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The Supernatural

One of the many subjects Defoe discussed in his writings is the existence of spirits or ghosts. He said that the Bible itself speaks of them, so there’s no reason to disbelieve in their existence. At the same time, in an age when belief in superstitions, folklore and the occult were common, Defoe cautions those who are inclined to see ghosts where none exist.

In addition to Defoe’s natural interest in the topic, Novak [need ref /pgs] suggests another reason for Defoe’s writing three large works on the subject within two years. The early eighteenth century saw the rise of controversies over the deist writings of John Toland and other heresies that diminished or denied the role of the mysterious and the spiritual in Christianity. In arguing for a devil who dwells among humans, who is present wherever someone is engaging in evil acts, Defoe is refuting the heresies that would reduce the Old Testament to an allegory or set up reason as a substitute for faith.

Defoe argues against these heresies in many other works, including various periodicals and his New Family instructor , but it is in these works on the supernatural that he focuses on the mystical side of Christianity.

True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal Title Page
A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next Day after her Death: to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury. The 8th of September, 1705. London: Printed for B. Bragg, at the Black Raven in Pater-Noster-Row, 1706.

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A pamphlet relating a story that was in circulation in Canterbury in late 1705. The text is presented as having been dictated to a Justice of the Peace in Maidstone by a neighbor of Mrs. Bargrave, who told her the story of how her long-time friend Mrs. Veal (whom she hadn’t seen in years) appeared to her one day, only to discover that Mrs. Veal had in fact died the day before.

Defoe uses the story for two things: to argue for the existence of spirits and to urge people “to consider, That there is a Life to come after this, and a Just God, who will retribute to every one according to the Deeds done in the Body; and therefore, to reflect upon our Past course of Life we have led in the World....”


Political History of the Devil Title Page
The Political History of the Devil, as well Ancient as Modern: in Two Parts. Part I. Containing a State of the Devil’s Circumstances, and the various Turns of his Affairs, from his Expulsion out of Heaven, to the Creation of Man; with Remarks on the several Mistakes concerning the Reason and Manner of his Fall. Also his Proceedings with Mankind ever since Adam, to the first Planting of the Christian Religion in the World. Part II. Containing his more private Conduct, down to the Present Times: his Government, his Appearances, his Manner of Working, and the Tools he works with. London: Printed for T. Warner, at the Black Boy in Pater-noster Row, 1726.

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Begins with a humorous “Dedication” in which Defoe wonders whom he ought to dedicate the work to. It doesn’t seem fit to dedicate it to God; and though it might seem proper to dedicate it to the Devil, he’s not sure the Devil would appreciate it, so he dedicates it to no one.


Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions Title Page
An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions. Being an Account of what they are, and what they are not; whence they come, and whence they come not. As also how we may Distinguish between the Apparitions of Good and Evil Spirits, and how we ought to Behave to them. With a great Variety of Surprizing and Diverting Examples, never Publish’d before. London, 1727.

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In the introduction, Defoe remarks that “between our Ancestors laying too much stress upon them, and the present Age endeavoring wholly to explode and despise them, the World seems hardly ever to have come at a right Understanding about them.” Defoe is attempting here both to assert the reality of apparitions and of the devil as well as to play down the frequency at which these beings make themselves known in the world. He provides many anecdotes about those who have seen and interacted with an apparition, giving his judgment as to whether the ghosts in each account are likely real or imaginary, for he says, “our Hypochondriack People see more Devils at noon-day than Gallilaeus did Stars, and more by many than ever really appear’d” (394).


System of Magick Title Page
A System of Magick; or, a History of the Black Art. Being an Historical Account of Mankind’s most early Dealing with the Devil; and how the Acquaintance on both Sides first began. London, 1727 [i.e., 1726].

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Defoe again begins with a humorous preface, in which he explains that if anyone was expecting, based on the title, to find a work of science, “a Book of Rules for Instruction in the Practice, or a Magical Grammar for Introduction to young Beginners, all I can say to such is, that they will be mistaken.”

The work is instead a history of the practice of magic, beginning in ancient times and traced down to the present day. He explains how the Magi first came to deal with the Devil, and how the Devil has continued to insinuate himself throughout history, appearing to and deceiving men with false signs and wonders.


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