Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Very Superstitious

It’s my intention on these pages to celebrate good books. So I tend to gush enthusiastic approval in my reviews and reports. The last thing I want to do – OK, it’s actually about the fifth-to-last thing I want to do. To start again: nearly the last thing I want to do is complain about Thomas Hardy or Lord Byron or Jane Austen so much that someone might decide, based on my inept babbling, never to read the deep sentiments of such great writers expressed in their beautifully chosen words. So before I pick on Will Durant a little, let me aver that I look forward to my yearly encounter with this historian more than I do almost any other item on my plan. After virtually every page of Durant’s 10,000-page monument, I could think, “I wouldn’t want not to have read that page in my life.” Among the other authors on my list, I could probably say that only about Dickens and Boswell.

Durant isn’t perfect, though. I’m still glad I read pages 232-234 of volume VI of The Story of Civilization, but I wish I could talk with him about them. The author’s subject is the context of superstition in which late-medieval science grew, and I think for once he missed the mark. I could wish that he had acknowledged, for instance, that alchemy wasn’t just an absurd belief in nonsense contrary to all evidence, that it involved analysis and experimentation and actually helped lead to the modern understanding of chemistry. But that isn’t what bothers me the most. After all, maybe he tells that alchemical story on one of the other 9,997 pages. What irks me is Durant’s failure to distinguish two distinct rationales for opposition to alchemy, sorcery, astrology, and the like.

Neither Durant nor medieval Church prelates wanted people to believe what isn’t true. (Granted, I can align their thinking only at this generic level, since Durant and medieval Church prelates didn’t agree on the details as to what is true.) But Durant writes for a few pages as if defense of truth were the only reason to combat what we now call superstition. Surely any member of the Christian Church who believes in the Devil can reasonably oppose Satan worship on the grounds of it being an evil practice. Of course Durant must have seen this obvious notion. But he doesn’t acknowledge it in this passage, so I came away disappointed in his recounting of this story.

The trouble begins for me where Durant praises a handful of medievals for rejecting the legitimacy of sorcery. “The Dark Ages had been comparatively enlightened in this respect: Saints Boniface and Agobard denounced the belief in sorcery as sinful and ridiculous.” The “belief in,” not the “practice of.” On the next page he complains of inconsistency in authors he must have considered less enlightened. For instance,
Pope John XXII issued powerful blasts against alchemy (1317) and magic (1327); he mourned what he thought was the increasing prevalence of sacrifices to demons, pacts with the Devil, and the making of images, rings, and potions for magical purposes; . . . but even he implied a belief in their possible efficacy.
It seems not to have occurred to Durant while writing this passage that John XXII very likely blasted alchemy and magic precisely because he believed in their efficacy.

I believe that a lot of charlatans existed in the fourteenth century and that they exist now. I believe that the intentional practice of duping people to believe that a natural occurrence is supernatural is an evil practice. And I believe that blind credulity in supernatural explanations is also an evil. I don’t know that any medieval sorcerer ever brought about an event (say, the arrangement of certain numbers in a magic square) that brought about another event (say, the recovery of another person’s health) through something other than a natural causational connection. But I know that all the succeeding centuries of study of natural causation could never disprove that it did happen. How can the examination of X ever disprove the existence of an independent Y? The study of ornithology doesn’t disprove the existence of Bigfoot; neither does the practice of natural science disprove the legitimacy of sorcery. And Durant’s seeming belief that it does disprove sorcery is itself a kind of superstition.

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