The standout chapter of the book must be the one on the history of Chinese magic. Painting in broad strokes, Chinese culture has always been one of the most secular in the world, emphasizing the here and now over the transcendent and devoting more energy to cutting deals with ancestors than to venerating gods. As Gosden writes, “Chinese cosmologies were closer to a double than triple helix, with magic and science taking up most cultural and intellectual space.” Magic, being a kind of instrumental transaction between a human and the universe, took on much of the responsibilities that in other cultures might fall to religion. And science was affected by the immediacy and instrumental nature of magic. As Gosden explains:
"Science stands back from the world, which an older Chinese culture refused to do, because it felt deeply involved. Science developed abstract quantities, such as an undifferentiated form of time in which each minute is the same as every other in terms of duration. ... For Chinese culture, time was a series of qualities, pertaining to favourable or unfavourable moments for action. Mathematics was well developed but helped to map the shapes of time, the topology of good and bad."
It's an interesting chapter set alongside many others, but I think it also underscores what might be the book’s only weakness: I’m still not convinced that magic should be put on the same footing as science and religion. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke coined the dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but it’s not if you understand how the technology works. And for all of Gosden’s insistence that magic is a rational activity, it still can’t explain itself. Magic, lacking critical distance, is inarticulate to its adepts. Lacking the transcendent, or metaphysical, distance of religion, it’s morally mute as well. Magic, like science, can’t tell you what you should want but simply provides a method of getting it.
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