The Maelstrom of Modern Magic

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.

21 thoughts on “The Maelstrom of Modern Magic

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  3. Magic in fantasy seems to consist of pure very often spiritual energy that is converted into other forms of energy and or matter.

    Magic in real life however seems to consist of a lot of physical infrastructure and maintenance that enables the handling of such energy.

    It must be inextricably tied up in the physical structures built by man at least for now in order to work.

    However given the ephermalization of technology. Where less and less mass is utilized to do more and more.

    It will come to resemble magic as depicted in fantasy and folklore more and more.

    • “Spiritual energy” is another metaphor. There is nothing wrong with it, so long as we recognize that it is a metaphor and not a subtle form of natural energy. My sense is that the spiritual can be imagined only allegorically.

      • ”“Spiritual energy” is another metaphor. There is nothing wrong with it, so long as we recognize that it is a metaphor and not a subtle form of natural energy. ”

        In the fantasy world magic is literal and is regarded in that world often like we regard the laws of physics.

        Of course our world is not like that.

        ”My sense is that the spiritual can be imagined only allegorically.”

        If that is true than the soul is no different from the electrical impulses of the brain. Of which the absence of such indicates that the spiritual ceases to be.

        A soul thereby is not immortal but contingent.

      • In the post, I argue that our world is rather more like the world of fantasy than is commonly supposed. We don’t see this because we have been taught to think of magic in terms of archaic symbols, such as the ugly witch mumbling over her cauldron, and because we have a rather wooly idea of what magic in the fantasy world would actually have to be like. We cannot, or at least don’t know how to, move mountains with our thoughts and words, but we can move human bodies by way of their minds, and this is a sort of “magic.”

        I’m afraid I don’t follow your second point. If I say “the spiritual can only be imagined allegorically,” I mean that it is always “different” from any image we may use to represent it. This includes saying that the soul is, or is like, “electrical impulses of the brain.” The spirit (or soul) is exactly like nothing but the spirit (or soul), but it is not the sort of thing we can form an image of, only analogies. It is rather like love in this respect. I can imagine examples and I can imagine analogies, but I can’t imagine love itself.

  4. ”We needn’t imagine that this is a matter of ghostly gears and pulleys, but if this image is helpful”

    Although this image is helpful it can cause a person to mistakenly assume a mechanistic view of the spiritual.

    In the same way the image of the clockwork universe may help but it may also impede proper understanding via a preconceived framework of the properties of the universe being mechanical.

    • I agree there is a hazard of pushing this metaphor too far. But is is useful insofar as it counteracts the idea that magic means that something “just happens.” Sometimes the ritual surrounding magic is just mumbo jumbo, but at other times it reflects a healthy sense that magic makes use of regular operations, and therefore employs regular techniques.

      • I believe that it’s “Clark’s Law” (Arthur C. Clark) that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magical to a lower level of technical development. More or less…

  5. White magic tends to eunomia, good order. Black magic tends to dysnomia, bad order.

    I’m fond of the magic that leads to disorder, myself. It is the most powerful form of magic, since it works with entropy rather than against it. And of courses Chaos is a much older god than the one you folks are so obsessed with.

  6. The last bit, “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.” made me think of a bit of Chestertons ‘Everlasting Man’, if you feel it irrelivent feel free to ignore it:

    “I believe that the black magic of witchcraft has been much more practical and much less poetical than the white magic of mythology. I fancy the garden of the witch has been kept much more carefully than the woodland of the nymph. I fancy the evil field has even been more fruitful than the good. To start with, some impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. And indeed that popular phase exactly expresses the point. The gods of mere mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. They had a great deal of good nonsense about them; in the happy and hilarious sense in which we talk of the nonsense of Jabberwocky or the Land where Jumblies live. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work but the work would really be done. A man did not exactly go into the wood to meet a nymph; he rather went with the hope of meeting a nymph. It was an adventure rather than an assignation. But the devil really kept his appointments and even in one sense kept his promises; even if a man sometimes wished afterwards, like Macbeth, that he had broken them.”

    I know I agree with Chesterton, and I believe I agree with your sentiments here as well. There is some conjunction of the two which speaks to my spirit mysteries I cannot articulate just now, so as I said, if this means nothing to you I apologize for the intrusion.

      • I had been reading the comments on order and chaos and Everlasting Man had struck me in that, if I remember correctly, Chesterton was of the view that those pre-historic cave artists worshipped a god of order. Then I came across your comment.

      • Yes, quite right mickvet. He was of the view that cave-artists most likely worshipped a god of order if cave-art in fact represented any kind of worship at all. But more to what you where saying he believed that each small tribe generally had in the beginning a concept of an all encompassing creater God that only became a pantheon on lesser gods when they came in contact and regular trade with others. Pan was the God of the universe to his people first, and later only a god of the forest when he had to fit in with the gods of other peoples and fit into someone elses pantheon.

        He very much believed that pluralism degrades religion, and that civilization comes before savagery, rather than after.

        Kristor is quite right both logically and historically that chaos cannot come before order and must be subservient to it.

        More than that, on the thought I had yesterday, the savages that think they serve chaos usually in fact are thrall to order. Weather it’s a mad king or a depraved nation or a raging forest fire chaos tears though the established dry, dead, feeble, and corrupt, consumes itself, and leaves clear space for new growth and fresh order to replace the decayed.

        Even entropy only tells us the whole universe will go the way of decay and rebirth, and something new and fresh and more alive will then be. It it just another thing that points to an undecaying transcendence cause and incorruptible order that must be in order for decay to exist.

        But for a final note, dark magic seeks power and ends up a pawn, light seeks joy and gets all things it needs in the end, even power. The impractical is ever the most practical.

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