It’s obviously my fault for playing Dungeons and Dragons all those years ago. 🙂
On Magic, the first-ever English translation of “De Magia,” is on sale this weekend for just $2.99!
So if you want to find out what a Spanish theologian and theorist of natural law, international law, and human rights would say about magic, this is the book for you! Or if you’re really wondering how somebody from 1540 might try to fit together philosophy, classical literature and history texts, the Bible, New World discoveries, and Spanish folklore into a some kind of coherent picture, just read it and find out!
If you really get interested in the whole magic debate, plenty of old texts are online to satisfy your curiosity. The basic outlines of the debate were pretty simple. If paranormal stuff could be done on purpose (and the Bible said it could), how dangerous was it on a daily basis?
As de Vitoria mentions at various points, the usual positions were:
1) Total skepticism about demons and/or magic (Democritus, some European guys)
2) Belief in the paranormal, but that demonic activity and magic that worked, etc. was rare; and that exorcism, devotions, etc. worked against the rare occasion. (This is where de Vitoria seems to fall.)
3) Belief in the paranormal as common, that demonic activity and evil magic were common, and that exorcism and devotions were very hard to use against it.
4) Total belief in the occult as ruling everything in life, with God not doing anything about it. Some wanted to use magic do good and others just wanted to smash all opponents with it. The extreme crazy witch hunters belong here, too.
#1 and #4 were bound to get you in trouble, as they basically were a declaration of atheism or Satanism/paganism/occult atheism. Since Europe was engaged in Protestant vs Catholic ideological warfare, the chances were low that the local government would be pleased with books espousing either position. But you could get notorious pretty fast.
#2 and #3 often seem to represent theological optimism versus theological pessimism. More exactly, it’s belief in God’s Creation being one of reason and truth that has fallen, versus a mostly reprobate universe chock full of people who are loyal to Satan. On the other hand, you could also argue that the optimists were more accepting of a world where Christians tended to suffer and God’s Providence could work mysteriously, whereas the pessimists got upset if anything bad happened to anybody good.
The #3 position did a lot of harm, whenever it was not controlled by a sense of proportion or feelings of hope. The idea of being able to hunt witches and blame them for mysterious problems was a psychological relief to these kinds of people. Of course, the truth about Europe in those days was that a lot of the people who most feared magic were also the ones who were most fascinated with it. Something like King James I’s book on witchcraft was not the work of an uneducated peon; he was a guy trying to be proactive in a world gone crazy. The only problem was that he grabbed at an entirely wrong set of culprits and solutions. But the occultists he wanted to catch (when not falsely accused) were often attempting similar things with their spells and potions; it just wasn’t going to work in the real world.
There are other relevant connections. People in the world of Islam are obliged by the Quran to believe in the existence of magic and jinns (the Islamic version of daemons or fairies instead of demons, since they are traditionally not supposed to all be evil). Saudi Arabia does a lot of prosecution of people for doing magic with the help of evil jinni, as do many other Islamic countries. But even in the West, there are continual cycles of occult popularity versus skepticism being in.