[This is taken from Augustine Calmet's Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010. Copyright as such.]
We read in works, published and printed, composed by Catholic authors of our days, that it is proved by reason, that possessions of the demon are naturally impossible, and that it is not true, in regard to ourselves and our ideas, that the demon can have any natural power over the corporeal world; that as soon as we admit in the created wills a power to act upon bodies, and to move them, it is impossible to set bounds to it, and that this power is truly infinite.
They maintain that the demon can act upon our souls simply by means of suggestion; that it is impossible the demon should be the physical cause of the least external effect; that all the Scripture tells us of the snares and stratagems of Satan signifies nothing more than the temptations of the flesh and concupiscence; and that to seduce us, the demon requires only mental suggestions. His is a moral, not a physical power; in a word, that the demon can do neither good nor harm; that his might is naught; that we do not know if God has given to any other spirit than the soul of man the power to move the body; that, on the contrary, we ought to presume that the wisdom of God has willed that pure spirits should have no commerce with the body; they maintain moreover that the pagans never knew what we call bad angels and demons.
All these propositions are certainly contrary to Scripture, to the opinions of the Fathers, and to the tradition of the Catholic Church. But these gentlemen do not trouble themselves about that; they affirm that the sacred writers have often expressed themselves according to the opinions of their time, whether because the necessity of making themselves understood forced them to conform to it, or that they themselves had adopted those opinions. There is, say they, more likelihood that several infirmities which the Scripture has ascribed to the demon had simply a natural cause; that in these places the sacred authors have spoken according to vulgar opinions; the error of this language is of no importance.
The prophets of Saul, and Saul himself, were never what are properly termed Prophets; they might be attacked with those (fits) which the pagans call sacred. You must be asleep when you read, not to see that the temptation of Eve is only an allegory. It is the same with the permission given by God to Satan to tempt Job. Why wish to explain the whole book of Job literally, and as a true history, since its beginning is only a fiction? It is anything but certain that Jesus Christ was transported by the demon to the highest pinnacle of the temple.
The Fathers were prepossessed on one side by the reigning ideas of the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato on the influences of mean intelligences, and on the other hand by the language of the holy books, which to conform to popular opinions often ascribed to the demon effects which were purely natural. We must then return to the doctrine of reason to decide on the submission which we ought to pay to the authority of the Scriptures and the Fathers concerning the power of the demons.
The uniform method of the Holy Fathers in the interpretations of the Old Testament is human opinion, whence one can appeal to the tribunal of reason. They go so far as to say that the sacred authors were informed of the Metempsychosis, as the author of the Book of Wisdom, chap. viii. 19, 20: "I was an innocent child, and I received a good spirit; and as I was already good, I entered into an uncorrupted body."
Persons of this temper will certainly not read this work of ours, or, if they do read it, it will be with contempt or pity. I do not think it necessary to refute those paradoxes here; the Bishop of Senez has done it with his usual erudition and zeal, in a long letter printed at Utrecht in 1736. I do not deny that the sacred writers may sometimes have spoken in a popular manner, and in accordance with the prejudice of the people. But it is carrying things too far to reduce the power of the demon to being able to act upon us only by means of suggestion; and it is a presumption unworthy of a philosopher to decide on the power of spirits over bodies, having no knowledge, either by revelation or by reason, of the extent of the power of angels and demons over matter and human bodies. We may exceed due measure by granting them excessive power, as well as in not according them enough. But it is of infinite importance to Religion to discern justly between what is natural, or supernatural, in the operations of angels and demons, that the simple may not be left in error, nor the wicked triumph over the truth, and make a bad use of their own wit and knowledge, to render doubtful what is certain, and deceiving both themselves and others by ascribing to chance or illusion of the senses, or a vain prepossession of the mind, what is said of the apparitions of angels, demons, and deceased persons; since it is certain that several of these apparitions are quite true, although there may be a great number of others that are very uncertain, and even manifestly false.
I shall therefore make no difficulty in owning that even miracles, at least things that appear such, the prediction of future events, movements of the body which appear beyond the usual powers of nature, to speak and understand foreign languages unknown before, to penetrate the thoughts, discover concealed things, to be raised up, and transported in a moment from one place to another, to announce truths, lead a good life externally, preach Jesus Christ, decry magic and sorcery, make an outward profession of virtue; I readily own that all these things may not prove invincibly that all who perform them are sent by God, or that these operations are real miracles; yet we cannot reasonably suppose the demon to be mixed up in them by God's permission, or that the demons or the angels do not act upon those persons who perform prodigies, and foretell things to come, or who can penetrate the thoughts of the heart, or that God himself does not produce these effects by the immediate action of his justice or his might.
The examples which have been cited, or which may be cited hereafter, will never prove that man can of himself penetrate the sentiments of another, or discover his secret thoughts. The wonders worked by the magicians of Pharaoh were only illusion; they appeared, however, to be true miracles, and passed for such in the eyes of the King of Egypt and all his court. Balaam, the son of Beor, was a true Prophet, although a man whose morals were very corrupt.
Pomponatius writes that the wife of Francis Maigret, savetier of Mantua, spoke divers languages, and was cured by Calderon, a physician, famous in his time, who gave her a potion of Hellebore. Erasmus says also that he had seen an Italian, a native of Spoletta, who spoke German very well, although he had never been in Germany; they gave him a medicine which caused him to eject a quantity of worms, and he was cured so as not to speak German any more.
Le Loyer, in his Book of Specters, avows that all those things appear to him much to be doubted. He rather believes Fernel, one of the gravest physicians of his age, who maintains that there is not such power in medicine, and brings forward as an instance the history of a young gentleman, the son of a Knight of the Order, who being seized upon by the demon, could be cured neither by potions, by medicines, nor by diet (i. e. fasting), but who was cured by the conjurations and exorcisms of the church.
As to the reality of the return of souls, or spirits, and their apparitions, the Sorbonne, the most celebrated school of theology in France, has always believed that the spirits of the defunct returned sometimes, either by the order and power of God, or by his permission. The Sorbonne confessed this in its decisions of the year 1518, and still more positively the 23d of January, 1724. Nos respondemus vestræ petitioni animas defunctorum divinitus, seu divinâ virtute, ordinatione aut permissione interdum ad vivas redire exploratum esse. Several jurisconsults and several sovereign companies have decreed that the apparition of a deceased person in a house could suffice to break up the lease. We may count it for much, to have proved to certain persons that there is a God whose providence extends over all things past, present, and to come; that there is another life, that there are good and bad spirits, rewards for good works, and punishments after this life for sins; that Jesus Christ has ruined the power of Satan; that he exercised in himself, in his apostles, and continues to exercise in the ministers of his church, an absolute empire over the infernal powers; that the devil is now chained; he may bark and threaten, but he can bite only those who approach him, and voluntarily give themselves up to him.
We have seen in these parts a woman who followed a band of mountebanks and jugglers, who stretched out her legs in such an extraordinary manner, and raised up her feet to her head, before and behind, with as much suppleness as if she had neither nerves nor joints. There was nothing supernatural in all that; she had exercised herself from extreme youth in these movements, and had contracted the habit of performing them.
St. Augustine speaks of a soothsayer whom he had known at Carthage, an illiterate man, who could discover the secrets of the heart, and replied to those who consulted him on secret and unknown affairs. He had himself made an experiment on him, and took to witness St. Alypius, Licentius, and Trygnius, his interlocutors, in his dialogue against the Academicians. They, like him, had consulted Albicerius, and had admired the certainty of his replies. He gives us an instance—a spoon which had been lost. They told him that some one had lost something; and he instantly, without hesitation, replied that such a thing was lost, that such a one had taken it, and had hid it in such a place, which was found to be quite true.
They sent him a certain quantity of pieces of silver; he who was charged to carry them had taken away some of them. He made the person return them, and perceived the theft before the money had been shown to him. St. Augustine was present. A learned and distinguished man, named Flaccianus, wishing to buy a field, consulted the soothsayer, who declared to him the name of the land, which was very extraordinary, and gave him all the details of the affair in question. A young student, wishing to prove Albicerius, begged of him to declare to him what he was thinking of; he told him he was thinking of a verse of Virgil; and, as he then asked him which verse it was, the diviner repeated it instantly, though he had never studied the Latin language.
This Albicerius was a scoundrel, as St. Augustine says, who calls him flagitiosum hominem. The knowledge which he had of hidden things was not, doubtless, a gift of heaven, any more than the Pythonic spirit which animated that maid in the Acts of the Apostles whom St. Paul obliged to keep silence. It was then the work of the evil spirit.
The gift of tongues, the knowledge of the future, and power to divine the thoughts of others, are always adduced, and with reason, as solid proofs of the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit; but if the demon can sometimes perform the same things, he does it to mislead and induce sin, or simply to render true prophecies doubtful; but never to lead to truth, the fear and love of God, and the edification of those around. God may allow such corrupt men as Balaam, and such rascals as Albicerius, to have some knowledge of the future, and secret things, and even of the hidden thoughts of men; but he never permits their criminality to remain unrevealed to the end, and so become a stumbling-block for simple or worthy people. The malice of these hypocritical and corrupt men will be made manifest sooner or later by some means; their malice and depravity will be found out, by which it will be judged, either that they are inspired only by the evil spirit, or that the Holy Spirit makes use of their agency to foretell some truth, as he prophesied by Balaam, and by Caïphas. Their morals and their conduct will throw discredit on them, and oblige us to be careful in discerning between their true predictions and their bad example. We have seen hypocrites who died with the reputation of being worthy people, and who at bottom were scoundrels—as for instance, that curé, the director of the nuns of Louviers, whose possession was so much talked of.
Jesus Christ, in the Gospel, tells us to be on our guard against wolves in sheep's clothing; and, elsewhere, he tells us that there will be false Christs and false prophets, who will prophesy in his name, and perform wonders capable of deceiving the very elect themselves, were it possible. But he refers us to their works to distinguish them.
To apply all these things to the possessed nuns of Loudun, and to Mademoiselle de Ranfaing, even to that girl whose hypocrisy was unmasked by Mademoiselle Acarie, I appeal to their works, and their conduct both before and after.
God will not allow those who sincerely seek the truth to be deceived.
A juggler will guess which card you have touched, or even simply thought of; but it is known that there is nothing supernatural in that, and that it is done by the combination of the cards according to mathematical rules. We have seen a deaf man who understood what they wished to say to him by simply observing the motion of the lips of those who spoke. There is nothing more miraculous in this than in two persons conversing together by signs upon which they have agreed.
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