Over at Lapham’s Quarterly, Colin Dickey sympathetically examines superstition, magic, and the supernatural. It’s such a good essay that I’m going to have my students read it over the weekend. In this excerpt, Dickey hits several nails right on the head:
As the world was becoming more ordered and codified via patriarchal religion and a burgeoning system of capitalism, magic was seen as a threat because it circumvented these structures: it offered a life outside the authority of the Church and the hierarchies it had carefully cultivated. Little had changed; people still felt powerless in the face of nature, but now instead of turning to magicians, they blamed them. The Church, after all, rarely attacked sympathetic magic on the grounds that it was empirically fallacious or ineffective—rather, it was a rival source of power. Among the many scandalous aspects of witches’ sabbaths as they were popularly depicted was the commingling of social classes: women—and increasingly men—of all walks of life, from peasants to the aristocracy, all were equal at the Midnight Mass. This vision of a dark Utopia was as threatening—if not more so—than any of the black rites practiced therein.
Because I wouldn’t want evangelical atheists to get the mistaken idea that magic is imbricated only with religion and not science, I would be remiss not to cite this salutary passage from Alan Jacobs’ essay on fantasy and the techno-science machine:
The idea that technology (“the Machine”) is a kind of magic, or at least deeply related to magic, is one that J.R.R. Tolkien shared with his close friend C. S. Lewis, who argued that, in the early modern period, “The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve.” Science, Lewis continued, “is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians: but contrasted only in the light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. That event was then still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see at once that [Sir Francis Bacon, one of the founders of experimental science] and the magicians have the closest possible affinity….Nor would Bacon himself deny the affinity: he thought the aim of the magicians was noble.”
Without giving the matter much thought, it seems to me that magic and science are connected in ways not fully explored or appreciated. Both traffic in curiosity and causation in ways that can generate awe.