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Sympathetic magic

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jul 24, 2012

Lapham’s Quarterly has a (not so) brief history of superstition, which introduced me to the phrase ‘sympathetic magic’. I also like the quotation bolded below.

For all its erudition and analysis, The Golden Bough has for more than a century helped cement the idea that magic is inappropriate, wrongheaded thought. Yet what separates magic from religion or science is not its methodology — Frazer himself notes that it “is therefore a truism, almost a tautology, to say that all magic is necessarily false and barren; for were it ever to become true and fruitful, it would no longer be magic but science” — it’s that ordinary people can do it, transforming their lives with the ambitious power of everyday thought.

Disdain for sympathetic magic, particularly for its simplicity and its universal application, can be traced back two millennia before Frazer and his peers. In the Laws, Plato’s Athenian Stranger complains of the gullibility of the citizenry, lamenting that “it would be a labor lost to bring conviction to minds beset with such suspicions of each other, to tell them, if they should perchance see a manikin of wax set up in a doorway, or at the crossroads, or at the grave of a parent, to think nothing of such things, as nothing is known of them for certain.” Even aware of the fallaciousness of such belief, Plato seemed hesitant to ignore it altogether, and the Laws goes on to advise that while white magic is perfectly acceptable, any professional diviner or prophet suspected of “doing mischief by the practice of spells, charms, incantations, or other such sorceries” be put to death, while an amateur practitioner should pay a fine.

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