Astrology, the Flu, and Free Will

One highly influential form of divination in the ancient world, which also had a major impact on the casting of spells and creation of charms, was astrology. The ancients, whether Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman, all paid close attention to the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. They regarded this seven “wandering stars” in particular as divine entities whose movements had a powerful effect on earthly creatures. To a very great extent, Medieval European Christians inherited this perspective.

To many people today, especially those who have had enough of nonsensical Facebook posts about zodiac signs and personality types, the idea that the planets can affect our lives seems ridiculous. As Bailey points out, however, it is actually quite intuitive:

“That astral bodies imparted energies that could influence terrestrial ones was hardly an outlandish idea—one had only to note how the moon influenced tides or more basically how the rising sun warmed the air to be convinced of this fact. That the planet Mars could impart martial energies or that the power of Venus somehow facilitated amorous attraction or sexual fertility was widely accepted in the Middle Ages, and much more serious intellectual effort was spent working out exactly how these various forces operated. Although learned astrologers sometimes made predictions about the future, they would hardly have considered themselves diviners or magicians. Rather, they would have presented themselves as wise men and philosophers exploring the forces of nature.”[1]

In addition to tidal forces and solar heat, I would also add that skeptics should ask a nurse about working during a full moon.

As Medievals tangled with the precise workings of the influence of the stars on earthly life, they were quick to note that this influence was not direct. Lewis in The Discarded Image has an excellent passage on this:

“In accordance with the principle of devolution or mediation the influences do not work upon us directly, but by first modifying the air. As Donne says in The Exstasie, ‘On man heaven’s influence works not so But first it imprints the air.’ A pestilence is caused originally by malefical conjunctions of planets, as when

Kinde herde tho Conscience and cam out of the planetes And sente forth his forayers, fevers and fluxes.

(Piers Plowman, C. XXIII, 80.)

But the bad influence operates by being literally ‘in the air.’ Hence when a medieval doctor could give no more particular cause for the patient’s condition he attributed it to ‘this influence which is at present in the air.’ If he were an Italian doctor he would doubtless say questa influenza. The profession has retained this useful word ever since.”[2]

That’s right. When you say you have the flu, you’re actually taking part in an old tradition of ascribing airborne maladies to the influence of the planets. You astrologer, you.

Objections

So how did we get here? Clearly the Church no longer regards astrology as kosher. How did this happen?

The answer is partly that the Church always had certain objections to astrology, or at least to the abuse of it. Lewis outlines three of these objection:

“(1) Against the lucrative, and politically undesirable, practice of astrologically grounded predictions.

(2) Against astrological determinism…

(3) Against practices that might seem to imply or encourage the worship of planets—they had, after all, been the hardiest of all the Pagan gods.”[3]

Of these three objections, it was the second that caused the most debate among Medieval philosophers and theologians. Lewis devotes more room to this problem than either of the others, and Bailey concurs in regarding it as a highly problematic issue:

“The difficulty lay in rescuing some acceptable systems of astrology from the condemnations of earlier authorities, and from the dilemma that the determinative power of astrological forces seemed to conflict with the important Christian notion of human free will.”[4]

Christianity presents a notion of human responsibility, and an emphasis on moral decision-making, that seems reliant on some notion of free will. After all, if King David was compelled to sin with Bathsheba due to the lascivious influences of Venus, how can he be held accountable for his actions? How can Abraham be praised for his faithfulness when it was merely the stars that decreed his actions?

Here Christian theology and Medieval science appeared to be in conflict, and it took centuries to work out something like an acceptable solution. Bailey points to Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280) as the first to propose this solution, but it was his pupil, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who explained it as part of his masterful theological system which determined the course of the rest of Medieval European thought.[5] It is to Aquinas we will turn in the next section, exploring the Medieval solution to this conundrum.

Free Will and the Stars

In order to understand Aquinas’s explanation, we have to place ourselves in the Medieval mindset. To begin with, the distinction between material bodies and immaterial “intellectual substances” is important. In his Compendium of Theology¸ Aquinas begins his explanation of the influence with the stars by acknowledging the way higher bodies impact lower bodies:

“Among intellectual substances, therefore, some are divinely governed by others, that is, the lower by the higher. Similarly lower bodies are controlled, in God’s plan, by higher bodies. Hence every movement of lower bodies is caused by the movements of heavenly bodies. Lower bodies acquire forms and species from the influence thus exercised by heavenly bodies, just as the intelligible exemplars of things descend to lower spirits through higher spirits.”[6]

The way intelligible exemplars descend through spirits is not important. What is significant here is the simple acknowledgment that all material objects “lower down,” that is, towards the earth, are moved and shaped by heavenly bodies. The stars, being physical, effect physical things on earth. This might present a problem if one particular thing were not kept in mind:

“Furthermore, impressions left in lower bodies from the impact of heavenly bodies are natural. Therefore, if the operations of the intellect and will resulted from the impression made by heavenly bodies, they would proceed from natural instinct. And so man would not differ in his activity from other animals, which are moved to their actions by natural instinct. And thus free will and deliberation and choice and all perfections of this sort, which distinguish man from other animals, would perish.”[7]

So Aquinas succinctly states the problem: if the stars, through their actions on the physical things of the earth, also control our will and intellect, then we have no free will, no powers of deliberation, and are not to be distinguished from the animals. This is a high-stakes issue. All Biblical anthropology hangs on it.

Before we can take the next step with Aquinas, we have to step deeper into Medieval natural philosophy. Modern Christians tend to have a pretty simplistic explanation of what the soul is and what it does. Medievals had a more complex understanding. After acknowledging that man is a “rational animal,” that is, a living and moving being with the capacity to reason, C. S. Lewis goes on to explain the complexities of the human soul:

“Rational Soul, which gives man his peculiar position, is not the only kind of soul. There are also Sensitive Soul and Vegetable Soul. The powers of Vegetable Soul are nutrition, growth, and propagation. It alone is present in plants. Sensitive Soul, which we find in animals, has these powers but has sentience in addition. It thus includes and goes beyond Vegetable Soul, so that a beast can be said to have two levels of soul, Sensitive and Vegetable, or a double soul, or even—though misleadingly—two souls. Rational Soul similarly includes Vegetable and Sensitive, and adds reason.”[8]

All three kind or levels of soul are immaterial, but each Rational Soul in particular is directly created by an act of God, whereas as lower level souls possessed by animals and plants arise due to the inner workings of natural—though spiritual—forces.[9]

Just as our bodies have particular “faculties,” or abilities, such as a hand being capable of grasping or of punching or of lightly touching, so our souls have different faculties. Lewis goes on to describe two faculties of the rational soul in particular—intellect (intellectus) and reasoning (ratio):

“We are enjoying intellectus when we ‘just see’ a self-evident truth; we are exercising ratio when we proceed step by step to prove a truth which is not self-evident. A cognitive life in which all truth can simply be ‘seen’ would be the life of an intelligentia, an angel. A life of unmitigated ratio where nothing was simply ‘seen’ and all had to be proved, would presumably be impossible; for nothing can be proved if nothing is self-evident. Man’s mental life is spent in laboriously connecting those frequent, but momentary, flashes of intelligentia which constitute intellectus.”[10]

This means that man has both a faculty which completely overleaps sensory input (intellectus), and a faculty which joins these truths together and pushes them in new directions. Both these faculties belong to an immaterial part of man, one directly created by God, and not arising by natural processes. This allows Aquinas to resolve the problem of the effect heavenly bodies have on earthly ones:

“Nevertheless, since the will is not subject to the passions in such a way as necessarily to follow their enticement, but on the contrary has it in its power to repress passions by the judgment of reason, the human will is not subject to impressions emanating from heavenly bodies. It retains free judgment either to follow or to resist their attractions, as may seem to it expedient.”[11]

Thus, while man’s powers of growth, nutrition, and propagation may be effected by the heavenly bodies, or even his ability to sense the world around him, his will remains free. There is a rational core within man capable of resisting and even contradicting the influence of the heavenly bodies. Of course, not everyone has the strength of character to pull this off:

“Only the wise act thus; the masses follow the lead of bodily passions and urgings. For they are wanting in wisdom and virtue.”[12]

This has two important implications. First, astrology will still by and large be effective in predicting the general behavior of masses of humanity, even if it is not always accurate in predicting the actions of individual humans. Second, it is necessary to cultivate both wisdom and virtue to obtain true freedom from the forces of the world around you. Education, in the deeper sense of the term, is important.

The Legacy of the Solution

Aquinas, following in his teacher’s footsteps, provided a very sensible solution to the theological problem presented by the notion of astrological determinism. But while it may seem sensible, it was by no means universally accepted:

“Yet for various reasons this solution was not entirely successful. Doubts remained about the exact nature and extent of astral influence, and some authorities denied such influence altogether. The very skeptical theologian and natural philosopher Nicholas Oresme (ca. 1325-1382), for example, maintained that the astral bodies projected no forces toward the earth aside from light and heat.”[13]

In the centuries that followed, the discussion faded into obscurity. One the one hand, the issue of determinism was being fought over by Reformed theologians and Remonstrants who were much more concerned with salvation than the stars. On the other, the Copernican revolution so thoroughly altered our understanding of the structure of the solar system that the old explanations for the stars influenced the earth no longer applied. Both the theological and the scientific halves of the conundrum drifted apart into new contexts.

This calls into question just why we still object to astrology. It seems that the most obvious answer is simply that we believe it is unsupported by science. Modern natural philosophers have called the notion superstitious, and Christians have agreed with them, lumping the once respectable discipline in with tarot cards and palmistry. This objection, while perhaps more definitive, is far less interesting.

The beautiful thing about the theological conundrum that astrology presented was that it forced Christians to show how theology and science were related. For Medievals, these were not hugely divided disciplines which would never ordinarily interact. The world the Bible described and the world natural philosophy described were one in the same, and so theological issues were in fact very likely to have an impact on scientific views, and vice versa.

That, I think, is a sense of unity worth recovering—the idea that the God who made the heavens is the same God who was incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and so the truths of His world and the truths of his Word are not separate from one another. Perhaps it is good that the problem of astrological determinism died, but it also exactly the sort of theological-scientific problem we should expect to see in God’s universe.

 


[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 93-94.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image. (2009 printing from Cambridge University Press.) pg. 110.

[3] Lewis, pgs. 103-104.

[4] Bailey, pg. 98.

[5] Bailey, pg. 98.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, translated by Cyril Vollert, with New Introduction by Richard Munkelt. Angelico Press. Pg. 133/chapter 127.

[7] Aquinas, pg. 134/chapter 127.

[8] Lewis, pg. 153.

[9] Lewis, pg. 154.

[10] Lewis, pg. 157.

[11] Aquinas, pg. 135.

[12] Aquinas, pg. 135.

[13] Bailey, pg. 98.

Disenchantment and the Enchanters: Witch Hunts, the Enlightenment, and How Paradigms Fail

One thing the history of magic demonstrates is that we clearly do not live in the same intellectual universe that existed during the Renaissance. Where it was perfectly acceptable for natural philosophers to engage in occult pursuits during that time, the idea that a modern scientist would spend his time conversing with spirits or refuse to prepare certain chemicals unless Venus was in the right place in the sky is laughable. The idea of Peter Venkman is as laughable as Venkman himself.

This shift is one of the more momentous in intellectual history. The old scholars were almost by definition Christian, as the church was the primary center of learning. The new scholars take a skeptical attitude not just towards magic, but to anything that might be termed supernatural. Between them lies the period known as the Enlightenment, a time when the imaginative world of the elite underwent a process of disenchantment. Some science-minded people are apt to say the happened because we suddenly got smart, or were rationally convinced of a more naturalistic cosmos. Michael Bailey suggests that this development did not occur in so straight a line.

“Yet as I have argued throughout this chapter, while magical beliefs and practices altered and adapted to Renaissance, Reformation, and scientific thought, many magical traditions remained vibrant and provided serious competition to mechanical philosophy until the very end of the seventeenth century. The intellectual respectability of magic did not fade because new “scientific” systems provided categorically superior explanatory models that precluded the need for or proscribed the possibility of magical operations. Instead, European intellectuals seem largely to have abandoned their belief in magic first and then set about developing other models of understanding the universe that fully excluded magical forces.”[1]

This is striking. Something gave intellectuals a reason to abandon a view of the cosmos that included magic before they even had a system to replace it. Though this may not be how we are used to thinking of shifts from one view of the world to another, perhaps conceiving of something more like conversion from once complete system to another, it’s not entirely unthinkable. Just because your current beliefs have proved wrong in some way does not mean you have something waiting in the wings to replace them. Demolition often comes long before rebuilding.

With regards to scientific revolutions, the shift from one paradigm to another, there is one scholar well known for studying this phenomenon, and Bailey is quick to cite him:

“Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, rejected the notion that scientific progress invariably proceeds through steady, incremental advances. Small advances can be made as new knowledge and information about a given subject gradually accumulates, he argues, but this information is always interpreted within some overarching paradigm that governs basic understandings about the field in which the advancement is being made. These paradigms do not alter gradually under the weight of accumulated eveidence; indeed, they cannot, since all evidence is interpreted within their structure. Paradigms themselves change only through relatively sudden, dramatic ruptures.”[2]

So when it comes to the shift from a scientific paradigm that accommodates the supernatural to one that manifestly does not, we should look for two things. First, we should be able to identify a time where a “sudden, dramatic rupture” separates the old view from the new. This would be the eighteenth century Enlightenment. But we should also look for something else. Every “sudden, dramatic rupture” is built on gaps in the previous system, things that cannot be accounted for under the current paradigm:

“Every dominant paradigm has certain problems, certain information that it cannot easily accommodate. Normally these are either explained in some not wholly satisfying fashion or else they are simply ignored. The Ptolemaic, earth-centered conception of the universe, for example, could only accommodate planetary retrograde motion by the introduction of complex epicycles. Occasionally, however, radical suggestions of alternate paradigms emerge, and sometimes, as with Copernican heliocentrism, the come to supplant the earlier paradigm, producing a major revolution. Kuhn maintains, however, that new paradigms do not triumph because they objectively provide a better interpretive system than the old paradigm, at least not immediately. For example, while Copernicus’s heliocentric theory did explain some of the observed properties of astral bodies in simpler and more elegant ways than did the old Ptolemaic system, the better part of a century was to pass before the details of a heliocentric model that was objectively superior to the Ptolemaic system were worked out. During this transition, experts did throw their support behind heliocentrism because of the weight of accumulated evidence, but, Kuhn suggests, more out of aesthetic impulse and intuition than anything else.”[3]

We should therefore expect to see some problems that the old paradigm had difficulty dealing with. This would give intellectuals a reason from abandoning a worldview that allows for magic, and throwing their weight behind one that rejects the supernatural. This is where things get interesting:

“Here too we have encountered the issue of confidence in a system, namely in the area of witchcraft and particularly with witch hunting. In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many authorities lost confidence, not initially in the basic system of thought that supported the idea of witchcraft, but in the ability of legal institutions to identify and prosecute witches fairly and effectively. The previous chapter suggested that this judicial dilemma eventually led to a broader skepticism about the reality of witchcraft in general.”[4]

The previous chapter is indeed a fascinating one. It uproots many of the preconceived notions held by both proponents of modern science and modern claimants to the magical tradition. Rather than being driven by the Church or by the major authorities of Early Modern Europe, the witch trials were miscarriages of justice within local communities, whether intentional manipulations of the law for personal gain, or something like mass hysteria. It was in regions where the Church and centralized government held the least authority that the witch trials flourished. Where higher authority held tighter control over witch trials, the accused was acquitted far more often, and when convicted, was rarely executed. This is a fascinating chapter, and I hope to visit it in detail when this study returns to that period.

What is significant at the moment, however, is the way this fits with Kuhn’s paradigm:

“To rephrase this process in Kuhnian terms: the inability of courts to prosecute witches effectively was, if not an inherently incompatible anomaly, certainly a problem in an intellectual and moral paradigm that held witchcraft to be a real and terribly threatening crime. The solution of simply curtailing witch trials resolved the immediate problem but would have been intellectually unappealing and inelegant because it meant that there were horribly dangerous and destructive malefactors in the world against whom legal authorities could provide no protection. The rise of skepticism about the very existence of witches provided a more comprehensive solution. Yet because the idea of witchcraft was only one facet of European conceptions about magic, and more basically about demonic and divine power operating in the world, denial of the reality of witchcraft entailed a major shift in prevailing systems of thought and required that something like a new paradigm be accepted.”[5]

This suggestion is stunning. We often treat the period of Early Modern witch hunts as something totally unrelated to the “enlightened,” “disenchanted” era that followed, but according to Bailey, they “may have been a key factor contributing to the ultimate eighteenth century disenchantment of Europe.”[6]

An important aspect of this revelation is the fact that the problem witchcraft presented was not essentially a scientific or philosophical one, but a moral one. It made the old paradigm seem implausible not because it didn’t fit with known facts about the natural world, but because it upset the moral and political world in which Early Modern Europeans lived. Intellectual shifts, even in the natural sciences, are sometimes driven by moral and political concerns.

This is an important idea for Christians today to grasp. Many of us would like to reverse the trend of secularization in our society. We may even feel that it is necessary for our own safety and the safety of the broader Church. But if we are going to convince people that a Christ-centered way of looking at the world is worthy of consideration, and more worthy than the alternatives, we need answers to all sorts of problems—certainly to scientific ones, but also to moral and political ones.

Christian morality and politics is often not much more than red-state conservatism, or red-state libertarianism, with a few out-of-context proof verses slapped on for good measure. Our beliefs, and many of the arguments we use to defend them, are not very different from those of our secular neighbors. And not to leave anybody out, the same is true for blue-state and centrist Christianity. All of us draw on political traditions that are skin deep, no more recent than the 1960’s. Is it any wonder our secular neighbors look at our lifestyles and opinions and wonder why faith in Christ is necessary?

But Christianity has a long history of moral, political, and philosophical discussion. We have a wide range of views represented in the Church Fathers, in medieval scholastics, in Reformation and Counter-Reformation intellectuals, and in more recent Christian tradition. Behind that stands the very Word of God, not in some hodgepodge collection of discrete verses, but as a library of wisdom poetry, royal chronicles, legal documents and case studies, philosophical meditations, and examinations of the connections between the kingship of Christ and our daily lives in a world that does not recognize Him. We have resources.

Looking at the impact the Early Modern witch hunts had on European intellectual thought should shame us and spur us to action. Christianity had been firmly established in Europe for long centuries before the witch craze set in. During that time, the conception of witches as the sort of threat they appeared to be in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was nearly nonexistent. Church and secular authorities certainly saw no reason to prosecute or punish them in the way it was done in that era. Could we not have found a better solution?

Likewise, we are today confronted with a wide range of political and moral conundrums that beg for an answer. How does Christian just war theory apply to ISIS and to Syria, to the use of drones or of “enhanced interrogation” techniques? Does a historically Christian perspective on the common good call for open borders and an untrammeled free market, or are our rulers called to nurture specific communities? Does the Bible and the conversation of Christians across time call for a more nuanced alternative to that question? How are Christians to behave in nation that is hostile to their beliefs? How are we to behave if we gain power over a nation consisting of many unbelievers? Both of these questions were asked and answered over the course of centuries in the Roman Empire. We are not without resources.

The study of magic is a fascinating one. It opens up new imaginative vistas, and it sheds light on the past from new and interesting angles. While wisdom for its own sake is clearly an end worth pursuing, we should also be open to the lessons history teaches us. I took, and I hope you take, this particular lesson as a wake-up call.

[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 210-211.

[2] Bailey, 211.

[3] Bailey, 211.

[4] Bailey, 212.

[5] Bailey, 212.

[6] Bailey, 213.

Science and Magic as Twins: Bacon, Bailey, Lewis, and Malcolm

The Centrality of the Occult

For some, the history of science begins with Sir Francis Bacon. Born in 1561, and dying in 1626, he lived at the height of the witch trials in Early Modern Europe. He was not a Neoplatonist, or a Kabbalist, or any other sort of Renaissance magician. He was more or less a skeptic, advocating that we learn from nature through rigorous experimentation and close observation and recording of details. While perhaps not the father of the scientific method, his beliefs, and his rejection of more mystical explanation for natural phenomena, certainly helped lay the groundwork for modern science.

But Michael Bailey suggests that even this confirmed empiricist was not entirely free of the influence of more occult disciplines, claiming that “such works as his famous Novum Organum (The New Instrument) in 1620 had certain roots in older occult forms.”[1]

“In the Middle Ages, “books of secrets” had professed to disclose the hidden properties of natural substances, as well as providing instructions on how to unlock and employ these powers. Far from being complex theoretical treatises, these were mostly practical handbooks aimed at offering basic medical treatments for illness and injury as well as other homey recipes for practical purposes. To justify their knowledge, the authors of these works claimed simple experience—they had observed that the various concoctions, potions, and mixtures they recommended were actually effective, or they had at least heard so from reliable witnesses or had knowledge based on long tradition. Already a fairly popular genre by medieval standards, after the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century books of secrets, or, as was often the case slimmer pamphlets of secrets, flourished. The most popular such book in the early modern period, Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti, was issued in over one hundred different editions from the mid-sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century.”[2]

 

Related to these books of secrets were “cabinets of wonders.” These collections of strange and mysterious objects did not claim to lay out some systematic explanation of the forces behind the universe, but merely to point towards certain odd things which did exist. “But for natural philosophers of the period they were important tools of observation and classification; modern natural history museums have their roots in such collections.”[3] During this time period, both the curiosities found in the cabinets of wonders and the strange effects of actions outlines in books of secrets ceased to be understood as supernatural signs, miracles, or freaks of nature, and instead as “unfamiliar but usefully illustrative examples of normal natural processes.”[4]

But Bacon’s tendency to reject Neoplatonic or Hermetic systems and instead rigorously examine nature, especially through experimentation, was not merely a by-product of pseudo-occult Renaissance literary trends, or curiously secular spins on the old practice of relic-keeping. Bailey suggests that, at its base, the entire empirical project was occult:

“Baconian-style empiricism in general can actually be seen not so much as rejecting occult aspects of nature as, in a way, making them central to its conception of the natural world. Aristotelian natural philosophy had also been based on the observation of the world, but it worked essentially by categorizing animals, materials, and natural effects according to their immediately observable properties. The new philosophy held that nature did not so easily reveal her true aspect, and therefore carefully crafted observations and deliberate experimentation were required to uncover her actual workings. Like changing understandings of “wonders,” this new method can also be seen as resting on an important shift away from the idea that occult properties in nature were essentially mysterious, differing from normal natural properties, to the notion that such secrets, properly uncovered would reveal understandable elements of the natural universe. Such shifts in mentality and purpose were important, to be sure, but they represent a progression, not an absolute rupture between older magical and newer scientific systems of thought.”[5] (emphasis added)

Thus the revelation of hidden, “occult” properties in the cosmos became the work, not of Hermetic or Kabbalistic mages, but of early scientists. No longer was “occult” action something that occurred only in miracles and freaks of nature, but instead the very fabric of the universe—as central as gravity.

The Magician’s Bargain

But the heart of the matter, the thing that links science and magic, is not simply a preoccupation with hidden properties. There is a deeper motive at work, one which shapes the kind of knowledge each is seeking, and the purpose for which they seek it. To find that, let us turn to one of the great Medievalist scholars of the past century, and popular Christian author, C. S. Lewis. After making accusations similar to my own for a significant portion of The Abolition of Man, and acknowledging that they could be misconstrued as a wholesale condemnation of science, he writes the following:

“I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientists has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.”[6]

A cursory study of the history of magic, and a reading of Bailey in particular, vindicate Lewis’s historical claim that the Early Modern period was the high noon of serious magical study in the West, as well as the birthplace of science. The deeper impulse that unites, that places them within the “temper of the age,” however, is not something a historian like Bailey is likely dwell on. Instead, it takes a moralist like Lewis, who also has deep scholarly knowledge of the period, to point it out.

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise man of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”[7]

This is the essential question at the heart both of sorcery and of sorcerous magic: how can I make reality conform to my own wishes? How can I bend the natural order to serve my desires? Lewis is right to point out that this runs counter to quite a lot of ancient wisdom. Plato believed in a highly ordered universe spreading forth from a central reality, a One, and that the task of humanity was to grasp this higher reality, and to arrange his soul in such a way that it conformed with the order of the universe. The Stoics likewise believed in a fundamental order to the universe, and the importance of man recognizing that and conforming himself to it. The same can be said for eastern philosophies, like Taoism, whose uniting, ordering principle, the Tao, lends its name to Lewis’s work.

Taken this way, the tendency of ancient Greek or Mesopotamian city-states, or of the Roman empire, to designate private or alien religious practices “magic” is not mere chauvinism. At the heart of their religious systems is a believe that certain gods have the authority to arrange the universe in a certain way. Magical practice is the claim either that one can circumvent this order imposed by the gods, or that one is capable of coercing the gods themselves to reinvent it. This is far different in character than the sacrifices, rituals, and forms of divination which the gods themselves require, even if the external acts or the intended results may bear a passing resemblance.

But Lewis does not leave this connection floating in the ether. He takes one of the fathers of modern science for an illustration and drives the point home:

“If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) to Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth that he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.”[8]

This is the rotting heart of sorcerous science: we reject wisdom and reject finding our place in the order of the cosmos, and instead choose to remake the cosmos in our image. What does it matter if we appeal to demons and false gods or to specialized technical knowledge divined by experimentation? If the result of either is the overthrow of the God-ordained order of the universe, then practically the actions are the same. Both are idolatry, both are blatant disregard for God’s authority and the appeal to some other force that promises us some power or some reward in exchange for yielding up our soul, or at least our temporary worship.

Modern Magery

It would, of course, be excessive to claim that any form of technology is idolatrous or sorcerous simply because it does something that formerly could not be done without it. As Thomas Brainerd pointed out to me, it’s hardly fair to say one is engaging in idolatry by trusting the controlled explosions in our engines to get us to work rather than ripping us apart. This is a cunning use of nature, not a contradiction of it. This is a point both I and Lewis concede:

“No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements and not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.”[9]

As Lewis says, modern science certainly is driven by a certain degree of love of truth. Modern technology often unlocks the potential hidden in nature to help us do good and noble things—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, spreading and preserving wisdom. But it can and has been used for far wickeder things.

Lewis himself wrote an excellent novel called That Hideous Strength, wherein the fiercely modern antagonists use sociology and inhumane treatment to reeducate initiates, and plan to use the same supposedly scientific methods to “cure” criminals. They also engage in vivisection, the live dissection of animals for gaining scientific knowledge, a practice which Lewis himself vocally opposed.

Our own time is not lacking in examples of bad science. One of the most striking and disturbing are the experiments that involve creating human-animal hybrids.  Thusfar, such creatures are not allowed to develop and be carried to term, if such a thing were even possible, but the very existence of such a thing as mixture between animal and man overturns the natural order in a significant way. Not just Christianity, but virtually every human civilization is founded on a basic assumption that animals and humans, whatever they may have in common, are essentially different. To blend the two is a monstrosity.

Species is not the only boundary that is beginning to be crossed with regularity, however. Anyone without their head in the sand is quite aware that surgical procedures exist which are more or less capable of turning a formerly anatomically male person into a person who is anatomically female, and vice versa. Here is yet another distinction within the natural order, ratified for Christians by divine revelation, overturned by modern technical knowledge.

But both of these products of modern science are big and flashy. Other things we take for granted are also deviations from nature, whose consequences we may not fully appreciate. The existence of widespread, safe, and affordable birth control, for example, has divorced the sexual act from procreation. In the early days this was a more or less self-conscious move, an attempt to liberate women from biological constraints and place them on even footing with men in both the freedom with which they can engage in sexual activity, and in their ability to pursue a career unhindered by the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth.

Perhaps this is something to be welcomed—perhaps—but it is certainly a momentous shift in the meaning of activities and processes central to our humanity. With the advent of functioning 3D-printed ovaries and artificial wombs, the very concepts of “mother” and “father” may, at some point, conceivably be a thing of the past. This is without even directly addressing the social effects of sexual liberation.

In the field of artificial intelligence, the question of what constitutes a “person” and what our moral duties towards such artificially created “people” might be is quite an old one. More interesting to today’s transhumanist technocrats is the question of how humans might become machines, and so gain transcendence that way.  Philosophers and theologians have long debated exactly what it means to be human, and this certainly pushes the boundaries.

Our hubris, however, is not exclusive the realm of the weird. We are the civilization that das rivers, that alters their course. We invented strip mining and vast, mechanized farms employing chemicals with not fully explored properties to kill pests and preserve crops. Through deliberate action, we have, either nearly or entirely, wiped out species once as numerous as the passenger pigeon, or the buffalo. We have deforested vast stretches of continents, introduced invasive species by the dozen, blasted through mountains and hills, and in general altered the ecology of most of our world beyond recognition.

The problem here is not agriculture, nor is the building of roads or cities, but the unconscious assumption that the world is here to be exploited. That is, we believe creation was meant for us, and can be changed to conform to our will with few or no consequences. There is no order we have to respect, no natural balance to be maintained, only a series of resources we can harvest and bend to our own ends.

This is not the picture the Bible paints. Man was placed in the garden “to tend it and keep it.” The world was not made to serve him, instead he was made to be God’s image and likeness in the world, its protector, its nurturer, its sustainer and healer.  Man was not placed on this earth to exploit and dispose of it, but to beautify it and cause it to flourish, to cause order and not desolation.

Nor is this an issue that concerns the natural world alone. The buffalo were massacred in the million by the same advances in weaponry that led to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War. World War I saw the advent of the machine guns that necessitated trench warfare, of the bombs and gas that could not distinguish civilian from soldier. World War II ended with the detonation of a single weapon capable of wiping out cities, whose radioactive traces rendered environments unlivable for generations. At least as frightening is the concept of biological warfare, of bacteria and viruses crafted to kill human beings, regardless of age or sex, regardless of guilt or innocence, in vast numbers. Science has taught us to seek power not only over our own bodies or the environment, but also over the lives of others.

Something Like Repentance

Not every piece of tech is a Faustian bargain, and the march of science is not necessarily the forward march of sorcerous inhumanity. This is not a blanket condemnation of seeking knowledge of the natural world, nor of every tool which can improve human life. But it is a suggestion that perhaps we no longer care for wisdom as an end in itself, that we no longer see ourselves as part of an order created by Someone Else’s authority. To one degree or another, we are drunk with the power offered us by scientific knowledge, and to some extend our consciences have been seared by long years of self-interested exploitation of these secrets. To quote the inimitable Dr. Ian Malcolm:

It is possible, and indeed good, to subject advances in technology or scientific practice to ethical questioning. We can ask whether or a new tool or a new method—or a new experiment—comes at too high a cost, or exhibits too great a hubris in our relationship to the natural world. The Amish, of course, are very conscious of this principle. While perhaps we should not imitate them in everything, it may be wise to pay some attention to their way of thinking, which is far more complex and open to innovation than they are often given credit for. This may not be our solution, but we should at least be thinking in this direction.

I do not know what the future will look like. I’m not ready to say we’re standing on the brink of some massive, man-made ecological disaster, or that we are on the threshold of the dystopian cyberpunk future Ridley Scott and the Wachowskis tried to warn us about. But I do believe that there is an element of arrogance and idolatry in the way we approach the world which the old sorcerers would recognize. And the old stories are all consistent about one thing: if make a bargain with the devil, you have to give the devil his due. It might be good to engage in self-examination before that due date comes.

[1] Bailey, 204

[2] Bailey, 204

[3] Bailey, 204-205

[4] Bailey, 205

[5] Bailey, 205.

[6] The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 489.

[7] Lewis, 489.

[8] Lewis, 489.

[9] Lewis, 489.

Science and Sorcery: Bailey on the Scientific Revolution

Last time, I made the suggestion that the root sin of magic is also present in some kinds of science. Hudson Brainerd helpfully insisted I be more precise in my claims. This post is the first half of a two-part attempt to do so. In it, I intend to use Bailey to establish the significant overlap between scientists and magicians, and the influence of magic on science, during the Scientific Revolution. The next part will zero in on one particularly illustrative father of science, and draw on a second Medieval and Renaissance scholar to highlight the common principle at the root of both science and sorcery, as some people have practiced them.

Magicians Who Practiced Science

The Scientific Revolution occurred in era where the high magic of clerics and scholars was changing rapidly. The old magic based on the command of demons was being replaced by a new magic based on revived ancient philosophy. Among these philosophies were Neoplatonism, a modified form of Plato’s philosophy which dates from the first centuries after Christ, Heremticism, a partially Neoplatonic system based on the supposed writings of the mysterious Hermes Trismegistus, and Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism which belonged more properly to the Medieval era, but which was now gaining traction in the European mainstream.

In the midst of these new developments arose a man whom Bailey calls “probably the most significant sixteenth-century English mage.” I would add that he is one of the most well-known English mages, period. His name was John Dee. Dee was a practitioner of both Hermeticism and Kabbalah, as well as alchemy and astrology. He also attempted to communicate with angels, and claimed to have succeeded. Indeed, he produced an entire language which he claimed the angels spoke, Enochian, as well as an Enochian alphabet and mystical writings in the language. This supposedly magical tongue has enjoyed attention from later practitioners of mystic arts, and even recently featured in the film The Witch.

In his own day, Dee was quite famous. He enjoyed noble patronage, including the patronage of the royal family, among them Queen Elizabeth I. More to the point, Dee was also a student of mathematics and navigation. The time in which he lived, 1527-1608, saw the first expansion of European overseas empires, and the latter was a particularly valuable science. Mathematics, of course, is central both to astrological and nautical calculations. Dee’s preoccupation with both these hard sciences and mystical pursuits was less contradictory than it was complimentary. Ships, like men, must follow their stars. (pgs. 188-89)

Another astrologer, and Dee’s older contemporary, was the Italian Girolamo Cardano, who lived from 1501 to 1576. The connections between his mystical and scientific pursuits were perhaps far tighter than Dee’s—he was a physician who believed firmly that the stars had an effect on human health. In his early days he was a professor of medicine at the University of Bologna, but his interest in astrology led to the publication of a book of prognostications in 1534 that gained him recognition across Europe. “He was summoned from as far away as Scotland in 1552 to treat the archbishop of Edinburgh.” Along the way, he spent time in the French and English courts. Renaissance medicine and Renaissance astrology were not all perceived to be strange bedfellows. (pg. 188)

Younger than both Dee and Cardano was the Italian magician Giordano Bruno. Born in 1548, he became a Dominican at a very young age in 1563. He soon rejected the old-school Aristotelian (and Thomistic) school of thought that order clung to, and embraced Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, and even Copernicanism. This last was a significant concern of his. As we will soon see, the mystical schools of thought prevalent in the Renaissance era enthusiastically favored a heliocentric view of the cosmos. This meant Bruno had a vested interest in the outcome of this scientific controversy, and did not hesitate to take part in it. He was, however, more deeply concerned with preaching the corruption of the Christian faith, which he believed to be a false religion, and proclaiming the need for a revival of a supposedly ancient magical religion. He was burned as a heretic in 1600. (pgs. 189-190)

Scientists Who Practiced Magic

In the rather large category of Renaissance scientists who also practiced some form of magic or superstition, most were involved in alchemy.

“The basic purpose of alchemy was to transform one substance into another, most famously to change lead into gold. Like astrology, this practice rested upon certain fundamental principles of ancient and medieval natural philosophy. In the case of alchemy, the principle involved was that all matter was composed of the same four basic elements—earth, air, water, and fire—merely in different proportions that gave particular substances their varied characteristics. If the proportions of these elements could be manipulated, alchemists reasoned, any substance might be transformed into any other. Such manipulation was no easy task, but might be accomplished through long and arduous series of meltings, boilings, evaporations, refinements, sublimations, distillations, separations, and combinations of various materials. To achieve their ends, alchemists employed some of the same basic equipment as modern chemical laboratories.” (pg. 95)

These materials, as well as the four elements and various chemical processes, were frequently had astrological connections. Gold was associated with the sun, for instance, and iron with Mars, and tin with Jupiter. Lead was the province of Saturn. Thus alchemy may have used a chemist’s equipment, and many of his procedures, but there were decidedly mystical overtones both to the whole project and to the thinking behind it.

The great mind behind Renaissance alchemy was the fantastically named Philippus Areolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Later thinkers, understandably, remembered him by his pen name—Paracelsus. Paracelsus lived from 1494 to 1541. He was a medical practitioner who incorporated alchemy into his practice, and insisted that a knowledge of astrology was necessary to both disciplines. He is perhaps better remembered as the man who introduced the world to a type of creature that would later become very popular in fantasy gaming—the elemental. (pgs. 187-188)

Each element, he insisted, had a creature which rightfully belonged to it. The air was realm of sylphs, spritely little creatures composed primarily of that substance. Fire, on the other hand, was the province of salamanders, a magical lizard-like being who burned, but was not consumed. Water was the land of undines, which might be compared to both nymphs and mermaids. Finally, earth was inhabited by gnomes.

Paracelsus’s ideas were very influential on later alchemy, which is why I begin this section by introducing him. The most famous Paracelsan scientist was born over a century later, in 1627. His name was Robert Boyle, and he wrote on everything “from chemistry to physics to medicine.” He founded the Royal Society, a scientific organization which continues in England to this day. His The Skeptical Chymist sought to reform chemical and alchemical practice. One might suspect that this was a step away from alchemy’s mystical roots, but in fact he continued to attempt transmuting lead into gold and “to communicate with angels by alchemical means.” He also exchanged alchemical insights with men like John Locke and Isaac Newton. (pgs. 205-206)

Newton in particular is well known for his magical and pseudo-magical pursuits. He was, of course, and alchemist like Boyle, and very prone to experimentation. He believed that the phenomenon in alchemy known as “Diana’s Tree” was evidence that metals “possessed a sort of life.” A collection of book sold after his death indicate an interest in manufacturing the “Philosopher’s Stone.” He was a student of sacred geometry, particularly the geometry of the Temple built by King Solomon, which he believed was something of a key to the chronology of Jewish history. He was a student of Biblical chronology as well, not only outlining the past, but seeking to at least roughly determine the time of the apocalypse. Within one of these chronological studies, he even mentions the fabled sunken realm of Atlantis. John Maynard Keynes summed him up by saying, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason” but “the last of the age of magicians.” (pg. 206)

Newton is, of course, well known both for his Opticks and his co-invention of calculus. Perhaps he casts a larger shadow in scientific lore, however, for his theory of gravitation. This discovery is often painted as a golden example of science and reason overcoming ignorance and superstition. The strange thing was, however, gravitation itself was something of an occult idea. The science of the time was moving away from the idea of airy spirits and astral intellects and towards a more mechanical view of the universe. Things were supposed to act directly on other things through clearly observable motion, if one knew how to look. Then along came Newton, proposing that some invisible force reached across even vast distances to move small objects towards larger ones. Gravity, at the time, seemed like a backwards step into the positively spooky. Leibniz in particular “ridiculed the notion of gravity as a positively ‘occult’ principle.” (pg. 206)

Another “avowed Paracelsian” was the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who lived from 1546 to 1601. He kept several alchemical furnaces at his observatory, and a garden where he crafted herbal remedies in accordance with his astrological take on medical science. He was also far more empirical than Copernicus, recording a great quantity of very accurate astronomical data.

The Visible God

Among the most revolutionary moments in scientific history was the suggestion of Nicholas Copernicus that the apparently stable earth was in motion, and that it revolved about an actually stationary sun. Much as with gravity, the children of the Enlightenment have assumed that this was again a triumph of reason over antiquated dogma. Bailey suggests that there are holes in this theory:

“Because all the later major figures of the Scientific Revolution came to accept Copernicus’s theory (and, of course, because it proved to be correct), heliocentrism is often regarded as completely ‘scientific’ in a modern sense. Yet Copernicus made no significant new empirical observations to justify his theory. He used mostly old data gathered by others and previously interpreted in a solidly Ptolemaic framework. There were certain empirical problems with the earth-centered conception of the universe—for example, the retrograde motion of the planets (because of the earth’s own movement, planets sometimes appear to move backward in the night sky)—however, the Ptolemaic system had explained these inconsistencies by relatively complex but not essentially implausible means (certainly no more implausible than the notion that the earth, which so clearly seems to be immobile under our feet, is in fact whizzing through space at tremendous speed)… In fact, Copernicus’s own system was riddled with problems that took several generations to solve. It was no more accurate than the Ptolemaic system at predicting and accounting for the observed movements of the heavenly bodies and offered no satisfying explanation for planetary motion. So the Copernican heliocentric theory cannot be regarded simply as the replacement of a poor theory with an unquestionably superior, empirically supportable one.” (pg. 202)

What, then, motivated Copernicus to adopt this admittedly strange, counter-intuitive, and apparently problem-riddled model of the universe? Bailey suggests that he was motivated by Neoplatonic and Hermetic views. Both systems, perhaps drawing from Plato’s analogies in the Republic, treated the sun with great reverence, both as a literal source of light and as a symbolic source of truth and knowledge. Would it not then make sense to place the sun, rather than the lowly earth, at the center of the cosmos? To support this reading of Copernicus, Bailey quotes a section of De revolutionibus, the work wherein the astronomer set forth his radical idea:

“In the middle of all sits the Sun enthroned. In this most beautiful temple could we place this luminary in any better position from which he can illuminate the whole at once? He is rightly called the Lamp, the Mind, the Ruler of the Universe; Hermes Trismegistus names him the Visible God.” (pg. 203)

Nor was Copernicus the last to imbue the heliocentric view of the universe with Neoplatonic meaning. Johannes Kepler “was also deeply influenced by Neoplatonic traditions of cosmic harmony and mathematical simplicity and elegance.” He “worked out the mathematics of the heliocentric universe in much more detail,” for which he is remembered as another hero of the Scientific Revolution. Yet he was, Bailey reminds us, “a firm believer in astrology.” The whole history of the heliocentric model is shot through with magical associations. (pg. 203)

Such a notion may be startling to our modern sensibilities, but by now it should not surprise the reader. In the Renaissance era, magicians were heavily involved in science, and scientists in various forms of what we would call magic and superstition. They were, after all, searching for the hidden secrets of the universe. “Hidden” is merely an English word for the Latin “occultus.” How strange is it, then, that science should involve the occult?

Conclusion

By now I hope it is clear that magic and science in the Renaissance were not opposed to one another, but were often practices engaged in by the same men. Neither heliocentrism, nor gravity, nor chemistry are free of Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic associations. Perhaps part of the reason for this is already clear, in that both pursuits promise to yield the secrets of the universe to diligent practitioner. I believe, however, there is another reason the two were often found together. In my next post, I hope to explore that reason in some detail.

Magic and Authority

As Michael Bailey introduces the reader to the religious world of ancient polytheism, the modern reader is confronted with what may be a disorienting fact: they did not have a concept of magic in the same way we do. Worse, their explicitly religious and socially accepted rituals often looked very much like rituals they tended to condemn. Both involved sacrifices, set words or phrases that must be said, laws of purity that must be observed, calls on spiritual forces, and the expectation that these forces would grant the petitioner the desired outcome. But while we might be tempted to erase the distinction between ancient magic and ancient religion, Bailey insists that this would be too hasty:

“This is not to say that ancient peoples drew no distinctions between what in modern terms might be described as ‘the religious’ and ‘the magical.’ To claim that a Babylonian priest regarded the cultic rituals he performed as being akin to the charms employed by a rustic healer or the spells of some maleficent sorcerer would surely be false.” (pg. 13)

There was a very real distinction between licit and illicit rituals. But in order to understand that distinction, we have to enter into the mind of an ancient polytheist—and polytheism is exactly the significant term in this discussion.

“Most ancient peoples did not conceive of a single divine force animating the entire universe. Rather, they believed in numerous deities, both their own gods and also those of other peoples, which were usually held to be real and powerful, albeit foreign, entities. In addition to deities, most ancient cultures also believed in a wide range of lesser spiritual beings inhabiting the world.” (pg. 12)

Thus the world was alive with spiritual power, with conscious beings who wielded influence over men and nature. Some of these were powerful gods who presided over certain spheres of creation—sea gods and storm gods, love gods and death gods. Others were minor nymphs of a particular spring, or dryads connected to a specific tree. There were also, of course, tribal and civic gods—gods who were intimately connected to a city or a people, whose successes and failures were directly related to the successes and failures, or the anger and satisfaction, of the god in question.

“The Mesopotamian city-states were not simply physical territories united under a ruler; they were not purely human political units. Rather, they were essentially divine or supernatural (again, the modern terms fail to catch the full and real meaning). Amid the numerous deities recognized and worshiped by the ancient Mesopotamians, each city was typically linked to a particular patron god and his or her cult. Each was centered physically around a great temple complex in which resided the scribe-priests who represented a political and social as well as a spiritual elite. Each was ruled by a priest-king who derived his authority from the god he represented. Marduk, for example, was supereme in Babylon; Assyria was the land of the god Assur.” (pgs. 13-14)

What was true of Mesopotamian city-states was also true, with variations unique to the culture, of Greek city-states. The prosperity and even survival of the city was dependent on a right relationship with its patron gods or goddesses. There was therefore something nefarious about living in Athens, for example, while worshiping a Persian deity. It indicated a certain disloyalty to one’s community, and an attachment to another. Beyond its mere symbolic importance, however, it was also the ritual infidelity to the god, who might therefore be angered and take vengeance upon the city.

The distinction between conventional religion and condemned magic, then, is not so much the actions themselves as the forces the actions appealed to. Religion was what was done to approved deities in public places on behalf of the city, and magic was what was done to alternative gods in private on behalf of an individual.

“More central to the negative reputation that accrued around most practitioners of magical arts—whether actual magoi or homegrown agyrtai, manteis, or those called by other appellations—was the notion that their actions were private and secretive, as opposed to open and public. The civic cults of the Greek city-states operated to preserve the public welfare by maintaining proper relationships with the gods. The actions of private agents, even when they benefited those who contracted them, might serve to upset the overall harmony of the cosmos and the proper ordering of society. Ultimately, there seems to have been a clear sense in the ancient world that such power was dangerous in the hands of individuals who were unregulated and unsupervised by any official structures or institutions.” (pg. 18)

This was certainly true in Greece in Mesopotamia, and if anything, it was more true in Rome. Rome had a very strong notion of its divine destiny, a sort of pre-Christian notion of being a City on a Hill, shedding the light of justice throughout the world.

“Few ancient cultures had as clear a sense of possessing a divinely appointed destiny as did the Romans, and discerning that destiny in advance was very important to them. Superstitious divination, however, typically referred to non-Roman rites or personalized prophecy rather than the public rituals designed to determine and ensure the overall destiny of Rome.” (pg. 19)

If the gods had a plan for the Romans, it behooved the Romans to know that plan. Public divination was central to Roman religion, and central to the conduct of the Roman state. If we imagine someone reading entrails, gazing at patterns in smoke or shapes in mirrors, or casting lots, or any other divinatory activity, we are likely to imagine some sort of witch or sorcerer. For the Romans, that was likely a well-respected, high-class priest.

But if the future can be told, it’s not only the state that will want to know about it. Businessmen will want to know if their venture will be a successful one, and politicians will want to know what rivals to look out for. There will be parents hopefully divining the fates of their children, and paranoids or hypochondriacs worriedly seeking to avoid the next disaster. All these and more will doubtless make their way to skilled fortune tellers of one kind or another. What would the Romans think of them?

“Likewise, personalized prophecy was regarded as presenting a significant public danger for the Roman people. Since so much of Rome’s identity was caught up in a sense of its own trajectory to future greatness, private revelations (assumedly false or at least misleading ones) that might contradict or call into question Rome’s public destiny could corrupt the will of the citizenry.” (pg. 19-20)

Private divination was an essentially anti-social practice. A good Roman was supposed to worry about the future only insofar as it coincided with the future of the Roman people. He was not to go off seeking his own independent fortune, acting in order to further interests which might diverge significantly from the Republic as a whole. Similar things could be said for other magical or “superstitious” practices, “superstitio” being the Latin word for this unauthorized divination.

“Yet the meaning of superstition was becoming broader. Perhaps because divinatory practices were so central to the Roman public cults, superstitio gradually came to imply all forms of false or non-Roman rites. It could be applied to foreign cults, which Roman authorities typically tolerated, although they also feared that these cults would somehow sap the virtue of Roman citizens… In addition, superstitio could be applied to the improper observance of Roman cultic practices. In particular, it implied excessive observance, such as the obsessive devotions that some parents apparently paid in order to ensure that their children would not suffer untimely deaths.” (pg. 20)

Throughout the ancient cultures that stood at the roots of Western Civilization, the distinction between magic or superstition and legitimate religious practice boiled down to one central concern—are you appealing to the right gods, and are you doing so in the right way? This is, at its base, a question of authority. That is, what god or spirit has legitimate authority over the one seeking help, and over the area of life in which he seeks help? If you ignore the god who has a claim over you and turn instead to a foreign god, or a spirit within your pantheon other than your people’s patron, you are likely committing some form of magic or sorcery.

Take this rubric and apply it to a distinctly Christian context. Both Aaron and Pharaoh’s priests were able to transform staffs into snakes. Witches like the one at Endor were condemned for speaking to the dead, but Christ himself spoke to Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. Indeed, several of Christ’s miraculous healings might be mistaken for magical practice, if anyone else had done them. Consider his use of phrases like “Talitha cumi,” or the incorporation of mud and spit to heal when the Gospels are clear that he did not even need to touch someone to heal them. What separates illicit magic from legitimate use of divinely granted power?

The answer lies in the question itself: whether or not the power is indeed divinely granted. For most of Christian history, magic has been understood as functioning through the help, whether with the practitioner’s knowledge or otherwise, of demons. In the early days of the Christian Church in particular, this had to do with the way Christian authorities declared pagan gods to be lying, unclean spirits. Rites that the Romans or Greeks or Egyptians would have considered legitimate, honest worship, sacrifice, or prayer were now considered witchcraft.

This is not essentially different than the distinction the ancients made. It would be easy, then, to fall into the mistake of declaring the use of the labels “magic” or “superstition” to be merely examples of ancient chauvinism. This would be a mistake.

As Bailey points out, neither the Mesopotamian, nor the Greeks, nor the Romans necessarily objected to foreigners worshiping foreign gods. After all, in a polytheistic universe one people’s gods need not necessarily have any authority over another’s. Thus Romans allowed the cult of Isis to continue in Egypt, though they looked askance at it when it crossed the Mediterranean. Likewise, they let the Jews continued to worship Yahweh, though the same worship imported to Rome itself, whether by Jews themselves or the growing sect of Christians, was a cause for concern.

Judaism and Christianity, however, are monotheistic religions. In a polytheistic context, it might be right to let each tribe have its god, or each rock or tree or river its spirit. In a monotheistic context, however, the one God has authority over all Creation. Therefore any sort of rite designed to praise or to invoke any spirit but the one God is illegitimate in more or less the same way a Roman appealing to a Babylonian god would have been seen as illegitimate or antisocial in Rome. Sorcery is, at its base, idolatry.

This is an interesting insight in itself, but it gets more interesting when you apply the principle to realms other than the hocus-pocus of the stereotypically supernatural. It is wrong to appeal to pagan gods or spirits or occult forces for help because God alone is Lord over life and death, over one’s fortune or safety, over the fertility of your crop or the success of your business dealings, over the lives one’s children or one’s ability to attract a mate. But pagan gods are not the only things we appeal to rather than God to solve these problems.

For quite some time, Western culture has been enamored with the possibilities new technology opens up. It has brought widespread health, better diets, more efficient transportation, and whole worlds of new entertainment. We enjoy a lifestyle our ancestors could only dream of. It is perhaps not unthinkable, then, that some should look for technology to advance our power even further.

Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to change what human beings are, to fundamentally alter our natures. It promises to grant us far greater intelligence and athletic ability, to cure genetic diseases and birth defects. It wishes to help humanity escape the human condition, perhaps including death. What if aging could be cured? What if consciousness could be downloaded and stored, transcending this prisons of flesh? Alchemy could not give us the elixir of life, but perhaps only because science was not yet sufficiently advanced.

For some, technology can become like a god, promising solutions to our most difficult problems, if only we are willing to go where it takes us, however strange and unnatural that place is. Technology has worked for long years to separate sexual intercourse from reproduction, and has become more or less able to separate sex from one’s chromosomes and anatomy at birth. Such things fundamentally change what it means to exist as a human being. And with advances in our ability to manipulate genetic code, or to perform great surgical feats, things like this may be only the beginning.

If sorcery is fundamentally a question of who we turn to for help, who we believe has the power to make our lives better, then far more of us have sorcerous hearts than actively engage in pagan rituals.

Magic and Superstition in Europe

The first stop on our journey is Michael D. Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present. As its title suggests, it is a single-volume overview of anything that might be called magic, witchcraft, or superstition, beginning with the Greco-Romans and ending with the late twentieth century flourishing of Wicca. It is a good read, each chapter highly thought-provoking in its own right, and serving overall as an admirable introduction to the subject.

Having read through this once, I’m going to lay out my understanding of the history of the subject as presented in the book. In future posts, I’m going to take a single chapter or a thread and elaborate on it. There’s a lot here.

 

Do Ut Des: “Magic” in the Ancient World

 

The beginning of any history of magic has to acknowledge that the word itself has a history, and so does the concept it describes. There is no single Latin or Greek term for “magic” as we understand it, largely because they did not even have the concept. The idea of a particular sphere of ritual action separate from religion, which relied on supernatural forces to produce desired effects, that was in some sense opposed to “ordinary” mechanical or scientific ways of interacting with the world, relies on assumptions about science, religion, and the way the world works that were pretty foreign to the Greeks and the Romans.

To begin with, what we call magic would have hardly been distinguishable from ordinary pagan religious practice. In a polytheistic context, each god or goddess had his or her own sphere, and it was perfectly reasonable to appeal to them for help within that sphere. For example, one might appeal to Ceres for a good harvest, Mars for victory in war, or Poseidon for calm seas. Each of these gods likewise had their own particular rituals and appropriate sacrifices. Most gods, for example, preferred white animals, while chthonic gods such as Pluto or Hecate preferred black victims.

Roman religion in particular relied on the concept of “do ut des”—a Latin phrase meaning, roughly, “I give, that you might give.” That is, if all the rituals were performed correctly, the right words said, the right sacrifice offered, the gods were honor-bound to grant the request of their worshipper. If they did not, this was seen to be a moral failing on the part of the gods, and future sacrifices might be withheld.

In addition to such a strong belief in the importance and power of ritual, Romans frequently consulted the gods and the natural world for signs regarding the future. Whole disciplines were devoted to reading the behavior and flight paths of birds, or the appearance of a sacrificial victim’s liver. The stars, of course, had also been read since Babylonian times.

But all of this existed in a very specific context—public, approved civic religion. Sacrifices were not a private affair, but a matter of state. It was believed that Rome maintained its position of power through its proper relationship with the gods, which was, in turn, maintained by the regular performance of the appropriate rituals and sacrifices. Likewise, the various forms of divination were used in senatorial and imperial decision-making, or to determine the proper actions to be taken by a community in the coming year.

This means that there was a category of activities which the Romans might have considered the rough equivalent of what we call “magic,” “witchcraft,” or “superstition.” This was the area of the observance of religious ritual for private gain. A superstitious individual—in the sense of the Latin word superstitio—was someone who habitually consulted diviners concerning their private life, or worried excessively about his relationship with the gods. Equally suspect were people who performed rituals to gain the love of someone not otherwise willing, or to curse an enemy, or to gain personal wealth. Certain of these activities might even be proscribed by law, though only for their harmful intent or effects, and not because they were “magic” per se.

In Greek-speaking regions, these things might be done through a combination of religious rituals and the use of potions brewed by a pharmakon. This purveyor of magic elixirs, and sometimes deadly poison, gave its name to the modern pharmacist. Next time you go to pick up a prescription, stop and consider that the white-robed individual across the counter is the distant vocational offspring of Greek potion makers.

Often these people who performed rituals for personal gain did not do so through the ordinary Roman gods, like Jupiter or Poseidon. For their special needs, they sought out a special brand of power. They often called on foreign gods, such as Isis, Thoth, various Babylonian deities, or—perhaps more surprising to Christian readers than it should be—to Yahweh. In desperate times these foreign gods worshipped by strange rituals might be counted on to listen when Apollo would not, or to provide help where Venus would not.

This means that the type of “magic” that ancient Romans and Greeks feared was not simply anyone who called upon supernatural entities to do their bidding, but specifically people who did so outside the bounds of public religion. These were self-interested, anti-social people who threatened the social fabric by threatening Rome’s—or a given Greek city’s—right relationship with the gods.

A word should be said about Hebrew views of magic in antiquity. Bailey points out, rightly, I believe, that the Hebrew conception of forbidden practices we would term magical was not terribly different than Greeks’ or Romans’. The problem was not supernatural power—Moses and Elijah displayed that. Nor was it the use of strange rituals or talismans—say, lifting up a staff or marching around a city seven times and blowing trumpets. The problem was simply one of appealing to foreign gods or to inappropriate methods of appealing to, or even openly attempting to manipulate, God Almighty. Magic isn’t non-science, it’s idolatry.

 

Daemones and Pagan Leftovers

 

As Christianity outgrew its Judean heartland, it made a distinctive contribution to the history of magic. While at times the Bible speaks of pagan gods as non-entities, often in speaks of them as unclean, lying spirits—demons.

The word “demon” is rooted in the Latin daemones, itself a derivative of the Greek daimones. Both words refer to intermediate spirits, somewhere between the true gods and goddesses and us mere mortals. The forms of “magic” the Greeks and Romans dismissed often appealed to these mid-level spirits. They didn’t have a problem with the spirits themselves, however, so much as they saw appeal to them as a bit excessive.

When Christians came along, it was understood that all idolatrous worship, especially that which seemed to get results, was directed towards specifically evil spirits. That is, the daemones were not to be trusted. They were servants of Satan sent to deceive mankind and draw them away from the rightful worship of God. Furthermore, all the Olympian gods of Greco-Roman religion also fell into this category. In short, Christians collapsed the distinction between respectable public sacrifice and shady private superstitio, condemning all pagan rituals as idolatry.

As Christianity spread and became dominant, traces of paganism held on. This was true in enclaves where Greco-Roman or Germanic paganism were actually practiced, and it was also true in places where ostensible converts still practiced what we would today call folk-magic without much thought as to how it worked. This new, broader definition of “superstition” created a divide between honest worship, even if saints sometimes worked miracles, and wicked “magic,” which was cooperation with demons, even if the participant was ignorant of the fact.

The interesting thing about this period of the history of magic, though, was that these practices were not viewed with excessive animosity. Rather than painting those who performed these acts as Satan-worshippers, magic users were portrayed as ignorant, backwards rabble who superstitiously held on to the old ways in a new era. It was generally assumed that, just as the public Roman religion had vanished, folk-magic and superstitions originating in pagan religious practices would also vanish over time. This was not a demonic conspiracy against the church, but merely one of many foolish practices that would vanish with the onward march of the Gospel.

 

The Learned Magician

 

The next development in the history of magic is, in my opinion, the most terrifying.

When you think of medieval sorcerers, of magicians from the age of knights and damsels, of old-fashioned wizards, what name immediately comes to mind? If you’re like most people, the only answer is “Merlin.”

Merlin is not a leftover pagan, nor is he a superstitious peasant. He is a learned man, a reader of books, who mutters spells high in his tower and commands abilities far beyond what is natural. There is a sinister cast to him, but he is decidedly on the side of Arthur and his knights. These, in turn, are on the side of the Church. Merlin, like them, is presumably a Christian. But how can one work magic, which the Church understood to involve the use of demonic power, and yet remain on the side of the angels?

In the High Middle Ages, a new way of looking at magic developed. It was still conceived of as an art that dealt with demons, but now it was stripped of the lingering paganism that had once defined it. These demons were now thoroughly Biblical, denizens of a cosmos quite separate from what any rival religion might conceive of. And had not Christ and the apostles commanded demons? Mostly to flee, certainly, but had not Christ been given all authority in heaven and earth? Did not has followers partake in that?

The idea developed that, while a Christian certainly should not worship or make pacts with demons, it was not entirely out of bounds to command them. One legend—originating, so far as I can tell, from Islamic folklore—had Solomon commanding armies of demons and using them to build the Temple. Indeed, the fabled Ring of Solomon supposedly still allowed people to command these dark forces, and books might be found claiming to teach the reader the proper rituals necessary to conjure and enslave them.

Thus magic was given a decidedly scholarly and Christian cast, though assuredly not one widely endorsed by the Church. To most in authority, trafficking with demons was still trafficking with demons, even if one claimed to do it by the power of Christ. These were unclean creatures, not to be trusted.

This medieval “high magic” is more terrifying to me than any Satanic witches or dark pagan sorcerers. To be caught up in it, one does not have to be sinisterly evil—one can even have an apparently sincere faith in Christ. All that is required is a certain foolishness, a certain arrogant overestimation of one’s abilities or the trustworthiness of one’s grimoires. This is a situation ripe for demonic deception and eventual tragedy.

Of course, these learned magicians were not the only ones to continue doing what we would call magic in that era. Folk magic continued on, as ever, unheeding of official condemnation. In many ways, it had not changed terribly much. The names of old gods were replaced by saints, spells began to resemble prayers or incorporate snatches of Scripture or liturgy, and talismans began to include saints’ relics and the communion wafers. The common folk did not believe they were trafficking with demons, nor did they have a sophisticated theological or scientific explanation for how their little charms worked. They simply believed that the did, and kept on doing them.

 

A Satanic Conspiracy

 

With the rise of high magic practiced by learned men, often clerics of one kind or another, the Church came to understand such things as a much greater threat than they had previously. This sorcery was not the last gasp of an old religion, but signs of unorthodoxy, a disregard for authority, and great folly within Christendom itself.

This was also the period where the rot of heresy had begun to seep into France, Italy, and other regions. The Cathars and Albigenses in particular held alarmingly popular heretical beliefs, beliefs that seemingly could not be vanquished by the preaching of right doctrine alone. Indeed, it would take a crusade to wipe them out.

In Spain, another threat loomed. As the Christian kingdoms slowly drove their Muslim enemies out of the peninsula, they were stuck with a mixed population of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who had gotten along far too well with their former rulers. These were encouraged, by sometimes less than noble means, to convert en masse to Christianity. Of course, many simply did this to make life easier under the new regime, and some still practiced the old religion in secret. Thus Christian lands and Christian churches might be filled not only with secret heretics, but with complete unbelievers.

The Church in Spain and elsewhere soon developed legal processes to root out these heretics, drawing on the old Roman judicial system of judges who actively investigated the cases set before them. This method had been called inquisitio, and it gave rise to what we now call the Inquisition.

The growing concern with heresy met insecurities about high magic and old-school condemnation of peasant superstition and combined to create a far more sinister picture of sorcery. While witchcraft largely went unprosecuted, and often only lightly punished, in earlier eras, this had been due to the rather low opinion people had of magic as a threat to Christendom. After the rise of heresies, however, people began to understand magic not as something lonely men did in high towers, or old spinsters did in rural villages, but as something very like the Cathar or Albigensian threat—a conspiracy of heretics opposed to the true faith.

Witch trials slowly became more common, and began to incorporate charges that the accused flew great distances to meet other witches and cavort with demons. This is the beginning of the idea of the witches’ Sabbath, though it was called a witches’ synagogue at the time. At these places, they openly entered into pacts with demons, though not usually Satan himself. They engaged in orgies, and sometimes in more violent expressions of depravity. The idea of a coven of diabolical witches had been born

Contrary to popular belief, however, this did not lead to sudden, continent-wide hysteria and mass persecution of the supposed witches. This mythology of witchcraft as something done in groups, and as decidedly bent on the overthrow of Christendom, grew slowly. It was not until the medieval era gave way first to the Renaissance and then to the Reformation that the witch trials as we understood them truly began. By this time, the folklore was already well-established.

 

Wisdom from the Ancients

 

While the dominance of Christianity had established a pretty thorough understanding of magic as a distinct activity which used rituals to call upon demons to perform various tasks, the things that we would consider magical were never wholly placed within that category. Astrology, a highly complex and sophisticated discipline bearing little resemblance to modern memes about zodiac signs, was given an entirely rational scientific explanation which relied in no way on the power of demons. Alchemy, a pursuit we would consider equally mystical and unscientific, was based on rigorous experimentation and a deep knowledge of the natural world as medieval understood it.

In the period we today refer to as the Renaissance, a similar attitude opened up the West new kinds of magic. In one of those periodic floods of ancient Greek texts, or their Arabic translations, into the West, one set of works in particular led to a new understanding of the natural world: the Corpus hermeticum.

Medieval science was essentially an elaboration on Aristotle, with few texts by Plato being preserved in the Latin West. This did not mean, however, there was no interest in Plato’s thought. His reputation was great, and many were eager to rediscover his works. How much more exciting, then, would it be to discover the works that had inspired him?

The Corpus hermeticum was a collection of works purporting to set out ancient Egyptian wisdom recorded by the Thrice-Great Hermes. It had clear connections to Plato’s view of the universe, though scholars at the time did not realize that it was actually downstream of Plato rather than upstream. It painted a picture of a world of invisible metaphysical forces, a great hierarchy of being descending outward from the from the eternal, transcendent One. With great wisdom, one could come to understand and manipulate these forces, gaining both an understanding of the true nature of the universe, and a certain degree of mastery over it.

While this “Hermetic” magic was spreading among the elite, another source of power was entering Christendom through Jewish sources: Kabbalah. Kabbalistic magic held that all of Creation was constantly emanating from the Divine, and that since God created the world using speech, speech was the key to power over it. In particular, Hebrew was considered the original, divine language, and the most powerful words were considered to be the various names of God Himself.

Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and Neoplatonic thought all met astrological and alchemical science in this era and developed into a new brand of high magic. Learned men engaged in various rituals and investigated the true nature of the universe, using ancient secrets to seek out new knowledge and advance beyond medieval learning. This might involve working with demons, but it might just as likely mean manipulating the entirely benign, but hidden and poorly understood, forces of the universe.

The strange reality of Renaissance magic that may seem counterintuitive to those of us living in age after the Enlightenment is that magic was studied, practiced, and expounded upon by many of the same people who were advancing science. To people at the time, Newton’s gravity was every bit as much of an occult force as anything magicians like Cornelius Agrippa claimed understand. Copernicus’s theory of a sun-centered universe proved interesting not because it better explained the motion of the stars at the time—it didn’t—but because Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic thought tended to consider the sun the most important astral body. Johannes Kepler was a firm believer in astrology and the occult influences of the stars upon earthly bodies. Robert Boyle, founder of the Royal Society, was an adept alchemist, and Isaac Newton himself has been described as “the last of the age of magicians.” Bailey even makes a solid case that the empiricism and skepticism of the Enlightenment was not based on a less “occult” understanding of the natural world, but of one that was far more.

 

Magic in the Age of Reason

 

But the Enlightenment did come, and Renaissance magic did not flourish half so well as its twin brother Science. Skeptical and materialist views of the universe grew popular among the elite, and high magic died a slow and tragic death. Folk magic, of course, meandered onward, adopting new ways in freshly the freshly reformed lands of the Protestant north, and preserving the old ones in the now decidedly Roman Catholic south.

But magic would not stay dead forever. With the Enlightenment spread societies like the Freemasons, with secret rituals, mysterious initiations, and a hierarchy of ranks. Out of this spun other societies which sought to revive ritual magic, now with a much more muddled and Romantic theory, and fighting an uphill battle against the disenchanted world around them.

Besides the rise of magical secret societies, there was also a growing interest in folk magic. Enlightened elites felt alienated from their own peasantry, but had also caught something of a nationalist fever. Thus they sought out traditional beliefs and practices supposedly unique to their nations, including popular magic. Some began spinning tales of pagan survivals, of worshippers of the old gods who had held on through long centuries of Church dominance. A few German nationalists in particular began recasting the Early Modern witch trials as Catholic attempts to stamp out traditional Aryan culture.

The grow disciplines of folklore and anthropology also developed new explanations for the meaning of old myths and religious rituals. Theories about the centrality of fertility cults to ancient pagans became quite popular, and were sometimes combined with rumors of pagan survivals. In the early twentieth century, Margaret Murray proposed that witchcraft was actually an ancient pagan religion that had survived down the centuries, might still be working in secret in the present day.

In the 1950’s, a man named Gerald Gardiner capitalized on this idea. He claimed to have come into contact with a coven of Murray’s witches in the south of England, and they had passed on their beliefs and rituals to him. Witchcraft was at last fully decriminalized in Britain not long after, and he began spreading his new religion. He called it Wicca, and it became the fastest-growing neopagan religion in the modern era.

A few decades before, a man named Aleister Crowley had gotten involved in ritual magic through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He left and developed his own magical theory, which would be adopted and adapted by Anton LaVey in the 1960’s. He founded an outwardly Satanic religion that was in reality a kind atheistic play-acting which adopted much of the external trappings of the witchcraft rumored to exist in the early modern era. While much less popular than Wicca, LaVeyan Satanism did much to shape modern perceptions of magical practice.

 

What Bailey Leaves Out

 

Bailey traces magic from pagan religion, through folk magic and learned command of demons, past Renaissance theories of the secret workings of the universe and early modern beliefs about Satanic conspiracies, to modern Wicca. All of this is, in one way or another, a straightforward part of the Western magical tradition. This will form the main body of what I hope to blog through in the weeks and months to come. However, this does not quite cover every kind of magic one might run into today.

If one lives in the Deep South, Lousiana Voodoo is as popular as any variety of Wicca, and Santeria is at least as common in the United States as any order of ritual magicians. The folk magic of Britain continued developing in Appalachia and the Ozarks and other backwoods of the United States. The age of the internet has also brought about chaos magic, and other theories of the occult. Michael Bailey provides an admirable overview of the broadly Western mainstream of magic, but to understand our modern context, our investigations will have to take us in other directions.

But for now, I hope to follow up this rough summary of the book’s content with a few more posts on specific chapters and specific aspects of the history of magic and superstition as Bailey presents them. There is a lot of gold here, and it is well worth mining before we move on to other works.