On Three Charlatans in the History of Thought

· Originally, the magician wielded power by pretending to a knowledge of natural phenomena. He may have gradually evolved into a king or chief, or more likely, would have become kinglike in his status in the social hierarchy.

· As acuter minds sensed the inefficacy of magic, religion emerged and the existence of supernatural beings was postulated. The men who arrogated to themselves the mediatory role between the laity and the gods found that they now possessed the power that magicians had hitherto enjoyed.

· James Frazer, in his book The Golden Bough describes the evolution of our understanding of nature’s laws as passing from the magical, through the religious, into the scientific. This explains the modern position of the scientist as the holder of power in society. Could it also reveal him as the same charlatan that his ancestors, the magician and the priest, were?

· On a related note, Claude Lévi-Strauss, in the chapter titled ‘A Writing Lesson’ of his book Tristes Tropiques, describes an example of the quackery exhibited by the chief of the Nambikwara tribe of Brazil. In a community that is utterly illiterate, the chief attempts to imitate Levi-Strauss’s writing motions with the aim of impressing his subjects: he draws meaningless waves and zig-zags on a piece of paper while the anthropologist hands out his gifts, as if he is taking inventory, and even expects him to play along with the farce. Lévi-Strauss adds that none of the tribesmen seemed particularly pleased with their chief’s humbug.

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