Stage Magic and the Evolution of the Word “Occult”

I’m a big fan of magic acts. My brother was into magic tricks when I was a kid and I loved it every time he amazed me with simple card or coin tricks. I was so sure of his awesome powers as a child that one time, when he declared me invisible and everybody in the family went along with it, I was sure I really was invisible. I loved (and still love) the wonder of a good magic act, even though with age, I inevitably came to know that magic was not, you know, magic but was perfectly explicable trickery relying on various means explicable to the natural sciences. I assumed that all adults understood the same thing. But I underestimated the truth of the saying, “Everything is a conspiracy when you don’t know how stuff works.” I also underestimated the sheer crippling fear that hyper-super-duper Traditionalists live in.

Here, for instance, is an extreme Reactionary Catholic analysis of various stage magicians which deploys a sort of “Devil of the Gaps” argument that comes down to saying, “If I can’t figure out how a trick works, then it must have been done by SATAN!”

Left unexplained is why Satan would bother with card tricks. The point, as ever with Reactionaries, is, “Be afraid! Be very afraid.”

It’s a terrible way to live. But it seems to be the psycho-emotional prison of the extreme Reactionary. The devil lurks everywhere and in every thing and anything the Reactionary cannot understand is a snare and a source of fear.

Meanwhile, the reality remains that for those who grasp the actual Catholic intellectual tradition, phenomena like stage magic all has an explanation that lies in the realm accessible to reason and scientific analysis, if only one has access to the right data. Without that data, the phenomenon is what medievals called “occult”.

But that word does not mean what moderns think it means.

Language evolves over time. “Worship”, for instance, used to simply mean “honor”. So judges in Britain are still called “Your worship” and in older marriage vows spouses said, “With my body, I thee worship.” Now it means “to adore something as a god”.

Similarly, “gay” has famously evolved to mean “homosexual” instead of “merry”.

Language does this constantly. When King James said the newly constructed St. Paul’s Cathedral was “amusing, awful, and artificial” he was not insulting it but rendering high praise, because in his day, it meant the building was pleasing, awesome, and well-constructed.

Similarly, when St. Thomas speaks of “motion” what we moderns hear is “movement in space”: a car speeding down the road or a ball hit by a bat is in motion. But for Thomas, an apple ripening from green to red is experiencing “motion”, as is a corpse decaying back into the earth. Because, for Thomas, “motion” means any and all change, and not merely movement in space.

Something similar is the case with “occult”. We hear it as referring to solely to the demonic. But in medieval parlance it had a much wider meaning that included all things hidden. The meaning survives in the astronomical term “occultation”, when one celestial body blocks another from view, as in an eclipse. But it can refer in medieval parlance to any phenomena whose origins are obscure or unknown (which covered a lot of ground in the high Middle Ages). So for Thomas, the gestation of a child or the cause of lightning was “occult”, but emphatically not demonic. It just meant he didn’t know how it happened.

Contrary to popular opinion (and to the silly video above), the assumption of medieval natural philosophers was not to conclude that “Anything I don’t understand must be demonic (or miraculous)” but was, rather, to assume (just as we do) that there was likely a natural explanation that was hidden (or, as they said, occult).

Sometimes, the best guess answer got it wrong for lack of (or wrong interpretation of) data. So, for instance, St. Thomas takes for granted the “consensus science” of his day and assumes rotting meat generates flies (because he has no microscope and cannot see fly eggs). What he does not do is posit demonic powers or direct miraculous creation of flies. He assumes natural powers are at work and is open to better explanations should more data turn up.

“Occult” can include, for medievals, the possibility of hidden demonic powers at work in the world (since the exorcisms performed by Jesus and other saints clearly demonstrate such realities exist). But it it does not refer only such powers and, just like today, medievals natural philosophers tend to infer them only as a last resort in trying to account for odd phenomena, just as they tend to only infer miracles as a last resort.

As St. Albertus Magnus put it in De vegetabilibus et plantis:

“In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.” 

And in his De mineralibus, he writes:

“It is the task of natural science not simply to accept what we are told but to inquire into the causes of things.”

Or more directly, William of Conches:

“[They say] ‘We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.’ You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so.”

Reactionaries forever talk about “getting back to the Tradition” while often saying foolish things only the most gullible post-modern believer in late night radio shows would believe about devils hiding uder the bed. They would do well to recover the tough-mindedness of medievals instead of immediately seizing on such absurd Devil of the Gaps arguments to account for card tricks, of all things.


One Response

  1. The voice of that three and a half hour presentation (of which I watched – well, at least a couple of minutes of) sounds like what I imagine a living dead creature would sound, anyway! 🙂

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