“Suzanne beware of the devil,” Dandy Livingstone’s 1972 hit was among the songs played in the “oldies” section on Steve Wright’s afternoon programme on BBC Radio 2.
The song evoked memories of an uncle who would give such warnings. If we told lies, the devil would come for us, so we should beware of him. The devil in our imagination was a half-man, half beast figure who would throw people into a fire if he came for them. Perhaps the image was strengthened by the popularity at the time of Dennis Wheatley novels, with their frightening tales of diabolical doings.
In religious tradition, the personification of the idea of evil is more complex than the horned figure of medieval art. In the Old Testament book of Job, the devil is known as Satan, a word meaning the adversary. The role of the adversary is within the divine plan, a person with whom there is a conversation.
The reality of actions that would be described as evil is undeniable, Twentieth Century history is filled with episodes so dark that the behaviour of those involved seems almost inexplicable, yet to personify that behaviour as the “work of the devil,” or even to use the term “evil,” would seem to be to try to avoid the place of individual choice and agency in what took place. People chose to participate in the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin and by the many lesser dictators; there were people, even in the worst of Nazi Germany who made the choice not to collude with such actions. People chose to give free rein to the base instincts that allowed them to co-operate with appalling regimes.
It seems to have become normal to blame behaviour on peer pressure, on societal norms, so the outpouring of abuse that surrounds discussions of political issues is attributed to the example set by particular politicians, or by the atmosphere created by social media. Laying the blame for abusive language or behaviour on individual voices, or on websites, is to avoid the fact of individual responsibility, if people have said or done particular things, it is because they have chosen to do so, no-one is such an automaton that they have altogether lost the faculty of choice.
The adversary with whom there is a struggle is always oneself, even in the story of Job, a piece of wisdom literature from around the Sixth Century BC, the struggle faced by the eponymous character is in how he reacts to circumstances. “Suzanne beware of the devil,” belongs to a tradition of denying responsibility for what we do ourselves.