By Peter Leithart
Once upon a time, magic was a mighty force, but not anymore. Once Britain was filled with fairies, but no one ever sees an elf nowadays.
My opening paragraph may sound like a tale from Max Weber or Charles Taylor, but the first sentence summarizes a regular motif of English folklore and the second is a paraphrase of part of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale.” The end of magic is a regular theme of fairy tales, and already in the fourteenth century, Chaucer’s character looked back nostalgically to an earlier, more enchanted world, the dazzling “old days of King Arthur.”
Over the past two centuries, similar stories of disenchantment have become “mythic,” as Jason A. Josephson-Storm argues in his Myth of Disenchantment (University of Chicago, 2017). By “myth,” Josephson-Storm means something that is both “factually false” and a “master cultural narrative.”
As a factual matter, “magic never truly vanished.” We’re told that the Reformation disenchanted Western Europe, but Luther threw his inkpot at the devil and Puritans put witches on trial. The rise of science has been blamed for destroying magic, but Newton dabbled in alchemy and spent his free evenings puzzling over the Book of Daniel. Modernity’s elites have always included more than a few spiritualists, theosophists, occultists, and magicians.
Magic persisted among non-elites, too. Georg Simmel predicted in the late nineteenth century that historians would tell “our grandchildren that the conviction of the pervasive conformity to scientific laws penetrated all levels of the people for the first time in our century,” driving out “superstition, the vague fear of supernatural, intangible powers.”
What Simmel saw around him was more complicated than that. Even as natural science progressed, many tried to communicate with the spirits of the dead. In Europe and the United States, hundreds of books on spiritualism were sold to hundreds of thousands of readers. “Medium” had become “a special ‘business,’ a profession and sometimes quite a lucrative one,” flourishing in Berlin and Munich.
The ethnologist Edward Tylor noted the same phenomenon and suggested that his emerging discipline might take on the “harsh” duty of exposing “the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.” Ethnography is “a reformer’s science,” carrying on Protestantism’s battle against superstition, with updated tools.
Josephson-Storm asks the key question: How did this factual myth become one of the myths that defines the modern age?
The myth was catalyzed by German “Philhellenism.” Eighteenth-century German intellectuals regarded ancient Greece as the ideal civilization, when men communed with nature and the gods. Man had since fallen from Edenic Athens and, as Schiller wrote in a famous lament, the “gods of Greece” had withdrawn.
The “Pantheism Controversy” provided a flashpoint. The aging Gotthold Lessing announced that he couldn’t “stomach” orthodox concepts of God. “Hen kai pan”—“one and all”—is all one can know. For some, Lessing’s pantheistic confession was proof that reason leads to a denial of God and freedom. Friedrich Jacobi coined the word “nihilism” to describe the deterministic universe of Lessing and other Spinozists.
Weave these two threads together, and you have the makings of a disenchantment myth: Once upon a time, the gods hummed through the cosmos, and human beings were free and happy. Now reason has stripped away mystery and left us to be mangled in the gears of dead nature. Some suspected that nihilism lurked at the heart of philosophy and science themselves. As reason and science advance, magic and enchantment retreat. For some, the obvious solution was to embrace un-reason.
The more immediate origins of the myth are more paradoxical, formulated by writers who were intimately linked with the spiritualist movements of their time.
Decades before Weber, James Frazer proposed that cultures evolve from magic through religion to science. Frazer’s grand narrative was undermined by his claim that both magic and science assume natural regularities of cause and effect, without intervention from the capricious personal beings of religious belief. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, for Frazer, science was magic that works. Frazer recounted the disappearance of magic and simultaneously announced its continuation in science.
But the deeper irony is, Josephson-Storm says, that “the disenchantment thesis had its origins not in sociology but in folklore.” Frazer announced the death of magic “in a volume that testified on every page to magic’s survival.”
Like Simmel, Weber, the father of disenchantment theory, was well aware that magic wasn’t dead. He spent time at the Mountain of Truth commune in Ascona, Switzerland, and approvingly cited the work of the panpsychist psychologist Ludwig Klages. Weber began using his crucial concept of “charisma” after his first meeting with the mystic Stefan George, and Weber was acquainted with other members of George’s “Secret Germany” (Geheimes Deutschland) circle.
In Weber’s theory, the world becomes “disenchanted” when things are stripped of inherent meaning and power, either by attributing all causality to a transcendent sovereign God or by comprehensive scientific explanations. But Weber didn’t simply capitulate. Josephson-Storm shows that Weber flirted with mysticism as a possible counter to the dulling effects of disenchantment.
In Josephson-Storm’s telling, the cultural trajectory of the past two centuries has not been “disenchantment” so much as “de-Christianization.” Secularization and disenchantment have sometimes been the anti-Christian weapons of choice—“combat terms,” in Ian Hunter’s phrase. Just as often, paganism and spiritualism have been promoted as alternatives to Christianity.
We need to get the story right to understand the world we live in. Our choice isn’t between “enchanted” religion and “disenchanted” modernity. We’ll be more clear-sighted when we recognize that the choice is more typically among rival enchantments.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
About the Author
- Peter J. Leithart (born 1959) is an American author, minister, theologian and president of Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. He previously served as Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature as well as Dean of Graduate Studies at New Saint Andrews College.