Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Hypochondriacal and epileptic persons, and women laboring under hysterical affections, have always been considered the victims of evil spirits, malignant demons and divine vengeance. We have seen that this disease was called the sacred disease; and that while the physicians were ignorant, the priests of antiquity obtained everywhere the care and management of such diseases.

When the symptoms were very complicated, the patient was supposed to be possessed with many demons — a demon of madness, one of luxury, one of avarice, one of obstinacy, one of short-sightedness, one of deafness; and the exorciser could not easily miss finding a demon of foolery created, with another of knavery.

The Jews expelled devils from the bodies of the possessed, by the application of the root barath, and a certain formula of words; our Saviour expelled them by a divine virtue; he communicated that virtue to his apostles, but it is now greatly impaired.

A short time since, an attempt was made to renew the history of St. Paulin. That saint saw on the roof of a church a poor demoniac, who walked under, or rather upon, this roof or ceiling, with his head below and his feet above, nearly in the manner of a fly. St. Paulin clearly perceived that the man was possessed, and sent several leagues off for some relics of St. Felix of Nola, which were applied to the patient as blisters. The demon who supported the man against the roof instantly fled, and the demoniac fell down upon the pavement.

We may have doubts about this history, while we preserve the most profound respect for genuine miracles; and we may be permitted to observe that this is not the way in which we now cure demoniacs. We bleed them, bathe them, and gently relax them by medicine; we apply emollients to them. This is M. Pome’s treatment of them; and he has performed more cures than the priests of Isis or Diana, or of anyone else who ever wrought by miracles. As to demoniacs who say they are possessed merely to gain money, instead of being bathed, they are at present flogged.

It often happened, that the specific gravity of epileptics, whose fibres and muscles withered away, was lighter than water, and that they floated when put into it. A miracle! was instantly exclaimed. It was pronounced that such a person must be a demoniac or sorcerer; and holy water or the executioner was immediately sent for. It was an unquestionable proof that either the demon had become master of the body of the floating person, or that the latter had voluntarily delivered himself over to the demon. On the first supposition the person was exorcised, on the second he was burned. Thus have we been reasoning and acting for a period of fifteen or sixteen hundred years, and yet we have the effrontery to laugh at the Kaffirs.

In 1603, in a small village of Franche-Comté, a woman of quality made her granddaughter read aloud the lives of the saints in the presence of her parents; this young woman, who was, in some respects, very well informed, but ignorant of orthography, substituted the word histories for that of lives (vies). Her step-mother, who hated her, said to her in a tone of harshness, “Why don’t you read as it is there?” The girl blushed and trembled, but did not venture to say anything; she wished to avoid disclosing which of her companions had interpreted the word upon a false orthography, and prevented her using it. A monk, who was the family confessor, pretended that the devil had taught her the word. The girl chose to be silent rather than vindicate herself; her silence was considered as amounting to confession; the Inquisition convicted her of having made a compact with the devil: she was condemned to be burned, because she had a large fortune from her mother, and the confiscated property went by law to the inquisitors. She was the hundred thousandth victim of the doctrine of demoniacs, persons possessed by devils and exorcisms, and of the real devils who swayed the world.

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