Saturday, 12 March 2016

Recasting the History of Thought: J.G. Frazer's 'Golden Bough'

In the 1980s I had read the two volume version of The Golden Bough, miraculously reduced from thirteen volumes by the expedient of removing all the footnotes, and was struck by the absence of any discussion of a relationship between magical patterns of thought and ideas of divinity and Being. I knew about the existence of this relationship principally from an interest in Platonism in the European Renaissance. But there was a puzzling absence of discussion of these ideas. In The Golden Bough, patterns of magical thought are discussed in terms of the association of ideas; as a phenomenon of human thought, rather than as something which is a corollary of a model of reality.
Frazer was a disciple of John Locke, who originated the idea of the association of ideas, and he understood the functioning of the human mind in such terms. His earlier criticism of Plato is largely along the lines that, since he did not have this understanding of the nature of mind, he mistakenly converted an epistemology into an ontology. Since having the capacity to think of a thing and give it a name, does not give it reality, Plato had made a fundamental error.

 Frazer also shared Locke’s interest in the progress of man, and imagined that the technical and industrial production of the British Empire represented how far the human race had come. Philosophy for Frazer was about practical things. It is clear in the text of The Golden Bough that the idea of progress was seen by him in two ways - he drew a parallel between the gulf between the ideas of the ancients and of modern man, and the social and intellectual conditions in contemporary society, where the intellectual difference between those at the top and those at the bottom was likely to be just as great. In both cases, we should find frightful things, if we dig down deep.

Finding and providing explanations for both the existence and the nature of those frightful things was a major part of his work. He wanted to put unbridgeable distance between ourselves, the inheritors of enlightenment rationalism, and the ancient cultures whose ways of understanding the world were based on intellectual error. And that intellectual error he in part explained in The Golden Bough, treating magical thought entirely in terms of ideas of sympathy and contagion, or the faulty association of ideas in the ancient mind.

Did Frazer not know about the relationship between magic and the idea of Being?  He was extremely well read, as his work testifies, so this is hard to believe. And I do not think I believe it. He wrote a study of  Plato's  work early in his career.  He ought to have noticed the crucial passage in the Laws (XI, 933), where Plato clearly distinguishes between two levels of magic, and the penalties for each: is not easy to know the nature of all these things; nor if a man do know can he readily persuade others to believe him. And when men are disturbed in their minds at the sight of waxen images fixed either at their doors, or in a place where three ways meet, or upon the sepulchres of parents, there is no use trying to persuade them that they should despise all such things because they have no certain knowledge about them... he who attempts to... enchant others knows not what he is doing... unless he happens to be a prophet or diviner.

Leaving out of The Golden Bough any consideration of the idea of magic as something whose nature depended on the nature of Being was a choice he made. It was not a choice forced on him by the evidence.

In writing The Golden Bough Frazer was transforming ancient thought about the world and its underlying reality into examples of intellectual error, and by the parallels he made with ‘savage’ thought, through his definition of magic, he sealed the case against the thought of the ancient world. Frazer did this by writing a thirteen volume implicit denial that magic had ever been an idea associated with the idea of Being. Though the elephant in the room (Being) was never directly discussed.

The agenda of the classicists from the outset of the (mainly German) professionalization of the discipline in the middle of the eighteenth century, was, in part, to recast the significance of classical Greece, and classical thought. They wanted to render Greek civilization as something distinctly european, and not something belonging to the cultural orbit of the east. This meant a purification of sorts, an alchemical transformation of the cultural realities in classical Greece.

This purification necessarily involved a degree of fabrication, a falsification of the actual nature of Classical Greece. Aspects of the history of this falsification were discussed in Martin Bernal’s Black Athena of 1987, which had the word ‘fabrication’ in the subtitle. A large number of features of classical civilization could not be outright denied, since they were very common in the body of evidence. The worship of divine statues could not be questioned or denied; sacrifice was a regular feature of importance in public and private life, performed at every important juncture. Magic likewise, was a feature of ancient life at all levels of society.

However classical civilization could be purified in part by changing the interpretation of how these things came to have significance to the ancient Greeks. The answer was plain: the Greeks were prone to a degree of irrationality in their public and private lives. So, the divine statue of a god as a place inhabited by the divine was a mistake, possibly the result of failing to distinguish between the image of a thing, and the thing itself.  The idea of the reality of the plethora of gods themselves was also a mistake, where the Greeks converted ideas of natural forces and powers into personifications of these things. Likewise all the other strange practices could be ascribed to an irrationality, a primitive stupidity, for which the Germans have a very ugly word.

Frazer was a late contributor to this process of purification. But in writing The Golden Bough, he applied Locke’s theory of the association of ideas to the relatively new subject of anthropology. So the strange beliefs were ascribed to a failure to distinguish between things which had the appearance of similarity, but were in fact different, or to a mistaken notion of contagion, in which things which were once in contact, are understood to be still in contact (the lock of hair, the parings of fingernails, etc.)

All ritual action throughout history could thus be explained as intellectual error, along with the very idea of the sacred. Even now, patterns of behaviour and belief are understood by anthropologists in terms of the product of intellectual associations, which may be the outcome of local cultural social dynamics, or even some kind of pathological response to the world. They aren’t looking for a rational explanation for ritual and sacred phenomena arising from an idea of Being.

By the process of purification it became possible to argue that the real achievement of the Greeks could be understood in terms of the quality of their philosophical thought; and the interpretation of their sculpture, along with their architecture, in terms of aesthetics and proportion. Their literature and language could be appreciated in terms of style. All of which could be approached with minimal taint from the irrationality of other aspects of Greek culture. What resulted from this process was the cultural gold which the scholars were after.

[revised text, April 10, 2016]

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