Monday, December 23, 2013

Magic... is Power

So in part 1, we discussed the human sense of wonder as an aspect of our attraction to “magic”.  Today we will discuss something else universally attractive to humans: power!

Power is simply the ability to act. The desire for it is so obvious and universal that those who encourage us to act morally warn us against seeking it (for itself, for the wrong reasons, etc.) apparently without ever even considering that it might not be attractive. They do this with good reason, because it is attractive, and important, and dangerous.

What do these arcane runes mean?(1)
Consider every possession of yours and everything you've ever learned. I’m confident that most (if not ALL) of those
things could be accurately characterized as things that make you powerful, or that are beautiful (i.e. worthwhile in themselves).

Obviously, the concept of magic in pop-culture is a means of accomplishing things; it is a kind of power. And we find it attractive because we are attracted to power. Now, if we’re going to defend this aspect of the concept of magic, we’re going to have to answer a good question the prosecutors of pop-culture have for us: what good is there in stoking people’s innate desire for power with unattainable fantasy, especially when power so often leads to corruption and wrong-doing in the first place?

This is a good question because the problem is real. In the last article I mentioned vain and ultimately unsatisfying engagement with things. If people can trap themselves like that because of a desire for the wonderful, they can do it with a desire for power. Someone who feels trapped and impotent (because they are) needs to be free and powerful (in the right way) to be happy, and they will not become happy by pretending to be powerful, or watching others do so.

But, the answer is that what people do by depicting power in works of art (magical or otherwise) is a natural extension of thinking about what to do and being able to do it in general. In a certain sense, every real-life aspiration to accomplish something big is a little fantasy involving magical powers. When you imagine attaining something you've only begun (or haven’t yet begun) to work for, you skip over the details of accomplishing it and look at the end result; “Abracadabra!” And what you desire appears. The problem suggested by the prosecution is really an unavoidable problem, because it’s the problem of getting off your butt and doing something rather than just thinking about it. So, while magical power in fiction does represent a temptation, the temptation is present anyway, and the fiction might even help to solve it.

Magic is analogous to real power, like it’s analogous to real wonder, only perhaps more effectively because our experience of power is often rather magical; not only in the case of imagining our own aspirations, but also when looking at other people’s capacities.

The word wizard, in its roots, just comes from the word wise which, bluntly put, means knowing the right stuff in the right way. And when someone else knows stuff we don’t, and displays that knowledge, they appear magical (or at least powerful and wonderful. See what I did there?)

Magic is analogous to power (or capacity) itself, focusing on the ability to accomplish things rather than on the means by which they are accomplished (although most depictions of magic include the hint that the wizard required study and hard work – or innate capacity – to do what he does). So, not only does this give us the opportunity to reflect on the benefits of knowledge and power, but also gives us a metaphor for the capacity we see in other people (“Pinball Wizard” has a much better ring to it than “guy who is surprisingly and exceptionally good at pinball”).

I don’t mean to say here that depictions of magic are always helpful or good (even for merely reflecting on the nature and desirability of power); often they are misleading or vain. But, the concept is not without merit, and really reflects a very natural part of our experience. We just need to avoid being deluded – which we had to do anyway.

(1) These runes have something to do with "Free Vibration Analysis of Truncated Conical Composite Shells using the Galerkin Method"... which has some application in some field of engineering... or so they seem to say.

© 2013 John Hiner III

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