1. Does our society need magic?

Ramsey Dukes

In the 1950s CP Snow initiated an important debate when he proposed a division between 'two cultures', namely Science and Art.

For a while everyone was taking, or being allocated, sides in this binary mapping of our society. For example it was argued that traditional education was steeped in the Arts tradition and might not be laying a good foundation for an increasingly technology-oriented society. Children were being lead to believe that engineering was inferior to the arts - a subject for unimaginative types who would be relegated to the back room while management jobs went to brilliant, extroverted Arts graduates.

CP Snow wanted Science to be recognised as an equal and balancing culture - neither an inferior form, nor a new barbarism that was threatening the Arts. It was perhaps a sign of the times - the materialist 1950s - that he only focussed on Art and Science and did not admit Religion as a separate culture.

More recent moral debates have chosen Religion and Science as the two significant cultural parameters - for example that the current emphasis on scientific education is doing nothing to prepare us for moral decisions. The Arts somehow get overlooked in this debate, as people forget that the study of literature is another way to define and explore our moral sensibilities. I have even heard a discussion recently that admitted three cultural streams - Art, Science and Religion. But the missing term in all these debates has been Magic.

In SSOTBME I suggested that the surest way to map out human culture was by using a compass with four directions: Art, Science, Religion and Magic. I suggested that to ignore or deny Magic was a bit like denying the existence of a hole in the road - it simply increased the chance of falling into it.

For we do find some recognition of magic in these debates, but it tends to be in terms of "folly" or "superstition". In today's BBC4 "Start the Week" discussion, a woman was arguing for a return of established religion, and she suggested that without this we were in danger of slipping back into superstitious ways of the past. She drew a parallel between ancient kingly sacrifices and the way that Clinton has been dismembered by the press on leaving office. The chairman countered by pointing out that, for many people in Britain, a return to religion would be seen as itself a slipping back into ancient superstition.

There was one context where we saw Magic included with Religion and Science - namely anthropology. The impression I got from Frazer's The Golden Bough was that there was this primitive thing called Magic that evolved into Religion and that in turn gave way to enlightenment in the form of Science. Another suggestion is that Magic evolved in two directions - as a spiritual system it evolved into Religion, as technology it evolved into Science.

In both these models Magic has a place, but the place is in the past rather than alongside Science and Religion. And once again, Art has fallen by the wayside.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion made in SSOTBME is that Magic, rather than being the precursor of Science, is its heir. I devote a chapter to examples of Science giving way to Magic rather than vice versa - starting with the 60s occult revival following 1950s materialism and going back through fin de siecle occultism following Victorian science, to the Dark Ages that followed the rationalism of the classical era. In my scheme, however, this evolution is not described as linear progress, but as a cyclical phenomenon in which Magic tends to evolve towards Art, while Art evolves towards Religion, Religion towards Science and Science towards Magic. And so the cycle continues.

Because this is such a radical idea, I will address it separately in the second essay in this series. The point I wish to make here is simply that the other analyses of our culture mentioned above are inadequate because they omit the role of Magic. On the one hand it is misleading to sweep all spiritual impulses under the carpet of Art, on the other hand it is wrong to insist that the search for meaning can only lead to God.

We do live in a scientific age, and this will most likely lead us into Magic. Do not see this as an unexpected reversal, or a backward slide for we really do need an understanding of Magic to make sense of what is happening.