Enlightenment vs. Superstition — the Legacy of Balthasar Bekker

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The seventeenth century was both a beginning and an end — the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and the end of the age of persecution of people for witchcraft. At the start of the century, the fear of witches political opportunism of certain leaders allowed for the persecution of people for witchcraft all over Europe. Even King James VI of Scotland (James I of England) took a personal interest in witchcraft trial proceedings). He personally took part in the proceedings against accused witch Agnes Sampson in 1591. James VI of Scotland considered witchcraft to be a branch of theology. His interest in the subject led to his publishing a philosophical treatise on the subject, called Daemonologie (1597) — the only book on demonology written by a reigning monarch. In the history of demonology, this work ranks behind only the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches, 1487) in popularity. The Malleus Maleficarum was written by Heinrich Kramer, perhaps the worst incel in Western history as an expression of misogyny under the guise of zealous religiousity. James VI’s treatise differed in that he was an educated monarch who wanted to avoid innocent people being convicted (though this was not always the way the work was read by the public). His was a view which contained the beginnings of Enlightenment skepticism, though not pursued to very great an extent.

James VI of Scotland was a figure who straddled two worlds: that of early modern Europe and early modern Europe. The Enlightenment was in its infancy. The first great thinker of the age, Francis Bacon, was producing his ground-breaking works in England at the time. By the end of the seventeenth century, witch trials went into serious decline. Yes, there were the famous trial in Salem, Massachusetts but they broke the power of the Puritans and reflected earlier perspectives which were disappearing in Europe. Throughout the course of the eighteenth century, executions for witchcraft ended in most of Europe. The fight against superstition found one of its strongest voices in the seventeenth century Dutch minister Balthasar Bekker (1634–1698). Bekker took on witchcraft and other forms of popular superstition and even questioned the devil’s existence — something which led to his deposition from the ministry.

Bekker was a freethinker, though not an atheist as many religious leaders characterized him at the time. He was heavily influenced by the philosopher Rene Descartes. Historian Jonathan Israel has written extensively on the Enlightenment, specializing in the Dutch Enlightenment. He has characterized the seventeenth century as, essentially, split philosophically between the views of Descartes and Spinoza. Moreover, Israel places greater emphasis on the seventeenth century as the dynamic century of Enlightenment philosophy. Bekker argued, in his 1668 work De philosophia Cartesiana that theology and philosopher are separate and that one should not try to understand one through use of the other. It should be noted that, by philosophy, he was referring to empiricism and much of what we would now call ‘science.’ This work established Bekker as a notable intellectual of the time. He was building on important intellectual currents. In 1660, several English natural philosophers (including Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke) came together to establish the Royal Society. Among the core tenants of this organization (building on the legacy of Francis Bacon) was that its members would focus only on what could be tested during their meetings. Whatever metaphysical views they held were to be left at the door and not interfere with experimentation. The existence or nonexistence of a god was not to be addressed.

Balthasar Bekker produced his most controversial work in the 1690s, near the end of his life — The World Bewitched (1691). In this text, Bekker attacked popular superstition, sorcery, demonic possession, witchcraft, and questioned the existence of the devil. This was deeply controversial at the time and led to him being branded an atheist. Bekker was instrumental in undermining the credibility of witch trials and provided intellectual justification for ending the practice, though this did not put a stop to the trials over night. Indeed, witchcraft trials themselves took another century to largely die out in Europe.

In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Voltaire praised Bekker as an early voice of toleration and sanity fighting backward views. For Voltaire, the importance of Bekker’s work was to serve a larger critique of the backward, absolutist French state of his own time.

“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.”…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.” -Voltaire, from ‘The Works of Voltaire, Vol. III (Philosophical Dictionary Part 1)’ (1764)

In the above quote, one can see Voltaire was also criticizing the use of judicial torture, common in France during the time. The voice of Bekker was being championed by the most prominent voice of the French Enlightenment, though conditions in France meant that he had to flee that country several times and was not allowed to stay in Paris for much of his life. In his critique of superstition, Bekker was a century ahead of his time. His work The World Bewitched (1691) superseded the problematic treatise by James VI as the main authority on demonology — an area of study debunked by Bekker. In short, Balthasar Bekker was the Michael Shermer of his day. The World Bewitched was the original Skeptic Magazine.

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