September 9, 2005

Prayer and Magic

In his work On the Sacred Disease, Hippocrates (or perhaps another doctor at Cos) argues against the use of magic in medicine. A large portion of magic in Hippocrates' time was magical, using potions, chants and charms. They were the largest competitors with Hippocrates for patients, and it was important the he discredit them, both for his own sake and for the patients'. He uses two main arguments, and this essay will deal mostly with the second. First, he argues that, if magic worked, it would be under human control and therefore part of nature. Therefore, the divine knowledge to which the magicians pretended would not be divine and therefore they are frauds. The second argument is the topic of this essay. He argues that magic is, in fact, not a sign of piety but is impious. Through magic, one attempts to control the gods, using various magical rites to invoke their power. However, to try to control the gods is impious; one may ask or pray for their help, but one should not try to force their hands.

The magical rites that Hippocrates was dealing with were what we would normally consider magic. There was the use of magical words that would drive out disease; these were not in the form of requests, but were invocations of a particular god's power. Further, there were magical objects that contained a portion of a god's power. Again, this power could be used by anyone with the object, and it was not a request. Finally, there were potions in which a portion of a god's power was mixed into a substance and could then be imbibed by a patient to be healed. In all of these cases, the magician used usually mysterious (occult or hidden) knowledge to harness the power of the gods. Hippocrates argued that all of these actions are impious actions, since they are attempts to control the gods.

Hippocrates hits here upon a tension in Greek religion. Do the sacrifices to the gods force the gods to help or to forgive the petitioner, or are they a gift, providing hope that the gods will help or forgive? The difficulty is raised again by Adeimantus in Republic Book II, where he claims that an unjust person can simply use his unjust gains to pay off the gods through sacrifice and be forgiven, so injustice is better. Hippocrates' response would be that a sacrifice made as a gift to the gods in hope of forgiveness would be pious, but a sacrifice made presuming that the god would forgive would be magic, and therefore impious. There may have even been some magicians who prayed rather than claimed to control the gods, but this was very rare.

Part of the difficulty lay in how personal the gods really were. If the gods were personal, then the gods should be asked for their help, and it would be impious to try to push them around. However, if the gods were impersonal and were really some sort of divine power, then they cannot be asked for anything, but there may be some way to access this power that would take the form of magic. Often, magic springs up where the personality of the gods or God is treated metaphorically or not recognised at all. Since there is no point in asking a force for anything, any access involved control rather than petition. In Greece, exactly how metaphorical the personalities of the deities were was always a matter of debate, and people turned toward either prayer or magic depending on their answers.

I will add one short qualification here. Revealed religion changes the distinction somewhat between prayer and magic. If God promises to do something when we ask or perform a certain ritual, it is not magic even though we can count on God responding. It is much like a buzzer used to summon a nurse. The buzzer does not force the nurse to come. Rather, he or she has promised to come when we push the buzzer. Therefore, when God makes specific promises, ("Whenever two or three...", "Anything you bind on Earth...", "Do this in memory of me...", etc.), one may count on those promises without slipping into magic. This allows for the possibility of sacramental grace, for example, while still remaining in the spirit of petition rather than control. One develops no more control over God than one would over the nurse.

Hippocrates' distinction can help us discover, then, whether something is a form of magic or of prayer. It is not the form of the rite, per se, by which one can make this determination. The main distinction is between something that is done to control God or something that is done to beseech God. For those who believe in a personal deity, one should note that anything done in order to force God to do one's bidding would be magic and impious.


Ash Sere said...

As always, an interesting read.

The druids certainly appraoched 'power' in the magic sense. Though they had divinities, they believed there was neutral power out there available to be harnessed with the right methodology. In their case they thought dancing around big stones or trees would do it...

Air of Winter said...

One of the things I found a bit odd about Charles Williams' novels is that he seems in some ways to treat spiritual power that's supposed to be divine in origin almost as if it were a natural force that could be turned against divine ends.

Neil said...

I agree with air of winter's basic criticism of Charles Williams and it brings up something that you didn't mention in the post (because it doesn't have anything to do with Hippocrates, but it is important to distinguish magic from piety). For Williams, the spiritual powers that his characters use are a remembering or a re-learning of preternatural powers that all people, in principle, have access to. So when Adam "names the animals" he is actualy taking command over the Platonic forms. Does our exile from Eden mean that all preternatural powers forbidden? inaccesible? In any case they certainly couldn't be put in the same category as magic and yet amny occult traditions from around the world claim to make use of them (even if they would not use the word "preternatural" in the Christian sense).

ThrO192 said...

I really liked this entry, it is something to think about and something that can be applied even today. I am referring to the "Prayer and Magic" entry just in case you get the warning emails.

Anonymous said...

Magic is an interesting concept, especially if you think about how "magical" certain simple substances found in the Earth can be. It is possible these healers or these magicians, philosophers (whatever) accidentally ingested psilocybin or other related fungi (amanita muscaria?) and thus experienced "magic."

Noted should be the many instances where individuals have ingested magical fungi only to have "transcended" their bodies to "come into contact" with a divine being.

This really has nothing to do with nothing.. it's just an interesting thought.