Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Towards an Expanded Definition of Daemonology

This entry is designed to serve as a brief introduction to the study of daemonology, and the nature of this journal. Many of the subjects covered will be revised and expanded as this journal develops, and the ideas expressed refined and, possibly, disputed.

Praeterlimina is a journal that primarily deals with daemonology. In its most explicit sense, daemonology is the study of the nature and habits of daemons, and is a discipline dating back to Classical times, best known by its position in the Judaeo-Christian world view. However, in order to progress to a more complex understanding of what daemonology represents in its wider context (both ancient and modern), it is necessary to take into account the whole of its fractious history.

The Blue Angel of the Basilica of
Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.
 Believed to be the earliest visual
representation of the devil.
As an academic discipline, its history is one of contradiction and dispute. Albertus Magnus, the noted philosopher of the Scholastic movement once said of the subject: Daemonibus docetur, de daemonibus docet, et ad daemonibus ducit (It is taught by daemons, it is taught to daemons, and it leads to daemons), a statement with many possible interpretations, none of them particularly positive. This negative attitude is, perhaps, in no small part due to the fact that little of what is known about daemons has its origins in scriptural sources. The devil and his minions, (with whom daemonology is primarily associated in this context, I have noted previously), took not just their appearance, but also their theological role, from the various debates of late antiquity which would define the history of European Christianity. The image we now have of Satan, hitherto a rather ambiguous figure, as the antithesis of all that is true and virtuous, arose from a process of logical deduction, and the application of numerous strands of theological and philosophical learning to the basic tenets of Christianity in the centuries leading into the Middle Ages.

The definition which Project Praeterlimina maintains with regard to daemonology is one that will be continuously refined as this journal developes. Nonetheless, we propose to choose daemonology as it was understood (if not spelt) in the writings of James I of Scotland. Yet exactly what this constituted is a matter for some debate.

While commonly associated what is commonly perceived as the unenlightened thinking of the Medieval period, daemonology saw a continuation well into the European Renaissance. It was during this time that James I of Scotland would pen two of the most influential works on the subject: Daemonologie and Newes From Scotland. In these two studies, James would apply his wealth of Humanist learnings to the subject in his efforts to dispel popular disbelief in the existence of witches and their daemonic patrons (what he would dub the error of the Sadducees), and to discern the truth of the matter from the misconception and falsehood which dogged the field. Of James's efforts, the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (best known as the author of Novum Organum, and the father of modern empirical science) would later comment, in his essay The Advancement of Learning: “as your Majesty hath showed in your own example, who, with the two clear eyes of religion and natural philosophy, have looked deeply and wisely into these shadows, and yet proved yourself to be of the nature of the sun, which passeth through pollutions and itself remains as pure as before.”

Given the actual text of James's famous pamphlet, one of the most striking things about it is that only the last of its three sections deals specifically with daemons, the first two being devoted to the actions of humans who have fallen into daemonic thrall. The final section deals with daemons in a fairly comprehensive fashion, dealing with their manner of appearance, their physical and supernatural capabilities, the means by which they can be resisted, and (as will be revisited elsewhere in this project) their motivations. Yet it is clear that James saw the philosophical pursuit of daemonology as something much wider than this. The nature and habits of daemons is primarily a question of Natural Philosophy (what we would late come to know as the natural sciences), but in James's definition, daemonology is also very much a part of the realms of Moral Philosophy. While undoubtedly possessing supernatural abilities, their powers usually ends with human susceptibility, and the text goes on to examine how this might occur.

Another curious aspect of James's concern with the human aspect of daemonology is an evident preoccupation with Epistemology, that is, the history of ideas. By tracing the histories of daemons, not just in sacred writings, but through folk tales and classical mythology, James seeks to distinguish the reality of daemons from the various fictions surrounding them, with the ultimate goal of tracing how our understanding of daemonology came about. This would then be a tool to add credibility to his own claims, and use against those who denied the existence of daemons outright.

What James's Daemonologie respresented, then, was a study of the existence of daemons in the natural world, the supernatural world, and, crucially, within the realms of the human mind. This is the basis from which Praeterlimina hopes to investigate the daemons which beset our modern times. Through systematic study we seek to expand our definition further, and consider such subjects as conspiracies, moral panics, pseudo-science, and other such maladies that beset modern consciousness as facets of daemonology.

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