Pluto's Republic

Last week’s Archdruid Report post ended with what might, without too much exaggeration, be called a cliffhanger. Talk about magic, as we’ve been doing for the last few weeks, and point out that using magic to help people think more clearly has to be done one at a time with the active cooperation of the person in question, and it’s a sabfe bet that very quickly someone’s going to ask, if people en masse can’t be made to understand, might it be possible at least to make them behave?

That’s the question I posed last week. It’s a common notion, and unlike most common notions about magic these days, it has some relation to the actual possibilities of magic. To answer the question, though, it’s going to be necessary to start with a corpse in a bathroom.

The bathroom in question was on the University of Chicago campus, on an otherwise pleasant spring day in 1991. The corpse belonged to Ioan Culianu, a Romanian emigré who had a stellar reputation in academic circles as a brilliant historian of religions, and a quieter but no less impressive reputation in certain other circles as a modern practitioner of Renaissance magic. Culianu had been shot once in the back of the head by an unknown assailant. It’s been suggested that his murder had a good deal to do with his involvement in Romanian politics, as one of the most vocal opponents of the regime that succeeded the Communists in that country, but the case remains unsolved to this day.

Back in 1984, Culianu defined himself as one of the rising stars of the academic firmament with a book titled Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. The academic study of Renaissance magic had been a hot field since the Sixties, when Frances Yates finally blew the lid off a generations-old habit of scholarly disdain for occultism, but even by the standards of the Eighties Culianu’s book was startling. It took magic seriously as a system of psychological manipulation that used the cravings and desires of its target—the “eros” of the title—to shape human behavior. It suggested on that basis that modern advertising, which does exactly this, is simply the current form of magic, and that contemporary Western nations are “magician states” governed by the magical manipulation of public consensus.

None of these ideas were new. Culianu got most of them from the same place he got much of his magical training, the writings of the renegade Dominican sorcerer Giordano Bruno, who ended a colorful career by being burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600. Bruno’s writings on magic describe magic in much the same way Culianu did, as a system of manipulation that casts out lures for nonrational desires. It’s a common way of thinking about magic, the kind of magic I’ve labeled thaumaturgy in earlier posts. The interesting thing here is that Culianu also discussed the very different figure of Marsilio Ficino, who was an even more important figure in the history of magic than Bruno, but who practiced the other kind of magic, the kind I’ve called theurgy.

Ficino was a Neoplatonist theurgist of the kind I’ve described earlier, practicing magic as a preparation for philosophy. He was also a physician, and much of his magic focused on what he called melancholy and we call clinical depression, the occupational disease of Renaissance intellectuals. Instead of manipulating other people by means of nonrational lures, he taught students to direct the nonrational aspects of their own minds, so that they could think more clearly and avoid the distortions of thought and feeling that clinical depression brings with it. While Ficino has a place in Culianu’s book, though, the theurgic dimension of his work gets very little exposure there.

The fault line between these approaches runs straight back to the origins of Western occult philosophy, and we need to follow it to make sense of the whole pattern. For all practical purposes, we can start with an ancient Greek thinker named Aristocles, whose very broad shoulders got him the nickname Plato. One of the most influential minds in human history—Alfred North Whitehead, himself no intellectual slouch, characterized all of Western philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato”—he played a central role in redirecting philosophy away from arbitrary speculations about the nature of existence, and toward close attention to how human beings know what exists and what doesn’t. Even if you’ve never read a word Plato wrote, you use concepts he invented practically every time you think.

Still, it’s not exactly rare for those who define the cutting edge to make a fair number of mistakes along with their insights, and then leave the resulting mess for later generations to work out. Plato did that, in spades. Much of the history of classical philosophy consists of attempts by later thinkers to sort through his legacy, build on his achievements, and quietly chuck his less useful notions into the trash. In the process, they had to deal with his political opinions. So does everyone who confronts Plato; they remain a live issue right up to this day.

Plato was born into a wealthy and politically well-connected family, and grew up in an Athens that was torn by decades of savage political struggles following its catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War. There were two parties—this may sound familiar—one of which was dominated by the rich, while the other was nominally democratic but mostly just consisted of everyone on the outs with the other party. Plato had family connections to what we might as well call the Republican party, but distanced himself from it because its rule over Athens was blatantly corrupt and unjust. When the Democrats staged a coup, though, things didn’t get noticeably better, and Plato’s teacher Socrates was executed on trumped-up charges in the reaction that followed.

Plato responded to all this the way quite a few people are responding to the failures of political systems today, by trying to imagine a system that would somehow evade the pervasive human habit of making really bad political decisions. None of his attempts worked, and it’s important to understand why they didn’t work, because the same flaws pervade today’s notions about getting people to do the right thing when they pretty clearly don’t want to do so.

The most famous of all Plato’s dialogues, The Republic, focuses on this issue, and takes the form of an inquiry into justice. It covers an extraordinary landscape of ideas, and raises points that are well worth study today, but at its core is the imaginary construction of the world’s first utopia—yes, that’s one of the concepts that Plato invented. His utopia, like most of the ones invented since then, is ruled by the minority of the population who have the brains and the education to do the job right. They’re supported by a larger minority of the population that’s motivated by concepts of honor and social expectations, who provide the muscle for war and crowd control; and these two classes rule the rest of the population, who are motivated by their appetites.

Underneath this, as my regular readers will have guessed already, is the same way of thinking about the individual that gave rise to Plato’s chariot metaphor: the differentiation of the whole self into reasoning, social, and biological parts. Each caste fills one of the three roles—the leaders are the reasoners, the guardians are social, and the workers are biological—so that the Republic becomes an exact analogue of the individual. Plato, being Plato, works the metaphor in all sorts of directions, and later generations of Platonists took those and ran with them in quite a few useful ways, but there’s a little problem with the Republic: Plato’s conclusions clash disastrously with core insights of the rest of his work.

In the dialogue Meno, to note only one example, Plato has Socrates demonstrate a point about the deep structure of the human mind by walking an illiterate servant boy through a geometrical proof. The boy doesn’t know a thing about geometry, but he is able to follow Socrates’ logic, and by the end of the process has understood what at that time was cutting-edge mathematics. Socrates’ point is that anyone, anywhere, could be taught the same thing—and that’s a point for which Plato’s Republic has no room at all. In the Republic, reason is for the few; honor and social commitments are for another minority, separate from the first; the majority has nothing but appetite. It’s therefore fair to say that in the Republic, nobody is allowed to be more than one-third of a complete human being.

That’s always the problem with utopian schemes; the inhabitants are never allowed to be fully human, though the restrictions are rarely handled with the geometric precision Plato displayed. When a utopian scheme is put into practice, in turn, what inevitably happens is that whatever dimension of the human is supposedly abolished happens anyway, and defines the fault line along which the scheme breaks down. Marxism is a great example; in theory, people in Marxist societies are motivated solely by noble ideals; in practice, getting people to go through the motions of being motivated solely by noble ideals required an ever-expanding system of apparatchiks, secret police and prison camps, and even that ultimately failed to do the job. One way or another, trying to create heaven on earth reliably yields the opposite; whatever resembles Plato’s Republic on paper turns into Pluto’s Republic in practice.

The would-be political thaumaturge, the person who wants to use magical manipulation to make people do what he thinks is the right thing, is subject to the same rule. He’s trying to do the same thing Plato wanted to do in his imaginary Republic by different means. As thaumaturgy is subtler than jackboots, the political thaumaturge gets his disastrous results in a subtler way.

When you’re practicing thaumaturgy for yourself or another person who wants to work with you, it’s possible to aim symbolic and ritual stimuli very carefully at specific details of the nonrational mind, and the effects are observed and managed by the rational mind; this sort of thaumaturgy very often spills over into theurgy if the person receiving the work is open to that. When a client comes to a practitioner of old-fashioned Southern conjure magic, for example, most of what happens on the first visit is meant to give the root doctor a clear idea of exactly what the client’s real issues are. Many practitioners have a canned divination rap—the term for this in the trade is “cold reading”—that covers all the usual bases; it sounds very impressive, which is good for building the client’s confidence, but the skilled root doctor watches the client carefully while giving the cold reading, looking for the signs that show what’s really going on, so the magic can be aimed precisely where it’s needed.

You can’t do that with political thaumaturgy. If you want to influence the thinking of a nation, or even a community, you have to paint with a very broad brush. That means, first, you have to aim at one of a few powerful nonrational drives that affect most people in much the same way; second, you have to pile as much pressure as possible onto whatever drive you have in mind, so that you can overwhelm whatever the psyche of the individual might throw at you; and third, you have to weaken the reasoning mind, because that’s the part of the self that most often trips up efforts to work magic off basic drives, especially when those efforts aim at goals that most of the targets think are against their best interests.

Two awkward consequences follow from these considerations. The first is that there are things that political thaumaturgy can’t do at all, because they contradict the requirements of the method. Getting people to think clearly by encouraging them not to think clearly is not a promising strategy, and it’s not much better to try to use basic drives to convince people not to give in to their basic drives. The old delusion that techniques are value-free is as misleading here as elsewhere; any technique is better for some ends than others, and thus privileges the values that favor those ends above others. (It’s probably worth pointing out that a sane response to peak oil, which requires clear reasoning and the ability to look beyond those basic biological drives, is among the things political thaumaturgy is almost uniquely unsuited to accomplish.)

The second awkward consequence is that the political thaumaturge is always affected by his or her own magic. The old-fashioned Southern root doctor just mentioned is in no danger of being caught in the work he does for his client; he aims his magic at the client’s psychological buttons rather than his own, and the root doctor isn’t even present for most of the work—the cleansing baths that remove unwanted emotional states, the daily rite of putting a drop of Van Van oil on a mojo bag that directs consciousness toward certain things and away from others, and a good deal more, are done by the client in private. Political thaumaturgy can’t be precisely aimed, though, and can’t usually rely on talking people into practicing complex rituals in their spare time; instead, it relies on mass media, and relies on repetition and compelling verbal or visual patterns that sidestep the critical faculties of the reasoning mind.

Just as you can’t spread raspberry jam on toast without getting it on your fingers, though, you can’t spend your time creating words and images that appeal to the nonrational mind without your own nonrational mind being influenced by them, and the more compelling your thaumaturgy is, the more surely you will be caught by your own spell. Since political thaumaturgy requires you to weaken the reasoning mind and overwhelm the defenses of the self by pounding on simple, powerful nonrational drives, the impact of this work on the mind of the political thaumaturge is far from helpful, and it helps explain why practitioners of political thaumaturgy so often end up messily dead.

Whether or not this is what happened to Culianu is still an open question; his biographer Ted Anton notes that a good part of Culianu’s last months went into writing blistering propaganda pieces assailing the Romanian government, a process that might best be compared to poking a grizzly bear with a stick, but speculation about the role this played in his murder remains exactly that. Still, it’s par for the course for political thaumaturges to end up as true believers in their own propaganda, and in the hardball politics of post-Communist eastern Europe, this could well have been a fatal mistake.

It’s a common enough mistake, too. In a post last year, I discussed Adolf Hitler, whose career is among the best documented examples both of the power and of the pitfalls of political thaumaturgy. Hitler’s meteoric rise to power and the extraordinary control he achieved over the imagination of the German people are a remarkable example of thaumaturgy at work, and readers interested in figuring out how political thaumaturgy functions could do worse than study the Nazi regime’s systematic transformation of an entire nation into ritual theater hammering on a handful of primal biological drives. The result of that effort is just as telling; the process of convincing Germany that he was invincible convinced Hitler of the same thing, and he proceeded to destroy himself and his regime in a crescendo of blunders that all followed from his inability to imagine that he could be mistaken.

For an example much closer to home, consider the way that the privileged classes in contemporary America by and large support policies that, in exchange for absurdly huge short term gains, are sawing away at the basis of their wealth and privilege, and may ultimately leave many members of those classes dangling from lampposts. Awarding multibillion-dollar bonuses to bank executives when their banks are losing money and most Americans are going broke is, shall we say, not a strategy with a long shelf life. It may be possible for a while to insist that all that money is going to trickle down and create jobs, but when the jobs don’t appear—and they won’t, because diverting money from the productive economy of nonfiscal goods and services to the unproductive economy of high finance is an effective way to cause jobs to be lost rather than gained—that claim isn’t going to hold up well.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s comparison of the American political class to the French aristocracy on the eve of the Revolution thus may yet turn out to be even more prescient than Galbraith thought. That America’s privileged classes don’t see this coming is another example of the way thaumaturgy recoils on its practitioners: decades of public relations meant to justify the parasitic habits of the finance sector have produced generations of financiers who believe implicitly in their own propaganda. Thus they’ve been repeatedly blindsided by the failure of the economy to conform to their beliefs, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll do any better when the stakes in the game change from money to blood.

In any other context, to be sure, comparing Ioan Culianu to the faceless apparatchiks who run Goldman Sachs and its equivalents, to say nothing of Adolf Hitler, would merely insult the memory of a brilliant scholar. The sole thing these disparate figures have in common is their use of political thaumaturgy. This in itself makes the point that, to my mind, most needs making here, which is that it doesn’t matter why you attempt political thaumaturgy. You can try to use it to overthrow a repressive government, to line your pockets with unearned wealth, to impose a murderously twisted ideology on a vulnerable nation—it really doesn’t matter; it’s not going to get you the results you want.

What might produce the results that are wanted, and needed, as the industrial world begins to skid down the far side of Hubbert’s peak is another matter, and one that I’ll begin to trace out next week.