Monday, September 28, 2015

Brian P. Copenhaver's "Magic in Western Culture"

Brian P. Copenhaver is Distinguished Professor and Udvar-Hazy Chair of Philosophy and History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, and reported the following:
With reverence for the irreverent Ford Madox Ford, from page 99:
Both love and magic are forces, however: they drive the motions of the heavenly bodies, cause the changes of elements, humors, and compounds and power the mutual attraction of all these organs of the living cosmos. Love in Ficino’s physics, spirit (pneuma) in Stoic physics, and force in Newton’s physics have analogous, though not identical, roles. Ficino’s love lacks both the explanatory power of Newton’s force and the systematic coherence of the Stoic pneuma, but all three are terms of scientific intention that aim to explain puzzling features of nature.

Ficino’s ideas about erotic magic are not idiosyncratic. They come from his Platonism. ‘Love is given in Nature,’ Plotinus teaches, and ‘the qualities inducing love induce mutual approach: hence there has arisen an art of magic ... that knits soul to soul.’ In his immanentist, anti-Gnostic moments, Plotinus insists on the organic unity of the world and on the erotic forces binding it together, just as Proclus does in his booklet On Sacrifice, with allusions to the Symposium. Attention to the philosophy, cosmology, and theology in Ficino’s magic reveals a theory that means to respect religious probity, scientific evidence, and philosophical reasoning. Those same norms are honored by On Sacrifice, and – though the resonance of love with magic and physics may be silent for us – it rang loud for Ficino and his contemporaries.”
These paragraphs from page 99 of Magic in Western Culture are about Marsilio Ficino, the philosopher at the focus of the book. These few lines summarize Ficino’s great debts to his ancient sources, especially Plato, Plotinus and Proclus. They also suggest that Ficino’s magic outlasted him, surviving into the age of Isaac Newton.

Ficino, who translated and interpreted Plato, was the leading philosopher of his time and place – Renaissance Italy – at a time when magic was not just respectable but required reading for respected intellectuals like himself and Pico della Mirandola. By the time Newton died in 1727, however, taking magic seriously was something that a serious intellectual like Newton could no longer risk – except in private.

The last part of Magic in Western Culture tells the story of magic’s decline, which Max Weber called ‘disenchantment.’ The first part of the book explains how Western Europe became enchanted in the first place, by thinkers of the first rank like Plato, Plotinus, Proclus and Thomas Aquinas. The middle of the book shows why Hermes Trismegistus did not make the list of Ficino’s sources – because his magic was not ‘Hermetic.’
Learn more about Brian P. Copenhaver and Magic in Western Culture.

--Marshal Zeringue