Magic - does it exist or not ?? This IS a long one folks ....

September 12, 2006 6:03am CST
magic is the notion that there is a way of having a power over nature which simply depends on hitting the right key.If you say "open sesame" then nature will open for you;if you are an expert then nature will open for you;if you are a specialist of some kind or if you are remote,if you are esoteric,if you are an initiate there is some way of getting into nature which is not accessible to other people. Now this was the dominant theme of all those centuries up to the fifteenth.And all primitive forms of magic - sympathetic magic,the kind of magic you read about in Lévi - Strauss for instance,magic that structuralists talk about - all come back to this notion: there is a way of having a power which is esoteric and does not depend on generally accessible knowledge. Now I think that is fundamentally false and I also think ,of course,that it is terribly dangerous, because it recurs in every generation. But let me say something about it in this highly specific context of magic up to the fifteenth century. One of the things that must have struck you if you have read any book about magic is that there is a tendency for the rituals of magic to turn nature upside-down [Getting CAUSE and EFFECT the wrong way around-LB].For instance,if you have ever seen an illustration of a witch riding a broomstick,she does not ride the broomstick sitting forward,she rides the broomstick sitting backward.Now it may seem a childish thing for an eminent intellectual historian to be discussing which way witches sit on broomsticks.But the fact is that intellectual history is made up of exactly such points.Why did people think that satanic rituals had to be set backwards? Why did people celebrate the black mass by going through the mass in reverse? Because the concept of that conquest of nature was that whatever the laws of nature were,the magic consisted of turning them back.What Joshua said was,"Sun stand thou still";he didn't say anything about ellipses or inverse square laws.He said "let us stop the laws of nature and turn them back in their tracks." And really,one could say,if I may put this terribly crudely,that until the year 1500 any attempt to get power from nature had inherent in it the idea that you could only do this if you forced nature to provide it against her will. Nature had to be subjugated,and magic was a form of words,actions and pictures which forced nature to do something which she wouldn't of herself do. Let me note here that science does exactly the opposite.But it is important to realize that the subjugation of nature is the theme of all magical practice.We must get her to do something for us which she wouldn't do for everybody else - which means we must make her disobey her own laws.Of course,people before 1500 didn't really have much of an idea of what a law of nature was.But insofar as they conceived of nature following a natural course, magic was something that reversed it. What I am saying is in my view,although it is not the view of all those who have written about magic.Lynn Thorndike,for example,was an eminent writer on the subject.His eight-volume work on the subject is entitled The History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York:Columbia University Press,1923 - 58). It would be impertinent of me not to state that he thought differently.However,the very title The History of Magic and Experimental Science implies a view of science which is different from mine.What Lynn Thorndike said was that there are in magical and particularly alchemical practices many techniques which later formed an important part of technology and experimental science.Now that's undoubtedly true.But ,alas,in my view,this has nothing to do with the case.Of course there were people of all kinds practicing alchemy right up to the days of Newton,whose alchemical writings are so voluminous that they were never published.Nevertheless,my main interest is in their attitude toward how the world works and how you make it obey,and not at all in their discoveries of how you smelt this or how you make that process in metallurgy work.It was the view of Lynn Thorndike,and it has been the view of some other eminent historians of science,that there is a continuity running from even before the Middle Ages into modern science.This is what Pierre Duhem was anxious to show,and in a way this is what George Sarton said also.And of course, there is some truth in that.There is not the slightest doubt that any particular piece of science that you have today can be traced to some fantasy in the Middle Ages...... But it is my view that those continuities give a false perspective of the great threshold from which the burst of modern science comes.And I would put this quite simply: I don't know whether science was born before 1500 or not (though I don't believe it was) but I do know that,mysteriously,magic in fact died after 1500. I ought also to pay a small obeisance to those historians who think that we ought not to look at the history of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance as if in some way it were a forerunner of today.I wrote a book of intellectual history and was amused to find that one of my kinder critics said that it was all very fine,but why did I think that the present age was any better than the fifteenth century? Well,I don't know whether it is better,but it seems to me terribly interesting that the fifteenth century has led to the present age and that the present age has not led to the fifteenth century. My view of history is essentially an evolutionary one.I think it is right that we should look at history with hindsight,because I think,for two reasons,that the most important species-specific thing which man possesses and which started him off on his evolutionary career is exactly hindsight.If you make any plans,only hindsight will tell you whether they were any good.Secondly,we know from work on memory that it is only from hindsight,only from memory, that imagination and foresight develops.So I make no apologies for the fact that I shall discuss the history of the past as if the most exciting thing about it is that it has led us to the present...... A point which must be made very forcibly about science is that it took an irreversible step in the cultural evolution of man.I have noted that we did not lay enough stress on the fact not only that science has made our lives different but also that it was a threshold of this kind.Holding that view I am bound to say that the dates of the scientific revolution between 1500 and 1700 do represent a major threshold in the development of science. Now that seems strange to people who have tried to trace the history of science back beyond that time,because they point out that,after all,there was a school of people - who read Aristotle,who were Averroists,who continued to talk about scientific truth and distinguish it from spiritual truth - in a number of universities,such as Paris and Padua, through the thirteenth,fourteenth,and fifteenth centuries. The school that looks for a continuity in the development of science looks for it there.Now I think that view is mistaken because I think that in about 1500 something very remarkable happened in all intellectual history,of which science is a part and a crucial part.It's not terribly fashionable to talk about the Renaissance now,because everybody is very busy explaining how it all really started much earlier.And it's not very fashionable even to talk about humanism, because very eminent scholars,including Professor Kristeller of Columbia University,have pointed out that humanism was a special kind of academic syllabus that led to the elaboration of rhetoric and theories of language at the expense of theology and other practices.In itself,humanism did not make a new way of life,and of course it appears to have had no influence on science.All that seems to me to be quite right.And yet it is absolutely true that Florence in 1500 was a different city ( I cite Kristeller again) from Florence in 1400.Something had happened in Italy which made a great inroad in established,authoritarian,and traditional views of life. When we come to revalue the Renaissance over the next twenty or thirty years of scholarship,the view that we are sure to come up with is that the most important thing was not that people in Florence started reading Plato instead of Aristotle,or that people from Padua argued about this or that,or that Ficino wrote this and Pomponazzi wrote that,but that in some way a dissolution of tradition took place and there developed an interest in new things in which the particular character of the new was not nearly so important as the shaking up of the old.And that characteristic was crucial to the development of science at that particular time.To my mind,the most extraordinary thing is that about 1500 the incursion of neo-Platonic and mystical ideas gave that impulse to the human mind,made that intellectual revaluation from which science and the arts took off together.The view that I am putting forward is that this revolution worked as much in the sciences as in the arts and that it is impossible to understand the really radical change that the Renaissance made unless we see science not as an afterthought but as an integral part of that humanism - rhetoric and linguistics and all. Now to some small,interesting,specific examples:Between 1450 and 1465 Cosimo de'Medici began to collect a library of Greek manuscripts.They were being brought to the West by scholars and he sent his own merchants out to buy them up .They brought back the Dialogues of Plato,which had still not been translated from Greek,and they brought back also an incomplete manuscript of the Corpus Hermeticum [Ref: Davis & Hersh "The Mathematical Experience" {Underneath the Fig Leaf} p100 4.Hermetic Geometry;C.B.Boyer "A History of Mathematics" Ch14 p246 {Europe in the Middle Ages}],the fabulous book of magic of the Middle Ages of which, again,only a small pa
1 response
@CORDALE (868)
• United States
22 Sep 06
that was very insightful.