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Writers who have discussed the intellectual life under the Roman Empire generally agree that it was not marked by originality and creative power, and owed a perhaps unusually large debt to the past. The cosmopolitan character of the Empire, the mingling at that time of the science, theology, philosophy and superstition of different nations, religions and races, deserve equal emphasis. The lore of the magi of Persia, the occult science of Egypt, perhaps even the doctrines of the gymnosophists of India, may be regarded, together with that belief in divination which played such a role in classical religion and government and with other superstitious notions of Greeks and Italians, as contributory to the prominence of magic in the Empire.
To discuss with any attempt at completeness the influence of the past upon the belief in magic in the Empire lies, however, outside the province of this essay. Pliny has shown us something of the union of magic with science in the literature before his day. Philo of Alexandria, Apuleius and the fame of Hermes Trismegistus may give us some notion of the influence of the East. In other writers of the period of which we treat one may discern further traces of the thought and learning of the past. In general such evidence must suffice. We shall, however, presently take occasion to support our contention that Pliny gives one a fairly good idea of science before his day, by a few citations from two writers of repute, one a Greek and one a Roman, of the period before the Empire. Moreover, the great historical importance of Greek philosophy and the fact that, besides playing a prominent part in Roman culture, it exercised a powerful direct influence on Christian Europe long after the fall of Rome, seem to justify some treatment of its doctrines. Especially may we mention Plato and Aristotle, who exerted great influence not only during classical times, but also the one in the Middle Ages, the other in the period following the decline of Scholasticism.
We naturally incline to regard this earlier period of more or less distinctively Greek thought and learning as a golden age, comparatively speaking, characterized by sane thinking if not also by careful investigation of nature, and free from superstition, credulity and mysticism. The general opinion seems to be that magic entered science and learning and was accepted by men of intellectual prominence only when mental decay had set in and when Oriental influence had become a powerful force.
Yet something might be said for the opposite view that this earlier age combined magic with its science and philosophy as much, if not more, than the later time. We know that Greek philosophy had its beginnings in mythology; and if the representatives of its maturity accepted the Greek religion with its auspices drawn from sacrifices, its oracles and the like, we may with reason ask, is it probable that they would hesitate to give similar doctrines a place in their scientific and philosophical systems? Pliny, for his part, evidently regarded himself as less credulous and as less inclined to magic than the ancient Greeks, although it is true that he attributed their belief to Oriental influence. He declared that Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus and Plato had learned the magic art abroad and had taught it on their return. Beside the name of Hippocrates in the field of medicine he set that of Democritus in the domain of magic. Elsewhere he said that Pythagoras and Democritus, having embraced the doctrine of the magi, first expounded the properties of magic plants in the Western world. In Cicero's De Divinatione, Epicurus is alone of the Greek philosophers declared free from trust in divination, and Panaetius is said to have been the only Stoic to reject astrology.
The doctrine of Pythagoras also deserves mention, for it has played a great role in history. He is said to have held that the whole world is, and that the life of man ought to be, harmoniously ordered in accordance with mathematical principles; nay more, that such principles are living things and that numbers are the essence of the universe. The logical conclusion is that by skilful use of mere numbers man can move heaven and earth. As the poet, eulogizing Michael Scot, put it; the "mathematici" by their art affect numbers, by numbers affect the procession of the stars, and by the stars move the universe. The employment of characters constructed of numbers or of geometrical figures, the use of numerical formulae as remedies or of compounds of three portions of three kinds of drugs applied during three successive days, is raised from the plane of superstition to the level of science. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the heavenly bodies with their apparently unchanging regularity of movement are the governors of our existence. Plato, who adopted the Pythagorean doctrines at least to a considerable extent, declared that the loftiest function of the sense of sight was to survey the heavens, an occupation by which we gain philosophy. Like the Pythagoreans also, he associated the four elements with regular solids. The cube represented earth; the octohedron was water; the tetrahedron, fire; and the icosahedron, air. The remaining regular solid, the dodecahedron, was held to represent the universe as a whole.
Towards magic, as he understood it, Plato's attitude seems to have been sceptical, though perhaps not confidently so. He maintained that persons acquainted with medicine and prophets or diviners were the only ones who could know the nature of poisons which worked naturally, and of such things as incantations, magic knots and waxen images; and that since other men had no certain knowledge of such things, they ought not to fear but to despise them. He admitted, however, that there was no use in trying to convince most men of this and that legislation against sorcery was necessary. He himself occasionally mentioned charms or soothsaying in a matter-of-fact way.
Whatever Plato's opinion of vulgar magic, his view of nature was much like that of primitive man. He humanized material objects and materialized spiritual characteristics. For instance, he asserted that the gods placed the lungs about the heart "as a soft spring that, when passion was rife within, the heart, beating against a yielding body, might be cooled and suffer less, and might thus become more ready to join with passion in the service of reason." He affirmed that the liver was designed for divination, and was a sort of mirror on which the thoughts of the intellect fell and in which the images of the soul were reflected, but that its predictions ceased to be clear after death. Plato spoke of the existence of harmonious love between the elements as the source of health and plenty for vegetation, beasts and men. Their "wanton love" he made the cause of pestilence and disease. To understand both varieties of love "in relation to the revolutions of the heavenly bodies and the seasons of the year is," he tells us, "termed astronomy." This suggests that he believed in astrology—in the potent influence of the stars over all changes in earthly matter. He called the stars "divine and eternal animals, ever abiding." The "lower gods," of whom many at least are identical with the heavenly bodies, form men who, if they live well, return after death each to a happy existence in his proper star. The implication is, though Plato does not say so distinctly, that the stars influence human life.
Aristotle's doctrine was similar. Windelband has well expressed his view:
The stars themselves were . . . for Aristotle beings of superhuman intelligence, incorporate deities. They appeared to him as the purer forms, those more like the deity, and from them a purposive rational influence upon the lower life of the earth seemed to proceed—a thought which became the root of mediaeval astrology.
Moreover, "his theory of the subordinate gods of the spheres of the planets . . . provided for a later demonology." And a belief in demons fosters a belief in magic. For such subordinate gods—on the one hand movers of nature's forces, and on the other hand subject to passions like man and open to influence through symbols and conjurations—are evidently most suitable agents for the worker of magic to employ. We must also mention Aristotle's attribution of "souls" to plants and animals, a theory which would readily lend itself to an assumption of magic properties in herbs and beasts.
Aristotle himself in his works upon natural science accepts such properties to a considerable extent. A few citations from his History of Animals will show that we have not been misled in inferring from Pliny that Greek science at its best was not untainted by magic. The History of Animals seems to attribute undue influence to the full moon and the dog-star, and to hold that honey is distilled from the air by the stars and that the wax alone is made by the bees. Aristotle repeats the story that the salamander is a fire-extinguisher. He mentions as a cure for the sting of a certain snake the drinking of a small stone "taken from the tomb of one of the ancient kings." Like Pliny, he makes human saliva a defense against serpents. He says of certain things that they are ominous of certain events.
He affirms that the hen-partridge is affected by the mere breath of the cock or by a breeze from his direction. He thinks that insects are spontaneously generated from mud, dung, wood, or flesh. He says it is plain that the Narce causes stupefaction in both fish and men. He has not only an idea that those with lice in their hair are less subject to headaches, but also a notion that those who have lice and take baths become more liable to the pest when they change the water in which they wash themselves. Another amusing illusion which he records is that calves will suffer less in their feet if their horns are waxed. Thus the pages of Aristotle give ground for belief that the fantasticalness of mediaeval science was due to "the clear light of Hellas" as well as to the gloom of the "Dark Ages."
The book by a Roman which we are to consider as illustrative of the condition of science before the age of the Empire is Cato's treatise on agriculture. Several passages emphasize the importance of such conditions as that the moon should be new or waning or not shining during the performance of such acts as the transplanting of trees or the manuring of meadows. It is also directed that in administering medicine to oxen the man giving the dose shall have fasted previously and that both he and the ox stand upright during the operation. One medicine prescribed for cattle is a mixture of 3 grains of salt, 3 leaves of laurel, 3 fibres of leek, 3 tufts of ulpican leek, 3 sprigs of the savin, 3 leaves of rue, 3 stalks of the white vine, 3 white beans, 3 live coals, 3 sextarii of wine. Each ox is to be given a portion for three days and the whole is to be divided so that it will suffice for exactly three doses. To heal a sprain or fracture the singing of the following nonsensical incantation or formula is recommended: "In alios S. F. motas vaeta daries dardaries astataries dissunapiter." This was written by a man generally supposed to have had much common sense and who was enlightened enough to wonder how two augurs could let their eyes meet without laughing.
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