fashion designer” who seeks to reduce all vestiges of taste, beauty, and virtue to crassness, vanity, and silliness. The designer in his boutique, like the Devil in hell with his legion of trained minions, snares virtuous women, sacrifices the humble content of their characters, and sends them into the world of fashion. This world facilitates a fall from grace in which a desire for superficial sameness replaces the desire to be profound individual. Thoughtful humans are miraculously transformed into dolls that, despite being objectified, manipulated, and mocked, feel no dismay in their blissful world. This is a world where the content of the self gradually empties into lunacy; it is a demonic world.

These examples of chatter and fashion should not lead us to overlook even more sinister dimensions of the contentless/boring. Coming back to The Concept of Anxiety and Mephistopheles brooding for 3,000 years, Kierkegaard notes that “the prodigious span of time evokes the notion of the dreadful emptiness and contentlessness of evil” and “the quietness that comes to mind when one sees a man who looks as if he were long since dead and buried” (133). This suggests that evil acts are acts of “extinction” that seek to drain everything of meaning, significance, development, and even life (133). In his book On Evil, Terry Eagleton connects Kierkegaard’s darker insight regarding the boring to the Nazis and, in doing so, challenges Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolf Eichmann in her Eichmann in Jerusalem:

“Traditionally, evil is seen not as sexy but as mind-numbingly monotonous. Kierkegaard speaks of the demonic in The Concept of Anxiety as “the contentless, the boring.” Like some modernist art, it is all form and no substance. Hannah Arendt, writing of the petit-bourgeois banality of Adolf Eichmann, sees him as having neither depth nor any demonic dimension. But what if this depthlessness is exactly what the demonic is like? What if it is more like a minor official than a flamboyant tyrant? Evil is boring because it is lifeless. Its seductive allure is purely superficial…Evil is a transitional state of being—a domain wedged between life and death, which is why we associate it with ghosts, mummies, and vampires. Anything which is neither quite dead nor quite alive can become an image of it. It is boring because it keeps doing the same dreary thing, trapped as it is between life and death.” (123-124)

The Self-Defeating Aspects of The Contentless

Meaning is relational: we find meaning in how we relate to things, how things relate to one another, how we relate to other humans in mutual respect and recognition, etc. Demonic people seek to drain the world of things and people that have the potential for relational meaning and, in doing so, end up living in a world to which they can’t really relate: they live in a world that is more and more meaningless. Of course this is what they want: they want to be alone and unrelated to everything but themselves. But without meaningful relationships there is no vitality, no passion, no growth, and no development of self; and so demons, like vampires, need to stay in contact with the living world of meaning to suck something from it. Thus their meaning becomes the destruction of meaning – a contradictory goal which cannot be achieved. In the end, the demonic end up more and more like addicts beholden to a world of human recognition without being able to enter into it. Far from destroying meaning, they become parasitic upon it.

The Inscrutability of the Contentless

One troubling implication of this view is that the more successful a demonic person is in pursuing contentlessness the less content can be known about them. But this ignorance isn’t simply because they are so well hidden. Rather it is because their inner life is so impoverished that there isn’t really much to be discovered. Indeed, those who seek to unravel the most intense forms of evil may end up with an x: “Let the inclosing reserve be x and its content x, denoting the most terrible, the most insignificant, the horrible, whose presence in life few probably even dream about, but also the trifles to which no one pays attention” (126). Naturally, if we end up with an x we can’t always get the knowledge needed to make intelligent predictions. This inability connects well with the third and final trait of the demonic in Kierkegaard’s analysis.

The Sudden

The sudden is shut-upness or the state of withdrawal from a temporal point of view. Communication is about meaning unfolding over time and this unfolding presupposes continuity. One thing comes after another in some ordered way so that meaning can accumulate and reach a consummation that brings together what went before it. For example, we see how a story comes to a dramatic end, how an argument reaches a conclusion, or how a melody reaches its final note. In each of these cases the final step is not just a step or a termination; it is a fulfillment or consummation of some sort that is organically connected to what precedes it. But the sudden is a negation of continuity: “At one moment it is there, in the next moment it is gone, and no sooner is it gone than it is there again, wholly and completely. It cannot be incorporated or worked into any continuity, but whatever expresses itself in this manner is precisely the sudden” (130). According to Kierkegaard, a free self is integrated since its choices and actions establish a thread of continuity from the past into the future. The sudden disrupts this integration since “the sudden is a complete abstraction from continuity, from the past and the future” (132). Kierkegaard gives us a helpful illustration from ballet that again invokes Mephistopheles:

“Without being the sudden as such, the mimical may express the sudden. In this respect the ballet master, Bournonville, deserves great credit for his representation of Mephistopheles. The horror that seizes one upon seeing Mephistopheles leap in through the window and remain stationary in the position of a leap! This spring in the leap, reminding one of the leap of the bird of prey and of the wild beast, which doubly terrify because they commonly leap from a completely motionless position, has an infinite effect. Therefore Mephistopheles must walk as little as possible, because walking itself is a kind of transition to the leap and involves a presentiment of the possibility of the leap. The first appearance of Mephistopheles in the ballet Faust is therefore not a theatrical coup, but a very profound thought.” (131-132)

According to Kierkegaard’s theory of evil the sudden, in violating continuity, is not a natural phenomenon that functions in accordance with the continuity established by the laws of nature and cause and effect. Rather, it must, unlike the many scientific attempts to grasp evil today, be understood with reference to the supernatural soul and its efforts to negate the freedom of the good. Kierkegaard argues for this claim as follows:

“If the demonic were something somatic, it could never be the sudden. When a fever or the insanity etc, recurs, a law is finally discovered, and this law annuls the sudden to a certain degree. But the sudden knows no law. It does not belong among natural phenomena but is a psychical phenomenon—it is an expression of unfreedom.” (130)

The Self-Defeating Aspects of The Sudden

A demonic person seeks to be isolated from others and would, ideally, do without others. All the selfish freedom associated with evil and the devil is here given philosophical expression: the demonic person wants a world where only he exists. But we have just seen that the demonic person comes to be afflicted with the sudden. Thus, in seeking to avoid continuity with others, demonic people become discontinuous: they lose the very self they think their isolation liberates.

The Inscrutability of The Sudden

Like the above two aspects of the demonic, this violation of continuity has a disturbing implication for our understanding: the more demonic something is the less we will be able to understand it. After all, understanding presupposes continuity insofar as we seek to grasp how some past conditions gave rise to some event or might give rise to some future event. Such inquiries will presuppose the continuity of laws of nature. But the sudden is a rupture with natural continuity and therefore we should expect to have our search for continuous understanding thwarted to some extent. Therefore Eagleton puts it well in On Evil when he writes, “The less sense it makes, the more evil it is” (3).

Why Are There Demons?

Why would anyone be so anxious about the good that he seeks to defy it? Why would anyone want to threaten their own freedom and the freedom of others? Why would anyone, when faced with possibilities of salvation, communication, and love say, as the demons in the Bible say to Jesus, What have I to do with you? (cf. Mark 5:17; also Matthew 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-39). Well, Kierkegaard was the first to see that many people do not want freedom. In a draft to his Concept of Anxiety, he writes: “Perhaps this may seem strange talk to some people, for who does not want to be free?  However, the way in which a person speaks about such things indicates that he has no conception of the crisis that arises when freedom is to be brought into unfreedom. Wishing to be free is an easy matter, because wishing is the most paltry and unfree of all performances” (203). Kierkegaard’s ability to see how burdensome freedom can be led him, especially in The Sickness Unto Death, to some insights that help us explain the demonic defiance of the good or free, integrated selfhood. First, to exist as a free self is to be responsible for one’s actions. And with this responsibility comes a heavy burden: the burden of judgment from ourselves and others that brings guilt, remorse, regret, a sense of failure, and so on. Second, to be integrated with others is also to be revealed to others: people know where we stand.  But this revelation can bring tremendous suffering since, once revealed, people can harm us and manipulate us. Lastly, an integrated self is integrated into the lives of others and is therefore dependent on them to a large extent. But this dependence thwarts the Promethean drive to omnipotence and domination that many people have. Very often demonic defiance is essentially revenge on a world that prevents total domination. The demonic person essentially says: “If I can’t have it all then I will make myself and others as miserable as possible! In doing so I will prove the world is actually a miserable world not worth having in the first place”. This would also apply to individual things as well: if x can’t be controlled then demonic defiance will show x is worthless.

Summary: The Demonic Defined

So we see that the demonic person is anxious about the good and seeks to defy it as much as possible in accordance with the above three modes of behavior. In light of these observations, I formulated this extended definition as a summary:

The demonic person is anxious (both attracted and repelled) about the Good or free, integrated selfhood. This anxiety leads to a self-conscious defiance of the Good in order to escape the suffering associated with inter-subjective revelation, dependency, and responsibility. The primary mode of defiance is shut-upness or voluntary isolation. However, to maintain isolation demonic people will pursue contentlessness by destroying any meaningful content that threatens to draw them out: they will negate continuity, communication, meaning, and life leaving isolation, muteness, meaninglessness, and even death in its wake. This freely chosen and destructive defiance of the good is evil. Since integrated selfhood presupposes communication and revelation, the more demonic people’s defiance succeeds—the more they are isolated and shun modes of salvation and redemption—the more they are marked by the sudden and begin to disintegrate. In many cases, the process of disintegration results in unfree or involuntary disclosures of what was hidden. But we must accept that the understanding such disclosures bring will be limited insofar as the evil of the demonic is profoundly hidden, loses content as its negation develops, and violates the very continuity any act of understanding presupposes. Demonic evil will, in many cases, remain inscrutable.

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