Review of Anthony Grafton, “Magus” (opinion)

May 5, 2024
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Around the turn of the last century, Sir James Frazer—an eminent Victorian anthropologist of the armchair variety—divided human efforts to understand the world into three broad kinds: magic, religion and science. This was, for Frazer, not a list of categories but an evolutionary sequence.

Magic exemplified the worldview of “primitive” humanity, which encompassed our prehistoric ancestors but also the peoples encountered by explorers and missionaries, whose reports Frazer quoted. Magical thinking, as he understood it, is very simple and results-oriented. Stabbing or burning a magically charged figurine of your enemy will do them harm (similar action, similar effect), all the more so if the figurine contains fingernail parings from the targeted person, which will tighten the magical link. Should no mishap befall your enemy, it is obvious you did something wrong.

Religion, by contrast, saw the world as populated (even created) by normally invisible entities in charge of natural forces and sometimes concerned with human endeavors. They wanted to be honored, or otherwise propitiated, through prayers and sacrifices. Gods and spirits had moods and temperaments. They might hand down laws or judgments, or take possession of a believer. Staying on their good side could be difficult.

Finally, after untold generations, came science, which Frazer did not put as much effort into characterizing beyond noting the scientist’s “patient and exact observation of the phenomena themselves.” It was a certain patient diligence in pursuing questions about the world and, in so doing, increasing the capacity to invent. For Sir James it could be taken as a given that science possessed authority and efficacy that religion, let alone magic, never could.

“Here at last,” he wrote, “after groping about in the dark for countless ages, man has hit upon a clue to the labyrinth, a golden key that opens many locks in the treasury of nature.”

But the sharp distinction between magic and religion was already under challenge from scholars during Frazer’s lifetime, as Anthony Grafton notes in Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa (Harvard University Press). Nor is the line of progress from one stage to the next quite so clearcut as Frazer believed. A series of studies by the historian Frances Yates, beginning in 1964 with Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, documented the strange intimacy between Renaissance scientists and claimants to secret spiritual knowledge.

Grafton places Magus in the lineage of Frances Yates’s scholarship, which, he says, “re-created what she saw as the elegant new magic of the Renaissance … [which] replaced the older, disreputable magic of medieval sorcerers with a discipline that offered true power over nature as well as new forms of physical and spiritual therapy.” Practitioners of “learned magic” were readers both of the humanist canon (expanding as ancient Greek authors became more readily accessible via Latin translation) and of “the book of nature,” in which the heavenly bodies, metals, gems, plants, parts of the body and so on were linked together in an intricate web of “correspondences.” The cosmos is a text in code.

One eminent practitioner of “learned magic,” John Dee, a renowned mathematician and court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, worked with an assistant to evoke spirits who taught them Enochian, the language of the angels, and advised the men to wife-swap, which they did. Learned magic pushed the pursuit of knowledge in new and sometimes dangerous directions, and with a book like Dee’s The Hieroglyphic Monad, the distinctions Frazer made are blurred beyond recognition.

Magus looks at how complex—and subject to debate—the status of the scholar-magician was. That it was also dangerous is a given. In principle, at least, the religious authorities held a monopoly on access to the supernatural. Even so, practices such as divination and the casting of love spells were perennial, and went on for centuries—without clerical approval, of course, but more often with their scorn than alarm. (Systematic witch-hunting was rare before the 15th century.) Learned magic was distinct from folk magic: its knowledge was available only to a self-selecting cohort of well-educated readers who had to be highly motivated to get access to the literature. To cultivate an interest in learned magic was almost looking for trouble.

Grafton’s biographical approach to the masters of this recondite knowledge (with Faust, Marsilio Ficino, and Cornelius Agrippa being the most famous) is also a study in the art of reputation management. The magus’s small but influential public included church authorities (sympathetic and otherwise) and scholars, but also secular rulers who might retain them as advisers. With the invention of movable type, secret and forbidden knowledge entered the age of mechanical reproduction. But a lot of the information and debate over magic took place via correspondence. While formally addressed to a single recipient, a treatise-like letter could circulate in multiple copies through personal networks.

The author’s decades of archival research document the temptations and the hazards of magical self-promotion. “Even the most adept impresario of letter writing and print,” he says, “might find it difficult to work out the exact points where boasts of occult knowledge endangered his reputation instead of enhancing it.”

Here I am giving a telescopic survey of a book that turns on sometimes microscopic nuances in how magic was defined and practiced. Where Frazer merged phenomena into big conceptual lumps, the magicians Grafton studies were splitters of distinctions, beginning with Pico della Mirandola’s division of magic into two sorts.

“One, which lies entirely on the activity and authority of demons,” he explained, “is a monstrous and accursed thing. The other, when well-investigated, is nothing more than the final realization of natural philosophy.” This is something like a bedrock distinction, though advocates of the first variety would insist they were invoking heavenly powers. (There was much controversy over whether these were just demons in disguise.) In any case, Pico’s reference to “natural philosophy” is potentially confusing insofar as the term is now usually taken as equivalent to the natural sciences as understood over the last couple centuries. There was certainly an overlap. But practitioners of natural magic included makers of talismans who charged them, like batteries, with astrological energies. Their nature was not today’s.

As if to render the concept of natural magic more ambiguous still, other practitioners—inspired by ancient descriptions of statues brought to life with magic—dedicated themselves to creating lifelike automatons, with some success. A sketch by one magician/engineer shows both the inner workings of one of them and how it looked with the mechanical elements concealed. The creature is a she-demon with horns, spitting fire, with a pointed tail accidentally showing from under the hem of her dress. Appearing at court as part of the evening’s entertainment, she must have been terrifying.

In paying tribute to Frances Yates for charting this once-neglected (when not mocked) corner of history, Grafton writes that she “told her story with great learning and a bewitching style.” Change the pronouns, and Magus blurbs itself.

Scott McLemee is Inside Higher Ed’s “Intellectual Affairs” columnist. He was a contributing editor at Lingua Franca magazine and a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education before joining Inside Higher Ed in 2005.



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