I begin with my own personal definition of magic: magic is the explanation of last resort. I am, among other things, an amateur magician; or to put it another way, don't play cards with me for money. I use this concept of magic, tho, because it encompasses not only legerdemaine and conjuring as entertainment, but also magic as a subject of anthropological study: the practice of various believers in magic that exist and have always existed in human society. It also encompasses practices that, I think, the people who engage in them would hesitate to describe as magic. I'm thinking here of the sacraments of various christian churches, marriage rites, funeral rites and the like that are more generally thought of as religious rather than magical. My thinking about magic is intentionally wider than what I think most people would accept for various reasons, but most fundamentally it is to encompass in a single concept the resonant similarities I feel in my encounters within four cultural institutions that I see as making use of magic to accomplish their ends.
The most obvious, of course, are the overlapping disciplines of the Occult and Conjuring, practiced in turn by the magician and the conjurer. In the west, occultism has always been present. It predates the impact of the Christianization of Europe by millenia, and was practiced by the Celts, the Germanic Tribes, The Greeks, The Romans and all of the great civilizations of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Even after the spread of Christianity and it's attendant suspicion about the witchcraft and magic in various heathen and pagan religions, magic persisted. The laws against sorcery present in Christian europe clearly distinguish early on between acceptable and unacceptable magical practices, and while the fear of witches and necromancers would wax continually from the Dark Ages through to the Enlightenment's general rejection of all things supernatural, throughout history there are various thinkers like Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno, and John Dee who sought to rescue some forms of magic from the blanket condemnation of the Church. Moreover, there was a period in history where necromancy, alchemy, natural science, and medicine were so closely intertwined that when their practitioners were punished for heresies it's not exactly clear whether it was scientific, magical, alchemical or medical work that was being condemned. As far as western religions were concerned—Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, & Catholic alike—it was all Occultism and therefore forbidden.
And yet it survived. Medieval witchhunting manuals like the infamous Malleus Maleficarum condemn in the same breath the practices of necromancers who make pacts with demons as well as midwives capable of producing prophylactic and abortifacient remedies. The fact that there were always laws and prosecutions on the books for these types of practices indicates that the severe oppression of the occult, which really only meant the pursuit hidden knowledge that did not meet with religious approval, never managed to convince the population of europe, either among the uneducated peasant class or in the religiously affiliated academies, that magic didn't have its uses and therefore its value.
And what can we say about this magic? Only that it was not something well understood. That it propagated by rote practice and theorizing that rarely meets post-enlightenment standards of rationality. And as such, what mattered was that it worked and what decidedly didn't matter was uncovering the mechanisms by which it worked. This attitude of indifference to mechanism can be seen across the board, even in Galileo and Newton's work on physics. Prior thought about motion, which is the primary subject of physics, or at least it was up until the 20th century, had been obsessed with what exactly allowed for animation. Newton moved forward not just by the application of the Calculus to observations, but by jettisoning this question altogether. Why do things move? Because they do. Why do they accelerate? Because a force is applied to them. What is a force? The question doesn't matter, force is the cause of acceleration. Full stop. Gone is the mail of Arab philosophers like Avicenna or the animating daemons of Aristotelian physics. The force, the cause, of acceleration is just what causes acceleration. Without it, an object in motion tends to stay in motion along an existing vector. Why? Because that's just how it is.
Of course, the observation that there is an occult influence on Newton and by proxy the foundations of modern science is far from an original observation. Historians of science have written whole books about Newton's work with alchemy and the like. What matters here is the fact that the separation of the natural from the supernatural is very much a recent development in human history, and more to the point, there is an awful lot of magic, as I define it, in the naturalistic explanations of things than most people generally consider. It's important to begin here because what follows requires at least a suspension of disbelief that magic is much more present, and much more real, in our lives than most people would be willing to admit. I say this is true and is a fact. I don't care if you don't believe in magic. Magic happens anyway all the time.
And much of the magic that exists, even outside the realm of the sciences where it can be found everywhere, happens in socially sanitized ways. I mean, of course, the practices of the religious which amount to little more than magic by another name. What is the difference, for example, between the Pater Noster's invocation of God the Father to "give us this day our daily bread" and "deliver us from evil" and a wiccan casting a spell explicitly evoking The Goddess, or a Thelemic magician seeking to commune with a "Holy Guardian Angel" to achieve illumination? As I see it the differences are much less interesting than the similarities, which is the common pattern of calling to a supernatural entity in supplication for some worldly effect or favor. To bring about an end by a cause that is unknown. That is, by magic.
When I say then that magic is the explanation of last resort, this is what I mean. There comes a point where the mere description of mechanical cause and effect, of teleological accounts, of motivations stop and there is still more that seems in need of explaining. At that point one can either shrug one's shoulders or make an argument from metaphysics that this is actually the ground of reality and explanation can go no further. Or you can do what people have always done when they reach such a point and ascribe to the workings and goings on to magic.
This is, then, how conjuring works. Consider a simple card trick of my own devising: I shuffle and cut a deck of cards and place them before you. The deck is shuffled and I spread the cards out face up to show you that they are all different and randomly mixed. I square up the deck and place it on the table. I will not touch them again. I ask you to cut the deck and look at the card on the bottom of the packet you have cut to. I then ask you to place the packet back on the top of the deck, to pick up the cards and shuffle them thoroughly. When you've shuffled them to your heart's content, I invite you to have someone else shuffle them. I might even leave the room at this point so there is no way I could possibly know what your card is or what it's position in the deck is. And yet, when all of this is done, I can take the deck, spread it out face down on the table and without looking at the cards find the card that you selected.
Now of course there's a secret to how this works, and I could explain it if I wanted to, but I won't. Because what makes the effect of my finding the impossible card magic is that I do it in a way that brooks no explanation. It can't be a stacked deck, because the deck was shuffled repeatedly by several different people.. The cards can't be marked because I never saw the back of the card you selected. I can't have secretly looked at the card or secured it secretly by sleight of hand because I never touched the cards after you selected one. The only explanation left having eliminated all the possible ways I could do it by trickery is the explanation of last resort. As far as you know, watching and not knowing how I do it, it simply happens by magic.
In the nineteen seventies a group of Occultists in England basing their ideas on the occult writings of Austin Osman Spare and Peter Carroll developed an approach to practical magic, and here I'm not talking about conjuring with cards but the spooky stuff with candles and incense and magic words, that's now called "Chaos Magic." Primary to the practice of Chaos magic is an insistence that it just works. Their ideas about the occult have had a wide ranging appeal particularly among artists and writers. Modern chaos magicians have included the likes of William S. Burroughs, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. Much of what Chaos magicians talk about to justify exactly how their spells and rituals work is based on a fair amount of pseudo-psychology and mumbo jumbo, and it's rare to find two Chaos magicians who agree on even that much so far as it goes. Still they say, try their methods and see for yourself. It works, magic is real, they insist, and they know this, they say, because they get results. I won't quibble on that point. My natural skepticism towards all things spooky aside, so far as I'm willing to understand what magic is, I'm willing to concede the point. It's beyond a doubt that many things happen for which only the explanation of last resort can be invoked.
Where this gets interesting to me, however, is in the notion of the power to intentionally bring about such effects, and it occurs to me that while we don't generally call it magic, this stuff happens around us all the time. It's there, of course, in the parlor tricks of conjurers to be sure, but the weakness of that sort of practice is that much of what conjurers and cheats like myself do can be learned and understood by an bright ten year old with a library card. There's very little in conjuring that actually remains occult, although there are magicians who take these things seriously and like me are willing to keep the secrets for their own sake. Not so much because they have inherent value. My trick with the impossible card is next to useless as anything other than a purely entertaining mystery. But because we enjoy having hidden knowledge, and recognize a value in occult ideas, even trifling ones, as being a way of living in a richer and more interesting world.
But that engagement with the occult transcends trickery and postmodern wizardry of the sort chaos magicians practice, and I would argue permeates much of the world that we otherwise take for granted simply because we accept it as being magical. Probably the most obvious are the religious sacraments present in all the great religious traditions of the world which believers engage in almost certainly because they believe that they work. But there are more subtle, and indeed more insidious ways that magic gets into the crevices of our daily lives. Arthur C. Clarke is often quoted as having said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and it's worth considering the source on that point. Clarke, after all, is one of very few well known science fiction writers to contribute to actual and significant technological progress as the first person to argue for the use and practicality of the geosynchronous communications satellites which form the backbone of much of modern telecommunication technology. Probably the most important institution of the modern Occult is in the halls of the common law.
Law professors like to argue about what the law is and have a wide range of incommensurate theories about it. Politicians speak about it in hushed and reverential tones as though it were some body of esoteric knowledge that must be obeyed. Judges argue about how to interpret the law and come up with grand theories about how to do so that they then fastidiously avoid actually putting into practice. Most working lawyers and well informed layman know that a lot of the time the law just gets made up as we muddle through based on what seems fair to the judge, and that that matters a lot because many of those decisions themselves become binding on how other judges interpret similar circumstances. The great body of the common law relating to contracts, civil law suits about torts, the ownership use and conveyance of property, as well as much of the criminal law and nearly all of the procedural rules for bringing a grievance to court are judge made rules that exist only because over time judges have agreed about how to rule on something in a way that seems fair. Consider this the next time you hear somebody complaining about "activist judges" in the federal courts.
And there is powerful magic in our court system. Consider that not even the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful person in the world, can do much without getting approval from fifty senators and a couple hundred members of the House of Representatives. And yet even the lowliest state superior court judge can with the stroke of a pen put you in prison, allow the police access to any of your private affairs and property, take away your children, terminate your marriage, or condemn you to death. That's an immense power in any individual, and it's made all the more startling by the fact that if we're honest we really have no idea why it works. The judiciary doesn't have its own army or police force. It doesn't run prisons or institutions. It has no power other than the power that it says it has, and it exercises it only by making written pronouncements. And yet these things have actual effects all the time, undeniably so. Political Scientists can argue that it stems from the consent of the population, that we agree to the authority judges exercise collectively and it is this collective will of the populace that gives this power life. But how can we reconcile that with the byzantine and often bizarre truth that interacting with the courts is so confusing and complicated an affair that only a fool or the very poor would even think about getting involved in a serious court case without retaining a skilled and experienced advocate familiar with all the various rules, rites, and rituals involved in getting a desired outcome from the court system. Because for all the power that judges have, the one great check on that power is not the authority of Congresses to enact legislation or the authority of Executives to enforce legislation, but the fact that judges can only make decisions when issues are brought before them, sometimes by the police, but usually by attorneys for states and for private citizens. Judicial decisions are based on the arguments and positions adopted by the parties to a case, and can't extend beyond what they are asked to consider. The magic in the courts is then in this interaction between parties to a case and the bench. And all of that interaction is mediated through a body of knowledge about laws and court procedures known only to an exclusive group known as lawyers. To my mind, describing the knowledge of the law as anything other than an occult science is absurd.
Lawyer, Priest, Magician, and Conjurer then are all roles that fall into this strange area of specialized esoterica which while ostensibly open to all in fact requires intensive study and many years of dedication to the practice. One might go so far as to say that they are all of a kind, merely different instantiations of a single archetypal occultist whose secret knowledge gives him power to effect change in the world which can only be explained by recourse to the explanation of last resort. Lawyer and Priest are as much Magician and Conjurer as anything because they undeniably have this sort of power, and perhaps most strikingly, manage to wield it constantly without serious challenge. It's entirely possible that much of the poor public perception of lawyers stems precisely from this fact, and that Priests are only rescued from public denigration and opprobrium due to their relatively closer affiliation with divinity than is present in the personage of the other occult professions. Even that, however, is open to challenge, notable in various anti-clerical movements that have been present almost since the earliest days of organized churches in Europe. All of these are professions that deal with magic and are therefore suspicious for their occult knowledge. And yet still people don't believe in magic. Given the world that we live in, I have to wonder, if that's just a state of denial. At this point in my life, my natural skepticism is overcome. I believe in magic. Given how pervasive it is, how can you not?