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That Old Black Magic

1.

In some ways the classical world of Greece and Rome seems very remote from ours: there were no automobiles, no planes, no television, no weapons (in the modern sense) of mass destruction. There was even no America. In other ways it seems surprisingly close. That is so in part because the art and literature of that time have never, like those of Egypt or Mesopotamia, sunk out of sight and needed to be rediscovered and laboriously deciphered; partly because an unbroken tradition of thought links us to that world, while we have no such link to the great civilizations of Asia or of the Americas. Not least, we often find the expression of sensibilities and interests which we recognize as intelligible to us and, in many ways, akin to our own.

All human creatures face certain fundamental problems. We know that we shall all die. Before we die, we are uneasily aware that we are at the mercy of accident and chance. We may be reduced to poverty; we may lose our health, lose our sight, become immobile or terminally ill; our loved ones may sicken and die. Pascal, with his terrible clarity, evokes the picture of a gang of slaves, chained together, toiling in the quarry; every day some are killed in the sight of the others: “It is an image of the life of man.”

How, then, to live in such a world? How to be a rational creature, respecting oneself and respected by others, rising above animal terrors, transcending abjection, misery, and despair? All through literature, from The Epic of Gilgamesh, in Mesopotamia of the second millennium BCE, and the Iliad of Homer, somewhere about 700 BCE, the first work of what we may call Western literature, we find attempts to deal with pain and death. Old King Priam, kneeling heartbroken at the feet of the hero who has killed his son, is told of the universality of human doom: all men die, even the great Achilles himself; only the gods live at ease forever, and they have allotted to all humankind more or less of suffering.

Those we love are torn away from us, and in the end we shall die ourselves. Where do the dead go? Where are they now? How can we communicate with them? How can we tap the greater knowledge that they must surely possess, delivered as they are from the narrow limits of flesh and blood? Both Homeric poems deal with this obsessive concern. In the Iliad, the ghost of his friend Patroclus comes back to tell the grieving Achilles that, once buried, the dead are forever cut off from the world of the living; in the Odyssey, Odysseus himself visits the world of the dead and speaks with his departed friends. The Gilgamesh epic explores the same questions. In another, not entirely unrelated, tradition, King Saul goes to Endor; there a witch calls up for him the ghost of Samuel, whose prophecies bring the king naught for his comfort.

In the year 45 BCE Marcus Tullius Cicero, supreme at Rome as an advocate in the law courts, with an eminent political career behind him, and incomparably the greatest stylist and the greatest writer that the Latin language had ever seen, faced despair both in his political and in his personal life. The Republic that he loved, in which he had won his spectacular successes, the Republic which had conquered the world, had crashed to defeat at the hands of one of its own generals, the invincible Julius Caesar, who was in the process of establishing a monarchy, with himself as its king. Julius was, indeed, now officially a god. That was bitterness enough. We may perhaps imagine the emotions with which a leading US senator, nowadays, would contemplate the tearing up of the Constitution, after a military coup by a US general who had marched on Washington, won a civil war, and set up something suspiciously like a banana republic, with himself worshiped on Capitol Hill.

Terrible as it was, that was not all. Cicero had two children: a rather unsatisfactory son, who could never fulfill his all-too-brilliant father’s exorbitant ambitions for him and who ended up as a drunk; and a daughter, his beloved Tullia, the child of his heart. In February 45 BCE Tullia died in childbirth. Her father was shattered. A man of enormous energy and productivity, for a time he could not work; his letters are full of helpless misery. Only the thought of constructing a worthy monument to his lost darling kept him going at all. In the hard society of upper-class Rome, in which self-indulgence of any kind was looked on with almost Calvinist disfavor, the extravagance of Cicero’s mourning soon attracted disapproving comment. Friends sent well-meaning attempts at consolation, but the tone began to change. What was the matter with him? Why did he not pull himself together?

Cicero stayed out of sight and out of public life, but he responded with a burst of philosophical publications, as if to protest, “You can’t say I’m idle—look how much I’m producing!” He was engaged on a momentous task: the establishment of Greek philosophy as a central plank of education for the Roman gentleman, and the creation in Latin of the vocabulary in which the subtleties of Greek argument and speculation could be fully and worthily represented. He needed to invent words, and he enriched the heritage of Europe. To take one example, qualitas, which at first must have sounded to a Roman ear as awkward as “suchness” sounds in English, was one of his coinages at this time: a word with a great future before it in every European language. Rome, a society of hardheaded soldiers, landowners, and businessmen, had never felt the need for so abstract a concept.

One of the works he wrote at this time was a set of five “Discussions in my villa at Tusculum.” In each discussion a theme is set and argued through, to be refuted and rejected. The themes are banalities of ordinary belief, and their connection to his own situation and frame of mind is obvious. The first is “Death is an evil,” and the second, “Pain is the greatest evil.” There follow, third, “The truly wise man is subject to grief,” and, fourth, “It is not possible for the wise man to be free of all emotion.” The final book discusses a proposition no less obvious to common experience: “Virtue alone is not all that is needed for a happy life.” Our spirits sag a little. We anticipate, what indeed we are not going to be spared, some rather tiresome paradoxes: the virtuous man is happy (because virtuous) even while being tortured on the rack, and so on.

The heartbroken philosopher undertakes to show that all these widely held notions are really mistaken. On the contrary, he will convince us, and himself, that death is in reality no evil, and that the truly wise man, the impregnable and invulnerable sage whom one must aspire to be, will not be subject to grief or to other emotional drives and responses—and, therefore, sotto voce and never explicitly uttered, Cicero himself can find a way to cease grieving so passionately for his Tullia. She is not named in the treatise. Cicero will not relate his abstract discussion to the details of his own life, though he does enliven it with vignettes and anecdotes about a range of historic Roman figures.

Cicero was a man of wide culture, and he had studied in Greece with good masters, although he knew he was not, by Greek standards, an original philosopher.1 He is concerned in these books to find a way of dealing with emotion, and with the fact that life is so damagingly exposed to chance and suffering. Ought one really to aim at the passionless existence which the Stoics regarded as best? Were the emotions always bad?

We can see that Cicero feels drawn to the humane view of Aristotle’s school: excessive emotion is indeed evil, but our emotions are responses to what we take to be good or bad events and acts, so that they depend on our judgment of those events and acts. Emotions are thus not simply irrational surges but are ultimately caused by our intellectual estimate of the goodness and badness of what happens to us. We can, for example, decide that pain is or is not an evil; therefore our emotions, too, are in our power, and we can control them. Thus we can admit a right amount of emotion, and indeed the emotions are necessary spurs to the performance of many virtuous actions: anger can impel us to act bravely, pity to act charitably, and so on.

But Cicero feels it necessary to go further. Really, he says, it is the Stoics who are right. The truly wise person should aim at an existence which is invulnerable to exterior events and out of their reach; otherwise, a virtuous life is disconcertingly fragile, brittle, at the mercy of chance. It follows that events outside the self cannot play any part in determining the quality of such a person’s life. We can and should estimate the real significance of what happens to us, or what menaces us, or what attracts us; and we can and should see that it is all trivial, measured against the supreme value of self-control and self-sufficiency. To say that a certain amount of emotional response to events is good is like saying that one can throw oneself off a precipice and stop at will before smashing into the ground. The reader is touched by the spectacle of the mercurial Cicero struggling to prove this, when he is in so many ways more like our standard picture of a modern Italian than the hard self-image of the Romans. In consequence he is much more approachable and much more likable, as he tries to reason and force himself into the carapace of imperturbability which Roman decorum and Greek speculation united to find admirable.

2.

Professor Margaret Graver, of Dartmouth College, picks out and handles the third and fourth of Cicero’s four themes: Books Three and Four of his Tusculan Disputations. She treats them very much in isolation, as a treatise on the emotions, with little reference to the other arguments that make up the Tusculan Disputations. Her idiomatic and readable translation is followed by a full and sympathetic commentary. The book gives an admirable introduction to the philosophical thought of Cicero, and also to a whole period of Greek philosophy, including the work of the early Stoics, that followed the deaths of Plato and Aristotle. The importance of these thinkers is being increasingly recognized as they emerge from the shadow of their great predecessors and take their rightful place in the history of Western thought.2

That was one way of dealing with the problems posed by desires and fears: the scrupulous reliance on reason, the rejection of desire. There were others that Graver does not mention. No less painful and urgent than the problems of pain and grief is the ineluctable fact of death. Here, too, there is a tension between the desire for uncontrolled outbursts of passion and the opposite tendency, to restraint and control. It is characteristic of early Greece that a great effort was made to confine curiosity about the next world and its potential wisdom to fixed points, temporal and geographical, where the dead might be consulted without gruesomeness or horrors, and with a regular and respectable procedure. Great importance was attached to confining the ecstatic cult of the god Dionysus, which in Euripides’ Bacchae is shown convulsing the state and destroying its king, to fixed days on the calendar. Delegations of women were sent from Athens to Delphi to have the experience of ranging over the mountains, but under proper supervision, in controlled and unalarming excursions. Private performances at graves were strictly forbidden.

Daniel Ogden’s book on necromancy sets out the routine for consulting the four main shrines where the other world was accessible and available for consultation. The most impressive seems to have been the shrine of the hero Trophonius, set in a mountain gorge in central Greece. The inquiring visitor fasted, wore special clothes, and was placed by night in a special sort of bed in a cave. Thereafter it was said that he underwent horrific experiences, pulled by the feet into unknowable subterranean caverns and meeting the dead hero Trophonius or hearing his voice. Those who experienced this, we read, permanently lost the ability to laugh. But Ogden, who generally takes a cool view of his subject, inclines to the less dramatic view that what happened took place in a dream, prepared for and experienced in that imposing precinct. Fantasy clustered around such a place, and embroidery and exaggeration appealed to the universal taste that now enjoys horror movies and Halloween.

At the opposite extreme to this official and controlled scene Ogden describes a range of magical practices. For us, they are discussed most accessibly in later antiquity, but clearly such things existed much earlier. Cicero knew people, even social equals, who went in for necromancy; he regards their activities with irony and a certain contempt. In the educated classes of the ancient world, there were some people who succeeded in rising above the fear of malevolent magic; but a mass of evidence of various sorts leaves no doubt that a great deal of it was practiced, and that many people took it very seriously.

It is a difficulty that in the more literary sources, and especially the Roman poets and novelists—there is much more in the Latin than in the Greek writers, and it is developed by them with far greater gusto—what we find is a series of variants on a fairly standard set of magical themes. Witches in poetry and fiction are generally women, and usually from some exotic background; they perform in picturesque settings; they split open the earth, cause storms, darken the moon, raise the dead, force corpses to speak, predict the future, command the gods of the lower world. Evidently the audience, assumed to be predominantly male, found these female figures, these enchantresses, who go right back to the seductive enchantress Circe in the Odyssey, very exciting.

But there is another body of evidence, that of prescriptions for the practice of necromancy, which is sub-literary, surviving not in poetry but in books of spells which turn up in Egypt (the place where the desert sand is dry enough to preserve papyrus for centuries). These texts are in important respects different. The magician is generally assumed to be male, and by far the most common objective of his activity is to procure sexual relations with some woman. We hesitate to call it love, although in some cases the stated aim of the magical procedure is not only to bring the desired woman to the magician but to make her stay with him as his life partner; mostly the spell is intended to drive the unfortunate female crazy with desire, consuming her vitals, robbing her of sleep, driving away any thoughts but obsession with the conjuror. One says that she is to “forget her children in her desire for me….” Another thoughtful spell remembers to add, “When she arrives at your door, be sure to open to her; otherwise she will die.” That strikes a note, in this gruesome company, almost of tenderness. Meanwhile, presumably, the targeted women slept on in their distant beds, unaware of the antics of the sorcerers.

The dead may be invoked to assist: “You dead heroes and heroines” (these categories especially include those who died by violence; battlefields may be good places to get in touch with them, or one might try dead gladiators) “bring her to me—and make her do what I want….” And: “I charge you, dead demon, rouse yourself from sleep, and bring her; I am he who hides the stars, the bright lord of the heaven, the ruler of the world….” In the modern world a sniper with a rifle may claim to be God as he shoots people at random; the Egyptian wizard (who writes and speaks, however, in Greek) has perhaps a less destructive outlet for his craziness.

One spell instructs the neophyte to make a dog out of wax and pitch; it is to stand for Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hell. “Fetch her, Cerberus! I command you by the hanged and the dead and the violently slain….” Dead people can be forced to speak, or to act as servants: say “[Name], you are dead; serve me when I call you; I command you in the name of the gods of the earth….” A dead man can be made, if you know how to do it, into a familiar serving spirit. Hold some fragment of his corpse and say, “O Sun, my lord, grant me power over the spirit of this violently slain man, of whose mortal body I am holding this remnant: that I may have him as a helper and an avenger….”

The thought of raising and consulting the dead runs throughout the history of antiquity, from the Odyssey, where Odysseus sits at the edge of the Underworld and calls up the ghosts, allowing some of them to drink fresh blood and so regain the power of human speech, to the fourth and fifth centuries CE, where we find aspiring necromancers being told to kill a cock and drink his blood, or to kill a cat, or to use an ointment made from the fat of a night owl and the dung of a beetle, or to be laid out on the roof of his house as if he were dead himself, arrayed for the grave, awaiting a supernatural visitor.

Such were the abysses of unreason into which one might fall. Ogden’s admirably cool and scholarly discussion of necromancy seems to me to be perhaps misleading only in underplaying, almost indeed wholly eliding, the dimension of passion and of horror. Both Achilles and Gilgamesh tried to frustrate the facts of death by refusing to allow their dead friends to be buried; in the end, we read “a worm dropped out of the nose” of Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu. The dead who did come back were often in an angry and violent mood; a hero might be needed to vanquish them, or a potent magic to induce them to be gone.

Above all it is important to realize that the sorcerers who used the prescriptions we read in Ogden’s book really were in earnest. They meant it. Alone, by night, they performed horrid actions, uttered fearful names, projected into the indifferent world of nature their hatreds and their lusts. Obsession joined hands with madness, as the sorcerer handled eye of bat and eye of puppy, mouthing the formulas that should shake the universe: “I am the god whom no one sees, and whose name is not rashly uttered”; and “If you will not do what I command, there will be no tomorrow!”

  1. 1

    For a recent biography, see Cicero by Thony Everett (London House, 2002), reviewed by the present writer in the TLS, July 28, 2002, p. 36.

  2. 2

    For discussion of the early Stoics—in Greek, Zeno and Chrysippus; in Latin, the millionaire philosopher Seneca and the emperor Marcus Aurelius—see, for instance, Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton University Press, 1994).

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