The Ways of the Life Force
The Foundations of Druid Magic
Max Weber, in his famous 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, gave a startling name to one of the realities of modern life: “the disenchantment of the world.” Weber was a sociologist who studied the impact of industrial society on human thought. Before scientific materialism seized the imagination of Western culture, he pointed out, people saw the world around them as a place full of magic, where trees and stones could speak, birds traced out the shape of the future in their flight, and those who knew the secret could sense and shape the flow of enchantment in the world around them. This living, breathing, magical world was one of the first casualties of the Industrial Revolution. As materialist beliefs spread, magic trickled out of the world, transforming it—at least in most people's minds—into a mass of lifeless matter relevant only as a source of raw materials or a place to dump waste.
Like most educated people of his time, Weber did not believe in magic. He meant the word disenchantment as a metaphor, and he saw the banishing of magic and meaning from the world as a necessary part of progress and the end of an ancient illusion. Still, he recognized that the psychological and spiritual price of progress weighed heavily on the modern world—heavily enough, perhaps, to outweigh its material benefits. In a disenchanted world, he showed, even the most basic human values lose their anchor, and the only things left are the mechanical values of profit and efficiency, the basis for what passes for rational thought in a modern industrial society.
The irony of the phrase is that Weber spoke more truth than he realized. Neither he nor most of his readers saw disenchantment as anything but a metaphor. Still, those who know the living power of magic know that Weber's phrase points to a crucial reality. Our world is literally disenchanted. It suffers from a shortage of enchantment that cuts people off from magical realities and makes their lives less meaningful and magical than they could be.
Enchantment is the art of awakening spiritual presences in material things. The word literally means “putting a song in something”—en-chant-ment—a turn of phrase that reflects the living experience of a world in which every part of the landscape and every turn of the seasonal cycle sings its meaning to the awakened mind. In traditional societies around the world and throughout history, enchantment has had a vital role in bringing people into harmony with their gods, their environment, and their communities. Magic provided the toolkit for creating and maintaining enchantment. Using magic, the priestesses and wizards of the past wove nature and humanity into a single fabric that kept both balanced and whole.
As far as anyone knows, the Industrial Revolution marks the first time in human history that a civilization tried to banish enchantment from the world. When Weber assessed the results of this experiment in 1904, cracks were already showing in the bright facade of progress. Now, more than a century later, the collapse of communities and collective spiritual life across the Western world has been joined by the specter of catastrophic environmental change. Dwindling fossil fuel reserves, massive ecological changes, and wild swings in the world's climate announce the coming of an age of payback in which the survival of industrial civilization itself stands at risk.
A little more than forty years have passed now since the environmental crisis first forced itself onto newspaper headlines around the world. During that time, a great many historians have traced the roots of our civilization's dysfunctional relationship with nature, and an even larger number of activists have proposed solutions. Magic has rarely seen mention in either context. A handful of perceptive writers have followed Weber's lead and traced out the connections between a way of thinking about the Earth that strips it of enchantment and a way of acting toward it that strips it of everything else. In The Reenchantment of the World, one of the best books of this kind, Morris Berman comments:
For more than 99 percent of human history, the world was enchanted and man saw himself as an integral part of it. The complete reversal of this perception in a mere four hundred years or so has destroyed the continuity of the human experience and the integrity of the human psyche. It has very nearly wrecked the planet as well. The only hope, or so it seems to me, lies in a reenchantment of the world. (Berman, 1981, p. 10)
Yet neither Berman nor the handful of other writers who have pursued these themes have considered the possibility that the best way to reenchant the world is to use the same magical methods that enchanted it in the first place. Berman himself claims that “we cannot go back to alchemy or animism” (ibid.). Behind this argument stands the immense emotional force of the modern faith in progress, with its conviction that “going back” is the one unforgivable sin. Yet if a traveler on unfamiliar roads finds that he has gone down a blind alley, the only option that will get him out of it is to go back the way he came.
From the perspective of Druidry, a return to magic is simple common sense. Modern Druidry itself was born alongside the Industrial Revolution, crafted by a handful of British visionaries in the early eighteenth century, who saw the first stirrings of today's ecological crises and recognized that the gap between humanity and nature opened by industrial society had to be healed if Western civilization were to survive. The founders of the Druid Revival took the radical step of embracing the name and legacy of the ancient Celtic Druids at a time when “going back” in religious matters was as unthinkable as doing the same thing scientifically and technologically is today. They recognized that what matters about ideas is not how new they are, or for that matter how old they are, but whether they reflect truth in a way that meets the needs of humanity and nature in a particular age.
The revival of magic in recent decades thus speaks to one of the most critical needs of our time. While magic cannot solve today's ecological crisis by itself, it offers crucial tools for healing the gap between humanity and nature. To understand how magic can accomplish this, and to begin making sense of magic itself, we need to pay attention to a part of human experience that has dropped entirely out of modern awareness.