Alan Jacobs’s wonderful new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds never mentions the concept of black magic. But it offers a lively antidote to magical thinking nonetheless.
As any wizard knows, to practice magic is to marshal the powers of the universe into a concentrated point. Spirits, forces of nature, and other humans are subjected to the magician’s wishes. If I practice magic, I am trying to bend reality to my will. Aleister Crowley, the magician dubbed the “wickedest man in the world,” famously summed up the occultist philosophy: “Do what thou will is the whole of the law.”
This might sound like the stuff of medieval fantasy, but a quick glance at our culture confirms that habits of magical thinking are stubbornly persistent. Wherever one finds groups and individuals intent on ramming an agenda through the system—perhaps by manipulating boardroom membership, stacking organizations with the “right” people, or enacting ideologically driven purges—one finds shades of black magic. We don’t call political lobbying the “dark arts” for nothing.
Petitions, protests, and popular rallies reveal our deeply ingrained belief that voices shouting loudly in unison can shape reality. In today’s climate, many of us crave clear battle lines between good and evil and abhor anyone who dares admit that complex problems don’t have simple answers. And heaven help any poor public figures foolish enough to sincerely change their minds.
Repugnant Cultural Others
All these trends have hampered our ability to think carefully, judiciously, and generously. As a professor and public intellectual, Jacobs is well aware of the difficulties posed ...1