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Who is Satan?

An interview with Taylor Hackford, The Director of "The Devil's Advocate"
by Carter Phipps


Taylor Hackford

As a young boy growing up in a small town on the edge of the Bible Belt, it sometimes seemed as if there were essentially two kinds of people in the world: those who believed and those who didn't. Not in God—everyone believed in God. I'm talking about the devil. For some, it seemed, the concepts of Satan, hell and eternal damnation were as real and tangible as the ground beneath their feet. But for others, myself included, the arcane concept of some supernatural figure dealing out temptation and punishment from beyond the grave just seemed profoundly out of step with modern life, an obvious anachronism in an age of semiconductors and space travel. The notion of Satan and even the idea of sin not only failed to inspire in me fear or trepidation, they hardly even registered on my moral radar screen. Hell, in my liberal Christian upbringing, was a state of mind rather than a physical place and I was raised to show little concern for ideas that seemed, for the most part, to be mere superstition. Except perhaps for a brief encounter with the exquisite beauty of the poetry in John Milton's Paradise Lost and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus in my college years, I had almost no experience with this classic embodiment of evil that has so enthralled the pious and the faithful for centuries. So when I went to see the movie The Devil's Advocate two years ago, I hardly expected that it might begin to change my opinions about the power and resilience of this time-honored symbol.

The movie tells the story of a young defense lawyer, played by Keanu Reeves, with a perfect string of courtroom victories in a small Florida district who accepts an offer to go to work for a very large, very wealthy international law firm in New York City. The law firm is run by a man suspiciously named John Milton, played by Al Pacino, a charismatic, charming and confident international power broker with an unusual interest in the fate of this young hotshot attorney. As the story unfolds, the devil is truly in the details, and Keanu Reeves ends up the unsuspecting protégé of this man of influence and prestige who, as we soon learn, is none other than Satan himself, a modern embodiment of God's most famous fallen angel. It is in many ways a classic story of temptation and seduction, an updated version of Faust told with all the energy, flair, cleverness and special effects that mark the best of Hollywood's talents.

Having been a spiritual practitioner for many years at that point, I was struck by the power of the film's portrayal of Satan, whose name is derived from an ancient Hebrew word meaning "adversary." Indeed, here suddenly was a devil I could relate to as a real spiritual adversary, one whose diabolical yet disquietingly human escapades breathed new life into the timeworn ideas of sin, transgression, pride, temptation and evil. As Faust, Paradise Lost, The Devil and Daniel Webster and no doubt countless other artistic works on this theme had done for generations past, this modern-day supernatural parable began to open my eyes to what, in fact, the concept of the devil could signify for the spiritual seeker. While still just as skeptical of the fire and brimstone, hell and redemption spirituality of my childhood hometown, I nevertheless felt a new appreciation for the idea of the devil and its vivid representation of the challenges we all face on the spiritual path.

This appreciation was helped along by the fact that, in the story, the main character falls prey to the classic temptations of vanity, lust, ambition and greed in ways that are disturbingly easy to relate to from one's own experience. And the movie pulls no punches as to the consequences of its characters' actions. To sell your soul to the deadly sins of vanity, greed and ambition is to sell your soul to Satan himself—an idea that, presented in this modern form, caused, I confess, a few moments of self-reflection. Not because I was worried about spending my postmortem days in a fiery hell, but simply because the movie makes a powerful link between small transgressions of conscience and the painful consequences that unfold when we place the appeasement and gratification of our own ego above all else.

So as we began our research for this issue—exploring the question: What is ego?, What exactly is our adversary on the spiritual path?—we quickly put The Devil's Advocate on our list to review along with numerous other books and videos, both classic and modern, addressing the subject of the devil in the spiritual life. Although he has lost some of his luster in our modern information age, the figure of Satan still is a topic of tremendous fascination, as attested to by the volume of material currently devoted to his study. Indeed, as the personified force of evil intentions in the human soul, his specter has dominated the Western moral imagination since the advent of Christianity two thousand years ago, and today there almost seems to be a resurgence of interest in the ideas that have created and sustained his myth. While the religious fervor that has often accompanied the idea of Satan has gratefully receded from our culture, could it be, we wondered, that he still articulates aspects of our spiritual and moral lives that cannot be easily translated into a modern context? The devil may, for good reason, no longer have a place in our psychologically informed society, but as Andrew Delbanco, author, social critic and Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, points out in his book The Death of Satan, "Despite the loss of old words and moral concepts—Satan, sin, evil—we cannot do without some conceptual means for thinking about the universal human experience of cruelty and pain. If evil with all of its insidious complexity escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all."

With all of this in mind, we set off to find someone who could shed some light on the devil, this proud and ageless spirit whom Al Pacino had brought so vividly to life on the big screen. And what better place to start, we thought, than with the film's award-winning director himself. So I called Taylor Hackford, who upon hearing the topic of this issue, What is ego?, immediately responded, "Yes, that's exactly what The Devil's Advocate is all about," and generously agreed to talk with me. Apparently Hackford, in tandem with his screenwriter and collaborative partner Tony Gilroy, was the primary creative force responsible for the provocative ideas that animate The Devil's Advocate. Indeed, from the moment we started talking, he spoke with great passion about the message behind this captivating modern morality tale, and explained why, at the close of the second millennium, the ancient myth of the tireless master tempter known as Satan, is still relevant for us all.


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This article is from
Our Ego Issue