1. Demons have played, in all ages, a conspicuous part in the various theogonies; and, although their hold on the general imagination is somewhat loosened at the present day, the influence which so many people still attribute to them suffices to render the question of their existence and nature one of no little importance, because it touches the very groundwork of religious belief; for which reason it behooves us to examine this question with all the carefulness demanded by its scope and bearing.
The belief in a power superior to itself is instinctive in the human mind, and it is consequently found under different forms in all ages of the world. But if, notwithstanding the higher degree of intellectual advancement which men have reached at the present day, they are still disputing about the nature and attributes of that power, how much more imperfect must have been their notions concerning it in the infancy of the human race!
2. The picture that has been drawn of the innocence of the primitive peoples of the globe, absorbed in appreciative contemplation of the beauties of nature, is undoubtedly very poetic, but it lacks truthfulness.
The nearer human beings are to the state of nature, the more completely are they under the sway of instinct, as is still the case with savages and barbarians of the present day; what interests such individuals most, or rather, what interests them exclusively, is the satisfaction of their physical needs, for they have no others. The special sense which alone can render them susceptible of mental pleasures is only developed gradually and in the course of time; the soul has its infancy, its youth, and its maturity, like the human body; but, in order to attain to the maturity which fits it for the comprehension of things of an abstract nature, how many evolutions must it accomplish in the human form! Through how many existences must it work out its progressive development!
Without going back to the earliest ages, we have only to look around us upon the rustics of our rural regions, in order to satisfy ourselves as to the amount of admiration awakened in their minds by the splendors of sunrise, the sublimity of the starry sky, the warbling of the birds, the murmur of the brook, the beauty of the meadows enameled with flowers! Their only thought about the rising of the sun is that it rises because it is in the habit of doing so, and, provided it gives heat enough to ripen the crops and not enough to burn them up, that is all they think about the matter. If they look up in the sky, it is to see what sort of weather they are likely to have on the morrow; whether the birds sing or not is all one to them, so long as they do not devour their grain; they prefer the clucking of their hens and the grunting of their pigs to the song of the nightingale; all they ask of the brook, be it clear or muddy, is not to dry up and not to overflow their fields, and, if these only yield good grass for their cattle and sheep, they care nothing whatever about the flowers; the success of their farming operations is all they ask – it is all they understand – of Nature; and yet they are already very far above the level of the primitive races!
3. If we carry back our thought to the latter, we find them still more exclusively absorbed in the satisfying of their physical wants; what sub-serves this end, and what contravenes it, constitutes for them the entire sum of “good” and of “evil.” They believe in the existence of a superhuman power; but, as they are most impressed by whatever causes them some physical or worldly injury, they attribute all such occurrences to that power, of which, nevertheless, they have only a very vague idea.
Not being yet capable of conceiving of anything beyond the visible and tangible world, they imagine that power to reside in the beings and the things that are injurious to them. They therefore, regard ferocious or mischievous animals as being the direct and natural representatives of the occult power that they recognize without understanding it. For the same reason, whatever is useful to them is regarded as being the personification of a beneficent power; hence the worship rendered to certain animals, to certain plants, and even to inanimate objects. But humankind, as a general rule, are more keenly alive to evil than good; whatever is beneficial seems to them to be perfectly natural, whereas what is injurious seems to them abnormal and consequently affects them more sensibly. For this reason we find, in all the primitive forms of worship, that the ceremonies in honor of the maleficent power are much more numerous than those which are performed in honor of the beneficent one, the empire of fear in the primitive mind, being much stronger than that of gratitude.
For a long time, the human race knew nothing of “good” or “evil” excepting as connected with physical conditions; the awakening of the perception of moral good and moral evil marked the attainment of a new degree of progress by the human intellect. It was only when this step had been made that the human mind obtained a glimpse of spirituality, and began to understand that the superhuman power does not reside in any of the objects of the material universe, but exists outside the boundaries of the visible and the tangible. This conviction was arrived at by the most advanced intelligences of the ancient world; but even those intelligences were unable to carry their speculations and inductions beyond certain narrow limits.
4. As, on the other hand, human beings perceived the fact of an incessant struggle between good and evil and saw that the latter frequently triumphed over the former, and as, on the other hand, they could not rationally admit that evil was the work of a beneficent power, they naturally concluded that there were two rival powers, sharing between them the government of the world. Thence arose the doctrine of the two principles, that of good and that of evil; a doctrine reasonable for the period in which it took its rise, for the human mind had not then acquired the capacity of conceiving of anything higher, and of divining the existence of the Supreme Being as beyond, and above, the strife of opposing principles. How could such primitive humans have possibly understood that evil is only a passing phase from which a greater good is to be developed, and that the evils which afflict the human race must necessarily lead it on to happiness, by compelling it to move forward on the path of progress? The narrowness of their mental horizons prevented them seeing anything beyond their present lives, either before or behind them; they could neither comprehend that they had already progressed nor that they would continue to progress; still less could they see that the vicissitudes of life are the result of the imperfections of the spiritual being which animates the body, which is pre- existent to and survives the external form, and that it is the destiny of this being to refine itself by passing through a series of successive existences until it has attained to the state of perfect purity. In order to comprehend that good can be brought out of evil, it is necessary to see more than a single existence and to contemplate the career of the soul in its totality; for it is only this broad view of the matter that can enable us to comprehend the causes and the effects of the vicissitudes of human existence.
5. The recognition of the two principles of good and evil constituted, during many ages and under different names, the basis of all the religious creeds of the world. These two principles were personified under various names, as Oromaze and Ahriman among the Persians, Jehovah and Satan among the Hebrews, etc. But, as every sovereign must have his Ministers, all those creeds admitted the existence of secondary powers, or genii, of which some were supposed to be good and others to be evil. The Pagans personified these genii in an innumerable multitude of individualities, each of whom possessed special attributes of vice or of virtue, and all of whom were classed under the generic name of “gods.” The Hebrews personified these secondary powers under the designations of “angels” and “devils,” which have been subsequently borrowed from them by the Christians and Muslims.
6. The doctrine of devils or demons, then, has grown out of the ancient belief in the two principles of good and evil. We will examine that doctrine only from the Christian point of view, and inquire whether, as embodied in the creed of Christendom, that doctrine is conformable with the clearer knowledge that, at the present day, we have acquired in relation to the attributes of the Divine Being.
The idea which we form to ourselves of those attributes is necessarily the starting-point, the basis, of our religious belief; dogmas, modes of worship, ceremonies, usages, codes of morality, all are shaped by the idea, more or less true, more or less lofty, which we make to ourselves of God, from the lowest form of fetishism to the purest conception of Christianity. Although the essential nature of the Divine Being is still a mystery unfathomable to our human intelligence, it is nonetheless true that, thanks to the teachings of Christ, we are able to form for ourselves a clearer conception of the moral attributes of that Being than was possible in the earlier period of the world’s development. Those teachings, in accordance with the inductions of reason, assure us that: –
God is one, unique, eternal, unchangeable, non-material, almighty, sovereignly just and good, infinite in His perfections.
As we have shown elsewhere (chap. VI. Eternal Punishment, Item 10), “The attributes of God, being infinite, are not susceptible of increasing or of diminishing; otherwise, they would not be infinite, and God would not be perfect. If the smallest particle were taken from any one of God’s attributes, God would no longer be God, for there might be some other being more perfect than the one we call God.” These attributes, in their most complete and absolute plentitude, are therefore the criteria of all religions, the test of the truth of each of the doctrines taught by them. No doctrine of any religious creed can be true if it were in contradiction with any of the perfections of God. Let us see whether the doctrine of demons, as commonly taught by the various churches of Christendom, can stand the application of this test.