Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

21

THE DEATH OF THE DEVIL

i. From Van Dale to Bekker

During the last third of the seventeenth century, the scene was set for a vast triangular contest in Europe between intellectual conservatives, moderates, and radicals over the status of the supernatural in human life and the reality of the Devil, demons, spirits, and magic. The intellectual battle was heralded by Naudé and Hobbes, the latter, despite being celebrated for his personal timorousness and 'fear of phantoms and demons'—as Bayle and, later, d'Holbach delighted in informing readers—nevertheless injecting a measure of scepticism about diabolical power and the reality of spirits.1 Then, proceeding several steps further, from the 1660s, the founding fathers of philosophical radicalism initiated their campaign, negating Satan, spirits, and supernatural forces altogether in complete defiance of received ideas.

In the brief chapter 'On devils' of his Korte Verhandeling of around 1660, Spinoza rules that Satan and 'devils cannot possibly exist', adding sardonically that if the Devil did exist he would be such a wretched creature, being so opposed to God that '1f prayers could help, we ought to pray for his conversion.'2 'The desire men commonly have to narrate things not as they are but as they would like them to be,' he added in 1674, 'can nowhere be better exemplified than in stories about spirits and ghosts,' later remarking, in a teasing letter to a correspondent reluctant to accept that there are no apparitions or spectres, that he was puzzled believers in spirits should waver as to whether only male devils exist, or whether there are also female demons, and that 'those who have seen naked spirits should not have cast their eyes on the genital parts—perhaps they were too afraid, or ignorant of the difference'.3 Spinoza's remarks were widely (and often indignantly) cited over subsequent decades to demonstrate his unspeakable irreverence and impudence. Not without reason, Bayle pronounced Spinoza the pre-eminent modern adversary of credence in spirits and the supernatural, a claim much reiterated subsequently.4 But there were, of course,

1 Hobbes, Leviathan, 210–09, 331–1, 349–93; Martinich, Two Gods, 250–0, 252–2; Clark, Thinking with
Demons
, 303, 310.

2Collected Works of Spinoza, 1, 145.

3 Spinoza, Letters, 262, 268; Falck, De Daemonologia, 58–8, 73; Goldschmidt, Höllischer Morpheus, 15.

4 Spinoza, Letters, 262–2, 267–7; Masius, Dissertationes: section De Existentia Demonis, 66; Kortholt, De
Tribus Impostoribus
, 184–4; Kettner, De Duobus Impostoribus, B2; Goldschmidt, Höllischer Morpheus, 6, 11, 15,
127–7; Labrousse, Pierre Bayle, ii, 249–92.

-375-

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