Final Word

When the devil steals from God


We often hear, especially regarding controversial legislation over recent years in South Africa, the expression “the devil is in the detail”. But on that score the devil is a Jimmy-come-lately.

It is in many instances quite apt to look for the devil in the detail in the clauses and regulations hidden in laws and regulations, which often hide the real political agendas behind them or the unintended consequences that result from them.

However, it turns out that the original expression was “God is in the detail”, said in wonder of creation surrounding us. One just has to consider the wonder of all the details, involved in holistic interaction with one another, which make the intricate bodies of living beings function as they do.

There is no final certainty regarding by whom and when the expression “God is in the detail” was first coined. The most common claim is that it was first used by the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).

However, it turns out that the phrase was also a favourite expression of German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929). But not even his biographer, E.M. Gombrich, is certain that it was he who coined the phrase.

The oldest use of the phrase we could trace was used in French as Le bon Dieu est dans le détail by the famous novelist and prominent exponent of what is called “literary realism”, Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert died in 1880 when the German historian Warburg was only 14 years old and architect Van der Rohe not even born yet.

It is also not exactly sure when the devil hijacked the phrase. But as an indication of its much more recent vintage, it is generally regarded as a maxim of the German Blixa Bargeld, who only hit the pop scene in the 1980s. Ironically, considering the claims about architect Van der Rhode, Bargeld’s pop group is called Einstürzende Neubauten (‘Collapsing New Buildings’).

It would seem as though the phrase came about somewhere towards the middle of the 20th century and one of the strong contenders to claim credit for it, is another German, the famous folklorist, professor Lutz Röhrich (1922-2006). One of his books even bears the title Der Teufel steckt im Detail, the devil is in the detail.

The hour and the man

It was an article about the dire need for special leadership, globally and domestically, to save the world and South Africa from a confluence of many crises, from the financial/economic, to the social, to the structure of democracy, to climate change and to a Fourth Industrial Revolution, that led me to the discovery about the devil’s claim on the detail.

I originally set out to discover the origins of the phrase “cometh the hour, cometh the man”.

It turns out that there are a multitude of claims to the origins and variants of the phrase, placing it mostly in fairly modern times. One of these even places it in South Africa towards the middle of the 20th century.

On the website The Phrase Finder, the story is related of how the phrase “was uttered by the English bowler, Cliff Gladwin, on the 20th December 1948 in Durban, South Africa, when, with two wickets standing and 12 runs required off the last three remaining overs, he came in to bat. He scored the winning run from a leg-bye with the last ball of the match after the ball had struck him on the thigh.

“Afterwards, in the dressing room, he proudly showed all comers the bruise from which cricket’s most famous leg-bye was scored. "I told you, ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’, he chaffed Dudley Nourse, the South African captain, afterwards.”

From the delightful website, QUOTE ... UNQUOTE, we learn that other claims include:

  • Harriet Martineau titled her biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture (1840), The Hour and the Man;
  • An American, William Yancey, said about Jefferson Davis, president-elect of the Confederacy, in 1861: ‘The man and the hour have met’;
  • P.G. Wodehouse in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974) has: ‘And the hour ... produced the man;
  • Earlier, at the climax of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering (1815), a character, one Meg Merrilies, says, ‘Because the Hour’s come, and the Man’; and
  • An older English proverb has it that ‘Opportunity makes the man’.

However, according to a number of sources the origins of the phrase can be traced back to John 4:23 in the Bible that reads: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers …”

Final word

Looking back at the history of the ‘devil and detail’ phrase related above, it is interesting to note that the English phrase ‘opportunity makes the man,’ had a 14th century predecessor that goes as follows: ‘opportunity makes the thief’.

From what we have learnt about some politicians, their friends, so-called ‘state capture’ and nepotism, especially of late in South Africa, this latter version seems particularly applicable and true.

by Piet Coetzer

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