Emily Dickinson, "Best Witchcraft is Geometry" (1158)

If geometry, the shapes which compose everyday life, is witchcraft, then a little more awareness of what helps is actually a minor miracle.

Emily Dickinson, "Best Witchcraft is Geometry" (1158)

"Best Witchcraft is Geometry." I guess this means I should appreciate ordinary things more. I shouldn't be panicking about what I can't control, but focusing on the small things that do help. I can take a walk, increase oxygen levels, and therefore think better. I can close my eyes, inhale deeply, feel myself let go of anxiety. I've got a cupboard with plenty of herbal tea. If geometry, the shapes which compose everyday life, is witchcraft, then a little more awareness of what helps is actually a minor miracle.

Best Witchcraft is Geometry (1158)
Emily Dickinson

Best Witchcraft is Geometry
To the magician’s mind —
His ordinary acts are feats
To thinking of mankind.

On the other hand, to believe a rational order underlies everyday life is a lot of guilt. Yeah, I might have to learn magic in order to access the order's power. So why am I not trying to learn spells? There's a layer of sense to the whole—something can be taken advantage of, even if I don't know it exactly—and a magician, of all people, knows this. "Best Witchcraft is Geometry / To the magician's mind."

What good is awareness, if it only gives a heap of trash feelings? Maybe real magic lies in wonder alone. Magicians may let beautiful, complicated objects be. They may not believe use is necessary; they're happy to master mere appearances.


"Geometry" itself is wild. When I'm teaching the "Meno," it comes out of nowhere. A discussion about "What is virtue?" collapses into despair. Meno's paradox is a time bomb, holding a cynicism which could sink the best minds. —Oh, you might say, you're exaggerating. Meno himself can see that "if I know it, why do I have to look for it, and if I don't know it, how will I recognize it" is a terrible argument. This is true, I say. But Meno is also prone to believe his own crap.— So geometry, of all things, saves the day. Timeless truths reside within our own mind, whose force we cannot deny. Perhaps there was a moment when the soul was bathed in truth, knowing all things, and then unfortunately we were born. Because of this, though, we understand moral truth as axiomatic. "Geometry" not just "Witchcraft," but the union of the earthly and divine.

Geometry. What we would do not just for its proof and precision, but the power it appears to have. Later in the history of thought, other philosophers are expanding upon the depiction of the "Meno." Geometry, to them, speaks to the sheer power of the human mind, the ability to create systems which dictate nature. Not so much magic, but wizardry: new physics, new technologies, new marvels. Yet the most famous to use a geometric method is Spinoza, and many see in his Ethics a pantheism which softens the will to power. The "ordinary acts are feats" in the most fundamental way. You don't need a point from which to move the entire Earth. That things are, that they make some sense, is miracle enough.


I feel like Dickinson nearly guilts herself into humility. "Best Witchcraft is Geometry / To the magician's mind"—likewise I, the writer, should simply be happy I'm able to use words. Illusions are fun but not necessary. Effective spells are merely an added bonus.

This logic sucks. The reliability of "ordinary acts" may be a feat, but you know what's really cool? Moving mountains. Building a new nation. Winning competitions. Writing a love letter that works.

I'm glad for the ambiguity of "His ordinary acts are feats / To thinking of mankind." The grammar demands reconstruction in order to make any sense. Whose "ordinary acts are feats?" The Geometer who isn't mentioned? She seems to mean the magician, but if that's the case, what are his "ordinary acts?" He doesn't just drink water and walk to his day job. He's got card tricks, escape routines, a number of ways to impress and elude with style.

His ordinary acts resemble the glossy part of geometry, the part which amazes. They are feats "To [the] thinking of mankind." At this point, we can throw away the guilt and any pretend humility. Just admit you could pull off something incredible, and you don't need to stake everything on consistency. The real consistency of geometry is in its inhumanity. "Thinking of mankind," the writer's task, permits the flexibility "Best Witchcraft" nearly disqualifies. You can't impress everyone or exert power all of the time. But when you do, you let the magic be what it is, letting yourself briefly eclipse more sturdy miracles.