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10 January 2024

The new age of magical thinking

The philosophy of magic inspired the founders of modern science. Now it feeds the delusions of Silicon Valley.

By John Gray

Writing in 1942, John Maynard Keynes described one of the founders of modern science in strikingly unorthodox terms: “Newton was not the first in the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind that looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas day, 1642, was the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.”

One of the most rational 20th-century thinkers, Keynes rejected the rationalist myth of modern science originating in empirical reasoning. Newton “looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues that God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood… he regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty… By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.”

Newton is a later figure than those discussed by Anthony Grafton, but he was also one of the magi. Some were successors to what Grafton calls “the magic of Christianity”, medieval practices in which saints used rituals and sacred objects to work miracles. Others believed magic revealed hidden laws of nature that could be used to exercise control over the material world and human beings. Yet others imagined they were recovering a lost corpus of hermetic wisdom, mastery of which conferred superhuman powers.

The magi were tricksters and con artists, unemployed students or priests, members of monastic orders, artists and occultists who shared the belief that knowledge could transform the world. They were the crucible in which science was formed, not only as a system of theories but in its practical applications as technology and engineering. For many of the magi, “machines embodied the creative energy of the human mind at its highest level”. Flying machines and automata exercised a particular fascination, and an idea of artificial intelligence, devised by human beings but soon surpassing them in understanding, was implicit in the magi’s speculations.

In 1546, Dr John Dee – mathematician and alchemist, astrologer and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I – staged a production of the ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes’ play Pax at Trinity College, Cambridge. The performance, which featured a giant mechanical beetle Dee had constructed ascending into the heavens with one of the characters on its back, provoked “great wondering, and many vain reports” at the university. For Dee the spectacle had been created using “strictly natural – that is, mathematical – means”. Yet such machines filled him with awe, recalling his studies of “the Cabala of nature” and conversations he had with angels. Mathematics was “the solid foundation”, as Grafton writes, “on which much of the edifice of learned magic now rested”.

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In focusing on the role of magic in the origins of modern science, Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton, has a predecessor in the Warburg Institute scholar Frances Yates (1899-1981). In books such as Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972) and The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979), Yates demonstrated that hermetic and occultist traditions were integral parts of European culture. As Grafton writes, she “recreated what she saw as the elegant new magic of the Renaissance: the work of men like Ficino and Pico. They replaced the older, disreputable magic of medieval sorcerers with a discipline that offered true power over nature as well as new forms of physical and spiritual therapy.”

Magi such as Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) were the true founders of modern science. The historical Dr Faustus, an early-16th-century magus, wandered from town to town as a necromancer, claiming to be able to “perform wonders ­– to make people, animals and objects do things entirely outside the natural order”, and to predict the future. Polymaths such as Leonardo and Michelangelo infused their work with the visions of the magi. In the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance – for simple-minded rationalists the prototype of modernity – magic and science were inextricably intermingled.

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The popular view of science remains that of Victorian rationalism. First published in 1890 and going through many editions, The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (later subtitled A Study in Magic and Religion) by the Scottish anthropologist JG Frazer (1854-1941) promoted a view of cultural development in which thought passed through distinct phases, each more rational than the one that preceded it: magical, religious, metaphysical and scientific. Frazer’s typology reflected that of the founder of positivism, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), in which science was the final stage in the evolution of the mind. Frazer was like many in conflating ideas of progress with Darwin’s theory of natural selection – a process that has no built-in direction or trajectory of advance. Anthropologists have long since abandoned theories in which culture evolves in a succession of ever higher stages. But have we truly renounced magical thinking? Is not the belief that science can deliver us from our conflicts also faith in magic?

Our world is a by-product of the growth of knowledge. The increase in human numbers – from around a billion at the start of the 19th century to over eight billion at present– would not have been possible without technological spin-offs such as public sanitation and vaccination, the extraction of fossil fuels, and intensive farming. Anyone who questions scientific progress denies reality. But science and magic continue to be closely linked in contemporary culture. As it has multiplied, transformed and extended human lives, science has been credited with magical powers as miraculous as those attributed to the magi in the times chronicled by Grafton.

Magus is a brilliantly vivid exercise in intellectual history, as told through the biographies of the early modern magi, which will stir the thoughts of everyone who reads it. It is a pity the book does not include a postscript detailing the links between science and magic in more recent times, for they are many. The American rocket engineer Jack Parsons (1914-52), one of the most important figures in the US space programme, was a disciple of the occultist Aleister Crowley, as was Major-General JFC Fuller (1878-1966), the leading British interwar proponent of tank warfare. Rocket science and occultism were closely connected in tsarist and Soviet Russia in the person of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), a founding father of aeronautics and a key figure in the cosmist movement, which proposed that human immortality could be achieved by interplanetary migration. The seminal cosmist thinker was the Russian Orthodox mystic Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903), who prophesied the technological resurrection of all the human beings that had ever lived. For a time cosmism blended with Bolshevism, producing the slogan “Dead of the world, unite!”.

Evidently, the world revealed by science – a purposeless cosmos in which the human animal is a passing accident, headed like all other species for eventual extinction – cannot satisfy modern minds. So they have concocted an ersatz religion of scientism, in which science can eliminate hunger, ageing and death. If these transformations are not enough, humans can fashion a new world by escaping their planetary home.

From one point of view, these may be real possibilities. There is no preordained limit to the power of scientific knowledge to overcome our biological frailties and alter the environment in which humans have hitherto lived. Our species has the capacity, even at its enlarged numbers, to feed itself; it lives longer, on average, than it has ever done; and it has demonstrated an ability to visit other planets. But even as agricultural productivity has increased, hunger has become a weapon in war. Human beings live longer, but the lives of millions are cut short by despair and drugs. Death may be indefinitely delayed, at least for a few, but all are prone to perishing in wars, revolutions and social collapse. Mass migration to Mars, if it ever happens, would only project geopolitical struggles for natural resources into the heavens.

Whatever advances science makes, human conflict perpetuates many of the evils from which humankind has always suffered. The belief that science can rid us of immemorial ills is a delusion. If there are remedies for them, they are ethical and political, not scientific.

Clearly, the trouble is in human beings themselves. In response, transhumanists propose re-engineering the species and eradicating its faults. But who decides what these faults are? For Stalin, once rumoured to have been interested in using bioengineering to develop more ruthless fighters, they might have included compassion for battlefield casualties. Hitler had well-known racial preferences. No doubt transnational corporations and organised crime will have their own agendas for re-editing the species. The fabled power of humankind over nature turns out to be the power of some human beings over others.

In her superb, now semi-forgotten novel The Abyss (1968), Marguerite Yourcenar tells the story of Zeno, a Renaissance philosopher and alchemist who travels through Europe and the Ottoman empire in the pursuit of dangerous knowledge, and ends his own life when he is accused of atheism and sentenced to death. Yourcenar chose as the book’s epigraph a passage from Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man:

“Other species are confined to a prescribed nature… No limits have been imposed on you, however; you determine your nature by your own free will… You are neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, like a free and able sculptor of yourself, you may mould yourself wholly in the form of your choice.”

For Pico, humanism, science and magic were one and the same. Though they may not know it or deny the fact, 21st-century Silicon Valley techno-futurists are his heirs. The implication of Grafton’s mind-changing book is that our age of science may be one of the most extreme periods of magical thinking in history.

Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa
Anthony Grafton
Allen Lane, 304pp, £30

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously