The Meaning of Magic

The psychology and philosophy of magic.

In my last article, on the history of magic, I compared magic to religion and science, but without attempting a precise definition of magic. On the assumption that certain entities can exert a hidden influence on one another, magic is a method of acting in the world through sheer power of will. The notion that the universe is pregnant with subtle connexions is supported by, of all things, the study of mathematics, and it can sometimes seem that maths is at only one remove from magic.

Magic is often considered a gift, such that some people have it to a high degree and others, the muggles, barely at all, perhaps because their will is weak, unsettled, or untrained, or because magic does not run in their family—for like madness, magic is often hereditary. Whatever the case, people without magic are usually portrayed as lacking in cognitive faculties such as insight, intuition, and imagination, and would not see possibility even if it slapped them in the face.

Magic is sometimes divided into white and black, and high and low. Black magic is selfish and does not consider other people, whereas white magic is altruistic or selfless, and seeks in general to maintain or restore the equilibrium of the universe. The magician’s psychological makeup determines what kind of magic, white or black, he or she is able or likely to wield.

Speaking of equilibrium, deflecting objects and especially people from their natural or pre-ordained course is likely to have significant repercussions, which is why, aside from the mental effort and exhaustion, the use of magic is often said to come at a price, either to the magician, his or her client (for want of a better term), or a third party. The equilibrium must, ultimately, be maintained.

The magician is, in effect, a mediator of energies. Low magic involves drawing up energies from the earth, from plants and minerals and so on, and is more the province of common folk. High magic involves drawing down raw, unprocessed energies from the sun and sky, which requires complex ritual and is more the province of an educated or trained elite.

The magician cultivates his or her will through concentration—acquiring charisma in the process—and focuses it through ritual such as ceremony, chant, or spell. Ritual also helps to create the right atmosphere and attitude for magic to take hold. Words in particular can exert a power all of their own. In the language of Ancient Egypt, the sound of a word had a magical power which complemented its meaning, a view of language which we still retain when we talk of ‘spelling’ a word, or visit a psychotherapist. And while words can change the world, getting them wrong, that is, misspelling, can have disastrous consequences.

So far, I’ve been talking as if magic actually works. But does it work, and, if so, how? Unless one broadens the definition of magic to include cognitive faculties such as insight, intuition, and imagination, or simply peak performance, magic does not work, or, at least, not in an immediate, instrumental sense. But magic might work indirectly, by focussing the mind and energies on a particular problem, or through a mechanism akin to the placebo effect or psychoneuroimmunology.

The term ‘placebo effect’ derives from the Latin placare [‘to please’] and refers to the tendency for a remedy to ‘work’ simply because it is expected to do so. In essence, people who associate taking a remedy with improvement may come to expect improvement if they take a remedy, even if the ‘remedy’ in question is no more than an inert substance, or a substance that has no therapeutic effect but only adverse effects that can be interpreted as indicative of a therapeutic effect. It may be that the expectation alone suffices to mimic the effect of the remedy, and brain imaging studies indicate that, in some cases, remedies and their placebos activate the very same mechanisms in the nervous system.

In the UK, the antidepressant fluoxetine is so commonly prescribed that trace quantities have been detected in the water supply. But, as I lay bare in my book, The Meaning of Madness, there is mounting evidence that the most commonly prescribed antidepressants are little more effective than dummy pills which, unlike antidepressants, are free from adverse effects, and cost. So, it might be said that, insofar as antidepressants work, they do so by magic—and, no doubt, would be more effective if accompanied by some kind of incantation.

Remedies that are perceived to be more potent have a stronger placebo effect. Perceptions of potency are influenced by factors such as the remedy’s size, shape, colour, route of administration, and general availability. A brightly coloured injection administered by a silver-haired professor of medicine can be expected to have a much stronger placebo effect, and therefore a much stronger overall effect, than the unremarkable over-the-counter tablet recommended by the teenager next door. This highlights the importance of the psychological, social, and cultural context in which a treatment or intervention is administered, and, more particularly, the significance of the therapeutic act or ritual. If the practitioner, the patient, and their society believe in the magic, then the magic is real by the very force of that shared belief.

No wonder the magician, the priest, and the healer used to be one and the same person—and, in many societies, still is. Like religion, magic may represent a response to anxiety, distress, and a feeling of inadequacy or impotence, especially in the face of natural disaster. And like religion, it may represent a spiritual path, akin, perhaps, to a martial art, which also involves concentrating the mind, channelling instinctual drives, and leveraging forces.

But beyond all that, magic, whether it works or not, is an external projection of the human psyche, an external projection of our internal or psychological truth, which is why it features so prominently in fiction. Fairy tales often begin with a formulation such as, ‘Once upon a time in dreamland’, and magic is that dreamland. Like dreams, magic makes use of condensed symbols, and, like dreams, it is a kind of wish fulfilment.

In the same vein, magic might be compared with mental states such as psychosis and neurosis, which, like dreams, can also involve condensed symbols and wish fulfilment. Sigmund Freud linked magical rituals and spells with neurotic and obsessional thought processes, and there are arguably some parallels with compulsive acts, which are a response to obsessional thoughts or according to rules that must be rigidly applied.

Magic is, arguably, on a spectrum with madness, and magical thinking is especially prominent in schizotypy, or schizotypal personality disorder, which predisposes to schizophrenia, and also shamanism. As discussed in my related article on the history of magic, Plato distinguished between madness resulting from human illness and madness arising from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates says that this divinely inspired madness has four forms: mysticism, inspiration, poetry, and love. Love, according to Socrates, is not a god, as most people think, but a great spirit [daimon] that intermediates between gods and men.

Similarly, in The Sorcerer and his Magic (1963), the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that magic is a mediator between normal thought processes (common sense, reason, science…), which suffer from a marked deficit of meaning, and pathological thought processes, which abound with meaning:

From any non-scientific perspective (and here we can exclude no society), pathological and normal thought processes are complementary rather than opposed. In a universe which it strives to understand but whose dynamics it cannot fully control, normal thought continually seeks the meaning of things which refuse to reveal their significance. So-called pathological thought, on the other hand, overflows with emotional interpretations and overtones, in order to supplement an otherwise deficient reality… We might borrow from linguistics and say that so-called normal thought always suffers from a deficit of meaning, whereas so-called pathological thought (in at least some of its manifestations) disposes of a plethora of meaning. Through collective participation in shamanistic curing, a balance is established between these two complementary situations.

Some of my regular readers may have wondered why I turned my pen to so apparently frivolous a subject as magic. But we now know that magic means much more than it may at first seem. Aside from its links with madness and with healing, it is a mirror of the mind, and even, like love or beauty, and science and religion, a mode of belonging to the world.