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Classical Rhetoric Applied to Sixteenth-Century Culture
on December 19, 2011
*Daemonologie* by King James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England) must be understood in terms of classical rhetoric, as it was established in the ancient period by Aristotle and used as a method of persuasive writing throughout western history. As an educated man of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, James would have been educated in this tradition. I have heard the Chinese have a curse that says, "May you live in interesting times." Certainly James did live in such a time in late-Reformation Europe. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had remained a Catholic, but James was raised by Protestants and succeeded the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I, upon her death in 1603. He had an interest in witchcraft and wrote his *Daemonologie* as an intellectual exercise about the occult, which still had its practitioners in Merry Olde England. Shakespeare's play *Macbeth* was written while James was on the throne and mixes together Scottish history and witchery in a tale of power gone mad.
Another reviewer, who did not like the book, indicates that James used "fake Socratic method" in his work, though it is hard to say what that term means. Certainly James employed Aristotelian style and logic, presenting his thoughts on the subject in the form of what the ancients called a diatribe (pronounce the first syllable as "dee"). This rhetorical technique differs from what we now mean by the word diatribe (pronounce the first syllable as "dye") in that Aristotle meant it to refer to a method of persuasion or exhortation in which two people engage in a dialogue on a topic, one attempting to persuade the other, who remains unconvinced and acts as "devil's advocate," as medieval scholars would have put it. In the dialogue, the tools of logic and the art of rhetoric are employed to effect the emergence of arguable truth in much the same way that lawyers reason out their cases before judges and juries today.
Thus, one finds at the beginning a dialogue between two men: Philomathes, who is not convinced about the reality of witches, and Epistemon, who seeks to persuade and inform him. Aristotle insisted that rhetoricians craft their arguments with their particular audience in mind. Therefore, James has his two disputants begin where any educated man of the period would have begun on a topic of this sort, that is, with the Bible. Epistemon begins by saying he has a difficult challenge at hand since Philomathes is skeptical even about the existence of witches since logicians insist, "Contra principia negantem non est disputandum" (that is, "Against one who denies the principles, there can be no debate"), but he endeavors to help Philomathes understand.
After the analysis of Old and New Testament scriptures regarding the existence of witchcraft, Epistemon (who is serving as King James's voice in the work) proceeds to such matters as (a) the kind of sin that is practiced by witches, (b) the distinction between necromancy and witchcraft, (c) the distinction between astrology and astronomy, (d) the use of charms, (e) contracts between the devil and magicians, and (f) why magic is unlawful and what punishment it deserves. These matters constitute Book I.
In Book II, the topics include (g) a refutation of the idea that melancholy explains witchcraft, (h) the meaning of sorcery, (i) the actions of witches, (j) transport of witches, (k) witches' actions towards others and the predominance of women amongst them, (l) persons who are easier or more difficult to be influenced by witchcraft, and (m) two forms of devils active in the world.
In Book III, the topics are (n) four kinds of spirits (which spans several sections) and (o) the requisites of witchcraft trials.
Forgotten Books, the publishing company, states that they take "the uppermost care to preserve the wording and images from the original," which means in this case that, like online versions of the text, the spelling and printing customs of the seventeenth century are retained. It becomes easier after a few pages if one understands that the letter "v" is used where we would use a "u" and that the final "e" was more widely used than is current today. Thus, we read the opening line, "I am surely verie glad to haue mette with you this daye," or, "I am surely very glad to have met with you this day." Second person pronouns are different as well, "ye" (often spelled "yee") being the form of the subject of the sentence and "you" being the direct object or object of a preposition.
Moderns (and post-moderns) like to snicker at King James' concern that witches were trying to kill him (shades of paranoia, some would say). However, there was a plot among practicing witches in North Berwick in 1590, which led to charges of treason against the king's cousin, Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, nephew of the Bothwell who had killed the king's father in 1567. Whether the witches of North Berwick had actual power or were being manipulated to think so by powerful political forces who hoped to kill the king is the subject of a novel by Scottish writer Mollie Hunter entitled *The Thirteenth Member*.
My rating of five stars is due to the fact that this is an accomplished piece of rhetoric whether or not one agrees with its conclusions. Anyone who wishes to understand witchcraft in England and Scotland in this time period must start with this book. It also has applications to the study of Shakespeare's *Macbeth*. To be specific, the actions of Shakespeare's "weird sisters" in Act I, scene 3 of the play correspond to James' remarks in *Daemonologie*, Book II, Chapter 3.