Recently on Aaron Leitch’s Solomonic group, there’s been an extremely active conversation about defining magic. In fact, Aaron has himself recently chimed in on the subject with a guest post on the late Donald Michael Kraig’s Llewellyn blog. It seems that this topic crops up time and time again on various forums, and that every book on the subject must necessarily begin by providing its own definition of terms. Yet these definitions so often seem to circle around the subject without striking at the heart of it. What is so difficult about defining magic, and why should it serve as such an ongoing source of consternation to those who study and practice it?
When I began to engage in the academic study of magic, it became apparent to me that it is just as difficult to define “magic” as it is to define “religion.” Those who study or practice magic (or religion) have an intuitive understanding of the term when they use it; but when an attempt is made to encompass this idea within a concrete definition, it invariably slips through one’s fingers. The proposed definition is too broad or too narrow, is subject to counterexample, or simply fails adequately to convey the subject matter. As such, in our daily lives it seems we often end up taking the same stance toward magic that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart did toward pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
Why Define Magic?
After seeing how many difficulties are inherent in defining magic, and witnessing so much back-and-forth on the subject, one has to ask: why do we need to define magic at all? Isn’t it sufficient to recognize it when we see it, without having to dissect it and classify it and tie it up in a neat package? It’s a valid question, but humans are designed to create meaning and impose order on the world. We like our boxes and our pigeonholes. And when we’re unable to fit a concept into a succinct and cogent definition, particularly when that concept touches on a matter of “ultimate concern” to us, it bothers us on a deep level. Even when the subject of our discussion is infinite–perhaps especially when it is infinite–we are desperate to define and describe it. This is precisely the reason why, as has been so often pointed out, mystics are quick to state that God is unknowable even as they write voluminous tomes talking about him.
Barriers to Definition
If we must define magic, then, let’s see what we can do to come up with a workable product. I’ve attempted several times over the past decade to articulate a definition of magic that escapes the problems that so often beset the definitions I’ve encountered, with admittedly limited success. Trying to propose a good definition for magic is rather like trying to wrestle a greased pig: no matter how hard you may try to pin it down, it’s more likely than not to slip through your fingers. Before giving it another attempt, however, I feel it’s helpful and instructive to examine what those definitional obstacles are.
As a starting point, let’s look at perhaps the most famous definition of magic, given in 1929 by Aleister Crowley in Magick in Theory and Practice: “Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” So much attention has been given to the shortcomings of this definition that I will spend little time on it, but it is so widely quoted that it must nonetheless be addressed. Suffice it to say that because the definition implies every act performed in accordance with one’s True Will is a magical act, it is so broad as to be essentially useless for our purposes. At the same time, Crowley’s definition is not without its merits. It is beneficial insofar as, for the magician, it promotes an awareness of the magic that surrounds us in what we generally consider to be the mundane world, in much the same way that we are instructed to remember that “Kether is in Malkuth and Malkuth is in Kether.” It must be remembered that Crowley was writing for an audience composed largely of students and practitioners of magic, and that his definition was probably largely intended to serve a spiritually didactic purpose rather than to provide an academic definition of magic per se.
In Aaron Leitch’s recent blog post on the subject, he defines magic quite simply as “the art of working with spirits,” as outlined by Elizabeth Butler in her seminal work Ritual Magic. Every definition is to some extent a political statement, and Aaron’s is no different: as he works in the grimoiric tradition of spirit magic, this view fits with his own perspective and practice. Nor does Aaron claim that this is the only legitimate definition of the term, or that it is intrinsically superior to any others. As a personal definition and guiding axiom it certainly works just fine. In contradistinction to Crowley’s overly broad definition, however, Aaron’s definition is too narrowly construed to encompass the entirety of what is meant when practitioners of Western esotericism refer to magic. Spiritual magic has a well-defined place in the classical view, but this glosses over the also very well-defined categories of natural and celestial magic (as exemplified in Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia), as well as more modern and postmodern constructions that do not easily fit into any of these three headings. Even Elizabeth Butler is quick to point out in her preface to Ritual Magic that “magic, like poetry, resists precise definition.”
In Kathy McDonald’s original post on Aaron’s Solomonic list, which sparked all of this renewed conversation about defining magic in the first place, she proposed the following definition: Magic is “the ability to create change in one’s life and environment, through applying natural sympathetic means that are, as yet, unexplainable scientifically in a given time, place, and culture.” I feel that Kathy’s definition does much to sidestep the weaknesses of previous attempts. It specifies that magic is characterized by effecting change through means that are outside the realm of contemporary scientific understanding, without wedding the definition to a particular methodology.
At the same time, I think there are a couple of areas in which Kathy’s definition may be subject to counterexample. While not specifying methodology, Kathy does specify a mechanism: natural sympathetic means. The doctrine of sympathy is certainly well-established and fairly uncontroversial, being identified most famously in 1922 by James Frazier in The Golden Bough. In examining how practitioners perform magic and the theoretical frameworks upon which they rely, it’s difficult to argue against this concept: it is even implicit in the Hermetic axiom, “as above, so below,” upon which much of Western magic since the dawn of the Renaissance rests. Rather, I feel the greatest difficulty may arise when the word “natural” is brought into play. This one word necessarily assumes a particular form of cosmological understanding which may or may not apply in the case of a given practitioner. This is admittedly a fairly small quibble with what is otherwise a relatively robust definition, but it nonetheless leaves me a bit uneasy.
While the inclusion of the word “natural” may pose problems to Kathy’s definition by making it overly specific, however, there is another way in which this definition may actually be overly broad. There are a number of practices which purport to effect change through natural sympathetic means that are unexplainable by our current scientific understanding, but which one would not refer to as magical. Reiki, for example, uses an initiatic “attunement” to give an individual the ability to heal oneself and others via the manipulation of “life force energy.” This energy and its manipulation are considered natural, even though they are not recognized or accepted in the contemporary scientific worldview. Yet I suspect no Reiki practitioner would call what he or she does “magic.” In fact, there are many such disciplines and practices which would satisfy the requirements of this definition but which one would not generally classify under the heading of magic.
This is a lot to digest, so I’ll pause here for now. In my next post, I will tackle the Sisyphean task of defining magic. Stay tuned!
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