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In my book series, magic is a learnable skill that any person can learn to some degree (although some have much more natural talent with it than others and mastering even a single discipline of magic requires years of training and experience). However, in my book series, magic (outside of the main cast of characters) is only used by various priesthoods for religious rituals and by navigators (who imbue Astral Magic into these special crystals that when attached to boats, enchant them into the FTL Startreaders I outlined in a different question of mine). How could I justify the restriction of magic in this way if anyone can technically learn it?

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    $\begingroup$ This is very open-ended. You're going to get the standard answers: fear, government control, religious pressure, cultural taboo... Can you tell us about what kind of government we're working with? What's the culture of the people like? Do you have any conditions for choosing a best-answer? Is there any way to make this not opinion-based? $\endgroup$ Apr 25 '21 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ It strike me that you might need a patent system. Gain of personal wealth or other hubristic purposes seem to fit. $\endgroup$ Apr 25 '21 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ For those who aren't familiar with your universe, can you provide some technology level information to accompany the cultural information @JBH requested. Keeping knowledge secret is much easier at lower tech levels. $\endgroup$ Apr 25 '21 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ An entire galaxy with varying technologies wherein magic can be easily used by anyone and you want explanations as to how to keep it out of the galactic public's hands? VTC:OB until you can explain how you can possibly select a best answer. $\endgroup$ Apr 26 '21 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ We have this already. "Magic" (AKA physics / chemistry / biology) is widely taught and available in public journals. And yet only a very tiny fraction of people learn how to wield it. $\endgroup$
    – CharlieB
    Apr 26 '21 at 13:02

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The culture considers it too dangerous to be weilded by common people and it is punished accordingly

History has a lot of examples of people being kept away from political power that can serve as a template. Mostly it works through lies and stigma.

  • Your culture will be full of cautionary tales about peasants who know nothing but the farm, getting magic powers and lacking the competency to use them responsibly.

  • Lies will be spread that learning magic is very difficult, dangerous, expensive and easy for authorities to detect. Those few who do learn magic will benefit from the mystique so they won't contradict this. (Lies reminiscent of the infamous 'reefer madness' propaganda)

  • Learning magic will be harshly criminalized among the peasantry on the basis that it is considered dangerous to the community.

  • A cultural attitude will be cultivated that those who try to learn magic think they're better than everyone else, are trying to take shortcuts to elevate themselves without hard work etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ and throw them in jail too, preferably a magic-suppressing jail. $\endgroup$ Apr 26 '21 at 16:34
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1 it's hard to learn. 2 it's not worth the effort.

Technically anyone can learn programming (which is in many ways to a game world what magic would be to the real world), same applies for playing an instrument and for practicing martial arts. If all of these are technically something everyone can learn, why is it that most people don't know how to code an entire program or video game? Or how to fight taekwondo? Or how to play a guitar? I'd say it's simple: it's just not useful enough to their daily lives to be worth the effort it takes to learn.

To us magic is a very cool concept that most people would like to learn, but in your world, it's something that already exists, and therefore that "unachievable" cool factor is already absent. Some martial arts are thousands of years old and can technically help you defend yourself and be safer, but how often would you realistically use them in real life outside of the training grounds? Sure, there will likely be some people who are so enthusiastic about some spells that they might learn just for the sake of knowing, not that it's something they'll normally have a chance to use.

Since your story and characters are in a world with magic and space-faring medieval people, I very much doubt your main characters are just ordinary civilians who don't have to deal with a Big Bad or some other kind of crisis that essentially forces them to stock up on more specialized offensive and defensive capabilities than they normally would need to ensure their survival, which already sets them apart from regular people much like you'd see with a soldier and a civilian.

In other words: magic is something your world is used to. It's used in religion and even as a partial substitute for technology in some areas, but unless your magic system is extremely dynamic and useful in most aspects of your life regardless of who you are and what you do, as well as being widely accessible and easy to learn, chances are that it won't be something everyone knows and/or uses, simply because it's not helpful enough to be worth it. Add to that a vision of magic as directly tied to some lower class jobs (removing any logic of prestige or status in knowing magic) and the presence of heavy paperwork needed to learn certain spells (plus a slight exploit of the author's "because I said so" privilege for good measure) and you'll likely get a society in which magic just isn't something you'd normally see people using. It's not the easiest thing to learn, it's of little use in most daily activities unless you're a sailor, priest or someone with a magic-related job and some forms of magic are even treated as "dirty" due to their use in jobs performed mostly by the lower classes (which is far from unbelievable with the existence of real societies in which some jobs hold more prestige than others even though certain low prestige jobs are vital for the proper functioning of said societies). Magic spells more focused on combat, despite potentially holding some prestige, are also probably something you wouldn't see that much out of the military, because not everyone who already has prestige wants to risk their lives through a military career and someone with low prestige who wants to know them might as well gain some prestige through it (also, "why would you want to know specific offensive spells if your profession doesn't make any use of them whatsoever? Sounds rather suspicious, good citizen, you wouldn't be planning to use those to break the laws, would you?").

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly this and I wanted to say programming as well. Or more 2021: AI-based stuff. Anyone can theoretically do it, the tutorials are out there, and the results are pretty much magic right now. 10/10 answer. WE find magic cool because we can't have it. But if we actually all could, who would go through the effort? I mean, can you do a backflip? It's cool af and (from what I've been told) not that hard to learn. Maybe a week of practice max if you're somewhat fit. Still, I can't do it, maybe I start practicing next week $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 26 '21 at 9:56
  • $\begingroup$ If a regular person learned minor levitation they'd use it in everyday situations and it might save their life. If they learned programming ... ? Maybe you could compare writing an App to casting a days-long ritual sorcery. Now, I might play the guitar every day, but that's a hobby. Levitation is practical.. $\endgroup$ Apr 26 '21 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ @OwenReynolds the logic can be applied to levitation too, I'd say. After all, unless you're in a position in which you're physically unable to move around due to paraplegy or old age (which could potentially be solved to an extent with good healing magic), you just went to the trouble of mastering it so...you never needed a staircase again to reach something high up and could move around without your legs? Sure, it might save your life one day if you fall off a very high place, but other than that it sounds like a lot of work for the sake of being a little lazy (or a magic doomsday prepper). $\endgroup$ Apr 26 '21 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ Classic levitate also works on objects, but call it telekenisis if you like. There are also lots of people who clean their gutters, remove screens, hang holiday lights, or work in high places. But pick any other magic spell D&D's "mending" spell would save so much time and money; and any mechanic would learn it for sure. $\endgroup$ Apr 26 '21 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ @OwenReynolds You could say the same thing about being in shape. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Apr 26 '21 at 18:27
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How do you make a pipe bomb?

From the name I'm guessing it involves a pipe and, um, bomb stuff? Honestly I have no idea. Technically, anyone could probably learn. But I have no interest whatsoever in learning how to make a pipe bomb. Why not?

  1. I can't imagine why I would want to learn that.
  2. Making bombs is really really dangerous.
  3. It seems difficult.
  4. It's illegal.

The same four reasons could guide your society's approach to magic. It takes years of study, messing up a spell could have disastrous consequences, there are laws restricting access, and the average person doesn't think it's worth the effort of trying to learn it. There are all sorts of things in modern society that one could learn but are generally the domain of experts, either because they are outright illegal (leave bombmaking knowledge to your local bomb squad) or because there are walls around a profession (read all the medical textbooks you want, it won't make you a doctor).

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    $\begingroup$ It doesn't even take years of study for a makeshift pipe bomb tbh. But it takes years of study if you don't want to be buried after your first attempt. Plus: why the effort? As I said it already in another comment: backflips are really cool. And they only take like a week or two to learn if youre somewhat fit. And I actually want to be able to do one. And maybe maybe I start learning next week (we know I wont). $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 26 '21 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ I rarely want to blow something up. ButI often want to magic TK a hard-to-reach-object, or use clairvoyance to find my keys, or healing on my kids. $\endgroup$ Apr 26 '21 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @OwenReynolds for healing your children, you could learn medicine. I have a baby daughter and I'm a licensed EMT. I've done some peds coursework but I still haven't learned what a pediatrician knows. Why not? Because it would take years and years of work and when she needs medical help I can drive 20 minutes to the doctor. I think of magic in a similar way. If you're an accountant or whatever, it may not be worth the effort to teach yourself, especially if there are legal restrictions at play. $\endgroup$ Apr 26 '21 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ What if with the same time to be an EMT you could learn Harry Potter healing? Close wounds, mend bones, anti-poison, cures colds instantly ... just basic stuff and not what a real magic healer would know. In other words, what if magic is ... magical and not just stuff you could do anyway? $\endgroup$ Apr 26 '21 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ @OwenReynolds "But what if it's actually not that hard relative to usefulness" can be solved by "no, actually it is that hard". $\endgroup$
    – timuzhti
    Apr 27 '21 at 7:56
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Magic is Power

and those with Power like to keep it for themselves. If your magic is used for FTL, of course those who know the spell don't want to share. It is more money for them. More importantly, if most people don't know magic exists, they can't even try to research and learn it. Or if they do, they will seem crazy to their colleagues and the scientific community. And that's not considering military possibilities and WMD wizards.

Magic is limited

There is only so much mana in the galaxy. And while it can never be used up (once a spell is done the mana is released), any mana that some plebeian is using to reheat their food is mana that your wizards can't use for something else. Which can also feed back into the first point and the idea that they keep magic scarce to preserve their power base.

Magic is dangerous

That spell to reheat food? Maybe it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than a microwave. But it can also be turned into a weapon. And that's not even the real problem.

Magic is tough. Complex. And if you get it wrong, something still happens. Mess up the reheating spell? Blow up your house. Mess up the FTL spell? Open a portal to Venus, or the core of the sun, and destroy miles of land around you before the portal collapses. That's why only the smartest and most dedicated are even taught in the first place. THey are less likely to make a mistake, and the fewer students, the easier they are to observe.

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How could I justify the restriction of magic in this way if anyone can technically learn it?

Not knowing your educational background, I will assume that you must at least have heard of Maxwell equations or of General Relativity. Those are theories that technically anybody can learn and apply, just having the necessary basis. Despite that, not everybody learn them.

Somebody learns just simplified version (e.g. an electronic technician would learn Kirkhoff laws, not the full blown integral version of the Maxwell equations, and Newtonian gravity is introduced in high school), somebody else goes in more details (e.g. engineering or physics students) and finally only a limited subset learns and applies the full blown shabang (engineers do not normally go in the full details of the tensorial fun of GR).

The same goes for your magic. That technically anybody can learn it doesn't mean anybody WILL learn it, because of the time and effort needed to do so, that will be necessarily taken from other tasks/goal.

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    $\begingroup$ You can also apply the idea that is quite hard and time consuming to learn here. Some people have a natural talent and or interest in it and it takes these people a few years in a PhD program to learn it. Anyone else could learn it as well but it would take them much longer. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Apr 26 '21 at 8:24
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Magic requires ritual murder. While almost anyone can do it, only state-sanctioned killing (condemned criminals or prisoners of war) is lawful, much like in our society - basically only capital sentence and warfare is "allowed". And there are enough executions to power the priests and navigators (one murder can power your personal magic for years).

While magic as such is not illegal, expect some very pointed questioning when caught - and unless you have a certificate or other proof of "lawful magic acquisition", you are considered guilty of premeditated murder by default. And murder is murder.

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Guild System

The guild system was used around your desired time period and already does what you want. Technically, anyone can learn to become a blacksmith with enough practice, but those who do without paying the guild and receiving their approval quickly find themselves squeezed out. Collective underbidding by the guild blacksmiths, smear campaigns, bribes to local nobles or guards, whatever the guild needs to do to maintain their grip on power.

Once a guild has a monopoly on the trade, they can also restrict who learns it. The guild controls how many apprenticeships are available, even if just so they can drive prices up by restricting supply.

If magic is still easy enough in your world that people can figure it out without books or teaching, the guild would likely pressure the local lord for edicts and laws in their favor. After all, with such a dangerous power around, surely it should only be provided by properly registered guild magicians?

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Low Literacy

Learning magic requires reading and writing. You mentioned an early Renaissance level of technology - during this time period, the average literacy rate for most of the western world was around 5-10%. Bronze Age would be even lower. If 90% of your people can't read, they can't learn magic, simple enough. Admittedly your cyber/steam-punk planet would have higher rates, though they'd have better tech overall, so maybe less need for magic. (To the people on your Bronze Age planets, steampunk technology would be indistinguishable from magic anyhow.)

Even if your people can learn to read, it takes time they just don't have; subsistence farming is a full-time occupation and nobody can devote large portions of their life to learning advanced crafts such as the magical arts. Magical knowledge would be a privilege of the well-to-do, who are very much aware of the power (both magical and political) it grants them over the commoners, and would devote great energy to making sure that knowledge remains restricted in order to keep the serfs in line.

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Magic is a two-way street

(Credits to HP Lovecraft, John Blanche era WH40K, Charles Stross, and other usual suspects)

You want to open your mind to the gap between worlds and draw power from it? That's great - for the things that live there, which find you crunchy and good with ketchup. Or which (if you screw up majorly enough) find our planet/solar system/galaxy/universe crunchy etc.. The first priority of schools of magic then isn't how to do it, it's how to stop anything on the other side spotting you.

This is typically going to be a lesson learnt the hard way, involving widespread massacres of civilians and desperate defences against armies of undead/demons/shoggoths. With that lesson, membership of a guild and following appropriate safety measures become very much non-optional. Guilds will also be given the responsibility of finding unauthorised magic use, since they're the experts. However naturally good you may be, you don't stand a chance against a couple of trained magicians.

As far as the non-optional part goes, there will be penalties for non-compliance. The phrase "on pain of death" will be spectacularly literal, not only to ensure nothing has followed the hapless would-be wizard back to this world, but also as a very obvious demonstration of "don't do it".

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Tuition fees and Student loans

Sure, anyone can learn it, but not many people can afford the hundreds of thousands a year in tuition fees – unless you've got a guild paying for it in exchange for your future employment.

Add to this insurance requirements, and perhaps unions who'll come after you if you're going against them, and it'll be difficult for anyone who's not within the official structures to practice.

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Magic Must be Written in its Original Language

When you translate between languages, there are 3 major areas that things often go wrong.

  • One is that the source language is less specific than the reader's language. Here, your magic language may not have certain parts of speech like the destination language; so, things like articles, conjunctions, tenses, and genders may need to be added where they did not exist before in order to make a sentence that is logical to the reader. Here extra meaning can be added to make a spell go wrong.

  • The next is that the source language is more specific than the reader's language. In this case, the source language might have 5 different words for which the destination language has only 1 word, or perhaps even no words at all. Here meaning is removed from an incantation making a spell go wrong.

  • The last is that the source language contains culture specific references that mean something else in the reader's language. Here a common phrase like "with the weight of the world on his shoulders" or "on cloud 9" or use of proper nouns could lose all meaning if literally translated. And if semantically translated risks introducing a whole new set of cultural biases.

While loose translations are good enough for most practical purposes, with magic, semantic meaning must be very precise for it to work, and the structure and purpose of the magic language is too different from normal spoken languages to translate well. Let's pretend for a second that English is the magic language and your reader speaks a language which does not have words for working with N-dimensional mathematics. A passage may read as follows:

Collapse the ethereal vertices of the Wythoff penteract until it settles into three planes of space and one of time.

So if we were to read a translation of this passage in another language not meant for discussing N-dimensional space, along with all the other problems that often arise with translation, your ability to understand it might be limited to something like:

Break the points of air as a bridge breaks using Foobar's impossible cube. It will fall as three squares of nothing and one of time.

Such a translation would be utterly useless without the person going back into the original text to decipher a more specific meaning than his language can express.

When you have a language that is only used for specific things, it creates a really difficult learning curve that keeps most people out it, even if the concepts are easy to learn and understand once you get past the hard part of learning a new language. The Catholic Church did this for a long time by making sure scripture was only spoken and written in latin because they did not want translation errors by the unlearned leading to heresy. Likewise, your world could use the constraints of needing to know the magic language to restrict people from just learning a few simple spells. Because they don't just need to learn the incantation, they need to understand what it means, and that takes a big up-front learning curve.

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