Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


This Balthazar Bekker, a very good man, a great enemy of the everlasting hell and the devil, and a still greater of precision, made a great deal of noise in his time by his great book, “The World Bewitched.”

One Jacques-George de Chaufepied, a pretended continuator of Bayle, assures us that Bekker learned Greek at Gascoigne. Niceron has good reasons for believing that it was at Franeker. This historical point has occasioned much doubt and trouble at court.

The fact is that in the time of Bekker, a minister of the Holy Gospel — as they say in Holland — the devil was still in prodigious credit among divines of all sorts in the middle of the seventeenth century, in spite of the good spirits which were beginning to enlighten the world. Witchcraft, possessions, and everything else attached to that fine divinity, were in vogue throughout Europe and frequently had fatal results.

A century had scarcely elapsed since King James himself — called by Henry IV. Master James — that great enemy of the Roman communion and the papal power, had published his “Demonology” (what a book for a king!) and in it had admitted sorceries, incubuses, and succubuses, and acknowledged the power of the devil, and of the pope, who, according to him, had just as good a right to drive Satan from the bodies of the possessed as any other priest. And we, miserable Frenchmen, who boast of having recovered some small part of our senses, in what a horrid sink of stupid barbarism were we then immersed! Not a parliament, not a presidential court, but was occupied in trying sorcerers; not a great jurisconsult who did not write memorials on possessions by the devil. France resounded with the cries of poor imbecile creatures whom the judges, after making them believe that they had danced round a cauldron, tortured and put to death without pity, in horrible torments. Catholics and Protestants were alike infected with this absurd and frightful superstition; the pretext being that in one of the Christian gospels it is said that disciples were sent to cast out devils. It was a sacred duty to put girls to the torture in order to make them confess that they had lain with Satan, and that they had fallen in love with him in the form of a goat. All the particulars of the meetings of the girls with this goat were detailed in the trials of the unfortunate individuals. They were burned at last, whether they confessed or denied; and France was one vast theatre of judicial carnage.

I have before me a collection of these infernal proceedings, made by a counsellor of the Parliament of Bordeaux, named De Langre, and addressed to Monseigneur Silleri, chancellor of France, without Monseigneur Silleri’s having ever thought of enlightening those infamous magistrates. But, indeed, it would have been necessary to begin by enlightening the chancellor himself. What was France at that time? A continual St. Bartholomew — from the massacre of Vassy to the assassination of Marshal d’Ancre and his innocent wife.

Will it be believed that in the time of this very Bekker, a poor girl named Magdalen Chaudron, who had been persuaded that she was a witch, was burned at Geneva?

The following is a very exact summary of the procés-verbal of this absurd and horrid act, which is not the last monument of the kind:

“Michelle, having met the devil as she was going out of the town, the devil gave her a kiss, received her homage, and imprinted on her upper lip and her right breast the mark which it is his custom to affix on all persons whom he recognizes as his favorites. This seal of the devil is a small sign-manual, which, as demonological jurisconsults affirm, renders the skin insensible.

“The devil ordered Michelle Chaudron to bewitch two girls; and she immediately obeyed her lord. The relatives of the young women judicially charged her with devilish practices, and the girls themselves were interrogated and confronted with the accused. They testified that they constantly felt a swarming of ants in certain parts of their bodies, and that they were possessed. The physicians were then called in, or at least those who then passed as physicians. They visited the girls and sought on Michelle’s body for the devil’s seal, which the procés-verbal calls the satanic marks. They thrust a large needle into the spot, and this of itself was a grievous torture. Blood flowed from the puncture; and Michelle made known by her cries that satanic marks do not produce insensibility. The judges, seeing no satisfactory evidence that Michelle Chaudron was a witch, had her put to the torture, which never fails to bring forth proofs. The unfortunate girl, yielding at length to the violence of her tortures, confessed whatever was required of her.

“The physicians again sought for the satanic mark. They found it in a small dark spot on one of her thighs. They applied the needle; but the torture had been so excessive that the poor, expiring creature scarcely felt the wound; she did not cry out; therefore the crime was satisfactorily proved. But, as manners were becoming less rude, she was not burned until she had been hanged.”

Every tribunal in Christian Europe still rings with similar condemnations; so long did this barbarous imbecility endure, that even in our own day, at Würzburg, in Franconia, there was a witch burned in 1750. And what a witch! A young woman of quality, the abbess of a convent! and in our own times, under the empire of Maria Theresa of Austria!

These horrors, by which Europe was so long filled, determined Bekker to fight against the devil. In vain was he told, in prose and verse, that he was doing wrong to attack him, seeing that he was extremely like him, being horribly ugly; nothing could stop him. He began with absolutely denying the power of Satan; and even grew so bold as to maintain that he does not exist. “If,” said he, “there were a devil, he would revenge the war which I make upon him.”

Bekker reasoned but too well in saying that if the devil existed he would punish him. His brother ministers took Satan’s part and suspended Bekker; for heretics will also excommunicate; and in the article of cursing, Geneva mimics Rome.

Bekker enters on his subject in the second volume. According to him, the serpent which seduced our first parents was not a devil, but a real serpent; as Balaam’s ass was a real ass, and as the whale that swallowed Jonah was a real whale. It was so decidedly a real serpent, that all its species, which had before walked on their feet, were condemned to crawl on their bellies. No serpent, no animal of any kind, is called Satan, or Beelzebub, or devil, in the Pentateuch. There is not so much as an allusion to Satan. The Dutch destroyer of Satan does, indeed, admit the existence of angels; but at the same time he assures us that it cannot be proved by reasoning. “And if there are any,” says he, in the eighth chapter of his second volume, “it is hard to say what they are. The Scripture tells us nothing about their nature, nor in what the nature of a spirit consists. The Bible was made, not for angels, but for men; Jesus was made a man for us, not an angel.”

If Bekker has so many scruples concerning angels, it is not to be wondered at that he has some concerning devils; and it is very amusing to see into what contortions he puts his mind in order to avail himself of such texts as appear to be in his favor and to evade such as are against him.

He does his utmost to prove that the devil had nothing to do with the afflictions of Job; and here he is even more prolix than the friends of that holy man.

There is great probability that he was condemned only through the ill-humor of his judges at having lost so much time in reading his work. If the devil himself had been forced to read Bekker’s “World Bewitched” he could never have forgiven the fault of having so prodigiously wearied him.

One of our Dutch divine’s greatest difficulties is to explain these words: “Jesus was transported by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” No text can be clearer. A divine may write against Beelzebub as much as he pleases, but he must of necessity admit his existence; he may then explain the difficult texts if he can.

Whoever desires to know precisely what the devil is may be informed by referring to the Jesuit Scott; no one has spoken of him more at length; he is much worse than Bekker.

Consulting history, where the ancient origin of the devil is to be found in the doctrine of the Persians, Ahrimanes, the bad principle, corrupts all that the good principle had made salutary. Among the Egyptians, Typhon does all the harm he can; while Oshireth, whom we call Osiris, does, together with Isheth, or Isis, all the good of which he is capable.

Before the Egyptians and Persians, Mozazor, among the Indians, had revolted against God and become the devil, but God had at last pardoned him. If Bekker and the Socinians had known this anecdote of the fall of the Indian angels and their restoration, they would have availed themselves of it to support their opinion that hell is not perpetual, and to give hopes of salvation to such of the damned as read their books.

The Jews, as has already been observed, never spoke of the fall of the angels in the Old Testament; but it is mentioned in the New.

About the period of the establishment of Christianity a book was attributed to “Enoch, the seventh man after Adam,” concerning the devil and his associates. Enoch gives us the names of the leaders of the rebellious and the faithful angels, but he does not say that war was in heaven; on the contrary, the fight was upon a mountain of the earth, and it was for the possession of young women.

St. Jude cites this book in his Epistle: “And the angels, which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day . . . . Woe unto them, for they have gone in the way of Cain. . . . And Enoch, also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these. . . . .”

St. Peter in his second Epistle alludes to the Book of Enoch when he says: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness . . . .”

Bekker must have found it difficult to resist passages so formal. However, he was even more inflexible on the subject of devils than on that of angels; he would not be subdued by the Book of Enoch, the seventh man from Adam; he maintained that there was no more a devil than there was a book of Enoch. He said that the devil was imitated from ancient mythology, that it was an old story revived, and that we are nothing more than plagiarists.

We may at the present day be asked why we call that Lucifer the evil spirit, whom the Hebrew version, and the book attributed to Enoch, named Samyaza. It is because we understand Latin better than Hebrew.

But whether Lucifer be the planet Venus, or the Samyaza of Enoch, or the Satan of the Babylonians, or the Mozazor of the Indians, or the Typhon of the Egyptians, Bekker was right in saying that so enormous a power ought not to be attributed to him as that with which, even down to our own times, he has been believed to be invested. It is too much to have immolated to him a woman of quality of Würzburg, Magdalen Chaudron, the curate of Gaupidi, the wife of Marshal d’Ancre, and more than a hundred thousand other wizards and witches, in the space of thirteen hundred years, in Christian states. Had Belthazar Bekker been content with paring the devil’s nails, he would have been very well received; but when a curate would annihilate the devil he loses his cure.

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