So who, exactly, IS in the details?

Posted on August 12, 2011

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This is what you get when you do an image search for "god is in the details." Really. Maybe not right away, but if you look hard enough. And adding "sexy" to the search helps. (Image from Washingtonpublishers.com)

“God is in the details.” “The devil is in the details.”

So which is it?

As it turns out, God got there first, but I guess that’s only fitting, what with being the Prime Mover, First Cause, and The Guy Who Always Butts In Line Ahead of Everybody Else Because He Thinks He’s So Bloody Special.

We don’t know exactly when the expression came about. All the relevant authorities agree that while the phrase “God is in the detail” (without the “s” in “detail”) is generally ascribed to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he didn’t originate it. It was also apparently frequently quoted by the art historian Aby Warburg — but again, he was just repeating something he’d already heard. And neither of them are particularly old references, both being from the 20th century. The earliest form of the phrase comes from the 19th century French writer Gustave Flaubert, who said, “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail.” This, of course, is French for “The good God is in the detail.” (The “good” is in there because the French always were suck-ups to anyone with power.)

Regardless of who came up with the saying (some even credit Michaelangelo), the meaning is quite clear: that looking carefully at the details, you will find God.

Or, that whatever you do, it should be done thoroughly as though to God.

Or, God is really, really tiny and likes hiding in small places

Or something. I don’t care.

As is to be expected, the phrase “the devil is in the details” has a slightly different meaning. It means that even though everything may look right, something in the details is just waiting to screw you over.

It is, if you will, the mechanism by which Murphy’s Law works.

This second meaning is far more applicable to our daily lives, which probably explains why it has surpassed the other in popularity.

God may have been in the details first, but the devil has certainly taken over.

In a straight Google search, “god is in the details” turns up only 243,000 hits, about a fifth of the 1,190,000 hits produced by “the devil is in the details.” In a similar search of Google News (between the years 1990 to 2011) “the devil” beats “god” 5,490 to 342. The closest that God comes to giving the devil a run for his money is in a search through Google Books (between 1800 to 2000) where the devil squeaks out God 2,500 to 2,100.

If I were God, I’d demand a recount.

Victory, like both God and the devil, is often in the details.

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