Monday, February 3, 2020

Michael Hunter's "The Decline of Magic"

Michael Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of numerous works on early modern science and culture such as The Occult Laboratory and the award-winning Boyle: Between God and Science.

Hunter applied the “Page 99 Test” to his newest book, The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment, and reported the following:
Page 99 forms part of a lengthy account of a famous poltergeist case, the 'Drummer of Tedworth', when strange and violent disturbances afflicted the house of John Mompesson in Wiltshire. It describes the visit to the house of two aristocrats on behalf of King Charles II, one of whom, the Earl of Chesterfield, recorded in his diary his deep scepticism about the whole affair -- which he wrote off as a "Cheat" -- and about the motives of its chief protagonist, the cleric and demonologist, Joseph Glanvill.

This conflict of ideas is at the heart of The Decline of Magic, which uses case-studies to pursue the antithesis between sceptical views put forward by the fashionable elite and the earnest efforts of scientists and other serious-minded figures to vindicate the reality of supernatural phenomena as part of the defence of religion against the supposed threat of "atheism".

It transpires that gradually the sceptical viewpoint triumphed, due to the efforts first of freethinkers – men like the Deist, Robert, Viscount Molesworth, who wrote: “As ignorance vanishes so does all Spectres, Second Sights, Hobgoblins, fayries, Haunted Houses, apparitions & 100 such fooleryes” -- and then of medical men like Sir Hans Sloane, who wrote a scathing critique of magic and believed that he could cure those susceptible to such beliefs by a regime of bleeding and purging. In fact, this more physiological tradition of scepticism became increasingly predominant, as accusations that magic was the result of fraud or ‘priestcraft’ dwindled in plausibility: superstitious beliefs thus came to be seen less as the result of imposture than of error, indeed potentially well-intended or even unconscious error. Yet the book ends by arguing that, with regard to magic, post-Enlightenment culture has tolerated a ‘balance of Antagonisms’, with the dominant culture rejecting phenomena that minorities vociferously espouse.
Learn more about The Decline of Magic at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue