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  • The Virtue of Sympathy: Magic, Philosophy, and Literature in Seventeenth-Century England by Seth Lobis
  • Ryan J. Stark

Ryan J. Stark, Ryan Stark, Seth Lobis, Seventeenth-Century England, 17th Century, early modern magic, ealy modern philosophy, philosophy and magic, English magic, English philosophy, sympathetic magic

seth lobis. The Virtue of Sympathy: Magic, Philosophy, and Literature in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 418.

Captain Marvel, of Marvel comic book fame, wields the power of cosmic sympathy, as does the Silver Surfer, to similar effects. Dr. Strange, too. On a related note, Severus Snape levitates a cursed opal necklace and in season four's penultimate episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy harnesses galactic magic to defeat Adam, the cyborg-monster hybrid whose science proves far superior to hers but not superior to the deeper magic, which turns bullets into doves. When I read books about the decline of magic, scenes of this sort come to mind. And if they are not real enough, then I might just as easily refer to the geomancers on YouTube, the druids on pilgrimage to Stonehenge, or the Catholic priests who, in every corner of the world, turn wine into blood. Or, on a smaller scale, consider the young woman in the back row of my philosophy class: She wears a Nordic talisman and promises not [End Page 410] to text on her iPhone, if at all possible. That magic declined in David Hume's mind I will readily concede, but he is the exception that proves the rule. We live in a charmed universe.

Seth Lobis writes a new history of sympathy, the novelty of which is his claim that eighteenth-century men and women of feeling owe a debt to Renaissance sympathetic magic. Such magic did not collapse in the conventional sense, he argues, but rather shrank. Cosmic magic became cognitive magic. Cosmic sympathy became a new kind of interpersonal fellow feeling, and thus was born the modern virtue of sympathy (3). Exactly how this happened is the book's subject.

Some critics will immediately object on the ground that cosmic sympathy has nothing to do with personal sympathy—that enchanted amulets and tender feelings are different in kind. But Lobis is right to see the connection. The first sympathy pervades the universe and makes possible an intuition of God, and the second emanates from person to person and confirms what Jeremy Rifkin calls "Homo empathicus." Philosophers who believe in both kinds of sympathy often view the interpersonal as an extension of the cosmic, or maybe an expression of it, a mode of benevolence steadied by a universe that teems with prevenient grace. In what kind of sympathy Lobis believes we are not sure.

The book begins in earnest with Kenelm Digby's failed effort to defend the weapon salve, a sympathetic powder made from mummy fingers and moss that grows on the heads of hanged thieves. At some point in the seventeenth century, intellectuals decided that the powder did not work, though John Locke still used it (54). Regardless, Lobis sees in the weapon salve's decline a watershed event, which sets in motion other correlated events. Attuned to Digby's critics, John Milton decries universal sympathy and instead finds the mini-magic of a proto-modern emotional sympathy, as signaled by Michael's talk in Paradise Lost of a "Paradise within" (197). Milton, in turn, impacts the latitudinarians. They motivate Shaftesbury, who further disenchants sympathy, yet preserves a far-off theistic foundation (258). From Shaftesbury, Hume and other like-minded philosophers pirate the virtue of sympathy, all the while insisting that God has nothing to do with it (291). Ergo, we arrive at the most modern version of sympathy, disenchanted and material by any normal standard of magic, but still carrying the faint glow of a remote magical past.

The chapters on Digby and Milton are the best, I think, and the postscript on The Scarlet Letter is hauntingly beautiful. But throughout, Lobis depends too heavily on Stephen Darwall's and Michael Gill's suspect theories of secularization, not to mention R. S. Crane's now-debunked genealogy of the [End Page 411] sentimental...


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