When I noticed at the beginning of the month that September had five Wednesdays, and I didn’t have anything in mind to post here for the fifth of them, I asked my readers for their suggestions, following an old custom here that I’ve recently revived. As usual, the resulting discussion was lively and quite a few topics were tossed out for discussion; those that got a significant number of votes will get posts of their own in due time. By a substantial factor, though, the majority wanted me to follow up on a comment I’d made some time ago.
In that earlier discussion, I’d commenrted on Max Weber’s claim that “the disenchantment of the world” was a distinctive feature of modernity That claim had come in for a challenge in the months beforehand, courtesy of a recent book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason Josephson-Storm. Josephson-Storm’s basic argument is that Weber was quite simply wrong—that he and all the people who have repeated his claim ever since have blithely ignored the fact that magic, divination, and other occult practices are still thriving in the modern industrial world, and that the very people who coined the modern insistence that we all live in a post-magical world had their own significant contacts with the very world of occult practices that they claimed had vanished forever.
Reflecting on this, I wondered aloud about what malign enchantment had been laid on modern people to convince so many of them that magic had somehow faded into the past, when magical practices were in regular use all around them, right in the middle of today’s high-tech cities and internet-connected lifestyles. That was the thing my readers wanted to hear about: where that malign enchantment came from, who or what cast it, how it has affected all our lives, and—of course—what are the prospects for breaking the spell.
It’s an intricate set of questions, and not one to which I can offer simple answers, but we can start working our way through the labyrinth with the aid of some history.
In 1904, pioneering sociologist Max Weber published an influential book entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it he traced the origins of modern capitalistm to the Protestant Reformation, and specifically to the Calvinist end of the Reformation. That was the faction inspired by Swiss theologian John Calvin, who rejected nearly all of the traditions of historic Christianity in favor of a stark religious vision that placed the individual at the mercy of a God who had predestined a few souls for salvation and consigned the vast majority to eternal damnation for his greater glory, irrespective of their actions on Earth.
To the hardcore Calvinist, prosperity was one of the signs of divine favor, and so Calvinists reliably beavered away at their professions so that they might be considered members of the elect. Weber pointed out that this and other aspects of Calvinist belief formed the template on which the later capitalist work ethic was constructed. It ended up turning into the Victorian capitalist mindset later rehashed by Ayn Rand, in which the rich by definition deserved their wealth and the poor their poverty, since each was being rewarded according to his deserts by the almighty market, the capitalist substitute for God.
The disenchantment of the world, to Weber, was another way in which Calvinism prefigured capitalism. The Renaissance Catholic worldview against which Calvin rebelled was one in which the material and spiritual worlds constantly interpenetrated. In that worldview, saints and angels helped span the distance between God and man, sacraments and holy objects brought spiritual forces to bear on earthly problems, and the planets themselves were mighty intelligent beings singing the praises of the Trinity as they circled through the heavens. (You can learn all about this worldview from C.S. Lewis’ fine book The Discarded Image, or in a richer sense from his novels Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, which translated the same worldview intact into the language of early twentieth century science fiction.)
All this was anathema to Calvin, for whom there was only God enthroned in his terrible isolation and weak and sinful man cringing in devout terror before him. From there to the worldview of modern rationalist materialism takes only a single modest step: replace Calvin’s God with some equally indifferent abstraction, such as evolution or the free market, and there you are. In Weber’s formulation, the dismissal of saints and sacraments by Calvin prefigured and led directly to the wider dismissal of everything spiritual by Calvin’s materialist heirs. It’s a potent narrative, and it explains certain things about the modern world very clearly.
That said, treating the modern world as “disenchanted” runs afoul of plenty of inconvenient facts. It’s all very well to insist that modern people live in a disenchanted world, that we don’t believe in spirits and magic (or for that matter saints and sacraments), and that very insistence has played a major role in the rhetoric of modernity for well over a century now. The one little difficulty with this, as Jason Josephson-Storm pointed out, is that it doesn’t happen to be true.
Survey after survey has shown that very large numbers of well-educated people in industrial countries believe in the existence of ghosts, the reality of ESP, the validity of astrology, and so on. In today’s America, it bears remembering, the number of people who are employed full time as astrologers exceeds the number employed full time as astronomers by a considerable margin. Go on the internet, that cutting-edge venue for the latest cultural notions, and you can find large and lively communities earnestly discussing the practice of ceremonial magic. For that matter, old-fashioned sacramental churches of the Catholic and Orthodox denominations are still to be found here in great numbers, along with more recently imported religions with comparable faith in exactly those connections between spirit and matter that Calvin and modern materialists alike tried to cut forever.
Josephson-Storm built on this mismatch by showing that the modern thinkers who constructed the narrative of disenchantment—Max Weber himself, and even more significantly, the Marxist intellectuals of the Frankfurt School after him, the very people whose ideas are the foundation of modern Critical Race Theory and several other currently popular academic ideologies—were themselves influenced by contemporary German occultistm. Early twentieth century Germany, where the Frankfurt School was born, was a bubbling cauldron of occultism; the Thule-Gesellschaft or Thule Society, the occult lodge that created the Nazi Party as its political action wing, is perhaps the most well-known nowadays of the occult organizations of the time.
Another, considerably more influential until 1933, was a group called the Kosmikerkreise or Cosmic Circle, a collection of poets, occultists, and Neopagans based in Munich. (For those who don’t know their way around Germany’s cultural geography, Munich is the German equivalent of San Francisco, except that its streets are a lot cleaner.) Max Weber ran with several members of the Cosmic Circle, and so did leading members of the Frankfurt School. The very people who promoted the idea that the disenchantment of the world and the collapse of belief in magic and spirits were central to modernity, that is to say, were in close contact with occultists whose magical workings and hobnobbing with spirits were anything but secret.
In other words, the disenchantment of the world that Weber and the Frankfurt School discussed at such length was not what it appeared to be. They presented it as a description of modernity, but it was in fact prescriptive in nature, not descriptive—in less gnomic language, what they wanted the modern industrial world to be, not what that world actually is.
The role of disenchantment as prescription rather than description was made impressively clear, in a fine bit of historical irony, by the reaction to Josephson-Storm’s book. Too many reviewers skated right past the central point made by the book—that it’s absurd to talk about the world being disenchanted when it’s still well stocked with practicing occultists—and found ways to quibble with almost every other dimension of his study, rather than taking it seriously. As a public practitioner of ceremonial magic, astrology, and other modes of enchantment, I’ve faced the same reaction; it’s astonishing how many people can look a practicing occultist in the face and claim that nobody really believes in magic or spirits any more.
That oddity of behavior has plenty of bedfellows, of course. Consider the way that media pundits so often say that this or that country, upon being pressured into adopting some gobbet of overpriced technology or neoliberal policy, “has entered the twenty-first century.” For that matter, consider the much-mocked response by Justin Trudeau when he was asked why he’d fixated so obesssively on gender and ethnic balance in assembling his first cabinet: “Because it’s 2015.” In both cases a mere date has become a stalking horse for a political or economic agenda. Like all such agendas, this one benefits certain people at the expense of others, and like most such agendas, it conceals the straighforward calculus of who benefits and who pays the bills under a smoke screen of mystification: it’s not this set of corporate interests or that set of politicians who are robbing Peter to pay Paul, oh, no, it’s old Father Time himself!
I’ve discussed here and in one of my books how belief in progress has become a religion in our time, with progress as the supposedly almighty abstraction that fills the role of divinity in the imaginations of the faithful. The prescriptive insistence on the disenchantment of the world is an important aspect of the dogma of progress-worship in our time, which is why it remains bolted in place in the mainstream of contemporary thought even though five minutes of clear thinking will prove Josephson-Storm’s point. There’s good reason why so few five-minute periods get devoted to such reflections, though, because once you see past the mask of disenchantment, it’s impossible to miss one of the most important dimensions of the entire religion of progress.
Frank Herbert, in his famous science fiction novel Dune, caught that dimension with his usual acuity. “Once,” a Bene Gesserit witch explains to the protagonist Paul Atreides, “men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” That principle isn’t limited to computers. Look around you at the technologies that shape your life. Notice how few of them actually allow you to do something you couldn’t do with much simpler tools, and how many of them are set up to push you ever deeper into dependence on technology.
That’s the hidden agenda of the myth of progress: every step “forward” in the direction that’s been labeled “progressive” subjects you more completely to technologies over which you have increasingly little control….and thus, inevitably, to those who own and manage and market those technologies to you. It didn’t require any kind of conscious conspiracy to product that outcome, by the way, simply a lot of individual choices on the part of the people in charge of technological systems to encourage dependence in order to boost quarterly profits. Any time you have a power differential in society, that differential will tend to increase unless deliberate steps are taken to stop that from happening; the transformation of modern technologies from free choices to instruments of social control is among other things a fine demonstration of that rule.
It’s probably necessary to stop here and counter two of the rhetorical gimmicks usually deployed to squelch reflections such as these. First of all, we are not talking about “technology” in the abstract, but the specific suite of technologies that are marketed as the essential elements of a modern lifestyle today. There are plenty of technologies that don’t push you into a state of dependence, but you’ll find precious few of them for sale at Mall*Wart and its upscale rivals. Second, despite endless handwaving on this point, technologies are not value-free. Any given technology can do certain things well, other things poorly, and still other things not at all, and the decision to make and market a technology with these built-in biases is a value judgment that is inherently expressed in the technology itself.
All this, in turn, is why magic has been taboo in our culture since the dawning of the industrial revolution—even more so than all the other ways of doing things for yourself that have been similarly proscribed. Unlike modern corporate technology, magic is irreducibly personal. If you want to work magic on a group of people who aren’t willing participants in the working, you’re going to be limited to the frankly feeble symbolic gimmickries brandished around by the advertising industry these days. It takes very little magical study and practice to be able to laugh in the face of such flimsy sorceries, and plenty of people can do that even without a scrap of magical knowledge: thus the frequency with which heavily funded ad campaigns flop dismally.
Learn something about the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will—occultist Dion Fortune’s classic definition of magic—and you can go much further. Gather even a modestly sized group of people who are interested in learning magic, and get them working together, and the sky’s the limit. That’s why magic is taboo in today’s industrial world: it provides individuals and small groups with the opportunity to work toward goals that the owners and managers and marketers of technology don’t choose for them, using means that the owners and managers and marketers of technology don’t control. To the believers and, more importantly, to the beneficiaries of the religion of progress, those are existential threats.
Cui bono?—who benefits? That fine old Latin question is always a useful tool when you want to make sense of an apparently irrational feature of modern life. Yet there’s more going on here than ordinary exploitation. Intriging scraps of evidence suggest that something really has happened in recent centuries to make magic weaker than it once was: not wholly ineffective by any means, but incapable of feats that were once apparently commonplace.
One useful collection of testimony here is a book by Native American scholar and activist Vine Deloria Jr, The World We Used To Live In, which was published a year after his death in 2005. Deloria was an iconoclastic thinker more than willing to take on the conventional wisdom of his time, and his last book shows it. What he did was assemble as many testimonies as possible to the powers of Native American medicine people before and during the European conquest of the Americas. It’s fascinating reading from any number of angles, but two things stood out for me when I studied it. The first was that Deloria noted that medicine people more recently don’t appear to be able to do the things their ancestors did. The second was that I and the other ceremonial magicians I’ve worked with can’t equal the feats Deloria records either.
The specific limitation on medicine people and ceremonial magicians alike is easy enough to describe: the material world does not respond directly to magical action. As a ceremonial magician, I’ve learned that if I want to make things happen in the material world I need to focus my workings on conscious beings who can make those things happen. Do I want a fallen boulder moved out of the road? I can try to get it to levitate with zero effect, but workings intended to get the highway department to do its job and move the rock can be quite effective.
If Deloria’s right—and he’s far from the only one to make this same point—this limitation did not exist some centuries ago, and appears to have come into force a little at a time over an extended period. As late as the 17th century, for example, competent metallurgists swore in courts of law that they had witnessed alchemists turn other metals into gold, assayed the gold by way of cuppelation and other effective tests, and found it good. By contrast, if Archibald Cockren and the mysterious Fulcanelli succeeded in the Great Work in the early 20th century, as some students of alchemy believe, they were among the very, very few.
I would like to suggest that these changes may not simply be the waning of empty superstitions in an age of enlightenment, as Max Weber believed, or of a modern myth of disenchantment rooted in claims to enlightenment, as Jason Josephson-Storm seems to believe. It seems worth considering the possibility that they reflect real, objective changes in the conditions of human existence unfolding over historic time: that the world was actually different in the past, in ways that permitted certain things that modern science insists can never have been possible.
A fascinating if problematic book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, pointed out that a great many testimonies support the idea that human beings in earlier times actually did hear the voices of disembodied beings, and traced—in the Old Testament and elsewhere—the process by which that experience faded out. The same process can be traced just as precisely in ancient Greek literature, as it moves from the robust experience of divine presence in early poets such as Hesiod to the urbane sophistication of Plutarch, most of a millennium later, writing an essay On the Silence of the Oracles to explain why the gods no longer gave intelligible messages to human beings.
Jaynes tried to explain this with a postulated one-way shift in the way human brains worked, basing his theory on ideas about the function of the cerebral hemispheres that have since been largely discredited. What he did not discuss was that half a millennium after Plutarch, the voices of the gods were back, along with the whole world of miracles and magic that had trickled away as the ancient world rose to its zenith. As high cultures collapsed across Eurasia, from Han-dynasty China in the far east to Rome in the far west, religious visionaries once more spoke with gods and angels, mages wielded potent spells, and the Unseen again became a constant presence in the lives of most people. Centuries passed, and once again the presence of the spiritual realm began to fade: Chaucer’s narrative of the Wife of Bath is one of many late medieval tales that take it for granted that wonders possible in earlier times had faded out.
Behind the mask of disenchantment, in other words, is a complex phenomenon with at least three levels. The first level is the erasure of occultism in the moderrn Western world—an erasure that I’ve been confronting in my posts on the magical history of the United States. The second is the cluster of political and economic motives behind that erasure—the attempt to convince as many people as possible to accept a condition of dependence on technologies owned, managed, and marketed by existing centers of power and wealth. The third is an apparent increase and decline in the efficacy of magical practices that seems to correlate to certain historical cycles.
And behind that? I haven’t gotten that far yet. The quest is still in its early stages, and if the Grail can be found and the Waste Land of our contemporary consciousness healed, it’s going to take a lot of hard riding through strange territories. I’ll keep you posted on what I find.
In unrelated news, my story “The Next Ten Billion Years” — one of the most popular posts on my former blog The Archdruid Report — has been turned into a graphic novel by Marcu Knoesen and Darryl Knickrehm. The graphic version is frankly better than my original — a crisp, vivid and potent retelling. It’s published on Lulu and so available everywhere in the world; if you’re interested, you can order a copy here.