On Walpurgis Night of 1966, amidst the Uranus-Pluto conjunction to which astrologers in part attribute the social upheaval of the sixties, The Church of Satan was founded in San Francisco by Anton LaVey. Three years later in 1969 The Satanic Bible was published in handy paperback format, and has remained in print continuously ever since.
I must have seen this book in a lot of bookshops since the 1970s, from mainstream sellers to bargain book warehouses. It’s kinda like a lurid, popular soda. You can decry that it’s cheap and full of E numbers, but fuck does it get about. I read it many, many years ago; some parts really appealed, and others turned me off at the time.
The influence of The Church itself as an organization could be debated over the decades, but I think the influence of Anton LaVey and The Satanic Bible is undoubted. There really wasn’t any serious, verifiable modern Satanism before LaVey, and no self-conscious, self-representing Satanic movement or community to speak of, at least that I am aware of. Satanism has evolved in various directions since then, but LaVey seems to have been the source catalyst, and elements of his philosophy remain common to most forms of modern Satanism. People have departed from his foundation, or grown it along different lines, but it seems clear that it was he who laid the foundation, no doubt bringing his own influences with him.
I’m sure the internet has accelerated this process of growth and profusion, but if there is a single text that people have had recourse to, it would still be The Satanic Bible. So that’s why I wanted to review the book, while also commenting upon it as a Satanist myself.
In these first posts I am not going to deal with the book in its entirety, but with the sections covering the attitude and philosophy which LaVey transmitted, leaving those sections dealing more fully with magic and ceremony to another time. The book itself is divided into four main parts, allocated to the elements of fire, air, earth and water, and named after various demons and infernal characters. I’m going to look at the introduction, and the books of “Satan” and “Lucifer”, over a series of three posts.
Quite a a lot of trashing goes into the preface and prologue to the book. Most of esoteric “tradition”, as well as what is recognizable as the forerunner of “New Age” teaching gets this treatment. Frankly, it could do with a slap.
“Herein you will find truth – and fantasy. Each is necessary for the other to exist, but each must be recognized for what it is”
This is the first indication that LaVey is a doubter, but not a rationalist in the dogmatic, almost ideological sense. He recognizes that we need fantasy and the irrational, that human beings cannot and need not abjure these things, but that we need to know the difference between these and facts.
Religion is decried as hypocrisy, and he proclaims an “age of Satan”, and a “morning of magic, and undefiled wisdom”. “No longer shall man’s salvation be dependent on his self-denial”. This last is one of the central thrusts of his philosophy, and as Stephen Flowers has pointed out¹, indulgence as a spiritual principle is something which LaVey explores. He debunks conventional objections to the exploration of desire and gratification by taking them to their conclusions for the whole person.
The “9 Satanic Statements” crystallize LaVey’s practical philosophy, mainly in affirmed and refuted pairs, until the last one anyway, which seems to just be a tongue in cheek swipe at the Christian Church.
Indulgence, not abstinence. Vital existence, not spiritual pipe dreams. Wisdom, not self-deceit. Deserved kindness, not wasted “love”. Vengeance, not turning the other cheek. Responsibility to the responsible, not psychic vampires. Man as just another animal, not a spiritually “superior” being. Validation of those things that lead to physical, mental or emotional gratification.
Most of these things I would agree with, with some qualification. Vengeance can easily become idiocy and irrational involvement, with spiralling consequences, however much one agrees with the unturned cheek. I wouldn’t choose that term myself, as the associations are anything but smart for me. Not turning the other cheek has more choices to it than that. Intelligently interpreted (or reinterpreted) though, these are sensible guides and considerations.
The Book of Satan
The Book of Satan is allocated to the burning element of fire and is brief, polemical and aphoristic. It lays down the emotional basis of a critical, practical philosophy.
“Death to the weaklings, wealth to the strong!”
Ooh vicar! One might actually enquire into the nature of strength and weakness here – brute force is far too easy and simplistic an interpretation, and if you’ve read of LaVey’s admiration for “circus freaks” and their resourcefulness, you’ll know his idea of weakness does not come down to whether you have legs or arms for instance. I take most of LaVey’s more harsh sounding declarations to be statements of the “bottom line” of life in general. This what you have to deal with, so find your strengths and use them. In addition though, it is worth comparing The Book of Satan to chapter three of The Book of the Law which Crowley “received” in 1904, and comparing aspects of the philosophies of Satanism and Thelema. The similarities are quite striking, and if LaVey’s Satanism was not influenced on some level by Crowley’s Thelema, I’d be inclined to eat at least one of my smaller hats. I would consider Crowley to be the clearest precedent in all honesty, though I’d be happy to have a clearer one pointed out.
“I stand forth to challenge the wisdom of the world; to interrogate the ‘laws’ of man and of ‘God'”. “I break away from all conventions that do not lead to my earthly success and happiness”. “I question all things”. “Too long right and wrong, good and evil have been inverted by false prophets”. “Religions must be put to the question. No moral dogma must be taken for granted…”. “There is nothing inherently sacred about moral codes … they are the work of human hands …”. “Popular lies have ever been the most potent enemies of personal liberty”. “Life is the great indulgence – death, the great abstinence. Therefore, make the most of life – HERE AND NOW!”. “Say unto thine own heart ‘I am mine own redeemer'”.
You get the picture. It’s a philosophy of being honest with yourself about how life is, and then playing it at its own game, with neither self-pity, nor self-righteousness. But it is also a philosophy of individual sovereignty, and recognition of the relative and fabricated (humanly crafted) nature of all collective morality. It is a philosophy of questioning, finding what is true for you, and what suits you as a life. It burns traditional, denial-based restrictions to the ground in terms of their claimed authority, and then faces you with your own questions as to your values. It doesn’t tell you what to want or believe, but it challenges you to find any better basis than fulfillment and gratification, taking the whole person into consideration (without the tribe, family, society etc looking over your shoulder). To do that it must liberate you, and to liberate you it must destroy the claims of false morality and authority over the individual self. That is one of the things that makes Satanism a potent and distinctive spiritual path.
The Book of Lucifer
The Book of Lucifer is given the light element of air, and it contains the most developed philosophy or teaching in the book, not in a straightforward “here it is all laid out” sense (which LaVey avoids throughout, except in short pieces like the “principles” above), but by means of illustration, discussion and example. In a sense you have to reverse engineer the core from the entertainment and speeches on hand, though it’s clear enough when you look into it, and it’s all part of LaVey’s populist “playing to the gallery” in a sense, just as the Avon pulp paperback format is. Take something serious – slip it into a carnival costume.
As he mainly deals with subject areas, that’s what I’ll look at here.
God and religion
According to LaVey a Satanist accepts whatever definition of “God” suits them best, and he considers gods to be the creation of human beings, not the other way round. For myself, I believe in gods as independent entities, but I feel no need of a “Creator”, and I agree that we certainly imagine the forms of the gods according to our needs.
The idea of “God” that seems to have suited LaVey is “the balancing factor in nature”.
“The Satanist realizes that man, and the actions and reactions of the universe, is responsible for everything, and doesn’t mislead himself into thinking that someone cares”
He revokes fatalism, saying of the Satanist: “realizing that anything he gets is of his own doing, [he] takes command of the situation ….”. It takes both positive thinking and positive action to get results. If a Satanist does wrong by his own lights, he realizes that mistakes are natural, learns from them, and takes care to not repeat the same mistake. Responsibility requires honesty, not guilt.
LaVey considers us to have invented our religions and gods, and that most mainstream religions cannot accept the ego, so they instead project the ego onto their idea of “God”. If this is so, he wonders why we don’t just worship a god that we have created in accordance with our own needs? If we did, it would surely be a god which represents that carnal and physical being which had the creative capacity to invent gods in the first place – ourselves.
As for religion, we may need ritual and dogma*, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be in service to an externalized god. A religion of indulgence indulges in its own practices for the inherent benefits to its participants.
LaVey uses the techniques and exultations of religion, but for the benefit and enjoyment of the individual Satanist, and within that scheme he places a poetic god for the same purpose; a conscious mirror of the Satanic self. Belief in a literal being called “Satan” is not part of his scheme though.
From this I personally take what suits me. I don’t believe in “God”, but I believe in all kinds of other critters, weird, wonderful and otherwise. Nothing scientific about it, and no need for it to be so for me, so long as I know the difference. I don’t feel the need for a religion, but I’ll use the processes and techniques of religion as I see fit. Satanism is a philosophy and a way of life for me, and “Satan” is a representation of the principle of individualized life force and consciousness for me. I know others who take Satan to be an independent entity they have a relationship with, and I respect that entirely. Maybe I’ll change my mind someday, but that’s how I see things right now.
A Satanic Age
You can tell this bit was written in the 1960s, before the advent of a resurgent religious right, and widespread, politicized Christian evangelism.
The “seven deadly sins” are presented as natural and ultimately self balancing traits: envy and greed fuel ambition, though you could say this is a matter of whether we are talking motivation or compulsion. Rephrased as admiration, aspiration and appetite, most people would see what LaVey means (we’ll see later how LaVey considers compulsion to be a fetter for the Satanist). Gluttony and pride he sees as balancing each other out – you enjoy food till the point it affects your self-esteem (though it’s clearly more complex than that). Of course there are health implications, and that is entirely up to the person. Things like fat shaming and whipping people into a concern for health are really just the old moral habits of puritanism in hip clothing. To condemn lust is to condemn reproduction. All those “aaaah, you’re having a baby, how lovely!” , moments? Sorry, if you disapprove of lust, you can view all those glowing new mothers as sterile. Virgin births – it’s just a bit of a fucked up fantasy. Of course there is more to sexual desire than that also, but enough said. Not much on sloth here, other than it being entirely natural, but it would be balanced out by the motivating factors of other “sins”. Anger is linked to self-preservation, in response to threat. We never mind someone doing the protective dirty work for us (in fact we tend to insist and scream if it’s missing), but we demonize the root response in us to danger. As someone who has always had problems expressing anger, I know we have plenty to look at and understand in this emotion.
LaVey is basically saying that in our modern society the Satanic attitude towards “sin” is more and more prevalent, and more and more supported, and I think he is basically correct. People take a more humanistic approach to human characteristics and try to understand them rationally and pragmatically. But whereas LaVey saw traditional Church attitudes starting to fall like dominos in his time, as trendy priests strummed guitars and espoused liberalism to speak to the “young people” of the American 60s, we’re a long way past that point now. There is a generalized move towards acceptance of various liberal causes (such as same-sex marriage) in a number of Churches, but there is also a deep entrenchment in fundamentalist denial of science and human nature. For all that Satanists espouse honest self-interest, they are amongst the ones calling for practical compassion. When you add to this picture the state of the majority of humanity, I think you can see that we have a long way to go before we can talk about a “Satanic Age”, though these kind of “Ages” are generally ideological fictions anyway. In practice we’ve been working on this, by other names, since The Enlightenment.
Of course LaVey’s question still holds true, as to why those who now hold views and values opposite to their traditional scriptures still cling to religions that don’t describe them; but that is their choice and their experience. He has though already answered the question that current non-theistic Satanists still get asked – why not just be a humanist? Basically, Satanism has ceremony and some of that irrational juice, for want of a better word, and that is part of what we consider ourselves to need:
“It is one thing to accept something intellectually, but to accept the same thing emotionally is an entirely different matter. The one need that psychiatry cannot fill is man’s inherent need for emotionalizing through dogma*. Man needs ceremony and ritual, fantasy and enchantment”.
So Satanism fills a void between reason and our irrational needs (but it seeks to do so consciously and responsibly).
LaVey claims that the essentials of Satanism have always existed, but what is new is “the formal organization of a religion based upon the universal traits of man”. Looking back, it seems like the founding of that modern religion catalysed a broad movement of individuals, and a range of philosophies and organizations. Whether it’s Satan’s “Age” or not, The Devil seems to have a lot of love children.
¹ Lords of the Left Hand Path – Stephen Flowers.
* LaVey seems to use “dogma” in the sense of ceremonial, form, aesthetic structure, rather than fixed, unquestionable teaching.