It is often said that magic has disappeared from the modern world. This is rather like saying that the backwaters of a river have disappeared beneath a flood, or that starlight has disappeared from the morning sky, since magic is well nigh ubiquitous in the modern world. We live in a veritable maelstrom of magic.
It should be obvious that modern technology is magic that works. You may object that magic, unlike technology, operates by way of occult forces; but this objection confuses ontology and epistemology. An occult force is not a kind of force, but a force that humans understand in a particular way. It is a force that humans understand very poorly, or that is well understood by only a small cabal of adepts. Electricity was once an occult force, and for a great many of us still is. Viewed epistemologically, a computer is for most of us no different than Harry Potter’s wand. It operates by magic.
When we read of sorcerers making use of occult forces in the past, we may suppose that they were in many cases performing tricks with the aid of perfectly natural forces or operations that were not then generally understood. They astonished people using magnets, chemical compounds, or drugs whose properties were, in that time and place, esoteric. Like any modern prestidigitator, they had their secrets. We today have our own sorcerers, whom we call engineers, and they perform astounding tricks with forces that are, for all intents and purposes, esoteric outside the engineers’ cabal. If you think your cell phone is magic, you’re right!
Well, you may say, what about magic that claims to work by way of supernatural forces? Although a supernatural force is by definition ontologically different than a natural force, it is still a force, and it still shares certain essential properties with natural forces. A great deal of wooly thinking is caused by the belief that supernatural forces have nothing whatsoever in common with natural forces. Such a force is, by definition, above, outside, beyond (if you like, below) the domain of natural forces, but to be a force it must still have the property to do work, and to do work it must operate in some manner or other.
The operation of a supernatural force may be inscrutable to human sense and reason, but we can be absolutely certain that, if “spirit” can cause something to happen, it must cause that thing to happen in some way. We needn’t imagine that this is a matter of ghostly gears and pulleys, but if this image is helpful, there is no reason to discard it. We needn’t imagine that this is a matter of winged angels or horned demons, but once again, if this image is helpful, there is no reason to discard it. The point is that even supernatural magic assumes some sort of causal connection, some order or system of cause and effect. Without such an order or system, the supernatural domain would be a perfect chaos, where any set of conditions could, with equal probability, lead to any other set of conditions. In such a chaos it would be impossible to do anything.
In truth, humans make use of supernatural forces all the time, for we deploy a supernatural force every time we use a symbol to influence or control another sentient being. Our words and gestures have no direct effect on the world of nature, but they can work like magic on the minds (i.e. spiritual substance) of other people. I can, of course, disturb your mind by way of natural means (occult or exoteric), such as by plying you with drink or clubbing you over the head. But a much more subtle and efficacious route is to beguile you by supernatural means, with symbols, pictures, words and stories.
The use of symbols to control another sentient being is properly known as casting a spell. In the modern world this happens all the time, although most of what takes place is actually broadcasting a spell. We are blinded—I dare say enchanted—by misleading symbols of spell-casting taken from long ago. When we think of casting a spell, we think of wrinkled women mumbling before black cauldrons, or bearded men canting in eldritch pentagrams, but these archaic images are themselves part of a spell. The sorcerers under whose spells we fall today don’t look like this. They have concocted their charms in focus groups, and sprinkled their fairy dust by way of the media.
What is “buyer’s remorse” but waking from the spell cast by a thaumaturgical advertising agency? What is a “political disillusionment” but coming out from under the spell of some witch’s coven of political consultants? And there is, of course, the comprehensive beguilement that some have called the “blue pill,” and I have called Calypso’s veil.
You may ask if I mean to suggest that such spells operate by way of “spiritual beings,” of the aforementioned angels and demons. If you mean to hold me strictly to white-robed humanoids with bird’s wings on their backs, or horned fiends with pointed tails, I must say no. These are symbols, and archaic symbols at that; they are not the things symbolized. But I do believe that these symbols symbolized something, and that they are hardly the worst ways we have to imagine what that something is.
Symbols have supernatural power and do spiritual work. Those who are adept in their use are, along with engineers, the sorcerers of our modern world. All of us are, to one degree or another, under their spell. The sorcerers who operate by way of symbols might be called spiritual engineers. I recently described one aspect of this spiritual engineering as the New Necromancy, in which the spirit (symbol) of a dead event is raised to mortify one’s enemies. This is very powerful magic.
How does one tell the difference between good spirits (symbols) and bad spirits (symbols), between white magic and black? It is seldom evident in the faces of those who cast the spell, the beauty of evil enchantresses being notorious and the devil being, by all accounts, exceedingly debonair. The test is in the consequences of falling under the spell, since a spell is a spiritual cause and causes are judged by their effects.
White magic tends to eunomia, good order. Black magic tends to dysnomia, bad order. It’s as simple as that. When a person or society falls under the spell of black magic, falsehood, ugliness and evil spread, and he, or it, falls apart. When a person or society falls under the spell of white magic, truth, beauty and goodness spread, and he, or it, holds together (or mends). I must stress that eunomia is good order, not absolute regimentation. Every good order makes provision for relaxations of order. It “contains” disorder, not as a boiler contains steam, but as the agenda for a meeting contains a break for lunch.
Ubiquitous music is one of the tricks in the maelstrom of modern magic. It can be heard anywhere, at any time, for any amount of time. One can jump from and airplane or dive to the bottom of the sea, all the while under the spell of music. In many public places, the spell is broadcast to all. Music is without question a spell, with a moral significance that, as Aristotle saw, acts directly on the spirit. It is part of the maelstrom of magic that today surrounds us and draws us to its center.