Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The doctrines of judicial astrology and magic have spread all over the world. Look back to the ancient Zoroaster, and you will find that of the genii long established. All antiquity abounds in astrologers and magicians; such ideas were therefore very natural. At present, we smile at the number who entertained them; if we were in their situation, if like them we were only beginning to cultivate the sciences, we should perhaps believe just the same. Let us suppose ourselves intelligent people, beginning to reason on our own existence, and to observe the stars. The earth, we might say, is no doubt immovable in the midst of the world; the sun and planets only revolve in her service, and the stars are only made for us; man, therefore, is the great object of all nature. What is the intention of all these globes, and of the immensity of heaven thus destined for our use? It is very likely that all space and these globes are peopled with substances, and since we are the favorites of nature, placed in the centre of the universe, and all is made for man, these substances are evidently destined to watch over man.

The first man who believed the thing at all possible would soon find disciples persuaded that it existed. We might then commence by saying, genii perhaps exist, and nobody could affirm the contrary; for where is the impossibility of the air and planets being peopled? We might afterwards say there are genii, and certainly no one could prove that there are not. Soon after, some sages might see these genii, and we should have no right to say to them: “You have not seen them”; as these persons might be honorable, and altogether worthy of credit. One might see the genius of the empire or of his own city; another that of Mars or Saturn; the genii of the four elements might be manifested to several philosophers; more than one sage might see his own genius; all at first might be little more than dreaming, but dreams are the symbols of truth.

It was soon known exactly how these genii were formed. To visit our globe, they must necessarily have wings; they therefore had wings. We know only of bodies; they therefore had bodies, but bodies much finer than ours, since they were genii, and much lighter, because they came from so great a distance. The sages who had the privilege of conversing with the genii inspired others with the hope of enjoying the same happiness. A skeptic would have been ill received, if he had said to them: “I have seen no genius, therefore there are none.” They would have replied: “You reason ill; it does not follow that a thing exists not, which is unknown to you. There is no contradiction in the doctrine which inculcates these ethereal powers; no impossibility that they may visit us; they show themselves to our sages, they manifest themselves to us; you are not worthy of seeing genii.”

Everything on earth is composed of good and evil; there are therefore incontestably good and bad genii. The Persians had their peris and dives; the Greeks, their demons and cacodæmons; the Latins, bonos et malos genios. The good genii are white, and the bad black, except among the negroes, where it is necessarily the reverse. Plato without difficulty admits of a good and evil genius for every individual. The evil genius of Brutus appeared to him, and announced to him his death before the battle of Philippi. Have not grave historians said so? And would not Plutarch have been very injudicious to have assured us of this fact, if it were not true?

Further, consider what a source of feasts, amusements, good tales, and bon mots, originated in the belief of genii!

There were male and female genii. The genii of the ladies were called by the Romans little Junos. They also had the pleasure of seeing their genii grow up. In infancy, they were a kind of Cupid with wings, and when they protected old age, they wore long beards, and even sometimes the forms of serpents. At Rome, there is preserved a marble, on which is represented a serpent under a palm tree, to which are attached two crowns with this inscription: “To the genius of the Augusti”; it was the emblem of immortality.

What demonstrative proof have we at present, that the genii, so universally admitted by so many enlightened nations, are only phantoms of the imagination? All that can be said is reduced to this: “I have never seen a genius, and no one of my acquaintance has ever seen one; Brutus has not written that his genius appeared to him before the battle of Philippi; neither Newton, Locke, nor even Descartes, who gave the reins to his imagination; neither kings nor ministers of state have ever been suspected of communing with their genii; therefore I do not believe a thing of which there is not the least truth. I confess their existence is not impossible; but the possibility is not a proof of the reality. It is possible that there may be satyrs, with little turned-up tails and goats’ feet; but I must see several to believe in them; for if I saw but one, I should still doubt their existence.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01