The Devil’s Greatest Trick

The modernist French literary figure Charles Baudelaire coined the maxim that “the devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” I respectfully disagree.

The aphorism appears in a short story entitled “The Generous Gambler,” told in the first person, in which the storyteller reflects upon a pleasant evening he spent with the father of lies over a game of chance in which he lost his soul.  In the course of amiable conversation, the devil confides in his guest “that he had only been afraid for his power once,” when a preacher proclaimed, “never forget … that the devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist!”

Upon closer examination, one sees that the story belies the maxim: there is indeed a more clever trick in play, because the storyteller notes that he lost his soul with almost bored indifference, regarding it as a “useless and sometimes bothersome thing.” And he concludes the story with a prayer to God that the devil would keep his promise to give him all the worldly pleasures anyway that he had sought in betting his soul in the first place.

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Clearly, the devil had not convinced Baudelaire’s storyteller that he does not exist, nor, apparently, did he need to. The storyteller is not seduced by the idea that the devil does not exist, but by the heady relief from his life’s ennui, which he experiences in the devil’s company,  and in the devil’s promise of absolute autonomy in earthly delights.

In our postmodern world, it has become fashionable not only to believe in the devil’s existence, but to relish, like the storyteller, being “old and perfect friends” with the devil, who is admired as a champion of enlightenment, progress, and “the destruction of superstition.” Indeed, the devil is celebrated as a champion of individual freedom, especially from the “oppression” of sexual morality. The icon of leftist community activism, Saul Alinsky, acknowledged the devil in his celebrated work, Rules for Radicals.

This is a great trick, too. But, eventually, many who are seduced by this image of the devil as liberator see the deception, because debauchery brings its own enslavement and punishment (Baudelaire’s life of profligacy, promiscuity, and drug addiction ended with a massive stroke and his death at age 46). Many great conversions have come from such awakenings to bear inestimable witness to the transforming power of the mercy of God.

A greater deception, perhaps, is convincing people that the devil’s existence does not matter, because God is so merciful that He will not send anyone to hell. This presumptuous confidence in God’s mercy at first seems like a reversal of the devil’s first deception in Eden, when he tempted Eve to distrust God. Yet it is also a repackaging of the same deception: you should not believe God when he says disobeying Him will lead to your death (Gen. 3:4).

Nevertheless, I suggest that the devil’s greatest deception is to convince human beings that they are not human beings. This deception forecloses them from recognizing their true freedom and inherent dignity as the image of God, and as his adopted children. It is the critical deception of our first parents: the devil tempts Eve by telling her that her disobedience will open her eyes, making her “like God…” (Gen. 3:5). Adam and Eve ignored the fact that they were already the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). In rejecting the gift they had already received and grasping for power independent from God, they fell.

The devil repeats this deception, especially today. We know that Jesus Christ has restored, and even elevated, humanity’s dignity, giving us each the power to become God’s sons and daughters. But, again, the devil is trying to convince people that they are not who they are.

Instead of tempting us to reject God outright, the devil is satisfied with convincing us that we are nothing special in God’s eyes: human beings are nothing more than highly evolved organisms, different in degree, but not in kind, from other organisms. Like all other organisms, human behavior is a matter of biology and environment. There is no spiritual dimension, but only brain chemistry. There is no free will, but only evolutionary drives. We are not persons, but members of a class, an ethnicity, a race, a sexual orientation, and on and on.

The secular progressive obsession with “equality” of outcomes reflects this denial of personhood, in the same way it justifies the extermination of millions of pre-born babies in the name of population control and social “responsibility.” Human beings are treated as livestock to be managed, rather than persons to be cherished.

The zeitgeist pays lip service to the idea of a human spirit, but, in practice, that “spirit” boils down to consumptive self-assertion, self-serving emotion, and empty sentimentality. The permitted expressions of “freedom” are actually enslavements to bodily and psychotropic pleasures. Such “freedom,” not religion, is the “opium of the masses.”

The crisis of our time is not so much a crisis of theology, but a crisis of anthropology.  The modern mentality reduces man to a mere species of animal of no particular importance to God—or to man himself. This is why we see throughout our society all forms of exploitation and degradation. From human trafficking, to date rape, physical and sexual abuse, hook-ups, co-habitation, illegitimacy, and divorce, our ethos of autonomy and self-gratification make us consumers of other human beings in what Pope Francis calls a “throw away” culture.

Yet the culture gives a collective shrug: What should be expected? After all, we are only animals who are driven by urges and appetites. And so we are left with a pseudo-morality of “tolerance” and “coexistence”—of being “nice.” Just as one’s faithful pet will find a comfortable eternity, so will we. Damnation, if it exists at all, is reserved for those who disrupt this comfortable coexistence with “hate” and “intolerance,” either maliciously, or, worse, by insisting on the existence of objective Truth. (Even here, one gets the sense that hell would be just a long stay in a re-education camp.)

Why is this a satisfactory state of affairs for the devil? Because, in this view of the human being, there is no room for love. Indeed, it is anti-love, precisely because it is anti-freedom. Without freedom there is no love … there is no choosing God. God respects our freedom. God’s gift of free will empowers us to love, and it is this power that makes us most like God. Unless we freely choose God in love, then we will not reach our fulfillment as human persons who have been created for communion with God-Who-Is-Love. For us, that just is hell. If we reject who we are as human beings, we lose God by our own choosing, and God loses us. What could satisfy the devil more?

Editors’ note: Pictured above is French essayist and art critic Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).


  • Deacon Michael Quinlan

    Deacon Michael Quinlan, of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, holds a bachelors in philosophy and a law degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master of laws degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He practices law in St. Louis with his own firm. He and wife Janet have been married 37 years and have seven adult children and 15 grandchildren.

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