We Are All Technological Magi

We Are All Technological Magi November 19, 2007

Many Christians talk about and debate the “occult” and fear the use of magic in the world, with an almost unnatural fear of magic, believing that if one is even in its proximity, one is tainted for life. While there is a great amount of truth to this, there is often much confusion as to what magic is, and why much (but not all) of its use has been condemned. They do not understand there are many kinds of magic, and some of which continue to be used today, only under a different name. Indeed, just the use of a computer alone would make one a magus in earlier societies. This comes from what the ancients understood magic to be: the use of occult (or hidden) forces in order to cause a specific, desired effect: the use of electricity, a hidden force, to turn on the machines we use today would be seen as an act of magic. Because of this, magic was a genus with many different species, with some, like demonology, being utterly reprehensible, but others, such as medicinal arts, as being seen as benign.

It must be made clear: modern scientific advances in technology would be understood as magic by those living in classical societies (the production of moving images and statues being a favorite task of the magus: rumor has it St Albert the Great made such an image, and St Thomas Aquinas, fearing it was demonic, destroyed it). This is not because people were superstitious and would understand modern marvels only within the category of “the supernatural,” but that they understood, as was said above, that magic was related to the controlling and use of “occult” or hidden forces in the world which makes the world move and work. The word “machine” is cognate to “magic,” and points to the relationship between so-called “natural magic” with modern technology, showing how it was not all “supernatural.” Machines can be used for good; however, perhaps more often than not, they are used to dominate and control the world, by accumulating enough power to force one’s dominating will upon others. In this way, their use can fall, and perhaps more often than not does fall, under many of the ancient condemnations of magic which rejected its use when it was seen as eliminating free will. J. R. R. Tolkien understood this and saw very clearly how the our love for technology was an extension of the ancient world’s love for magic, and the danger and harm of magic has not been left behind:

This desire is once wedded to a passionate love for the real primary world, and hence filled with a sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, — and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) of development of the inherent inner power or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 130 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981) 145-6.

There were many concerns that the Church had with magic of any kind, natural or supernatural. Outside of the question of demonic influence, the main concerns was how it was used: was it being used to dominate and control others, to overwhelm their free will or not? Astrology, which was seen as a kind of natural magic, was condemned because it was being used to justify a fatalistic rejection of free will.

However, this is not to suggest all such use of natural magic is bad. One of the greatest Renaissance writers on magic was Marsilio Ficino, and his apology (which he writes in the third person) helped explain that there is indeed a proper use for “natural magic” in Christian life (even as we, in a technological age, understand it to be technology):

Nor is Ficino talking about the profane kind of magic which uses the cult of demons – assert this strongly – but the natural kind of magic which seizes, from the heavenly bodies through natural things, benefits for helping one’s health – be sure to mention that. This faculty seems so much more helpful to the minds that legitimately use it than even medicine or agriculture do in their way, and even more helpful depending on our industry in joining heavenly things to the earthly.

In this work the first people of all were the Magi who worshiped Christ at his birth. Why, therefore, should you be afraid of the name “Magus,” as if it were terrifying? It is a name pleasing to the Gospels, not something wicked and venomous, but signifying a wise man and a priest. Was not such a Magus the first worshiper of Christ? If you will permit be to say it, he was like a farmer who cultivates a field, only he was a cultivator of the world. He did not worship the world, any more than a farmer worships the earth. But just as a farmer, for the sake of human food, tempers his field to the weather, so this wise man, this priest, for the sake of human health, tempered the lower things of the world to the highest, and like the egg of a hen, subjected the earthly things to the warmth of the heavens. This is something that God himself always does, and teaches us to do, and persuades us to do, that the lower things be generated by the higher, and moved and ruled.

So there are two kinds of magic. One, with a certain ritual, works with demons and often makes predictions. This is driven out when the Prince Of This World is driven out. The other kind, which subjects natural materials to natural causes, works miraculously.

Marsilio Ficino, “The Apology of Marisilio Ficino” in Marisilio Ficino’s Book of Life. trans. Charles Boer (Woodstock, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1996), 186-7.

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