The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled Was Convincing the World He Didn’t Exist

Christopher McQuarrie? Charles Baudelaire? Kevin Spacey? Verbal Kint? Keyser Söze? John Wilkinson? William Ramsey? John Fletcher Hurst? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The 1995 movie “The Usual Suspects” contains a memorable line spoken by a guileful character about the existence or non-existence of the Devil.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

Apparently, the prominent French literary figure Charles Baudelaire said something similar. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Charles Baudelaire did write a story that appeared in the Paris newspaper “Le Figaro” in 1864 that included a comparable statement. The precise citation is given further below.

Interesting precursors occurred even earlier; for example, the 1836 book “Quakerism Examined” by John Wilkinson contained the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

One of the artifices of Satan is, to induce men to believe that he does not exist: another, perhaps equally fatal, is to make them fancy that he is obliged to stand quietly by, and not to meddle with them, if they get into true silence.

In 1856 “Spiritualism, a Satanic Delusion, and a Sign of the Times” by Pastor William Ramsey included this passage: 2

One of the most striking proofs of the personal existence of Satan, which our times afford us, is found in the fact, that he has so influenced the minds of multitudes in reference to his existence and doings, as to make them believe that he does not exist; and that the hosts of Demons or Evil Spirits, over whom Satan presides as Prince, are only the phantacies of the brain, some halucination of mind. Could we have a stronger proof of the existence of a mind so mighty as to produce such results?

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1864 “Le Figaro” published the tale “Le Joueur Généreux” (“The Generous Gambler”) by Charles Baudelaire. The main character meets and converses with a manifestation of the Devil. Here is an excerpt in French: 3

Elle ne se plaignit en aucune façon de la mauvaise réputation dont elle jouit dans toutes les parties du monde, m’assura qu’elle était, elle-même, la personne la plus intéressée à la destruction de la superstition, et m’avoua qu’elle n’avait eu peur, relativement à son propre pouvoir, qu’une seule fois, c’était le jour où elle avait entendu un prédicateur, plus subtil que le reste du troupeau humain, s’écrier en chaire: « Mes chers frères, n’oubliez jamais, quand vous entendrez vanter le progrès des lumières, que la plus belle des ruses du Diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas! »

Here is the same excerpt from a translation by Arthur Symons published in 1918 in “The English Review”. Baudelaire referred to the Devil using the feminine pronoun “elle” and the masculine pronoun “il” in different sections of the story. Within the excerpt above Baudelaire primarily employed “elle”, but English translators have used “he” instead of “her”. The original text contained the mistaken phrase “your hear” instead of “you hear”: 4

He complained in no way of the evil reputation under which he lived, indeed, all over the world, and he assured me that he himself was of all living beings the most interested in the destruction of Superstition, and he avowed to me that he had been afraid, relatively as to his proper power, once only, and that was on the day when he had heard a preacher, more subtle than the rest of the human herd, cry in his pulpit: “My dear brethren, do not ever forget, when your hear the progress of lights praised, that the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that they don’t exist!”

Here is a 1919 translation by Joseph T. Shipley: 5

He did not in any way bemoan the bad reputation which he enjoys in all parts of the world, assured me that he himself was the person most interested in the destruction of superstition, and confessed that he had never feared for his own power save once, on the day when he had heard a preacher, more subtle than his colleagues, cry from the pulpit: “My dear brethren, never forget, when you hear the progress of wisdom vaunted, that the cleverest ruse of the Devil is to persuade you he does not exist!”

In 1948 “LIFE” magazine published a piece titled “The Devil” by Whittaker Chambers which included an instance of the saying: 6

Baudelaire, that old flower of evil, was right: ‘The Devil’s cleverest wile is to make men believe that he does not exist.’

In 1984 a reporter with “The Los Angeles Times” spoke to Jeffrey Russell, a professor of medieval history at UC Santa Barbara, who referenced the saying: 7

“I like to quote from Baudelaire,” he retaliated. “‘The prettiest trick of the devil is to make us believe he doesn’t exist.'”

Christopher McQuarrie wrote the screenplay of the 1995 movie “The Usual Suspects”. Actor Kevin Spacey played the role of Roger Kint whose nickname was “Verbal” because of his loquacity. During a pivotal scene Verbal described a mysterious demonic figure named Keyser Söze: 8

Nobody ever believed he was real. Nobody ever knew him or saw anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Söze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

The line about the Devil was accentuated when it was repeated near the end of the film.

In conclusion, Charles Baudelaire may be credited with the statement he wrote in “Le Joueur Généreux”. Yet, similar remarks were already in circulation. John Wilkinson published a version in 1836, but the notion is difficult to trace and earlier instances probably exist. Christopher McQuarrie’s version harks back to Baudelaire’s statement.

Image Notes: Portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Emile Deroy circa 1844; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Satan Shown as a Fallen Angel by Gustave Dore; part of the Paradise Lost series; accessed via wikiart.org. Images have been cropped and resized.

(This question emerged from a discussion of “The Usual Suspects”. Thanks to discussants Jonathan Lighter, Wilson Gray, Dan Goncharoff, Laurence Horn, Ron Butters, Amy West, Joel S. Berson, Dave Hause, and Federico Escobar.)

Notes:

  1. 1836, Quakerism Examined: In a Reply to the Letter of Samuel Tuke by John Wilkinson, Chapter 4: Is the Sacrifice of Christ Held in Proper Estimation by the Society of Friends?, Quote Page 239 and 240, Thomas Ward and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1856, Spiritualism, a Satanic Delusion, and a Sign of the Times by William Ramsey (Pastor of the Cedar Street Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia), Chapter 2: The Case Stated, Quote Page 33, Edited by H. L. Hastings, Published by H. L. Hastings, Peace Dale, Rhode Island. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. Date: February 7, 1864, Newspaper: Le Figaro, Story Collection: Le Spleen de Paris, Story: Le Joueur Généreux, Author: Charles Baudelaire, Start Page 4, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Newspaper Location: Paris, France. (Gallica of Bibliothèque Nationale de France at gallica.bnf.fr) link
  4. 1918 November, The English Review, Edited by Austin Harrison, Volume 27, The Generous Gambler by Charles Baudelaire, Translated from French by Arthur Symons, Start Page 354, Quote Page 355, Published at 19 Garrick Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1919, Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry by Charles Baudelaire, Edited by T. R. Smith, Series: The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books, Story: The Generous Player, Translated by Joseph T. Shipley, Start Page 80, Quote Page 82, Boni and Liveright, New York. (Verified with scans) link
  6. 1948 February 2, LIFE, The Devil by Whittaker Chambers, Start Page 77, Quote Page 81, Time Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View)
  7. 1984 October 31, The Los Angeles Times, Section 5: View, Article: Is Satan Real? Scholar Weighs the Baloney and the Brimstone (Continuation title: SATAN: Expert Sifts Fiendish Fact, Fiery Fiction), Author: Paul Dean (Times Staff Writer), Start Page 1, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  8. YouTube video, Title: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist, Uploaded on April 30, 2009, Uploaded by: iPhilR, (Quotation starts at 0 minute 4 seconds of 3 minutes 2 seconds) (Video excerpt from the 1995 movie “The Usual Suspects” Phrase spoken by Kevin Spacey as Verbal) (Accessed on youtube.com on March 19, 2018)