Religion, Magic, and Science

Image is from Pixabay

It’s useless to try to define something like religion. James Frazer says all he’ll do is say what he means by it, and then try to be consistent in using the term throughout his work.

By “religion”, Frazer means

A propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life.

He goes on to say that, according to this definition, there must always be both a theoretical and a practical side to religion. There must always be a theoretical because one must believe in a higher power if one is to feel compelled to attempt to appease it. There must always be a practical side because appeasing a god always involves some kind of work, whether that be ritual or merely living a “good” life – a life in accordance with the preferences of your god.

Frazer believes that the religious world view is superior to the magical world view that came before it. The magicians believed that they could control nature, performing rituals to cause rain, to make crops grow, and so on. Religion comes about when human beings start to notice that the magic doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to – it doesn’t always rain when the magician says it will rain, the harvest was bad again this year – and they come to doubt their own powers to cause desired outcomes in nature. Religion is born of “a confession of human ignorance and weakness.” What follows from this confession is the imagining of a power greater than they, against which they are helpless, but which might be merciful and grant human beings what they need if they behave rightly.

To believe in the existence of gods is more rational than believing in magic, Frazer tells us. We can prove that magic doesn’t work, but it’s more difficult to refute religion. Spirits and gods can be fickle, and a failure on the part of the priest to produce the desired outcome might be viewed as proof of the displeasure of the god, rather than of the non-existence of that god. And yet, according to Frazer, the religious view has been slowly eroded. Little by little, it has become apparent that nature behaves in a more or less orderly and fixed way. Gradually humankind has come to see that nature does not look like something governed by the whim and caprice of spirits. Increasingly, the scientific world view has come to prevail.

For Frazer, the scientific view is similar to the magical. Both views are opposed to the religious belief in fickle spirits. Both claim a regularity in nature. The magicians claimed that they knew the laws of nature and through this knowledge could make predictions and bring about desired effects. The scientists make similar claims. The difference between the two is that science seems to be effective, whereas humankind has gradually come to believe that magic is not.

The triumph of science is not final and absolute, for Frazer. Magic, religion, and science all have in common the fact that they are theoretical ways of viewing the world. The belief in magic and religion were only very slowly eroded over time, as gradually it became apparent that they did not explain the world. Frazer leaves open the question whether the belief in science might go the same way.

For Frazer, science appeared when humankind started to doubt whether the world was governed by the caprice and whim of invisible powers. The arrival of science brought with it a confidence in the fixity and predictability of things, in the human being’s power over nature and assured place in the world. But however things might have looked to Frazer, today we live in a world of uncertainty. Isn’t it starting to look, to many of us, as though the world is not quite governed by law in the way we were told? That decision-making is impossible in a world of information, with so many variables to hand? That with so much misinformation out there, truth and falsity is beginning to look like a matter of personal preference? Perhaps amid this uncertainty we are heading once more towards a world governed by whim and caprice, and towards a world view that looks a little closer to the religious than the scientific.

(I’ve been reading The Golden Bough by James Frazer.)

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You must be ecstatic

Image is from Pixabay

In The Night Manager, Madame Latulipe asks Jonathan if he is in love. “Not that I am aware, madame,” he replies.

“You are unhappy? You are lonely?”

“I am blissfully content.”

“But to be content is not enough! You must abandon yourself. You must risk everything every day. You must be ecstatic.”

John Le Carré has Jonathan reply that “his ecstasy was in his work”. Since he is a cook, perhaps she can believe this. A cook is a kind of artist after all.

Meanwhile, Henry Miller sings and shouts and makes conversation as he types. According to Robert Ferguson he is “playing at being a writer”. He’s not carefully considering “artistic problems” in the way that Joyce, Beckett, or Nabokov did: he just goes for it, hammering at the machine. It’s when others can see him here, glass of wine beside him, putting his deep thoughts on the page, that he feels like he’s a writer. He is “enjoying the paraphernalia of the role,” putting on a show for those who watch him create. Is this not a man in a state of abandon? In a state of ecstasy?

I find this notion of playing at being a writer fascinating. Don’t all writers need to do this to some extent? Abandon themselves to the task and just start to put those incomplete thoughts on the page, and see what comes of them? Or is it just that I can relate more to the Miller-type than to the more serious kinds of writer? If I tell myself: This is work, I need to get this done then nothing comes at all. Whereas when I just sit down and bash the keys at least I’ll have something down on the page, which I can work into something better later on. I can’t remember who taught me that writer’s block does not exist, and I don’t know whether that’s strictly true, but as soon as I stopped believing in it I found myself able to write every day.

Of course, not everything that comes from bashing the keys is going to be very good, and that’s why it’s not serious work. Half the time you’re not producing anything worthwhile, just enjoying the process. This seems to be one of the ways we’re to understand “seriousness”: in opposition to “fun”. Something is serious when it’s more than just fun, when it has some definite purpose beyond that.

But according to that definition, playing at being a writer would be serious too. Because it’s not just about having fun, it’s also about hoping that something worthwhile will come of the work beyond that. Writing is “serious play”, one might say, because it has the lightness of play mixed with the purpose of serious work. One plays in the hope that, eventually, one might succeed in producing a completed piece of work.

“You must risk everything every day. You must be ecstatic.” This is the ecstasy of play. You roll the dice: perhaps nothing will come of this play. Perhaps the day will be wasted. But what’s the alternative? Preparing and preparing and never getting down to the business of writing. Of course, one day you’ll be sure everything is in place, ready to begin, and once you finally get down to writing it will be marvellous. But when will that be?

(I’ve been reading The Night Manager by John Le Carré and Henry Miller: A Life by Robert Ferguson.)

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A Short Note on Reason’s Certainty


In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, having “reason” means being certain that you are “all reality”, knowing that the whole of the world can be found in your “I”. This self-certainty is well-founded in a sense: idealism is true, and the opposite belief, that the world subsists outside ourselves and simply impresses itself upon us through our senses, amounts to a naïve and false realism.

But reason’s certainty is also mistaken: its notion of idealism is too simplistic. For Hegel, it is not just a single “I” in which the whole world is found; this “I” must find itself to be a member of a community, and only “we”, together, can form a real and true conception of the world. The whole of reality is found in a community’s conception of itself, and not just that of a single individual.

To say that the “I” is the whole world, in any sense, is to take up the standpoint of idealism. It is not such a strange thing for a philosopher to do: we have Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, and many more. And Hegel himself is an idealist.

We can observe reason’s claim for itself from different perspectives: on the one hand, we can take it in its immediacy, in which case it is simply saying “I am the whole world.” In which case it seems a strange, mad claim to make. On the other hand, we can view this utterance in the context of the Phenomenology of Spirit, in which case we see consciousness, as reason, at a point on the path that has brought it here. It has taken up and rejected the various claims that the particular forms of consciousness and self-consciousness have made for themselves along the way – for example, that truth can be found immediately in objects, or in the negation of objects and withdrawal from the world – and step by step, as it has moved along this path, consciousness has demonstrated the truth of the simple idealism of reason.

Consciousness is correct, even though it is mistaken. Given what has gone before, it has found, in the certainty of reason, the truest standpoint that it can find for the moment. It has rid itself of naïve realism and has taken up the perspective of idealism, which means that it is at least pointing in the right direction. Consciousness will now find its simple idealism tested, until it is refined and transformed from the narrow idealism of reason’s  “I”, into the more fulfilling idealism found in the concept of “spirit” and the notion of the whole world found in an ethical community and its culture.

(I’ve been reading paragraph 233 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller. Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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What is Philosophy?


It’s a question philosophers like to ask from time to time, never arriving at a universally satisfactory answer. If you start to read Hegel, you might arrive at the notion that philosophy is the science of Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit; and yet even once this strange thought has entered your brain, it will take a lot more patient study of the great philosopher’s work to unpack exactly what this means.

In the “Preface” to his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel tells us that what is essential to philosophy is “universality”. Philosophy seeks to discover not just what is true, but what is universally or absolutely so. For example: “Cardiff is the capital of Wales”, “It is the 30th of July 2020”, and “I am hungry” might all be true statements, but these are not the kinds of truth philosophy is seeking. On the other hand, the question of what it is about these statements that makes us say that they are all “true” might be a philosophical question, since it has to do with the essential nature of truth, or what is true in all cases of truth.

Hegel’s approach to the history of philosophy is coloured by this notion that philosophy has to do with universality: it is not enough to take individual philosophers and their systems merely as particular instances, each to be refuted or argued for in isolation; instead, each philosophical system must be seen as expressing the universal truth, however incompletely or imperfectly. For Hegel, truth is something that has unfolded gradually and progressively throughout the history of humankind, and philosophical systems must be seen as connected and part of a long tradition, with philosophers learning from their predecessors, improving on what they find, getting closer to the truth with each passing generation.

To put it paradoxically: the result of philosophical investigation should not just be a result – a set of simple truths that can be easily reported to non-specialists once the philosophical work is completed. Instead, we should see that the result is the result and the process by which the result is reached. We cannot just take up what is true in particular philosophies and discard what is false: what is false must be worked through so that we can understand how the truth was reached, and the false as much as the true must be retained as an essential part of the journey.

Philosophy is the science of Spirit coming to know itself as Spirit, because it is the journey of discovery that each generation must work through afresh, making the same mistakes, only advancing one or two steps further than their predecessors each time. Philosophy never arrives at the end, with a full set of data that can simply be set down for the next generation to read and move on. The students of each generation must do the philosophical work, reading the philosophers who came before, coming to know themselves by seeing themselves reflected in the insights – and mistakes – of the past.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Spirit is the Light of the Morning


“Its shape is in fact shapelessness, the all-embracing light of the morning.” – J.N. Findlay, Analysis of section 686 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

It’s impossible to see where light begins and ends. You can see it in the green leaves of the trees as much as in the clear blue of the sky. As much in the grey tarmac as in the glistening ocean. Light permeates all things that are visible and yet is none of them.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is the story of the human spirit – or “Spirit” – as it struggles to find itself.

Spirit has discovered that it cannot be morally pure: you can do your duty, but you cannot be free from sin. Any moral stand taken results in hypocrisy – and yet a stand must be taken. Spirit goes around and around and has begun to despair again.

Spirit wants purity because it does not want to be limited. Recognising its own hypocrisy, Spirit seeks to be free from it.

Spirit sees a way out. It takes refuge in simplicity, escaping for now from the intricacies of moral debate. It finds this simplicity, this peace, in religion.

Spirit can stop retreating now that it has found God. A God that is lord and master and does not retreat from its object. God’s object is Spirit itself in its purity. Be one with God and know thyself. Self-contemplation: God is within me and spreads His light outward to all things that come within my vision. I have found a God that is akin to the sunrise, who spreads His light over all objects, making them visible while Himself being none of these particular things. God is the essence but not the being of these objects, making their appearance possible while leaving them to their own mundane existences.

Duty and morality fade into the background and the Truth is now found in that play of light over and above the things of the world. Truth is found in detachment from the things of the world.

This God, this Spirit, is now the “shape of shapelessness”, the simple relation of Spirit to itself. It is “the pure, all-embracing and all-pervading essential light of sunrise”. It is “formless substantiality”. The “simplicity” of this form of being means it moves about “aimlessly” and “without stability or intelligence”. It is vast and without limit, and therefore sublime rather than beautiful. It is something fearful and incomprehensible to moral consciousness, its beam vast and uncaring, and its heat potentially destructive of any particular thing that comes under it.

The human spirit will not linger long here. It cannot for long remain satisfied with the empty play of light on surfaces. It has been a relief from the contradictions and pressures of moral and ethical life, an escape. But Spirit will move on and search for new religious forms and find contradictions and pressures anew, and finally find a place for moral and ethical life again.

(I’ve been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit translated by A.V. Miller, with an analysis of the text by J.N. Findlay)

(Image is from Pixabay)

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The Enjoyment in Writing


Past, present, and future are bound together when Henry Miller is writing. “The past is the springboard, the present the melting pot, and the future the delectation.”

The past is the springboard because it is from the memories of his own experiences that he writes.

The present is the melting pot because it is in the chaos of the moment that he must transform these memories into art.

The future is the delectation: Henry describes the enjoyment he gets from writing. “For instance, when I write something I like extra well I smack my lips and look over my own shoulder. I am already the man of 2500 A.D. or 5000 A.D., enjoying this great guy Henry Miller who lived in the 20th century.”

“Writing is its own reward,” Miller tells us. You receive this reward in the reflective moment of achievement that comes once the work is done. Even one good finished sentence and you can revel in the delicious future in which admiring eyes will be upon your work.

These admiring eyes don’t need to ever actually exist. What’s important is that you can imagine them. “The men of 2500 A.D. will enjoy reading this little passage, I am sure.” You’ve created work that you are pleased with, and so you can imagine others, even in some distant future or parallel universe, feeling the same. Others like you. This is why you write after all: to find others like you.

And along with the delectation of the future: the melting pot of the present, the seething chaos from which you can’t expect anything perfect to emerge. Life, after all, isn’t perfect. And life is the most important thing: you’re trying to bring into the world something that lives and breathes. And that will live on and speak to others, and say new things and even give rise to new ideas that you’d never thought of in the moment of writing.

For this reason, perfection is never the goal. What is perfect is finished with, and nothing new can arise from it. What the best readers want is the flawed, contradictory, and chaotic. Which when released into the world can mingle and find strange new uses in the hands of others.

Miller is saying: write for yourself, and not for any preconceived notion of beauty or truth. The whole purpose of life is to enjoy yourself, and writing should serve that same purpose. And in serving yourself in this way you will produce exactly the kind of lively and provocative writing that your future readers will need.

(I’ve been reading “Writing Is Its Own Reward” by Henry Miller, which can be found in his Henry Miller on Writing.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Orpheus is playing his lyre with tears in his eyes, begging the rulers of the underworld to return Eurydice to him.

All Pluto and Persephone want is to be rid of those dewy eyes, tearing at their heart strings. They tell him he can have her back on one condition: that he doesn’t look back the whole way out of the underworld.

By the time Orpheus has broken this condition, as he surely will, and he’s crying again, he’ll be long gone and the king and queen won’t have to worry about it.

He’s almost out of the underworld and, worried that Eurydice might not be behind him, he looks back.

As she’s pulled away from him forever there is no look of complaint in her eyes: she was loved and that is enough for her. She whispers a farewell and is gone.

Orpheus finds the denizens of the underworld hardened against him as he tries to re-enter: he’s pushed away from the boat and his song is cut short. They know his tricks now. Distraught, he returns to the daylight to mourn.

All eyes are on him during his time on earth, the famous poet. He is loved by everyone and everything. If he sits in the sun he soon finds himself in shade: the trees have crept toward him to hear his songs.

(I’ve been reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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The Stone House

I’m a fan of RPGs, and tomorrow I’ll be running a game of Call of Cthulhu over the internet for some friends. Below is the introduction for the scenario I’ve just made. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft might recognise the reference to “strange days.” And what do you think the stone house might be?


In recent months you’ve been hearing a lot of stories about the “strange days.” Eyes have been fixed on the countryside outside the old city, and experts have been trying to work out what happened all those decades ago, back in the ‘80s. And those experts have talked to reporters, and those reporters have written stories, and now the public seems obsessed with the tales of what happened in rural Massachusetts all those years ago.

Perhaps it’s because of the unnatural mystery in the air that you’ve all been having strange recurring dreams: each night a horrible picture in your mind becomes clearer and clearer, even as the vision becomes darker and darker. You see the thing in a strange subterranean light: the dream has given you inhuman eyes. You see the ancient stones of a house that could never have been built by human hands: massive stones of bizarre texture, strangely coloured, and of impossible dimensions. And much of the building is missing: you see its vast open jagged doorway like a mouth, threatening in its weird contortion and dark emptiness.

Weeks and weeks of the same dream, slightly altered, and you get a glimpse beyond the mad stone house to a building beyond that: this house itself stands in a bigger house. You realise now what you have seen in your vision: an ancient house standing as an exhibit in the University Museum.

This is madness, but you have an impulse you cannot escape: to visit the museum and see the exhibit for yourself. Perhaps by discovering something about it, seeing how closely it matches the object in your dream, you can put your mind at rest and be able to find a night of dreamless sleep once again.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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“We have no need for genius – genius is dead. We have need for strong hands …”

How to start writing? Take a building block and set it down. It is Paris, 1930 perhaps, and a day in the life of Henry Miller is moving along.

A place to work is all that is required. It’s more important than a place to sleep: “One can sleep almost anywhere,” says Miller. But it’s impossible to work at writing without a place to do it. He doesn’t mention “routine” but I think this is part of it: you need a place to return to day by day, where you know it can happen. Where even if it doesn’t happen, you know tomorrow might be better.

There are always things to complain about: the noise around and about, the smells of cooking (from food that you are not permitted to eat) and the growling of your belly … The point is to transfigure these annoyances into art, to make what is small and miserable into something joyful.

“Do anything, but let it produce joy!” is the artists’ mantra. When you’re writing in poor conditions, it can seem far from a joyful activity. Transfiguration can be a painful process. And yet the largest part of Miller’s soul is singing its joy as he works at the typewriter.

(I’ve been reading Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Tree Spirits in The Golden Bough


In spring, early summer, or midsummer the villagers would go out into the woods to cut down a tree. They’d bring it back to the village and set it up there (“amid general rejoicings”); or, in other villages, they would cut up the tree and distribute the branches among the households. James Frazer tells us that the purpose of these rituals was to bring the spirit that dwelt in the tree into the village so that its blessing could be shared among the villagers.

Over time, the purpose of customs is forgotten: the tree is left up in the village square through autumn and winter so that it can be danced around again next year and the year after that. The spirit of the living tree is long departed by the time the tree is used again, and no new spirit is brought in that spring or summertime. No magic is being performed here: only the bare custom remains. A general sense that the change of season is something to be celebrated, and so there should be drink and dancing.

Or in some places, rather than being forgotten altogether, the custom is found to have been only altered over time. In places where the same tree is used year after year, or where the tree is replaced only every few years, an effort is made at least to decorate the tree with the vegetation that has appeared in the woods since spring. No new tree spirit has been brought in, but the general spirit of spring and summer is evoked, and the people know the purpose of the ritual: to bring in the blessings of spring and summertime.

What’s lost over time is the immanent quality of the belief that underlies the custom: even where the meaning is not forgotten altogether, the spirit of the season is no longer an individual spirit that dwells in a particular tree, but is instead a universal spirit of spring or summertime, transcendent to any particular instance of growth and blossoming, representing a general conception of the spring and summer seasons.

In this example we can see how, as people become less literal in their beliefs, less convinced that spirits are individual beings that inhabit individual tangible things, they abandon the immanent contact with spirits, and come to settle for an acquaintance with only a general conception of things.

(I’ve been reading “Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe” in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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