[Men] are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself (2 Nephi 2:27; emphasis added).
Though I have never read the Book of Mormon, I came to similar conclusions regarding the true nature of freedom and choice; conclusions I recorded in a brief blog post from last April:
You are always free to choose the right thing. The right thought. The right action. That is the only real freedom you possess. It is always simple, but often challenging.
The wrong thing is never simple, but usually easy. When you give in to the wrong thing, it comes from wrong thought and leads to wrong action. The wrong thing is not an exercise in freedom.
There is no choice; only submission.
When you submit to the wrong thing, freedom dissolves and drips through your fingers like melting gold.
You are left with nothing of value. The surrender brands you, and the slavery to which you have submitted shall mark you as one who failed to be free.
My thinking at the time revolved around the notion that a choice for evil was actually a choice for slavery, what William, via Nephi, refers to as captivity. Evil choices tempt through the promise of power. Perhaps some power is obtained after the choice is made, but the constrained and limiting nature of the power one has achieved becomes readily apparent over time. It is power bounded and constrained by captivity. This may appear paradoxical at first, but it actually makes a great deal of sense, as William explains in his post:
Captivity and power. How does that work? Isn't captivity a lack of power?
In the past I always thought that, while the syntax may be a bit infelicitous, the meaning is clear enough. The "power of the devil" refers to the power which the devil himself possesses, while the "captivity of the devil" indicates other people's being in captivity to the devil. Only a tedious grammar pedant (something no one would ever accuse me of being!) would read it any other way.
After giving it some thought, though, I think that there are in fact good reasons, above and beyond over-literalism, for reading this passage as stating that both the devil and those who follow him are in the condition described by the seemingly oxymoronic conjunction "captivity and power."
The logic is simple enough. The devil tempts people to be evil and sinful, and is himself evil and sinful; therefore, whatever condition the devil himself is in, those who fall into his snare will tend toward that same condition. If Being Evil has given the devil great power, we can assume that people can also acquire great power by Being Evil. Likewise, if sin leads to captivity, we can assume that the devil, as the sinner par excellence, is also in a state of captivity. In other words, it doesn't make sense that the very same course of action should lead to power when pursued by the devil but only to captivity when pursued by anyone else.
Against this line of reasoning, there is the possibility that the arch-tempter is not also the arch-sinner -- that, like any reasonably competent pusher, the devil knows better than to get high on his own supply -- that he suckers people into committing sins that he himself isn't stupid enough to commit, thus bringing them into captivity while maintaining his own freedom.
There clearly has to be some truth to this. The devil can't possibly be the exemplar of every vice in the same way that God is arguably the exemplar of every virtue. A slothful devil couldn't be bothered to actually tempt people, for example, while a cowardly one would never have defied God in the first place. One of the litany of names applied to the devil in Revelation 12:9 is "the great," and I think we must concede that there is a sense in which he lives up to that title. If the devil were a mere nogoodnik, a congeries of vices, a contemptible sin-ridden fleabag of a spirit, he would be of no account, and there would be no need for us to so much as take notice of his existence. Fallen angels do not become vermin but dragons, roaring lions seeking whom they may devour.
But for all that, there is also a sense in which the devil is contemptible. As Lehi puts it in the Book of Mormon passage quoted above, "he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself." I think in the end we must insist on the literal aptness of the phrase captivity and power.
To try to get a handle on this, I tried to think of other instances of "captivity and power" occurring together, and the first example that came to mind was the beast of burden. A draft ox is an immensely powerful animal, a ton and a half of pure muscle, but it nevertheless lives in captivity. Or, considering political power rather than muscular strength, we might think of a tyrant, reigning with blood and horror, hated by his people and obeyed out of fear alone. How much freedom does such a man, living under the constant threat of assassination or revolution, really have? What choice does he have to bar himself up in a virtual prison, surrounded by guards? What choice does he have but to rule with conspicuous brutality, lest any show of weakness embolden his enemies? Or, coming closer to our Satanic theme, we might consider anyone who has made a Faustian bargain of the kind reportedly offered to Jesus: "All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me" (Matthew 4:9). "The captivity and power of the devil": The devil offers power, but only on condition of captivity.
I invite you to read the rest of William's excellent post here.