A Preparation for Philosophy

The tenor of the response to last week’s post on the intersection of magic and peak oil was, at least to this archdruid, as startling as it was pleasing. Oh, there was a certain amount of fluttering in online dovecotes, as well as a certain amount of blank incomprehension, but a great many readers took the time and made the effort to follow a discussion of what is, after all, one of our culture’s taboo subjects.

The strength of that taboo nonetheless managed to show itself in the most common objection to my discussion of magic as the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. A number of readers insisted that I was redefining the word “magic” to suit my own purposes, and that there was something underhanded in such a procedure. We could get into an interesting discussion here about the meaning of words, which is always contested, negotiated, and polyvalent, but there’s a more important point: I didn’t invent the magic, or the definition thereof, that I discussed in last week’s post.

This point gets missed so often that it’s probably necessary to go over it in detail. Right now, across the modern industrial world, a great many people—to judge by book sales, perhaps a million, perhaps more—are engaged in the study and practice of ceremonial magic. There’s nothing new in this; a comparable fraction of each generation have busied themselves at this very unfashionable pursuit for a long time now. Specific systems of magical practice can be traced back down the years—for example, the Golden Dawn tradition, the most popular magical system in the English-speaking world, came together in English occult circles in the 1880s, and drew heavily on older systems with their roots in the late Renaissance; other traditions have lineages of similar length; the Druid order I head, for all that, was founded in 1912 and drew on a heritage nearly two centuries old at that time.

The word “magic” is the proper term for the activities these people engage in. Of course the word has other meanings, but insisting that I must have made up a meaning that the word’s had since the days when it was spelled μαγεια and spoken by ancient Greeks—well, it’s a bit as though somebody was to insist that since more than half of all Americans believe that the word “evolution” means that human beings are descended from chimps, that’s what it means, and when an evolutionary biologist tries to correct the misconception, it’s fair to accuse him of redefining the word to fit some personal agenda.

Now of course in modern America we don’t compare discourse on magic to discourse on evolutionary biology; one is the subject of a centuries-old taboo, and the other—well, it may end up being the target of a similar taboo before the current round of culture wars are over, but that’s a topic for another post. The myth of progress, which serves as the central religious narrative of our time, insists that magic is something that only primitive people do, and most people in the contemporary industrial world will do the most spectacular mental backflips to avoid noticing the fact that a small but significant fraction of their friends and neighbors are, in fact, practicing magic—not in any metaphorical sense, either, but in the straightforward sense of putting on robes, lighting incense, tracing strange diagrams in the air with wands, and using these traditional tools to cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will.

There are at least two ways to apply the toolkit of the operative mage, though, and since the difference between them bears directly on the intersection between magic and peak oil, I’d like to bring in an example here. (Those of my readers who enjoy rhythm and blues can get the appropriate soundtrack here, courtesy of the Clovers, the classic R&B group that originally recorded it in 1959.)

Love magic? Of course. I hope none of my readers are under the illusion that falling in love is a rational process. Rather, as last week’s post mentioned, it depends in very large part on the nonrational and nonverbal reactions that managed pair bonding for our prehuman ancestors. The rational mind, that evolutionarily recent and distinctly rickety structure of linguistic feedback loops propped up on top of a highly adaptive animal mind and nervous system, has little direct influence over the archaic reactions that cause one person to fall into or out of love with another, and even less with the tangled patterns of emotion and memory that so often gum up the works in one way or another.

Every human society in recorded history has worked out indirect ways to reshape and redirect those reactions and to resolve at least some of their pathologies, and those indirect ways are the stock in trade of love magic. Some of them are extremely simple—for example, a man with weak self-esteem is going to repel potential partners, because he triggers the same sort of reaction that makes female baboons turn up their noses at potential partners toward the bottom of the troop’s pecking order. Change that self-assessment by some bit of appropriate psychodrama, and you change the reaction and the person’s chances of attracting a partner. Other patterns of self-defeating behavior are more complex, but most of them can be affected by tinkering with the nonrational levels of the mind.

This is where things get complex, because broadly speaking there are two ways you can do that. You can manipulate the nonverbal conversation between people, and if you do it skillfully enough and your client isn’t a total wart, you often get results. Sometimes you get lucky, and one round of magic is enough to shake the client out of whatever self-defeating behavior was getting in the way; most of the time, though, the effects are temporary, and then your client with low self-esteem is right back where he started and his erstwhile partner is walking away, wondering what on Earth she was thinking when she agreed to date him. Then your client comes back to you for another bottle of Love Potion No. 9. It can be a lucrative gig, so long as you can handle facing yourself in the mirror each morning.

Then there’s the other option. It works on the principle that the only sure way to attract love is to make yourself lovable. You can do that with magic, but it’s not the same kind of magic; instead of tweaking the nonverbal signals you give off and leaving your self-defeating emotional patterns unresolved, you use magical tools to bring the emotional patterns into consciousness and then resolve them. That’s not usually a pleasant experience; it requires a willingness to deal with the fact that you may not be lovable but have the capacity become so; and this, in turn, requires a willingness to think of the personality, not as the be-all and end-all of the self, but as a ramshackle structure of petrified opinions, habitual emotions, and behavioral tics amassed over the course of a lifetime, which is what it generally is. All of this may explain why this approach to love magic is much less popular than the other.

The less popular option, though, is one expression of a way of magical practice that, oddly enough, also counts as one of the Western world’s enduring philosophical systems—and thereby hangs a tale.

When I went back to college in 1991 to finish my degree, one of the things on my notably eccentric agenda was getting a good general grasp of the history of Western philosophy before the industrial revolution. The philosophy department at the University of Washington in those days offered a set of three survey courses, Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Philosophy, the first two of which seemed to fill the bill. It turned out, though, that there was an odd feature to this broad survey. The class in Ancient Philosophy ended in the fourth century BCE with Aristotle; the class in Medieval Philosophy started up again with Augustine of Hippo in the late fourth and very early fifth century CE, and then jumped immediately to Anselm of Bec in the eleventh century. Inquiries about the gaps brought a shrug and an insistence that nothing interesting had happened in philosophy during those centuries.

It’s harder to find a better example of the way that intellectual history, like every other kind, is written by the winners. The years between Aristotle and Anselm weren’t a philosophical void; it’s simply that the kind of philosophy practiced in those times isn’t ancestral to the kind that’s practiced now, and moved in a direction that today’s philosophers by and large find acutely uncomfortable—and yes, magic is part of the reason.

Classical philosophy in general passed through three broad eras, in which three different questions were of central importance. For the Presocratics, who got started with Thales of Miletus in 585 BCE, the question that mattered was "What is real?" Their proposed answers varied all over the map, and so their successors, notably Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the philosophers of the New Academy and the Old Stoa, asked instead the more fruitful question "How can we know what is real?" The attempts to answer that question ended up creating classical logic, one of the great achievements of the human mind.

By Aristotle’s time, though, a third question had already begun to emerge. The tools of logic proved to be effective ways to figure out at least part of what is real and what matters, but the ancients, like a great many people before and since, quickly discovered that it’s one thing to understand logically what needs to be done and quite another thing to do it, or to motivate others to do it. The question that came to dominate the latter two-thirds of the history of classical philosophy, then, was "How can we live in accordance with what we know to be real?" Plato was ahead of his time here; some of his later work focused on this third question rather than the second, and from this part of his work, later philosophical movements headed off in their own ways.

One of those movements has earned more than one mention in this blog already. This is Stoicism, the philosophical school launched by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. The Stoics—the name comes from the Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch in Athens, where Zeno used to meet with his students—argued that what kept people from living in accordance with reason was, on the one hand, misguided opinions about what was and wasn’t important, and on the other, simple lack of courage. Along the lines of some modern systems of thought, they insisted that if people studied logic and gained an accurate sense of their very modest place in the universe, they would be able to respond to life’s events in a sane and constructive manner, rather than being batted around at random by the forces of passion and prejudice.

It’s an appealing notion, and the best of the Stoics were impressive figures by any standard. The problem, though, was that Stoicism proved impossible to teach to anyone who didn’t already find its ideas and practices emotionally appealing. Anyone else trained in Stoicism simply ended up learning how to pursue irrational ends with a Stoic’s focused will and utter disregard for popular opinion. The Roman emperor Claudius, for example, arranged to give his stepson the best available Stoic training at the hands of Seneca the Younger. The young man’s name was Nero; you may have heard of him, but probably not as a model of Stoic virtue. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius tried the same thing with his son Commodus, and the results were nearly as bad.

Such obvious difficulties in the Stoic approach fed the growth of a different philosophical school, which eventually became the philosophical core of late classical culture: Neoplatonism, which took Plato’s tentative probings toward an answer to the third question and ran with them. Central to Neoplatonism was the idea that the human mind had irrational as well as rational dimensions, and that there had to be better options than ignoring or browbeating the irrational side of the self. In one of his dialogues, Plato had compared the whole self to a chariot in which reason was the driver and two irrational parts, the biological appetites and the social reactions, were two very unruly horses.

The challenge that had to be solved, to the Neoplatonists, was how to train these horses so that they would pull the chariot the way the charioteer wanted to go. Several centuries of work went into finding the best ways to meet that challenge, and the toolkit that became central to Neoplatonism from the third century CE on—well, that’s where magic comes in.

In the writings of late Neoplatonist philosophers such as Iamblichus and Proclus, the word used was theurgy—"divine work," distinguished from thaumaturgy, "working wonders," which was the common or garden variety magical practice that went on in classical society in much the same way that it goes on in ours. The practice of theurgy was exactly the unpopular kind of magic I’ve described above; in the technical language of the time, it was practiced to purify the vehicles of consciousness; in the terms I’ve been using, it was intended to see to it that the baboonery of biological drives and social reactions didn’t interfere with the reason and the will.

The theurgists, in fact, summed up their magic as a preparation for philosophy—not philosophy in the modern sense, of course, but in the classical sense of an active life in the world lived according to the dictates of wisdom. It was far from the only preparation for philosophy in Neoplatonist circles in those days, mind you; the same students who performed magical rituals also immersed themselves in the study of logic, Euclidean geometry, and the most up-to-date natural science of the time. Strange as though the procedure seems by modern standards, it seems to have worked; Neoplatonism never produced a Nero or a Commodus, while it did produce a substantial and impressive crop of teachers, statesmen, philosophers, and the like.

Still, the great final synthesis of Neoplatonism came together, rather as our own final syntheses seem to be doing, in a collapsing society. As the classical world imploded, theurgy suffered the same fate as most other aspects of classical culture. A reworked and sanitized version of Neoplatonist theurgy found a home in Christianity, with the sacraments filling the role of theurgic rites, and stayed in use in some parts of the Western World until the Reformation and Counterreformation put paid to it. In its original form, the tradition went underground, and maintained a hole-and-corner existence in various corners of the Mediterranean world until the Renaissance, when most of the core texts found their way back into circulation and helped launch a revival that hasn’t stopped yet. Read standard texts of the major magical traditions nowadays—the papers collected in Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn are as good an example as any—and you’ll find classic theurgic Neoplatonism in there at the core of it, beneath 1500 years or so of miscellaneous accretions.

All this may seem irrelevant to the discussion we’ve been having to the future of an industrial society wrestling with the consequences of overshooting its own resource base. Still, it’s worth noting that a central aspect of our predicament is precisely that even the people who have managed to grasp just how severe that predicament is haven’t been able to turn that realization into a motive for meaningful action. Al Gore’s new mansion and frequent-flyer miles are a well-known example of this, but there are plenty of others. By and large, even those who recognize that today’s SUV lifestyle is an arrangement without a future, and that abandoning it in favor of more modest and more sustainable lifestyles is very nearly the only option that offers a way out, seem unable to make the necessary changes in their own lives.

For all that, these are the people who have at least noticed that there’s a problem; to borrow Plato’s metaphor, the charioteer may not be able to rein in the horses but at least he realizes that the route they’re galloping is going to take them and him right over a cliff. Most Americans haven’t gotten that far yet. Many of them have realized that something’s gone very wrong, but if you ask them what exactly it is that’s gone wrong, you can pretty much count on a great deal of baboonery. Social primates like you and I have a strong and wholly nonrational propensity to force-fit our problems into a social mode—no matter what’s happening, we want to put a face on it, which in practice amounts to blaming it on the troop over there, or the baboons at the top of our troop’s hierarchy, or maybe the ones at the bottom. We also like to define any problem so that its apparent solution doesn’t make us feel that the fulfillment of such basic biological appetites as food, sex, status, and security are put in question. Add to those distorting factors a widespread ignorance of logic and history, and a great deal of straightforward dishonesty on all sides of the political continuum, and you’ve got a pretty fair mess.

Thus we’ve arrived as a society, and at a very late stage in the game, at the same point that classical philosophy reached after the execution of Socrates, when it became uncomfortably clear that having a small minority of people passionately interested in asking and answering the right questions was no guarantee against catastrophic levels of collective stupidity. The Neoplatonist answer was a personal answer, the development of a toolkit to make clear thinking and decisive action possible for anyone with the self-discipline, patience, and persistence to put the tools to work, and it’s as valid an approach now as it was in the days of Iamblichus—though it’s only fair to say that there are other ways of getting to the same place, some similar, some very different.

The question that comes to many minds these days, though, is whether something similar can be done on the large scale—whether, to be precise, it’s possible to banish enough baboonery from our collective conversation about the future that we as a society can confront the real sources of our problems and do what has to be done. We’ll talk about that next week.