A Very Brief History of Magic (pt 3)

“That which lives on reason lives against the spirit.”

   — Paracelsus


Ok, I feel kinda of irresponsible doing this next step, because I am basically going to skip about 5,000 of human history and development and jump from Ancient Sumeria to the 18th century! (That’s why it is a very brief history.) I am just going to assume that you already know the basics of world history. i.e. you finished high school.

If we had the time and space to do a quick sweep of the part that magic has played during all this time, I would point out the following (which you can see for yourself quite easily).

  • That the magic of the tribal shaman becomes codified into the great world religions. First as Myth then as Sacred text.
  • That as the role of the Shaman is replaced by the role of the priest or clergy, the role is essentially the same (that of guide, healer, counselor, wisdom giver, story teller, psychopomp).
  • Man’s place in the world is still understood via a “magical” system. That is to say the world of the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the ancient Israelites, of ancient India, and Feudal Japan etc. It was an enchanted world. A world where the gods walked among men, where dreams foretold the future. A world where you had to beware the evil eye, where the gods and spirits  could be influenced and placated by rituals and sacrifice, where one looked for omens before going into battle, and so forth. In other words it was, on a quintessential level operating on the same basis of magical thought as the prehistoric world of the shaman.

And then all of that changed, in the Age of Reason (17th-18th century) . While some might disagree  and say that the fundamental shift towards the modern non-magical way of man inhabiting the world began in the Renaissance (14th-17th century) I would disagree. While the Renaissance does mark the beginning of a flourishing of logic, thought, rhetoric, and science and medicine in Europe it was not a time of strong opposition to the old ways such as we see in the Age of Reason.

We do see during the Renaissance a development of underground magical thought. Through out history whenever you have a sort of official widely accepted religion, a sort of underground current of secret teachings and doctrines is sure to develop. Thus there is the Orthodox Judaism and there is the more arcane study of the Kabbalah. There is the history of the Muslim faith, and intwined in that is the more mystical strain of the Sufis. There is the history of Christianity and then there is the secret teachings of the Gnostics. Sooner or later you have a majority accepted set of beliefs, and then you have the sets of beliefs that don’t go along with the widely accepted teachings. These invariably have to be taught in secret because they are seen as heretical, as being against the belief that is in power.


(This ends up causing a lot of knowledge having to be passed along in secret, and it is why the occult is called “the occult” which means hidden, and obscured. Because it is basically all of the theories and ideas that if you got caught thinking them out loud in front of the wrong person you would find yourself being used as a stick of kindling for a bonfire.)

During the Age of Reason the dichotomy between the orthodox teaching, and the secret teachings (what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy) become less as important, because the big battle was between the old Orthodox teaching—Christianity— and reason. You could think of it as a battle between the left and right hemisphere of the collective human.  I will let wikipedia sum it up here:

The Age of Enlightenment was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in the late 17th- and 18th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange. It opposed superstition and intolerance, with the Catholic Church as a favorite target. Some Enlightenment philosophescollaborated with Enlightened despots, who were absolute rulers who tried out some of the new governmental ideas in practice . . . it was sparked by philosophers Baruch SpinozaJohn LockeVoltaire and physicist Isaac Newton.


This is the worldview, or paradigm that we inhabit now. This is the back drop in which modern magic exists, forgotten and largely relegated to the dustbins of history. (And, for the modern magician I insist that it is actually a terrific place to be! When the powers that be don’t take you seriously enough to be watching and monitoring you, that means you can grow and develop and do whatever you want! Without worrying about interference from the powers that be.)Reason, logic, and science dominate. The common gestalt is that the world can be understood as mechanistic. That is there is no room for the spirit, or God, or the soul, or mysticism etc. Everything can be understood in purely scientific terms. Every human emotion and impulse can be broken down, eventually to a molecular level, and be understood as a purely chemical occurrence. God and the soul are  hallucination and a misguided old superstition , there is no inherent meaning in life, and magic is for fools. The reasoning is that we should only believe in what can be proved, it what can replicated in a lab, in what can be scientifically measured and analyzed and broken down and put on a graph, or modeled with an algorithm, or dissected and distilled in a test tube.

And I ask you where has that gotten us?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-science. I am not anti-reason. On the contrary. But I do think that science is inherently reductive. Again, here we see the dichotomy of the Left and Right hemisphere. One side wants to analyze, to break down into smaller and smaller parts. It is our Right side that wants to do the opposite, to intuit, and to look for the bigger picture, to break things down to smaller and smaller parts. This process of breaking a being down to it’s muscles and connective tissues, the bones and so forth and then smaller, that the thoughts and emotions of a person can be reduced to a handful or electric sparks, a chemical analysis of neuro-transmitters and cells. While there is nothing Not-True about these scientific theories they are certainly not he best way to understand what is going on in a persons head when they listen to a symphony, or kiss their beloved, or dance at a party! The scientific world view is misguided in thinking that it’s reductive paradigm is going to give us the best, clearest picture of how the microcosm of the human works, it is also misguided in thinking that it can provided a clear understanding of the macrocosm, of the world we humans exist in. I believe that both are neccessary. That it is time to rebalance the dichotomy that has swung out of balance, to balance the scales of reductive/synthesis, of science/humanities, of reason/intuition, left-brain/right brain.  I believe that a new and modern concept of magic can play a pivotal role in re-balancing the scales.

The argument between that which can be seen and that which is not seen is as old as philosophy itself. Some say that Science is actually just a small branch of philosophy. And it has been said that all Philosophy is really just a footnote to Plato. I will leave you with a quote from Plato’s Phaedo.


I might compare him to a person that began by maintaining the mind is the cause of the actions . . . but who when he endeavored to explain the causes of my actions in detail went on to say that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles . . . as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and that is why I am sitting here in a curved posture…and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing…forgetting to mention the true cause.


2 Comments on “A Very Brief History of Magic (pt 3)

  1. Pingback: A Very Brief History of Magic (pt 4) | Anthony Alvarado

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