Recently a friend used a figure of speech while describing a situation involving an unexpected detail that later turned out to be crucial to the success of their project, but after going unnoticed, caused further disruption and complications to occur. It made me contemplate the meaning and foundation of this now commonly known idiom.
Many people may be familiar with the phrase ‘the Devil’s in the details’, which some claim was originally used by the atheist German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (in German: “Der Teufel steckt im Detail”(1)) and later adopted by many other cultures around the world, although paradoxically the exact ‘details’ of its origin seem difficult to determine. It generally “refers to problems or difficulties that result from the unforeseen nature of unexamined details. It refers to a catch hidden in the details rather than the truth in its abstract sense.”(2) This was indeed the saying used by my friend during our discussion, but after having a feeling that something did not seem right about that phrase (probably stemming from the fact that I personally have never believed in the existence of the ‘Devil’), I decided to do a little digging into the true foundation of this phrase.
What I found confirmed my suspicions, in that the original saying had at some point been morphed into its current variation and lost the essence of its meaning along the way. The expression ‘the Devil’s in the details’ is actually a derivation of the original saying ‘God is in the detail’ which is usually attributed to German/American architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, but more aptly originated from an older German proverb (‘Der liebe Gott steckt im detail’) (3) of an unknown source.
“The idea was that whatever one does should be done thoroughly and the truth, if it exists, is in the details.”(1) This approach invokes the consideration that in every little detail of movement, whether it be in the form of a thought, the spoken word, or physical action, there exists a greater Truth, and that these movements can either heal or harm us as a humanity.
In essence, honouring the original iteration of this phrase that holds God and all that He represents to be in the details of everyday life offers us the opportunity to appreciate not only our divine connection with Him, but how if we allow ourselves to feel it, we can see God’s signature in so many things around us. Take the twinkle in the eye of a young child who is being cheeky and playful, the way the Sun can suddenly emerge from a cloudy sky and cascade its light all around you but somehow leaves the surrounding landscape in the shadows, or how just at the right moment a close friend tenderly puts their hand on your shoulder in a gesture of support when you need it most.
I feel that what we are also talking about here is how we view the word ‘truth’. If it is acknowledged in a favourable sense that we can notice how God expresses His energy in every little detail we observe in Nature (like the gentle flapping of a butterfly’s wings to the infinite complexity of the human body and its inner workings), it also exposes how saying something like ‘the devil is in the details’ suggests that we are avoiding the Truth of a situation or what is being presented to us in life in order to grow and evolve.
An example of this would be how we know alcohol is chemically a poison to human cells, yet we continue to consume it in massive quantities at the great expense of our minds and bodies, with all sorts of social consequences of its usage(4). Or how we have had not one but two ‘World Wars’, and even with the devastating loss of life, infrastructure collapse, torture, and multi-generational psychological damage that ensued during that period, we continue to engage in the very same wars across the globe, and somehow find ridiculous ways to justify their existence.