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Monday, January 04, 2016

Magical thinking: the history of science, sorcery and the spiritual

"The Book of Magic: from Antiquity to the Enlightenment by Brian Copenhaver invites us to reflect on the long history of magic in culture." summarizes Rowan Williams, Anglican prelate, theologian and poet. He writes on books for the New Statesman

Photo: New Statesman

Sir James Frazer still casts a long shadow. The wonderful intellectual fugue that is Frazer’s Golden Bough, the 12 volumes of its definitive edition published mostly in the years leading up to the First World War, continues to influence the terms in which great tracts of cultural history are understood – not least in its celebrated genealogy of magic, religion and science. Human culture advances from the magical world-view, explored in such loving (if disapproving) detail by Frazer, towards religion, in which the crudities of magic begin to be purged by moral maturity, en route to the triumph of science.

There is still an assumption in popular writing about religion and science that this is our best way of understanding intellectual history: as a journey from ignorant and inept ways of comprehending how the world works, and how best we manipulate it, towards the objective explanatory scheme of modern scientific analysis. Yet matters are not so simple, as Frazer himself recognised. In practice, “magic” and “religion” as Frazer defines them are inseparably intertwined, to the degree that both assume the existence of invisible agencies that may perhaps be persuaded or coaxed into acting in a particular way. At the same time, magic is more like science in also taking for granted a scheme of things in which effects infallibly follow causes. To this extent at least, “magic has paved the way for science”, says Frazer; and (in the unmistakable voice of Victorian-Edwardian Cambridge) he also argues that it helped to save the world from the tyranny of the uneducated multitude by making a place for the independence and power of the expert – even if this wasn’t the right sort of expertise to win a Trinity prize fellowship in the 1890s.

The Book of Magic:
from Antiquity to the Enlightenment.

So problems of definition are likely to be naggingly insistent in The Book of Magic: from Antiquity to the Enlightenment. Brian Copenhaver, a seasoned scholar of late-antique and Renaissance occultism based at the University of California, Los Angeles, in effect refuses to be drawn: following that formidable 20th-century English anthropologist, E E Evans-Pritchard, he settles, more or less, for magic being what “magicians” say it is, rather than pining for a definition of its essence that raises too many questions about evolutionary philosophies or ideological baggage. As such, the selection of absorbing texts in this book covers biblical miracles, Platonic cosmology, alchemy, witchcraft and a good deal more. A single section may include highly technical extracts from Renaissance discussions of natural sympathies and the proper use of the symbolic continuities between the heavens and the earth as well as the prurient and paranoid fantasies of clerical witch-hunters.

This makes for a varied diet but not for much of a clearly organised narrative; and the brief introductory notes to sections and individual extracts are sometimes allusive and telegraphic to the point of being impenetrable. It seems ungracious to question the principles of selection, given the immense range of material that could be drawn upon, and Copenhaver’s exceptional familiarity with it. But I could not quite see why, say, the Latin writer Apuleius is represented with only an extract from his Defence, but no mention of his comic masterpiece, The Golden Ass, one of our best sources for late-antique folklore around magic and witchcraft. Nor is it obvious why a longish extract from Paradise Lost is included, when the same writer’s Comus might tell us more of the younger Milton’s fascination with and anxiety about liberty, nature, magic and sexuality. We have extracts from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream but not Macbeth, a far more “realistic” evocation of how Shakespeare’s contemporaries imagined magical practice. And we miss out on some of the recurrent fables of the Middle Ages about great “magicians” – Gerbert of Aurillac (historically a brilliant mathematician who, surprisingly, became pope in 999), the 13th-century Michael Scot (another mathematician) and, of course, Roger Bacon – the Franciscan friar renowned for supposedly creating a speaking oracle in the form of a “brazen head”. Part of the story of magic is to do with what the semi-educated medieval public thought was weird or suspect, from maths to metallurgy.
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Source: New Statesman

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