Saturday, 9 April 2016

Running Folklore to the Death

This is an extract from the book J.G.Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being, published April 4, 2016. The extract is presented without its footnotes.

Section Thirteen

13.1. Frazer's work on the development of Plato's thought has made it more difficult to gain an understanding of the patterns of thought in antiquity - all his subsequent work is based on the presuppositions and arguments found in his early essay, and we still function within the vast paradigmatic frame established by these. And, once in place, the consequences of these presuppositions and arguments are difficult to move aside: particularly the view that the notion of magic before classical times exclusively depended upon the phenomenon of the association of ideas, and therefore can be understood as a simple species of error, a practice developed at the very beginning of man's attempt to understand the world around him.

13.2. Frazer worked within a milieu in which such arguments and assumptions would have been made even without the existence of Frazer himself, for they were on the tide. His later work never departed radically from the path set by his initial essay, and its presuppositions and arguments must be understood if his later monuments are to be assessed at their proper worth. Frazer erected his theory of Magic on the notion that magical patterns of thought, magical procedures, etc., can be explained according to the idea that ordered beliefs about the world are conditioned by the tendency of the mind to associate ideas, whether or not there is in fact such a relation between the objects which give rise to the subjective ideas of them. Thus habitual association gives false weight to notions of the world, and in the absence of adequate procedures of verification, these notions are not easily displaced. In his chapter on "Our Debt to the Savage"*[89] he says that:

When all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive... their errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited.

13.3. And since "truth" in science is no more than the best working hypothesis, the one with the greatest degree of competitive plausibility, reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth...*[90]

13.4. When Frazer speaks of these "inevitable slips", he means the ancient philosophers, including Plato, as well as our "savage" ancestors (that he understood this search for truth as an anabasis without limit is indicated by his provisional inclusion of his own work in this progression). The Platonic hypothesis as framed by Frazer in his essay of 1879 is one which a "fuller experience has proved to be inadequate". Before Plato, before Socrates, we are dealing with a much cruder set of beliefs and opinions concerning the world - the "quaint superstitions, the old-world maxims, the venerable saws which the ingenuity of savage philosophers elaborated long ago..." These customary beliefs and opinions centred around the king: those

men to whom the superstition of their fellows ascribes a controlling influence over the general course of nature... [his] life and health... are matters of anxious concern to the people whose welfare and even existence are bound up with his; naturally he is constrained by them to conform to such rules as the wit of early man has devised for averting the ills to which flesh is heir... The king was enmeshed in these "antique fancies", so that he "could hardly stir a limb for the threads of custom" and was "boundfast within a network of observances from which death or deposition alone could release him*[91].

13.5. And thus it is to ancient kingship and related institutions that we must turn (as Frazer did) if we are to understand the past, for

the life of the old kings and priests teems with instruction. In it was summed up all that passed for wisdom when the world was young. It was the perfect pattern after which every man strove to shape his life; a faultless model constructed with rigorous accuracy upon the lines laid down by a barbarous philosophy...

13.6. And while we can fault the premises of this philosophy, "it deduces for the practical guidance of life a system of rules which in general hangs well together and forms a fairly complete and harmonious whole"*[92].

13.7. Frazer argues*[93] that Magic precedes religion and religion precedes science, as a kind of natural order of progression, "and the order on which magic reckons is merely an extension by false analogy, of the order in which ideas present themselves to our minds", whereas in acuter minds
magic is gradually superseded by by religion, which explains the succession of natural phenomena as regulated by the will, the passion, or the caprice of spiritual beings like man in kind, though vastly superior to him in power... Keener minds, still pressing forward to a deeper solution of the mysteries of the universe, come to reject the religious theory of nature as inadequate, and to revert in measure to the older standpoint of magic by postulating explicitly, what in magic had only been implicitly assumed, to wit an inflexible regularity in the order of natural events, which if carefully observed, enables us to foresee their course with certainty and to act accordingly.

13.8. The passage emphasised by my italics is critically important. For Frazer, magic, conceived of as a phenomenon based on the association of ideas, may come to be operated in the absence of an explicit theory of Being, and have nothing to do with such a conception. Nowhere in the Golden Bough is there any intimation that notions of magic may arise from a notion of the nature of Being: it would seem that either the idea was considered by him and subsequently dismissed, or that it did not occur to him at all.

13.9. Before passing on to a discussion of the relationship between magic and theories of Being it is worth digressing a little, to consider a methodological problem of Frazer's, which bears on this difficulty in connecting magic and the concept of Being. Frazer does not stratify his evidence: the "beliefs" of "savages" of his own day are conflated with those of antiquity: the magical operations of kings and priests are hardly distinguished in quality from the events recorded in folklore ("the venerable saws... of savage philosophers... which old women at chimney corners still impart as treasures of great price to their descendants"*[94]). Frazer may thus have been in the thoughts of the scholar D'Arcy Thompson, when he complained of those who,

running folklore to the death, seek to read antiquity in the light of savagery; ...who arrive at what I unhesitatingly regard as misconception by the double blunder of unduly depreciating the complexity of initial or archaic Greek thought and unduly exalting the importance and too freely correlating the results of their own study of incipient or semibarbarous civilizations. We must see fallacy in any theory which treats as nascent and primitive the civilization of a period of exalted poetry, the offspring of ages of antecedent culture; which sees but a small advance on recent barbarism in ways of life simple in some respects but rich in developed art and stored with refined tradition; that looks only for the ways and habits and thoughts of primitive man in races supported by a background of philosophical and scientific culture of an unfathomed, and maybe unfathomable antiquity*[95]

13.10. It is a strange and unscientific way to deal with evidence, to assume that it is not necessary to evaluate the worth of each piece on its own merits, quite apart from the question of whether or not it fits into the large picture. But it follows quite naturally from the preconceptions of the time: if there is no ontological basis for the various beliefs of the ancients and savages, how are they to be graded and related to one another and to be given value of any sort? They are all mistakes, and do not form a sequence of a kind that might allow a progression to be determined. Thus Frazer grouped his study of patterns of belief thematically.

13.11. Frazer firmly locates magic as a phenomenon which precedes an explicit theory of Being, the result of quite startlingly false analogical thinking. The error in magic he defines as of two kinds: sympathetic and contagious. In the case of sympathetic magic, "the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it". Contagious magic involves the inference "that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact..."*[96].

13.12. Further, he argues that:

its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science; underlying the whole system is a faith, implicit but real and firm, in the order and uniformity of nature...He [the magician] supplicates no higher power*[97]
13.13. Religion also, according to Frazer, is not a phenomenon whose origin can be traced to a theory of Being, despite the fact that it involves "a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them"*[98] . Why then does this change in patterns of belief take place? Frazer's attempt to explain this is perhaps the weakest part of his work. He suggests (with diffidence) that

a tardy recognition of the inherent falsehood and barrenness of magic set the more thoughtful part of mankind to cast about for a truer theory of nature and a more fruitful method of turning her resources to account... The discovery amounted to this, that men for the first time recognised their inability to manipulate at pleasure certain natural forces which hitherto they had believed to be completely within their control. It was a confession of human ignorance and weakness... If the great world went on its way without the help of him or his fellows, it must surely be because there were other beings, like himself, but far stronger, who, unseen themselves, directed its course and brought about all the varied series of events which he had hitherto believed to be dependent on his own magic... To these mighty beings, whose handiwork he traced in all the gorgeous and varied pageantry of nature, man now addressed himself, humbly confessing his dependence on their invisible power... In this, or some such way as this, the deeper minds may be conceived to have made the great transition from magic to religion. But even in them the change can hardly ever have been sudden; probably it proceeded very slowly, and required long ages for its more or less perfect accomplishment. For the recognition of man's powerlessness to influence the course of nature on a grand scale must have been gradual; he cannot have been shorn of the whole of his fancied dominion at a blow... religion, beginning as a slight and partial acknowledgement of powers superior to man, tends with the growth of knowledge to deepen into a confession of man's entire and absolute dependence on the divine*[99]
13.14. Thus Frazer detects in the divinities the personification of the great natural forces which man cannot control; and theories of Being, it would appear, have no part to play in this history of man's intellectual development; Being as a concept, it would seem, belongs only to a very narrow rung of the ladder of human intellectual progress, somewhere between the decay of religious explanation and the rise of empiricism and inductive method. The gods are merely inferential beings, without explanation beyond the fact that some such powers, on the basis of experience, must exist, if the nature of the world is to be understood.

13.15. That magic is conceived of as an operative phenomenon depends, as Frazer says, on there being sympathy and contact between things: relation of some sort must exist if magical results are to occur. Frazer argues that this is a species of intellectual error, essentially twofold, in that likeness is misread for identity, and contact for a moment is misread for contact at all times. No theory of Being among the ancients is however invoked by Frazer to explain this pattern of belief. But are we really to accept that at all times and at all levels, the practitioners of magic have been the victims of such stupid thoughts? That mere similarity was confused with identity, and that a brief contiguity likewise was taken, of itself, to establish a permanent relationship?

13.16. If we recall the passage in the Timaeus where similar forms are asserted to form a unity and thus to be interchangeable, it might be argued that Plato is attempting to supply an account of the relation of things on the basis of similarity, within the context of a theory of Being*[100]. Frazer perhaps understood the Platonic Philosophy as the culmination of a way of thinking, which, though it attempted to move forward, was boundfast by an inherited and inherent fallacy. But, though it is true that Plato's account of the theory of the Forms is unsatisfactory in the manner in which it is discussed, his theory of Being provides a paradigm of reality in which magical relationships ought to have been intelligible.

13.17. That it does not, on the face of it, provide a model for the understanding of magical relationships in antiquity is due essentially to the history of the interpretation of the fact that, clearly, the theory of Being breaks down in the course of Plato's work, and that the Intelligibles cannot, either exist unmoved, or exist unmoved and be known. The third alternative, which is voiced by the Eleatic Stranger at Soph. 249c-d, that Reality embraces both the unchangeable and the changing, similarly appears to have provided no model for the understanding of magical relationships, since it is a default position, agreed among the speakers in the dialogue because they have no other option. If, as in this case, the world of Forms is indistinguishable from the world of changing appearances, it has been understood that we are left with little more than the assertion of relation between similars (looking very like the Frazerian position on magic). Therefore the ultimate "disappearance" of the theory as an explanatory device of any worth is read as Plato's rejection of his own theory; lingering in his work for a time, just as the Ptolemaic account of the Cosmos lingered on (in Milton's Paradise Lost, for example) after the work of Copernicus and Galileo rendered it theoretically outmoded.

13.18. It would seem therefore that a theory of Being cannot support a pattern of belief, except for those who do not or cannot examine with precision the material which they are to believe. This however, is no reason to reject it as a possibility among the ancients, if we are to accept that they were starting out on the long road to rational thought. After all, the Frazerian picture of the development of Plato's thought implies that he did not spot the fallacies in his argument until late in his career. The fact that a pattern of thought may be held in error does not mean that it may not be held at all.

13.19. Yet the later nineteenth century had a peculiar aversion to allowing a venerable ancient history to the concept of Being, and abstract ideas in general; and this view is still broadly adhered to, though reasons for supporting this model of human intellectual history are increasingly hard to come by. The reasons for the unacceptability of abstract ideas among the ancients are difficult to unravel, but have much to do with the development of anthropological ideas, and the stratification of man, both socially and historically. I have already illustrated that Frazer runs antiquity and the savage close together. A passage from his chapter on "Magic and Religion", p73, suggests that for him the equation was both conscious and quite seriously maintained. He speaks of the diversity of religious views in the world "which affect mainly the intelligent and thoughtful part of the community", but suggests that

when we have penetrated through these differences... we shall find underlying them all a solid stratum of intellectual agreement among the dull, the weak, the ignorant, and the superstitious, who constitute, unfortunately, the vast majority of mankind.

13.20. Here Frazer tells us something of the strong sense possessed by the upper levels of society in late victorian England that they were supported by a large mass of people they neither knew or understood. This belief was strongly held:

One of the great achievements of the nineteenth century was to run shafts down into this low mental stratum in many parts of the world, and thus to discover its essential identity everywhere... This universal faith, this truly Catholic creed, is a belief in the efficacy of magic... Among the ignorant and superstitious classes of modern Europe it is very much what it was thousands of years ago in Egypt and India, and what it now is among the lowest savages surviving in the remotest corners of the world*[101]

13.21. The equation is clear. The repellent fascination with a barbarous antiquity is kin to the nineteenth century fascination with the horrors of what he later calls "a standing menace to civilization", the "solid layer of savagery beneath the surface of society... unaffected by the superficial changes of religion and culture"*[102]. Naturally, given this equation as a premiss, it is impossible to ascribe to the ancients of remotest historical time, steeped in magic and ritual as they were, a capacity to deal in abstract ideas; far less that the details of their culture and beliefs might have been shaped by theories of Being.

13.22. This unfortunate association of ideas was understood, in the late nineteenth century, to make necessary a corollary between the biological nature of populations and their cultural production. There is not much evidence for this notion however: and no indication at all that there has been a change in the capacity of man to deal in abstractions over historical time. Changes in intellectual production ought to be approached - initially at least - as purely cultural phenomena. But the idea of the corollary between the "low mental stratum" and the "savage" was so strongly held that it occurred to few that they were dealing with a persuasive notion rather than an established fact.

No comments:

Post a Comment