The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, edited by Brian Copenhaver, Penguin, £30
Speaking to David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins fretted about the title of his new children’s book. “It is called The Magic Of Reality,” (see Duel on p26) he said “and one of the problems I’m facing is the distinction between the use of the word magic, as in a magic trick, and the magic of the universe, life on Earth, which one uses in a poetic way.” “No,” Attenborough reassured him, “I think there’s a distinction between magic and wonder. Magic should be restricted to things that are actually not so. Rabbits don’t really live in hats. It’s magic.”
Attenborough’s remark reflects how, in scientific circles, magic implies trickery and credulity. But this is only part of the story. During the Renaissance, certain kinds of magic were the closest thing to experimental science—which is why Lynn Thorndike, the American historian, yoked them together in his epic survey, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (1923-1958).
In taking magic seriously as an intellectual endeavour, Thorndike’s analysis was groundbreaking. A vast amount of scholarship has updated it since. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) was another landmark, which cautioned against making an easy link between magic’s demise and science’s ascendance—not least because early science failed to produce many new technologies or medicines to displace the supposed efficacy of magic. His conclusions have been challenged and refined by more recent work. Some notion of the current state of play emerges from The Book of Magic, a compendium of extracts from key sources ranging from the Bible to forbidden magic manuals of the Middle Ages and the writings of Enlightenment figures such as Gottfried Leibniz. Edited by Brian Copenhaver, a historian at the University of California in Los Angeles, this illuminating book should dispel the notion that magic was just superstition and secure its place in the history of ideas.
The role of the magic tradition in the inception of science is complex but to present the two as antithetical is wrong. They were in many respects mutually supportive and even hard to distinguish. Magic as an intellectual endeavour can be seen as largely sober and systematic. Even the tricksier “popular” magic of the showman or mountebank was closely allied to practical technologies and mechanical skill. And if it had a tendency to patch together ad hoc explanations for puzzling phenomena, magic wasn’t doing much more than modern science continues to do; what has changed is the rigour with which such “explanations” are now scrutinised.
As historian William Eamon has argued, Renaissance “natural magic” was “the science that attempted to give rational, naturalistic explanations” for why things happened, and natural magicians, like modern scientists, believed that “nature teemed with hidden forces and powers that could be imitated, improved on, and exploited for human gain.” To its advocates, this art was the most potent means of dispensing with the supernatural intervention of demons and God in the day-to-day operation of nature.
Yet until the 15th century, anyone interested in magic risked accusations of heresy. Pliny the Elder condemned it as wicked (he noted that Nero was obsessed with it), but it was in early Christian thought that magic became dangerous. This was partly xenophobia: the word “magic” was an adjective applied to the pagan beliefs of the Persian “magi.” But it was also an assertion of authority over who owned such powers.
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Copenhaver’s excerpts show that the Bible confirmed magic as real. The question was whether it was righteous, as in the miracles of Jesus, or satanic. There are more magical duels in Christian tradition than in The Lord of the Rings: Aaron and Moses versus the wizards of Egypt (complete with wands); St Peter versus the levitating trickster Simon Magus; St Anthony versus a demonic horde. Early Christian writers argued over how to regard Saul’s collusion with the Witch of Endor to raise the dead Samuel.
By the time St Augustine pronounced that “all the marvels of magicians happen on the instructions of demons,” the Church was trying not so much to banish magic as to monopolise it. Christianity struggled to distinguish itself from folk superstition: the communion host was stolen for magic charms, while illiterate peasants regarded the mumbled Latin mass as equivalent to the incantation of spells. “Hocus pocus” may not have been a corruption of hoc est corpus meum, as once was thought, but its cod Latin was surely a satire on Catholic formulas.
Attempts to establish a “natural magic,” free of demonic assistance and compatible with God as omnipotent creator, can be found in the works of Albertus Magnus, the 13th-century German Dominican bishop, and later those of Nicole Oresme, a French bishop. But it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the idea was given firm philosophical and theological foundations. That was largely due to Marsilio Ficino, the dazzling Italian scholar, and his protégé Pico della Mirandola, who seized on the writings of the interpreters of Plato in late antiquity to create a Christianised Neoplatonism that affirmed natural magic as doctrinally sound and intellectually respectable. Magic, says della Mirandola, is “the practical part of natural science”—and so its “noblest part.”
The German physician Cornelius Agrippa, Christopher Marlowe’s model for Doctor Faustus, was the most renowned champion of natural magic in the early 16th century: his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1533) was required reading for the would-be magus. But it was Magia Naturalis (1558) by the Italian Giambattista della Porta that most forcefully allied magic with experimentation and practical technologies. That book is a strange mixture of folk recipes and advanced science, the latter represented particularly by optics. Experimental investigation of light had long been associated with the magic tradition, not least because of the feats of illusionism it offers—the medieval optics pioneer Roger Bacon had to fend off suspicions of witchcraft. But with della Porta, new and old collide spectacularly. The wonders he described—devices such as the camera obscura and arrangements of lenses that brought distant objects closer—might have seemed like magic, but were turned into real science by Galileo and Johannes Kepler only decades later. Della Porta and Galileo both belonged to the Academy of Lynxes, an Italian group devoted to the experimental study of nature.
Natural magic also helped pave the way for science by questioning ancient texts, relying instead on firsthand experience. But that didn’t make natural magic science by another name. What separated them was not so much principle—both saw natural phenomena as being governed by morally neutral, invisible forces such as magnetism and gravity—as methods. Magic was qualitative, its explanations invoking circular ideas of attractions and “sympathies,” while science relied on precision. Perhaps more significantly, the culture of magic was secretive, while that of science, formulated in bodies such as the Royal Society (founded in 1660), stressed transparent communication and evaluation.
Yet one can’t simply divide the two into backward and forward looking traditions. Copenhaver’s final extract is a letter from Leibniz slamming Isaac Newton for invoking an occult quality “under the specious name of ‘forces’”—by which he means gravity. In an age when natural philosophers talked in terms of effects that could be “explained” by mechanical interactions of bodies in contact, such “action at a distance” seemed “inexplicable, unintelligible, groundless.” Only the magic tradition could sustain the “invisible forces” that modern physics takes for granted. More striking still, quantum theory currently has to suppose what looks like apparent interaction between ordinary particles (entanglement) at a distance, an idea that is absurd from the point of view of normal physical reasoning: it needs something that looks like magic, and so it’s not surprising that Einstein characterised it as “spooky.”
But it is premature for Copenhaver to end the book with Leibniz. It would have been interesting if he had included material from the 19th-century occult revival, heralded by Francis Barrett’s natural-magic compendium The Magus (1801) but invigorated by two books, Dogme de la haute magie (1854) and Ritual de la haute magie (1856) by Eliphas Lévi. This led to movements such as the Ukrainian émigré Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophists and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose ranks included Aleister Crowley and WB Yeats. They tapped into the enthusiasm for séances and spiritualism.
It was no coincidence that this resurgence of magic came at the same time as the burgeoning of modern scientific discoveries. The discovery of invisible waves such as radio, x-rays and radioactivity seemed to some observers, including leading scientists, to validate occult beliefs such as telepathy. Science and technology let magic take on new forms. At the same time, the venerable tradition of folk magic (also somewhat overlooked in Copenhaver’s collection) morphed into phantasmagorical demonstrations involving the latest scientific discoveries, from light and electromagnetism to x-rays. Yet stage magic, far from being the refuge of charlatans, was often performed by debunkers who reproduced the marvels of the mystics while avowing to use (if not to disclose) only the latest scientific methods. The American magician and debunker James Randi, nemesis of Uri Geller, comes from this old tradition.
There is more to say too about the role of science fiction as a contemporary vehicle for magical visions. Arthur C Clarke’s famous comment that sufficiently advanced technology would look to us like magic seems predicated on a vision of medieval people gawping in awe at television. It would have been more interesting had Clarke embraced a real understanding of the magic tradition. Natural magicians of the Renaissance would have accepted such phenomena at face value and offered an explanation for them. Their explanations would have been fantastical, but their concept of natural magic would have enabled them to accept such things without paralysis of thought. When scientists invoke unseen (and unforeseen) forces and agents today, such as dark matter, dark energy and multiverses, they are following the same impulse.
When Copenhaver speaks with bracing casualness of modern “students of magic,” one can’t help picturing the dining hall at Hogwarts. Harry Potter shows us what magic means today: pseudo-Latinate spells lacking any rational system or consistency. This is grist for the mill in children’s fiction, but Dawkins’s handwringing about whether telling such tales to children corrupts their powers of reason is the flipside of the same shallowness. For anyone wanting a more informed view of the uses of enchantment, Copenhaver’s volume is a peerless resource.