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The spiritual history of man reveals two distinct and fundamental attitudes towards the
unseen; and two methods whereby he has sought to get in touch with it. For our present
purpose I will call these methods the “way of magic” and the “way of mysticism.”
Having said this, we must at once add that although in their extreme forms these methods
are sharply contrasted, their frontiers are far from being clearly defined: that, starting
from the same point, they often confuse the inquirer by using the same language,
instruments, and methods. Hence, much which is really magic is loosely and popularly
described as mysticism. They represent as a matter of fact the opposite poles of the same
thing: the transcendental consciousness of humanity. Between them lie the great
religions, which might be described under this metaphor as representing the ordinarily
habitable regions of that consciousness. Thus, at one end of the scale, pure mysticism
“shades off” into religion—from some points of view seems to grow out of it. No deeply
religious man is without a touch of mysticism; and no mystic can be other than religious,
in the psychological if not in the theological sense of the word. At the other end of the
scale, as we shall see later, religion, no less surely, shades off into magic.

The fundamental difference between the two is this: magic wants to get, mysticism
wants to give—immortal and antagonistic attitudes, which turn up under one disguise or
another in every age of thought. Both magic and mysticism in their full development
bring the whole mental machinery, conscious and unconscious, to bear on their
undertaking: both claim that they give their initiates powers unknown to ordinary men.
But the centre round which that machinery is grouped, the reasons of that undertaking,
and the ends to which those powers are applied differ enormously. In mysticism the will
is united with the emotions in an impassioned desire to transcend the sense-world, in
order that the self may be joined by love to the one eternal and ultimate Object of love;
whose existence is intuitively perceived by that which we used to call the soul, but now
find it easier to refer to as the “cosmic” or “transcendental” sense. This is the poetic and
religious temperament acting upon the plane of reality. In magic, the will unites with
the intellect in an impassioned desire for supersensible knowledge. This is the
intellectual, aggressive, and scientific temperament trying to extend its field of
consciousness, until it includes the supersensual world: obviously the antithesis of
mysticism, though often adopting its title and style.

It will be our business later to consider in more detail the characteristics and significance
of magic. Now it is enough to say that we may class broadly as magical all forms of self-
seeking transcendentalism. It matters little whether the apparatus which they use be the
incantations of the old magicians, the congregational prayer for rain of orthodox
Churchmen, or the consciously self-hypnotizing devices of “New Thought”: whether the
end proposed be the evocation of an angel, the power of transcending circumstance, or
the healing of disease. The object is always the same: the deliberate exaltation of the
will, till it transcends its usual limitations and obtains for the self or group of selves
something which it or they did not previously possess. It is an individualistic and
acquisitive science: in all its forms an activity of the intellect, seeking Reality for its own
purposes, or for those of humanity at large.

Mysticism, whose great name is too often given to these supersensual activities, has
nothing in common with this. It is non-individualistic… It is essentially a movement of
the heart, seeking to transcend the limitations of the individual standpoint and to
surrender itself to ultimate Reality; for no personal gain, to satisfy no transcendental
curiosity, to obtain no other-worldly joys, but purely from an instinct of love. By the
word heart, of course we here mean not merely “the seat of the affections,” “the organ of
tender emotion,” and the like: but rather the inmost sanctuary of personal being, the
deep root of its love and will, the very source of its energy and life. The mystic is “in love
with the Absolute” not in any idle or sentimental manner, but in that vital sense which
presses at all costs and through all dangers towards union with the object beloved. Hence,
whilst the practice of magic—like the practice of science—does not necessarily entail
passionate emotion, though of course it does and must entail interest of some kind,
mysticism, like art, cannot exist without it. We must feel, and feel acutely, before we want
to act on this hard and heroic scale.

We see, then, that these two activities correspond to the two eternal passions of the self,
the desire of love and the desire of knowledge: severally representing the hunger of
heart and intellect for ultimate truth. The third attitude towards the supersensual world,
that of transcendental philosophy, hardly comes within the scope of the present inquiry;
since it is purely academic, whilst both magic and mysticism are practical and empirical.
Such philosophy is often wrongly called mysticism, because it tries to make maps of the
countries which the mystic explores. Its performances are useful, as diagrams are useful,
so long as they do not ape finality; remembering that the only final thing is personal
experience—the personal and costly exploration of the exalted and truth-loving soul.

-MYSTICISM, Evelyn Underhill

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