After all the heaviness of the last couple of posts, I figured you could use a unicorn chaser. But I was all out of unicorns, so have a Grumpy Cat instead. (If you know the source, fill me in so I can share!)
While the preceding critique may be enlightening, however, it is ultimately worth relatively little unless it propels us toward a more helpful definition of magic. It is easy to critique the work of others, but far more difficult to create a compelling offering of one’s own. So in that spirit, I’ll go ahead and put myself on the chopping block as well. As I mentioned in my last post, my own previous attempts to define magic have been just as problematic as others I’ve seen, and I expect that this attempt will be no different. But I’m both stubborn and optimistic, so I’m going to try nonetheless.
Laying the Foundation
When I try to conceptualize magic, I find that my mind keeps wandering back to the definition of esotericism proposed in 1992 by Antoine Faivre in L’ésotérisme, found in English translation in Access to Western Esotericism (1994) and in a number of other works. His full definition is too long to reproduce here, but I strongly encourage anyone who has not yet encountered it to seek it out. Faivre’s work pioneered the contemporary academic study of esotericism, and his definition of Western esotericism in particular remains the most influential in the field to this day. To briefly summarize, Faivre posits that Western esotericism is characterized by the concepts of correspondences, living nature, imagination and mediations, and the experience of transmutation. There are two optional or “relative” characteristics as well, namely the praxis of concordance and transmission, which extend Faivre’s definition but with which we need not concern ourselves for our present purposes.
Faivre states in Access to Western Esotericism that based on the concepts of correspondence and living nature, “the ‘magic’ is simultaneously the knowledge of the networks of sympathies or antipathies that link the things of Nature and the concrete operation of these bodies of knowledge.” In other words, magic is the practical application of one’s knowledge of the correspondences that obtain between things, in order to achieve a certain result. The existence of this network of symbolism is facilitated by the grounding assumption that nature is in some sense alive, multifaceted, full of potential revelations, and that it can (and must) be read like a book in order to decipher its hidden meanings. Moreover, the “knowledge” to which Faivre refers is specifically identified as gnosis, an experiential (and one might say revelatory) knowledge rather than a mere understanding of technical practices or their underlying theory. Thus a necessary consequence of Faivre’s view is that magic is not accomplished by reciting words and performing actions from a script, nor by doing so from a place of theoretical understanding alone. It is not until the individual connects with the symbolic tapestry of correspondences on an intuitive and experiential level–that is, until he or she attains gnosis of them–that magic can truly be performed.
Faivre additionally holds that magic is accomplished by means of mediations, or intermediaries. Humans are not seen as holding sole agency in the working of magic: they must work through spirits, angels, gods, celestial bodies, initiators, rituals, objects of power, et cetera. The symbols and conceptual frames through which we work may themselves also serve this mediating function, such as the Qabalistic Tree of Life or the cards of the Tarot. Even the Thelemic idea of the True Will serves as a mediator between the magician and his or her magic: despite being perceived as a part of one’s own essence, the construal of the True Will as belonging to one’s Divine Self, set apart from one’s mundane or “lower” self, creates a divine reflection of the individual through which the magician’s work is mediated. This is clearly illustrated in the personification of the Will in the figure of the Holy Guardian Angel, which in turn serves as the intermediary through which one’s magic is performed. In short, there is no way of getting around the need for a mediator in magic. If you are able to effect an otherwise magical change simply by means of your own intrinsic abilities, without relying upon any spirits, tools, ritual words or actions, or other symbolic and/or theoretical mediation serving as a facilitator or co-agent of that change, you are not a magician–you are a mutant superhero. Forget about Hogwarts, because you’re going to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters instead.
Finally, an intrinsic component of esotericism is “the experience of transmutation.” In his treatment of this criterion, Faivre refers to the overarching alchemical goal of esoteric currents of thought (indeed, he borrowed the word “transmutation” itself from the discipline of alchemy). The gnostic aim of esoteric movements is in the final analysis a salvific one: however it is phrased or construed, the goal of esotericism is ultimately the redemption or perfection of the individual and of humankind. This goal is quite explicit in that subset of magic we refer to as theurgy, or magic performed for the purposes of spiritual illumination or union with the divine. It is more difficult to see how this pertains to thaumaturgy, i.e. magic performed to achieve concrete results in the mundane world. Yet the latter variety of magic also results in a change: the world of matter is transmuted so as to produce the results sought by the magician. As the Hermetic axiom states, that which is below is like that which is above, with the necessary consequence that any change produced in the mundane world is also reflected in the interior world of the magician. Thus all thaumaturgy produces a concomitant change in the magician him- or herself. Whether this is in keeping with Faivre’s view of esoteric transmutation or whether I have simply committed a bit of semantic sleight of hand in order to force-fit thaumaturgy into this part of his definition, I will leave to the reader to decide. Either way, this criterion boils down to a view of magic which inherently involves the concept of “causing change,” and I believe we can probably agree on this much.
Towards a Definition
Now that the foundation has been laid, we can begin assembling the building blocks of a definition. To summarize the preceding section, we have the following elements to work with:
1. Magic rests upon the gnostic apprehension of sympathies or correspondences.
These three traits, however, aren’t sufficient in and of themselves. They present us with the raw material for a definition, but they are in need of further sculpting. For example, certain nuances of Faivre’s definition of esotericism lead us to a fragile footing when we attempt to apply them directly to magic. The idea that the gnostic apprehension of a given network of correspondences is a necessary component of magic, for example, is fully in keeping with the priorities and perspective of Western esoteric modes of thought. When we attempt to apply this understanding as a definitional criterion of magic per se, however, it quickly becomes a stumbling block.
In describing a human activity such as magic, we cannot rely upon a priori definition. Any attempt to define in the abstract what “magic” means, without reference to what people actually do, must necessarily fail as an academic definition. (Didactic definitions, which aim to illuminate or to inform one’s perspective rather than to describe, are under no such constraints, but that is not what we are interested in here.) We are thus limited to what we can observe, and consequently we cannot comment on the internal states of others. This is why Crowley’s definition succeeds didactically but fails as an objective description of magic. This is also why Faivre’s gnostic criterion, while entirely consonant with the worldview of Western esotericism and thus adequately descriptive of that worldview, fails when applied without modification to a definition of magic. The question of whether one is “really” doing magic if one performs a ritual without a gnostic apprehension of the correspondences it draws upon is a matter for religious debate, not objective description.
That said, we must still to some extent consider the matter of the individual’s intent in performing what an observer would interpret as magic. When we see a character casting a spell on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or another television show or movie, we know it is acting rather than magic. But if we were to see a person earnestly performing a similar set of actions for a purpose other than the entertainment of an audience, we would probably be quick to identify these actions as magical. There are other grey areas when it comes to the question of intent as well: a skeptic might perform a ritual without any expectations as to its validity or efficacy, for example, or a teenager might whimsically perform such a ritual on a lark for the entertainment of his or her friends without believing that it might produce results.
Does a magical ritual become unmagical when it is not performed with a certain mindset? Those who define magic in terms of True Will would argue that very point, but I don’t feel we can easily dismiss this sort of situation as unmagical without resorting to a priori definitions. So what distinguishes these kinds of scenarios from the portrayals of magic on film and stage? Even though there may not be magical intent on the part of the operator in the aforementioned examples, the difference is that the operator still understands the intent of the ritual to be magical in nature, regardless of his or her attitudes toward that ritual. Even in such cases as the Simon Necronomicon, for example, which is widely known as a hoax, if the person practicing a ritual from its pages believes that the intent of that ritual as written is magical–regardless of his or her beliefs about the text’s validity or the validity of magic in general–then I would argue that the performance of the ritual it is still magical in nature. It is only in the absence of both operator intent and the operator’s perception of magical intent in the ritual being performed (in those cases where the ritual is not originated by the operator him- or herself) that an act can safely be called unmagical. This necessarily means that if an actor performs a ritual for dramatic purposes, and if the actor believes that the ritual as written was intended to be magical, the actor’s performance of that ritual becomes a magical act. While one might certainly argue that this is an inappropriate use of magic, I don’t feel that it is inappropriate to state that the actor’s performance in this case is an act of magic.
One frequent misstep in crafting a definition is that we overreach by claiming more on behalf of magic than is reasonable. Nowhere is this more visible than in the framing of magic as a science. This tendency is problematic because magic relies upon a very different epistemology from that of contemporary science. Magic is fundamentally a subjective enterprise: it hinges upon intuition, imagination, and synchronicity rather than the measurement and interpretation of sense data. Calling magic a science may have been a convenient rhetorical strategy to give the term a veneer of respectability and to distance it from its associations with superstition in the early 20th century when we were still riding on the high of the Industrial Revolution, but these days it doesn’t seem quite as compelling. Moreover, to claim that magic is a science muddies the waters by associating it with a methodology and a mode of inquiry that could scarcely be farther removed from the worldview of Western esotericism.
At the same time, there is a relationship between magic and science, just as there is between science and religion, and it demands comment. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” History bears out his claim: less than five hundred years ago, hair dye and deodorant were the province of natural magic, as related by Giambattista della Porta in book IX of Magia naturalis. Admittedly, the Renaissance sphere of natural magic has been disproportionately impacted by scientific advancements compared to (for example) ritual magic. Nonetheless, it seems wise neither to expect that science will forever refrain from encroaching upon what we view today as magic, nor to boast that magic is merely a science that is not yet understood–with the implication that the scientific establishment will one day catch up to what we have known all along. Both of these stances entail a degree of hubris, and undermine our definitions accordingly. In order to withstand the test of time, any good definition must allow for the possibility that certain practices we define as magical today may no longer fit into that sphere in the future.
Despite the need to account for a shifting view of magic’s boundaries over time, we may not need to hedge our bets as explicitly as the preceding paragraph may imply. When we speak of hair dye and deodorant today, it is clear that we are not talking about something we regard as magic. Even if one were to follow the recipes that Giambattista della Porta prescribes for these purposes, one would not understand this to be a magical act. This situation begs a clarification of our previously-articulated criterion of magical intent. While della Porta certainly intended to represent these applications as natural magic, the importance of intent with respect to our own definition lies with the perception of the operator, not that of the author. While an individual who boils alkanet root powder in lye in order to dye his or her hair red per della Porta’s instructions may understand that the effects were originally seen as magical, if this person does not recognize an intent implicit in the action that he or she would today recognize as magical, the criterion has not been met. Conversely, we find more of a borderland in the realm of laboratory alchemy. Some regard alchemy as a transformative spiritual discipline, in which case the practice of laboratory alchemy properly falls under the heading of magic. Others view it as a proto-scientific relic that has been supplanted by modern chemistry, in which case were they to perform an alchemical operation it would not fall under the heading of magic, as it lacks both operator intent and the perception of intent implicit in the operation itself. Consequently, rather than stating explicitly in our definition that something cannot be magic if it is perceived instead to be within the realm of science (or vice-versa), perhaps we would be better off letting this be implicit in our criterion of intent.
Finally, there seems to be a tacit consensus that in defining magic, we are speaking of it as something that you do. It is an action, not a quality or state. Certainly we can speak of “magic talismans” or “magic words,” but what we are really trying to wrap our heads around here is the act of working magic. The adjectival use of “magic” as a quality of a thing is merely ancillary: a thing is a magic thing only insofar as its primary or intended use is in support of a magical act, or insofar as it is considered to be imbued with certain powers or properties as the result of a magical act. Falling back on a common trope, one might say that magic is a verb.
Putting It All Together
If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations. We’ve just spent four thousand words beating around the proverbial bush. Though I feel strongly that all of that bush-beating was necessary to get us to this point, it’s high time we struck to the heart of the matter. So putting all of the pieces together, this is what I’ve come up with:
An act is magical when performed by an individual if it possesses the following four essential characteristics:
Much like Faivre’s definition of Western esotericism, it is difficult to reduce the above to a single sentence. In contrast to Crowley’s pithy definition of magic, this formulation is a bit cumbersome. If we were to try to distill it down as far as possible, however, we might get something resembling the following:
An act is magical when it is intended to cause change through the manipulation of symbolic correspondences or sympathies, is mediated by certain implements and/or agents, and is perceived by the actor to be a magical act.
The astute reader will notice that the criteria we ended up with are not so different from the three building blocks we identified much earlier in this article. Rather than writing off the remainder as pointless exposition, however, I hope you will agree with me that it served an important function insofar as it identified the scope of our definition, addressed the crucial role of intent in magic, and navigated the less-than-clear waters of the relationship between magic and science. I’m sure some might see the value of an essay defining magic in the definition itself, and regard the rest of this essay as so much long-winded rambling. Although I don’t disagree that the road I’ve taken in this essay has been lengthy and winding (and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly known for my brevity), to me the journey is just as important as the destination.
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me. If you care to offer your own critique or point out shortcomings I may have overlooked, I’d love to hear your comments.