The Encyclopédie establishes that there are three varieties of magic, all of which are very different from the modern connotation that accompanies the term.
1 Divine magic is knowledge of god’s intentions for the universe. Those who have divine magic are described as being able to scry the future and perform miracles. This is apparently the sort of magic that was gifted to prophets so that they could perceive god’s will and conform to its sensibilities.
2 Natural magic is simply the equivalent of a comprehensive understanding of science and mathematics. In this sense, “magic” is a means of understanding the natural universe and offers us a way to decipher how God has organized the natural laws that govern the universe. This is why it was considered to be “real” magic as opposed to the darker form of magic whose existence came into doubt by this period (at least among intellectual circles).
3 Supernatural magic is the variety that was thought to derive its potency from satanic forces. Although it is acknowledged to be theoretically capable of altering the physical world, its existence is dismissed as being implausible. Those who claim to practice it are perceived as insolent towards God for trying to circumvent his impositions.
The unknown author of this particular article analyzes magic in the context of a theistically oriented universe. Given this religious paradigm, the aspiration to understand the laws that govern reality was in direct alignment with the will of God. In a rather deistic manner, God is interpreted to be the creator of the tangible world and the strictures by which it is governed. He has provided humanity with a cosmological system as well as the sensual means to determine its nature. From this perspective, God has provided humanity with everything, including the desire to intellectually transcend the world that he has created by discerning its true nature with “magic.” So in this sense, magic was seen as a type of knowledge and was often described as such. Not all magic is negative in connotation since God is strongly associated with magic given the proper context.
Given our modern understanding of science, our criteria for belief is far more rigorous than it had been prior to the proliferation of science. We see the universe in a more objective, clinical fashion than even the writers of the Encyclopédie. Given that the primary means for gaining information about the universe were the immediately accessible powers of the senses, however, thinkers of the Enlightenment utilized these means in extremely innovative, yet entirely logical ways. In his Essay on Human Understanding, John Locke contests that we acquire external information about our environment and its function solely from our senses. Human minds strive to collate information in a meaningful way and use the information that they accumulate to build ideas that are achieved through meditative thought. Upon humanity’s inception, we were obviously oblivious to the more intricate mechanics of the universe. Locke presents us with a schema for gathering information about the world that is consistent with the Enlightenment notion of natural magic. His implication is that there is a consistently operative system that humanity can come to know by recognizing its ineffable patterns.
This unmistakably rational method for making sense of the world serves as a ward against a sort of superstitious zealotry. Enlightenment thinkers would claim that zealotry, or unerring faith in a notion without any logical foundation, was conducive to fundamental misconceptions about the function of the universe. When ideas are directly rooted in reality, their possessors are more capable of affecting an actual change in their environment. Unsubstantiated thoughts almost inevitably lead to conflicting beliefs and implementations of those beliefs, which are likely to result in chaotic discord. Those who think in such inconsistent manners are prone to hypocrisy, which is an extremely dangerous attribute for people in positions of power, which I will discuss later.
Out of all of the writers we have read thus far, it would seem that Alexander Pope most strongly embodies an adherence to the Encyclopédie’s interpretation of magic. In his Essay on Man, he argues that divine magic and natural magic are in fact inextricably related. He makes the distinction, though, that given man’s severe epistemological limitations when compared to God himself, it is futile to attempt to understand such an inconceivably complex system. He makes this distinction on the grounds that God, obviously representing divinity, was the originator of the vastly intricate physical laws that reality is bound to. In his mind, learning more about science can only serve to more fully confirm the impossible scope that God operates on. This is a unique perspective because of its position that scientific inquiry is inherently deficient, which appears to be a very sophisticated dismissal of data-based logic.
However eloquently Pope may present his beliefs, his idea that scientific pursuit is ultimately frivolous is antithetical to Enlightenment ideals. The true philosopher, who is described as manifesting the ideals of the enlightenment, would denounce Pope as being unambitious and lacking commitment to the virtue of reason. Unlike Pope, the philosopher believes that information can be appropriated for the collective benefit of humanity. It can be argued that by discouraging rational inquiry, Pope would be depriving humanity of potential opportunities to improve the welfare of all of society. Not only can “natural magic” provide conveniences such as navigational tools and printing technology, but practical necessities such as medicine and agricultural techniques.
There is a prevalent double standard in the writing of the Encyclopédie. Although the two main varieties of magic (divine and supernatural) are similar in the sense that they are both derived from metaphysical sources, credence seems to reside solely with divine magic. In the second part of the Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert claims that God’s infinitely meticulous system of natural law can be unmistakably observed in nature. Without having any other source of substantiation, he merely claims that it is obvious to the rational mind, as is the case with the new man who descends from the heavens (a description that reveals his predisposition). Independent of whether they are actually right or not, it is difficult to fathom how these supposedly enlightened minds could have arbitrarily justified an ambiguous divine pattern while dismissing the possibility of supernatural magic that could be argued for on precisely the same grounds. I am not accusing them of being wrong necessarily, but a more logical argument would be comforting. This is part of why I feel that it was impossible for the Encyclopédie to have been written objectively given that its writers believed unconditionally in the supremacy of theology. I respect that all people of all eras possess differing religious beliefs, but the Encyclopédie’s writers cannot accurately claim their objectivity given that their religion permeates their every argument.
It is also known to be true that a majority of the populace was barely literate at the turn of the 18th century, although literacy rates increased drastically by the end of the century. A tendency to believe things to be exactly as they appear is inextricable from a profound ignorance of illuminating scientific principles that we utilize to decipher the world, which is an idea that is aptly comparable to the mission of education. As literacy and the general intelligence and deductive skills that are associated with it have become prevalent, the feasibility of inexplicable interpretations such as magic is greatly reduced. This is definitely how I see the trajectory of our culture. Belief becomes far more arduous in an age when a rational understanding of reality rather than our isolated perception of reality must corroborate everything.