Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Magic is a more plausible science than astrology and the doctrine of genii. As soon as we began to think that there was in man a being quite distinct from matter, and that the understanding exists after death, we gave this understanding a fine, subtile, aerial body, resembling the body in which it was lodged. Two quite natural reasons introduced this opinion; the first is, that in all languages the soul was called spirit, breath, wind. This spirit, this breath, this wind, was therefore very fine and delicate. The second is, that if the soul of a man had not retained a form similar to that which it possessed during its life, we should not have been able after death to distinguish the soul of one man from that of another. This soul, this shade, which existed, separated from its body, might very well show itself upon occasion, revisit the place which it had inhabited, its parents and friends, speak to them and instruct them. In all this there is no incompatibility.

As departed souls might very well teach those whom they came to visit the secret of conjuring them, they failed not to do so; and the word “Abraxa,” pronounced with some ceremonies, brought up souls with whom he who pronounced it wished to speak. I suppose an Egyptian saying to a philosopher: “I descend in a right line from the magicians of Pharaoh, who changed rods into serpents, and the waters of the Nile into blood; one of my ancestors married the witch of Endor, who conjured up the soul of Samuel at the request of Saul; she communicated her secrets to her husband, who made her the confidant of his own; I possess this inheritance from my father and mother; my genealogy is well attested; I command the spirits and elements.”

The philosopher, in reply, will have nothing to do but to demand his protection; for if disposed to deny and dispute, the magician will shut his mouth by saying: “You cannot deny the facts; my ancestors have been incontestably great magicians, and you doubt it not; you have no reason to believe that I am inferior to them, particularly when a man of honor like myself assures you that he is a sorcerer.”

The philosopher, to be sure, might say to him: “Do me the pleasure to conjure up a shade; allow me to speak to a soul; change this water into blood, and this rod into a serpent.”

The magician will answer: “I work not for philosophers; but I have shown spirits to very respectable ladies, and to simple people who never dispute; you should at least believe that it is very possible for me to have these secrets, since you are forced to confess that my ancestors possessed them. What was done formerly can be done now; and you ought to believe in magic without my being obliged to exercise my art before you.”

These reasons are so good that all nations have had sorcerers. The greatest sorcerers were paid by the state, in order to discover the future clearly in the heart and liver of an ox. Why, therefore, have others so long been punished with death? They have done more marvellous things; they should, therefore, be more honored; above all, their power should be feared. Nothing is more ridiculous than to condemn a true magician to be burned; for we should presume that he can extinguish the fire and twist the necks of his judges. All that we can do is to say to him: “My friend, we do not burn you as a true sorcerer, but as a false one; you boast of an admirable art which you possess not; we treat you as a man who utters false money; the more we love the good, the more severely we punish those who give us counterfeits; we know very well that there were formerly venerable conjurors, but we have reason to believe that you are not one, since you suffer yourself to be burned like a fool.”

It is true, that the magician so pushed might say: “My conscience extends not so far as to extinguish a pile without water, and to kill my judges with words. I can only call up spirits, read the future, and change certain substances into others; my power is bounded; but you should not for that reason burn me at a slow fire. It is as if you caused a physician to be hanged who could cure fever, and not a paralysis.”

The judges might, however, still reasonably observe: “Show us then some secret of your art, or consent to be burned with a good grace.”

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