In pop culture, as with many other facets of philosophy, ancient or not, the concepts of the demonic and the angelic are often glamorized if not outright bastardized beyond their original respective sentiments and associations. It’s commonly accepted that the demonic is evil. Inherently malevolent and inconsiderate of any kind of sympathy or empathy, a demon is the embodiment of selfish ill will, and second only in its depravity to the devil itself. Angels and the angelic on the other hand are considered disproportionately compassionate and benevolent, being so abiding to goodness as to forego any sense of pride or egoic value, living only in adherence to what is sacred. Relatively recent adaptations to the imagery and iconography aside, angels and demons had a much less black and white, much more gray origin in theology and philosophy.
To describe it relatively briefly (and unfortunately not so comprehensively), demons originated from the philosophic concept of a daemon, or daimon, which was something like a personified spiritual power, representing a direct, personal connection to the divine that could be interpreted according to the psychic content of the particular individual in association, but often times only by that particular individual. De-personified, it is the source of our spirituality and the connection between our experience of existence and the divinity which allows it. It was typically seen as something which attempted to influence or guide the person associated with it so that they could better follow their own nature, their own spiritual path, so long as proper respects and sincere intentions were given. Daimon were also considered very powerful, and people were advised not to give any reason to be on their bad side, but also to make use of the help that could be offered by them. In the best scenario, it was a spirit which was your own metaphysical life advisor, the source of your personal power which protects and assists you.
To someone in our contemporary context, this description would best fit a the idea of a guardian angel who closely protects and guides us so that we may live well, and they would be right. According to Dr. Andrew Henry of ReligionForBreakfast and Dr. Angela Puca of Angela’s Symposium, two religious scholars who partnered to publish a duo of video essays on the history of demons as a religious concept, this history of demons, daemons, and daimon has not only undergone heavy reinterpretation and biased representation in its conceptualization — originating in Greek religion, transitioning through Jewish apocalyptic writing and Christian re-imagination, and all-the-while being included in many pagan spiritual interpretations and religious practices from antiquity to modernity — but it is also a very ambiguous and open set of concepts, not easily being equated or exchanged with any other interpretation from supposedly similar cultural representations of metaphysical entities able to intervene or interfere with the phenomena of Earth.
Since the deconstruction of the concept of a demon has already been professionally handled by academic scholars, I wanted to explore more questions and perspectives of the relations between demons and angels and their association with human life. I do not mean to imply that these entities are either definitively real or not, but even taken as creative symbols or archetypes, they provide useful information for our better understanding existence and reality.
Initially, after comparing the difference in representation that demons have undergone through history, I wondered if angels had always been a parallel in religion and theology to demons, would they have undergone a similar misrepresentation and biased adaption for the uses of different institutions or cultural lineages. This inquiry led to an investigation of theological representations and conceptions of angels. Regarding the abstract framing of the existence and functions (for lack of a better word) or actions of these beings, I noticed a clear distinction between the popular conception of an angel and the original sentiment to these servants of the Abrahamic God.
Angels do not serve humans. They may act in our benefit, provide assistance and guidance when needed, and they are generally associated with working towards some ultimate or absolute Good, but they clearly only ever serve that Good, and they will commit acts we would consider atrocities for the sake of this highest good, so long as it is in service to the will of God. In ancient some theological contexts, the angels themselves are not considered good, just servants of the good. They are also framed as purely rational in contrast to a demon’s absolute sense of irrational passion that would drive it to behavioral extremes associated with sin. Because there is no need, angels do not feel. They have no desire, no suffering, and therefore no pleasure or happiness. Everything is objectively defined according to the will of the ultimate Good that is God, the divinity which they serve literally selflessly. As such, they are like machines.
Angels are not necessarily alone in this regard. Demons, being more personalized and subjective rather than objective act in adherence to a specifically personal will rather than that of an objective and absolute divine goodness. A demon may describe the aim of their actions as such, but generally, this is about as valid a description of their ends as is the description of a delicious molten fudge cake to a 9 year old kid. Because of this hallmark ambiguity, the demons have a much wider range of reasons for their actions and magical influence that allows both for the fulfillment of faithful spiritual practices as well as the suffering of attempts to control reality beyond one’s means. This distinction between the ambiguity and objectivity of demons and angels I think appropriately mirrors the attitudes of many religious and spiritual people who disagree as to the acceptability of certain ritualistic practices and conceptions of healthy or appropriate spirituality. For instance, if you believe in an ultimate divinity as Christians do, it would undermine this divinity if ritual magic involving the intercession of demonic influence was allowed, especially when there’s already a distinction between morally ambiguous or even malevolent demons and benefic and holy angels.
However, taken as different theorizations of metaphysics and spiritual paths, adherence to the power of the demonic or the holiness of the angelic are attitudes and perspectives that both allow for the spiritual fulfillment of the individual, so long as fulfillment in this context carries the moral ambiguity. Either one’s perspective of metaphysics is absolute, or the implications of one’s perspective are. Consequently, demons can just as easily be seen as yet another autonomous process following the aims of its own nature as effectively as a living machine. Whatever the ultimate value is or regardless of how it is determined, there must be one; otherwise, there is no context for any evaluation.
So what does it mean to believe in angels or demons? Suspending disbelief, what are we to think of people who seek the intercession and assistance of “supernatural” entities or metaphysical forces? If you met such a being, how would you react?
I like to think of humans as the cousins of both demons and angels, or of the spirits that walk the realm just outside our earthly experience. Whether they exist deep within the mind as archetypes projected from the self, or as phantasmal illusions perceived in the often paradoxical absurdity of what we call reality, There are many parallels and overlaps among the daimon and us, and we are a seemingly perfect middle ground. Equally capable of delusional passion and fixated rationality, we find truth in our capacity for reason and emotion, and draw strength from both objectivity and subjectivity. Our minds are themselves connections between the spirit and the earth, for who does not claim to be that “I” in a physical form? I’m amazed that we rely so heavily on this self-awareness; we hardly even understand it. Yet, we can create such fantastic and expansive webs of concepts to talk about it with one another, or simply with ourselves. It really is worth spending a lifetime exploring.
Featured Photo is M. C. Escher’s Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell)