Alasdair MacIntyre, Alexandra James, Anton LaVey, expressive individualism, Friedrich Nietzsche, G.W.F. Hegel, gender, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hebrew Bible, John Milton, music, Satan, Satanism, Twin Temple
One philosophical principle I have tried to live by is: there is truth in everything. This is a weaker version of Ken Wilber’s “Everybody is right”: many people are wrong, about many things, but they come to their wrong views for a reason. I take this principle to underlie Hegel’s dialectical method: one should transcend and include every view, which is to say preserve the truth and the reasons underlying a wrong view while leaving aside what is wrong in it.
One thing that led me to this view: as a teenager I was deeply anti-Christian. I saw in Christianity only an oppressive anti-gay, anti-feminist politics – a pillar of Reagan’s Moral Majority coalition. As an adult, though, I came to appreciate Christianity – never adopting its worldview, but coming to see in Christianity a similar kind of self-cultivation to the Buddhist one that had changed my life.
But a true Hegelian, I think, needs to find the truth not only in Christianity but also in its opposite. Hegel himself spends a great deal of time in the Phenomenology looking for truth in Enlightenment anti-clericalism alongside Christian faith itself. In an era later than Hegel’s, though, we now see anti-Christian views taken further than the Enlightenment thinkers ever dreamed: a significant number of people now openly embrace Satanism. And I think it is also important to see the truth in that.
The figure of Satan is a complex one: in its original context in the Hebrew Bible, ha-satan means the accuser, the prosecutor who tests humans. Medieval European Christianity turned this accuser figure into the embodiment of evil, “the devil”. The concept of Satanism or the Satanic was an accusation one levelled against one’s foes, a dark slander: to call oneself a Satanist was unimaginable.
But then, just as the Enlightenment’s questioning of the church was beginning to emerge, John Milton wrote Paradise Lost. Rehabilitating Satan was likely the last thing on Milton’s mind. And yet, like most great writers, Milton had an implicitly dialectical approach in that he could deeply understand all of his characters from their own point of view – chief among them the figure of Satan himself. Milton’s Satan is a tragic hero who rebels against God’s authority, most famously proclaiming that it is “better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.” As such he came to be an inspiration to generations of rebels in the rebellious centuries that followed.
Most famously and explicitly, Anton LaVey wrote a Satanic Bible and founded a Church of Satan. The ideas of Nietzsche deeply permeate the Satanic Bible: it urges a this-worldly life of lusty self-indulgence, in which one is not fettered by guilt or resentment. Like Nietzsche’s, LaVey’s views are a strand of qualitative individualism.
More recently – and this is what got me thinking on the topic lately – the band Twin Temple defines itself explicitly as Satanic, as are all its lyrics. Explicitly Satanic music is hardly new, of course. But while explicit Satanism is typically associated with the loud and aggressive sounds of heavy metal, Twin Temple perform their Satanic lyrics in the style of 1950s and ’60s pop rock, billing their sound as “Satanic doo-wop”.
So – the philosopher’s question – why Satanic doo-wop? The lead singer, Alexandra James, proclaims, “To us, there is a connection between Satanism and rock ’n’ roll – they’re both very much defined by transgression, rejection of societal norms and a fierce sense of individualism and outsider culture.” Qualitative individualism again, and rebellion: LaVey would fit this description, even though he didn’t like rock music in general. But Twin Temple’s qualitative individualism, unlike LaVey’s, is explicitly political: James says,
I think Satanism shares a lot of the same fundamental themes any form of political resistance like feminism. It seeks to liberate the self. It seeks to transcend boring, binary concepts and reject societal norms. We’re trying to get people to see beyond good and evil, man and woman, mother and whore, light and dark, sinner and saint. It’s really about pushing back against these outdated societal norms that really suppress and limit the individual.
The branded swag that Twin Temple sells at their concerts proclaim, “Satanic Feminist“, and much of Twin Temple’s lyrics are explicitly feminist in content. (One of their singles is called “Satan’s A Woman”.) Their Satanism shares a politics with my teenage anti-Christianity.
So Satanism holds an appeal for those who seek to cast off historical norms as a shackle – a history that, in the West, is soaked with Christianity. But the fact that it is Satanism, specifically, is a brilliant illustration of Gadamer‘s point that even rejections of history happen on the terms of that history itself. For Satanism is a rejection of Christianity that still takes a Christian image as its central figure. There could be no Satanism without Christianity.
But that isn’t a flaw in Satanism. Like Gadamer, MacIntyre makes the point that tradition is inescapable: both Descartes and Marx were doing something new based on old materials, but Marx was profounder because he recognized the influence of the old on him, while Descartes tried to deny it. Satanism, it seems to me, is all about opposing the flaws of Christianity in a way that is deeply self-aware of its Christian roots.