Aristotle, Plato, or someone else? The Philosophy of Magic

Hello, all - first time poster, here, but a long-time player of the game, since purchasing it back at GenCon/Origins '88 from the Lion Rampant table in the dealer's room. Love it, and kudos to everyone involved for decades of great work.

Anyway, if this topic has been discussed in some depth elsewhere, please let me know (I couldn't find it, but that doesn't mean anything, necessarily). Assuming it hasn't, I was wondering whether those who know more about ancient phil than I do (history of phil leaves me cold, I'm afraid, compared to other pursuits, anyway) have any thoughts on whether Hermetic magic seems particularly Platonic, or Aristotelian, or influenced by some other philosophical system (or some near-variant).

For a while I took Hermetic Magic to be somewhat Platonic in nature, especially with references to Essential Water and such forth floating about. Later, I started to wonder if it wasn't more Aristotelean, particularly as the Forms seemed to recognize the Aristotelian hylomorphic distinction. I've been thinking lately that it must be more Platonic than not (I use this as a shorthand - I am in no way implying that Plato had a hand in developing Hermetic Magic, directly or indirectly, only that their view of the universe bears similarities to his), as it seems that Hermetic magi ought to be realists about universals (I'm probably wrong in believing this to be the most plausible way to cash out the salient elements of Hermetic magic).

And, of course, it would make for nice narrative tension in a campaign which covers the nascent Aristotelian turn in Christian theology, a nice philosophical explanation for (part of) why the Church decided to "crack down" on the magi - while they were all Platonists, the magi were pagans, to be sure, but perhaps only in detail, not in spirit. But with Aquinas, we get the shift in theological positions that suddenly makes the magi downright heretical.

Anyway, if anyone has any thoughts on the subject, I'd love to hear them. For whatever reason, it's dreadfully important to me to know which, if any, of the Ancients would be most appealing, or seem most closely "right" to the Hermetics.

Hi and welcome to the Forum!

IIRC the question is dealt with briefly in the Introduction to Art & Academe but the answer is a "depends on your saga" sort.

In short, most magi are more interested in the practice of magic and there is considerable disagreement among those who are interested in which philosopher had greater influence on Bonisagus.

Hope this helps,

Salve, Gremlin44! Thanks for your reply. I suppose I should have made my question clearer - never post in th middle of the night, I guess!

What I was looking for was not so much an "in-game" response - for "in-game," I think your answer is good. Magi simply can't settle the question of which philosopher was most influential, or at least, most similar! I'm okay with that as a potential answer in game. However, what I was interested in was some evaluation by those who know more on the subject that I do about which Ancients espoused philosophies which have affinities with the metaphysics implied in Hermetic magic.

Just as a matter of personal taste, I've never been completely happy with carving "the practice of magic" away from philosophy as it was understood to the ancients and medievals. The magi in my Saga see themselves, mostly, as investigating the nature of the universe. It wouldn't really work for my setting to say that they're more interested in magic than metaphysics - the two are one and the same. Or, rather, the magic only comes about because of the metaphysics.

I guess then, the question is, honed, thanks to Gremlin's input: given some of the specifics of Hermetic theory, like the Limits of Magic and the Forms and Techniques, are there any Ancient philosophers we know of who have philosophical systems that have a chance of "being right"? Basically, the idea here is that the Magi get to start from the assumption that no system which seems to blatantly contradict certain observed truths - like how magic works - wins, at least not without major revision.


Me too!!! (Mark Rein Hagen's younger sister was the only person I knew at the entire convention and I originally purchased it just to be nice, I never expected to still be a rabid fan 21 years later.)

I think that I've seen both views championed on the Berk list if not here yet as far as the published material goes I can only think of p 182 of the fifth edition core book. Personally I don't know enough about them to add much to the conversation.

I've always figured Hermetic magic was a very Roman ceremonial magic (specific prayers in Latin directed at spirits to engage in a task.)

Art and Academe suggests that the saga choose which philosopher (Plato or Aristotle) Bonisagus was inspired directly by and actually create an improved Magic Theory based on that. If not BOTH philosophers.

As people have already said, Art & Academe covers some of this material. There is no definitive answer, although neither is explicitly excluded by the setting. For example, in the Realms chapter of ArM5, the four realms are described in two cosmological models, one Aristotlean (Causes) and one Platonic (emanations). In game, there are two groups of magi who endlessly debate a Platonic model vs an Aristotlean model.

The world of ArM5, in stark contrast to previous editions, canonically operates through a largely Aristotlean world view, but then Plato had little to say about natural philosophy.