Ioan Petru Culianu, historiography, and the lost dimension of magic

Doina Cristina Rusu

The status of magic in the history of philosophy and science is still unclear. For some historians, magic pertains to a different worldview, a premodern one, and it is in opposition with modern science, a worldview still prevalent today. Other historians see not only a continuity between magic and science, but found the very roots of the scientific method in the magical manipulation of nature. For the former, the study of magic can be at most a curiosity, a source of entertainment, but in no way a serious endeavour. For the latter, modern science cannot be understood without first understanding the magical beliefs and theories.

Where shall we place Ioan Petru Culianu, who wrote a series of books on magic, Renaissance science, Ficino, etc.? My suggestion is that for Culianu we should create a third category. Together with the first group, he sees the Renaissance worldview in opposition with the modern one. Together with the latter, he considers that the study magic is a valuable approach, since for him every worldview is of equal value. Differently put, while most historians tend to accentuate the continuity between magic and science in order prove the value of magic, Culianu emphasises what has been lost during the Reformation and Counterreformation. And this is the phantasmagorical aspect of magic. He defines magic as “a science of the imaginary, which it explores through its own method and seeks to manipulate at will” and “a means of control over the individual and the masses based on deep knowledge of personal and collective erotic impulses.” (Eros and Magic, p. xviii)

What Culianu takes to be the most important aspect of magic is the capacity of the magicians to create images that have the power to bond the imagination of the viewer. The Renaissance universe is a bundle of forces, of sympathies and antipathies, appetites, and desires. These appetites are activated by the right images and since imagination prevails over reason, the receiver will act in such a way as to satisfy the desire. Over the seventeenth century such a view of human nature was denied, and magic condemned. In assessing Culianu’s view, two questions immediately come to mind:

(1) what are the advantages of following Culianu in analysing those aspects of magic that were not included in modern science?

(2) If the magical imagination has been censured, what happened to the human nature? Are we more difficult or easier to manipulate now by images, symbols, icons, and any kind of representations in general?


Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984.

Ioan P. Culianu, Iocare serio. Știință și artă în gândirea Renașterii. București: Polirom, 2003.

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