Science and Sorcery: Bailey on the Scientific Revolution

Last time, I made the suggestion that the root sin of magic is also present in some kinds of science. Hudson Brainerd helpfully insisted I be more precise in my claims. This post is the first half of a two-part attempt to do so. In it, I intend to use Bailey to establish the significant overlap between scientists and magicians, and the influence of magic on science, during the Scientific Revolution. The next part will zero in on one particularly illustrative father of science, and draw on a second Medieval and Renaissance scholar to highlight the common principle at the root of both science and sorcery, as some people have practiced them.

Magicians Who Practiced Science

The Scientific Revolution occurred in era where the high magic of clerics and scholars was changing rapidly. The old magic based on the command of demons was being replaced by a new magic based on revived ancient philosophy. Among these philosophies were Neoplatonism, a modified form of Plato’s philosophy which dates from the first centuries after Christ, Heremticism, a partially Neoplatonic system based on the supposed writings of the mysterious Hermes Trismegistus, and Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism which belonged more properly to the Medieval era, but which was now gaining traction in the European mainstream.

In the midst of these new developments arose a man whom Bailey calls “probably the most significant sixteenth-century English mage.” I would add that he is one of the most well-known English mages, period. His name was John Dee. Dee was a practitioner of both Hermeticism and Kabbalah, as well as alchemy and astrology. He also attempted to communicate with angels, and claimed to have succeeded. Indeed, he produced an entire language which he claimed the angels spoke, Enochian, as well as an Enochian alphabet and mystical writings in the language. This supposedly magical tongue has enjoyed attention from later practitioners of mystic arts, and even recently featured in the film The Witch.

In his own day, Dee was quite famous. He enjoyed noble patronage, including the patronage of the royal family, among them Queen Elizabeth I. More to the point, Dee was also a student of mathematics and navigation. The time in which he lived, 1527-1608, saw the first expansion of European overseas empires, and the latter was a particularly valuable science. Mathematics, of course, is central both to astrological and nautical calculations. Dee’s preoccupation with both these hard sciences and mystical pursuits was less contradictory than it was complimentary. Ships, like men, must follow their stars. (pgs. 188-89)

Another astrologer, and Dee’s older contemporary, was the Italian Girolamo Cardano, who lived from 1501 to 1576. The connections between his mystical and scientific pursuits were perhaps far tighter than Dee’s—he was a physician who believed firmly that the stars had an effect on human health. In his early days he was a professor of medicine at the University of Bologna, but his interest in astrology led to the publication of a book of prognostications in 1534 that gained him recognition across Europe. “He was summoned from as far away as Scotland in 1552 to treat the archbishop of Edinburgh.” Along the way, he spent time in the French and English courts. Renaissance medicine and Renaissance astrology were not all perceived to be strange bedfellows. (pg. 188)

Younger than both Dee and Cardano was the Italian magician Giordano Bruno. Born in 1548, he became a Dominican at a very young age in 1563. He soon rejected the old-school Aristotelian (and Thomistic) school of thought that order clung to, and embraced Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, and even Copernicanism. This last was a significant concern of his. As we will soon see, the mystical schools of thought prevalent in the Renaissance era enthusiastically favored a heliocentric view of the cosmos. This meant Bruno had a vested interest in the outcome of this scientific controversy, and did not hesitate to take part in it. He was, however, more deeply concerned with preaching the corruption of the Christian faith, which he believed to be a false religion, and proclaiming the need for a revival of a supposedly ancient magical religion. He was burned as a heretic in 1600. (pgs. 189-190)

Scientists Who Practiced Magic

In the rather large category of Renaissance scientists who also practiced some form of magic or superstition, most were involved in alchemy.

“The basic purpose of alchemy was to transform one substance into another, most famously to change lead into gold. Like astrology, this practice rested upon certain fundamental principles of ancient and medieval natural philosophy. In the case of alchemy, the principle involved was that all matter was composed of the same four basic elements—earth, air, water, and fire—merely in different proportions that gave particular substances their varied characteristics. If the proportions of these elements could be manipulated, alchemists reasoned, any substance might be transformed into any other. Such manipulation was no easy task, but might be accomplished through long and arduous series of meltings, boilings, evaporations, refinements, sublimations, distillations, separations, and combinations of various materials. To achieve their ends, alchemists employed some of the same basic equipment as modern chemical laboratories.” (pg. 95)

These materials, as well as the four elements and various chemical processes, were frequently had astrological connections. Gold was associated with the sun, for instance, and iron with Mars, and tin with Jupiter. Lead was the province of Saturn. Thus alchemy may have used a chemist’s equipment, and many of his procedures, but there were decidedly mystical overtones both to the whole project and to the thinking behind it.

The great mind behind Renaissance alchemy was the fantastically named Philippus Areolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Later thinkers, understandably, remembered him by his pen name—Paracelsus. Paracelsus lived from 1494 to 1541. He was a medical practitioner who incorporated alchemy into his practice, and insisted that a knowledge of astrology was necessary to both disciplines. He is perhaps better remembered as the man who introduced the world to a type of creature that would later become very popular in fantasy gaming—the elemental. (pgs. 187-188)

Each element, he insisted, had a creature which rightfully belonged to it. The air was realm of sylphs, spritely little creatures composed primarily of that substance. Fire, on the other hand, was the province of salamanders, a magical lizard-like being who burned, but was not consumed. Water was the land of undines, which might be compared to both nymphs and mermaids. Finally, earth was inhabited by gnomes.

Paracelsus’s ideas were very influential on later alchemy, which is why I begin this section by introducing him. The most famous Paracelsan scientist was born over a century later, in 1627. His name was Robert Boyle, and he wrote on everything “from chemistry to physics to medicine.” He founded the Royal Society, a scientific organization which continues in England to this day. His The Skeptical Chymist sought to reform chemical and alchemical practice. One might suspect that this was a step away from alchemy’s mystical roots, but in fact he continued to attempt transmuting lead into gold and “to communicate with angels by alchemical means.” He also exchanged alchemical insights with men like John Locke and Isaac Newton. (pgs. 205-206)

Newton in particular is well known for his magical and pseudo-magical pursuits. He was, of course, and alchemist like Boyle, and very prone to experimentation. He believed that the phenomenon in alchemy known as “Diana’s Tree” was evidence that metals “possessed a sort of life.” A collection of book sold after his death indicate an interest in manufacturing the “Philosopher’s Stone.” He was a student of sacred geometry, particularly the geometry of the Temple built by King Solomon, which he believed was something of a key to the chronology of Jewish history. He was a student of Biblical chronology as well, not only outlining the past, but seeking to at least roughly determine the time of the apocalypse. Within one of these chronological studies, he even mentions the fabled sunken realm of Atlantis. John Maynard Keynes summed him up by saying, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason” but “the last of the age of magicians.” (pg. 206)

Newton is, of course, well known both for his Opticks and his co-invention of calculus. Perhaps he casts a larger shadow in scientific lore, however, for his theory of gravitation. This discovery is often painted as a golden example of science and reason overcoming ignorance and superstition. The strange thing was, however, gravitation itself was something of an occult idea. The science of the time was moving away from the idea of airy spirits and astral intellects and towards a more mechanical view of the universe. Things were supposed to act directly on other things through clearly observable motion, if one knew how to look. Then along came Newton, proposing that some invisible force reached across even vast distances to move small objects towards larger ones. Gravity, at the time, seemed like a backwards step into the positively spooky. Leibniz in particular “ridiculed the notion of gravity as a positively ‘occult’ principle.” (pg. 206)

Another “avowed Paracelsian” was the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who lived from 1546 to 1601. He kept several alchemical furnaces at his observatory, and a garden where he crafted herbal remedies in accordance with his astrological take on medical science. He was also far more empirical than Copernicus, recording a great quantity of very accurate astronomical data.

The Visible God

Among the most revolutionary moments in scientific history was the suggestion of Nicholas Copernicus that the apparently stable earth was in motion, and that it revolved about an actually stationary sun. Much as with gravity, the children of the Enlightenment have assumed that this was again a triumph of reason over antiquated dogma. Bailey suggests that there are holes in this theory:

“Because all the later major figures of the Scientific Revolution came to accept Copernicus’s theory (and, of course, because it proved to be correct), heliocentrism is often regarded as completely ‘scientific’ in a modern sense. Yet Copernicus made no significant new empirical observations to justify his theory. He used mostly old data gathered by others and previously interpreted in a solidly Ptolemaic framework. There were certain empirical problems with the earth-centered conception of the universe—for example, the retrograde motion of the planets (because of the earth’s own movement, planets sometimes appear to move backward in the night sky)—however, the Ptolemaic system had explained these inconsistencies by relatively complex but not essentially implausible means (certainly no more implausible than the notion that the earth, which so clearly seems to be immobile under our feet, is in fact whizzing through space at tremendous speed)… In fact, Copernicus’s own system was riddled with problems that took several generations to solve. It was no more accurate than the Ptolemaic system at predicting and accounting for the observed movements of the heavenly bodies and offered no satisfying explanation for planetary motion. So the Copernican heliocentric theory cannot be regarded simply as the replacement of a poor theory with an unquestionably superior, empirically supportable one.” (pg. 202)

What, then, motivated Copernicus to adopt this admittedly strange, counter-intuitive, and apparently problem-riddled model of the universe? Bailey suggests that he was motivated by Neoplatonic and Hermetic views. Both systems, perhaps drawing from Plato’s analogies in the Republic, treated the sun with great reverence, both as a literal source of light and as a symbolic source of truth and knowledge. Would it not then make sense to place the sun, rather than the lowly earth, at the center of the cosmos? To support this reading of Copernicus, Bailey quotes a section of De revolutionibus, the work wherein the astronomer set forth his radical idea:

“In the middle of all sits the Sun enthroned. In this most beautiful temple could we place this luminary in any better position from which he can illuminate the whole at once? He is rightly called the Lamp, the Mind, the Ruler of the Universe; Hermes Trismegistus names him the Visible God.” (pg. 203)

Nor was Copernicus the last to imbue the heliocentric view of the universe with Neoplatonic meaning. Johannes Kepler “was also deeply influenced by Neoplatonic traditions of cosmic harmony and mathematical simplicity and elegance.” He “worked out the mathematics of the heliocentric universe in much more detail,” for which he is remembered as another hero of the Scientific Revolution. Yet he was, Bailey reminds us, “a firm believer in astrology.” The whole history of the heliocentric model is shot through with magical associations. (pg. 203)

Such a notion may be startling to our modern sensibilities, but by now it should not surprise the reader. In the Renaissance era, magicians were heavily involved in science, and scientists in various forms of what we would call magic and superstition. They were, after all, searching for the hidden secrets of the universe. “Hidden” is merely an English word for the Latin “occultus.” How strange is it, then, that science should involve the occult?


By now I hope it is clear that magic and science in the Renaissance were not opposed to one another, but were often practices engaged in by the same men. Neither heliocentrism, nor gravity, nor chemistry are free of Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic associations. Perhaps part of the reason for this is already clear, in that both pursuits promise to yield the secrets of the universe to diligent practitioner. I believe, however, there is another reason the two were often found together. In my next post, I hope to explore that reason in some detail.


4 thoughts on “Science and Sorcery: Bailey on the Scientific Revolution

  1. I am thoroughly enjoying this series of posts, and I can’t wait to see how it develops. You might find two works by Francis Yates on the topic of this specific post very illuminating: “The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age,” and “Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.” Yates is a top-notch scholar, and I’m sure you would enjoy both of those books.

    Liked by 1 person

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