Astrology, the Flu, and Free Will

One highly influential form of divination in the ancient world, which also had a major impact on the casting of spells and creation of charms, was astrology. The ancients, whether Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman, all paid close attention to the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. They regarded this seven “wandering stars” in particular as divine entities whose movements had a powerful effect on earthly creatures. To a very great extent, Medieval European Christians inherited this perspective.

To many people today, especially those who have had enough of nonsensical Facebook posts about zodiac signs and personality types, the idea that the planets can affect our lives seems ridiculous. As Bailey points out, however, it is actually quite intuitive:

“That astral bodies imparted energies that could influence terrestrial ones was hardly an outlandish idea—one had only to note how the moon influenced tides or more basically how the rising sun warmed the air to be convinced of this fact. That the planet Mars could impart martial energies or that the power of Venus somehow facilitated amorous attraction or sexual fertility was widely accepted in the Middle Ages, and much more serious intellectual effort was spent working out exactly how these various forces operated. Although learned astrologers sometimes made predictions about the future, they would hardly have considered themselves diviners or magicians. Rather, they would have presented themselves as wise men and philosophers exploring the forces of nature.”[1]

In addition to tidal forces and solar heat, I would also add that skeptics should ask a nurse about working during a full moon.

As Medievals tangled with the precise workings of the influence of the stars on earthly life, they were quick to note that this influence was not direct. Lewis in The Discarded Image has an excellent passage on this:

“In accordance with the principle of devolution or mediation the influences do not work upon us directly, but by first modifying the air. As Donne says in The Exstasie, ‘On man heaven’s influence works not so But first it imprints the air.’ A pestilence is caused originally by malefical conjunctions of planets, as when

Kinde herde tho Conscience and cam out of the planetes And sente forth his forayers, fevers and fluxes.

(Piers Plowman, C. XXIII, 80.)

But the bad influence operates by being literally ‘in the air.’ Hence when a medieval doctor could give no more particular cause for the patient’s condition he attributed it to ‘this influence which is at present in the air.’ If he were an Italian doctor he would doubtless say questa influenza. The profession has retained this useful word ever since.”[2]

That’s right. When you say you have the flu, you’re actually taking part in an old tradition of ascribing airborne maladies to the influence of the planets. You astrologer, you.


So how did we get here? Clearly the Church no longer regards astrology as kosher. How did this happen?

The answer is partly that the Church always had certain objections to astrology, or at least to the abuse of it. Lewis outlines three of these objection:

“(1) Against the lucrative, and politically undesirable, practice of astrologically grounded predictions.

(2) Against astrological determinism…

(3) Against practices that might seem to imply or encourage the worship of planets—they had, after all, been the hardiest of all the Pagan gods.”[3]

Of these three objections, it was the second that caused the most debate among Medieval philosophers and theologians. Lewis devotes more room to this problem than either of the others, and Bailey concurs in regarding it as a highly problematic issue:

“The difficulty lay in rescuing some acceptable systems of astrology from the condemnations of earlier authorities, and from the dilemma that the determinative power of astrological forces seemed to conflict with the important Christian notion of human free will.”[4]

Christianity presents a notion of human responsibility, and an emphasis on moral decision-making, that seems reliant on some notion of free will. After all, if King David was compelled to sin with Bathsheba due to the lascivious influences of Venus, how can he be held accountable for his actions? How can Abraham be praised for his faithfulness when it was merely the stars that decreed his actions?

Here Christian theology and Medieval science appeared to be in conflict, and it took centuries to work out something like an acceptable solution. Bailey points to Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280) as the first to propose this solution, but it was his pupil, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who explained it as part of his masterful theological system which determined the course of the rest of Medieval European thought.[5] It is to Aquinas we will turn in the next section, exploring the Medieval solution to this conundrum.

Free Will and the Stars

In order to understand Aquinas’s explanation, we have to place ourselves in the Medieval mindset. To begin with, the distinction between material bodies and immaterial “intellectual substances” is important. In his Compendium of Theology¸ Aquinas begins his explanation of the influence with the stars by acknowledging the way higher bodies impact lower bodies:

“Among intellectual substances, therefore, some are divinely governed by others, that is, the lower by the higher. Similarly lower bodies are controlled, in God’s plan, by higher bodies. Hence every movement of lower bodies is caused by the movements of heavenly bodies. Lower bodies acquire forms and species from the influence thus exercised by heavenly bodies, just as the intelligible exemplars of things descend to lower spirits through higher spirits.”[6]

The way intelligible exemplars descend through spirits is not important. What is significant here is the simple acknowledgment that all material objects “lower down,” that is, towards the earth, are moved and shaped by heavenly bodies. The stars, being physical, effect physical things on earth. This might present a problem if one particular thing were not kept in mind:

“Furthermore, impressions left in lower bodies from the impact of heavenly bodies are natural. Therefore, if the operations of the intellect and will resulted from the impression made by heavenly bodies, they would proceed from natural instinct. And so man would not differ in his activity from other animals, which are moved to their actions by natural instinct. And thus free will and deliberation and choice and all perfections of this sort, which distinguish man from other animals, would perish.”[7]

So Aquinas succinctly states the problem: if the stars, through their actions on the physical things of the earth, also control our will and intellect, then we have no free will, no powers of deliberation, and are not to be distinguished from the animals. This is a high-stakes issue. All Biblical anthropology hangs on it.

Before we can take the next step with Aquinas, we have to step deeper into Medieval natural philosophy. Modern Christians tend to have a pretty simplistic explanation of what the soul is and what it does. Medievals had a more complex understanding. After acknowledging that man is a “rational animal,” that is, a living and moving being with the capacity to reason, C. S. Lewis goes on to explain the complexities of the human soul:

“Rational Soul, which gives man his peculiar position, is not the only kind of soul. There are also Sensitive Soul and Vegetable Soul. The powers of Vegetable Soul are nutrition, growth, and propagation. It alone is present in plants. Sensitive Soul, which we find in animals, has these powers but has sentience in addition. It thus includes and goes beyond Vegetable Soul, so that a beast can be said to have two levels of soul, Sensitive and Vegetable, or a double soul, or even—though misleadingly—two souls. Rational Soul similarly includes Vegetable and Sensitive, and adds reason.”[8]

All three kind or levels of soul are immaterial, but each Rational Soul in particular is directly created by an act of God, whereas as lower level souls possessed by animals and plants arise due to the inner workings of natural—though spiritual—forces.[9]

Just as our bodies have particular “faculties,” or abilities, such as a hand being capable of grasping or of punching or of lightly touching, so our souls have different faculties. Lewis goes on to describe two faculties of the rational soul in particular—intellect (intellectus) and reasoning (ratio):

“We are enjoying intellectus when we ‘just see’ a self-evident truth; we are exercising ratio when we proceed step by step to prove a truth which is not self-evident. A cognitive life in which all truth can simply be ‘seen’ would be the life of an intelligentia, an angel. A life of unmitigated ratio where nothing was simply ‘seen’ and all had to be proved, would presumably be impossible; for nothing can be proved if nothing is self-evident. Man’s mental life is spent in laboriously connecting those frequent, but momentary, flashes of intelligentia which constitute intellectus.”[10]

This means that man has both a faculty which completely overleaps sensory input (intellectus), and a faculty which joins these truths together and pushes them in new directions. Both these faculties belong to an immaterial part of man, one directly created by God, and not arising by natural processes. This allows Aquinas to resolve the problem of the effect heavenly bodies have on earthly ones:

“Nevertheless, since the will is not subject to the passions in such a way as necessarily to follow their enticement, but on the contrary has it in its power to repress passions by the judgment of reason, the human will is not subject to impressions emanating from heavenly bodies. It retains free judgment either to follow or to resist their attractions, as may seem to it expedient.”[11]

Thus, while man’s powers of growth, nutrition, and propagation may be effected by the heavenly bodies, or even his ability to sense the world around him, his will remains free. There is a rational core within man capable of resisting and even contradicting the influence of the heavenly bodies. Of course, not everyone has the strength of character to pull this off:

“Only the wise act thus; the masses follow the lead of bodily passions and urgings. For they are wanting in wisdom and virtue.”[12]

This has two important implications. First, astrology will still by and large be effective in predicting the general behavior of masses of humanity, even if it is not always accurate in predicting the actions of individual humans. Second, it is necessary to cultivate both wisdom and virtue to obtain true freedom from the forces of the world around you. Education, in the deeper sense of the term, is important.

The Legacy of the Solution

Aquinas, following in his teacher’s footsteps, provided a very sensible solution to the theological problem presented by the notion of astrological determinism. But while it may seem sensible, it was by no means universally accepted:

“Yet for various reasons this solution was not entirely successful. Doubts remained about the exact nature and extent of astral influence, and some authorities denied such influence altogether. The very skeptical theologian and natural philosopher Nicholas Oresme (ca. 1325-1382), for example, maintained that the astral bodies projected no forces toward the earth aside from light and heat.”[13]

In the centuries that followed, the discussion faded into obscurity. One the one hand, the issue of determinism was being fought over by Reformed theologians and Remonstrants who were much more concerned with salvation than the stars. On the other, the Copernican revolution so thoroughly altered our understanding of the structure of the solar system that the old explanations for the stars influenced the earth no longer applied. Both the theological and the scientific halves of the conundrum drifted apart into new contexts.

This calls into question just why we still object to astrology. It seems that the most obvious answer is simply that we believe it is unsupported by science. Modern natural philosophers have called the notion superstitious, and Christians have agreed with them, lumping the once respectable discipline in with tarot cards and palmistry. This objection, while perhaps more definitive, is far less interesting.

The beautiful thing about the theological conundrum that astrology presented was that it forced Christians to show how theology and science were related. For Medievals, these were not hugely divided disciplines which would never ordinarily interact. The world the Bible described and the world natural philosophy described were one in the same, and so theological issues were in fact very likely to have an impact on scientific views, and vice versa.

That, I think, is a sense of unity worth recovering—the idea that the God who made the heavens is the same God who was incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and so the truths of His world and the truths of his Word are not separate from one another. Perhaps it is good that the problem of astrological determinism died, but it also exactly the sort of theological-scientific problem we should expect to see in God’s universe.


[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 93-94.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image. (2009 printing from Cambridge University Press.) pg. 110.

[3] Lewis, pgs. 103-104.

[4] Bailey, pg. 98.

[5] Bailey, pg. 98.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, translated by Cyril Vollert, with New Introduction by Richard Munkelt. Angelico Press. Pg. 133/chapter 127.

[7] Aquinas, pg. 134/chapter 127.

[8] Lewis, pg. 153.

[9] Lewis, pg. 154.

[10] Lewis, pg. 157.

[11] Aquinas, pg. 135.

[12] Aquinas, pg. 135.

[13] Bailey, pg. 98.

Disenchantment and the Enchanters: Witch Hunts, the Enlightenment, and How Paradigms Fail

One thing the history of magic demonstrates is that we clearly do not live in the same intellectual universe that existed during the Renaissance. Where it was perfectly acceptable for natural philosophers to engage in occult pursuits during that time, the idea that a modern scientist would spend his time conversing with spirits or refuse to prepare certain chemicals unless Venus was in the right place in the sky is laughable. The idea of Peter Venkman is as laughable as Venkman himself.

This shift is one of the more momentous in intellectual history. The old scholars were almost by definition Christian, as the church was the primary center of learning. The new scholars take a skeptical attitude not just towards magic, but to anything that might be termed supernatural. Between them lies the period known as the Enlightenment, a time when the imaginative world of the elite underwent a process of disenchantment. Some science-minded people are apt to say the happened because we suddenly got smart, or were rationally convinced of a more naturalistic cosmos. Michael Bailey suggests that this development did not occur in so straight a line.

“Yet as I have argued throughout this chapter, while magical beliefs and practices altered and adapted to Renaissance, Reformation, and scientific thought, many magical traditions remained vibrant and provided serious competition to mechanical philosophy until the very end of the seventeenth century. The intellectual respectability of magic did not fade because new “scientific” systems provided categorically superior explanatory models that precluded the need for or proscribed the possibility of magical operations. Instead, European intellectuals seem largely to have abandoned their belief in magic first and then set about developing other models of understanding the universe that fully excluded magical forces.”[1]

This is striking. Something gave intellectuals a reason to abandon a view of the cosmos that included magic before they even had a system to replace it. Though this may not be how we are used to thinking of shifts from one view of the world to another, perhaps conceiving of something more like conversion from once complete system to another, it’s not entirely unthinkable. Just because your current beliefs have proved wrong in some way does not mean you have something waiting in the wings to replace them. Demolition often comes long before rebuilding.

With regards to scientific revolutions, the shift from one paradigm to another, there is one scholar well known for studying this phenomenon, and Bailey is quick to cite him:

“Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, rejected the notion that scientific progress invariably proceeds through steady, incremental advances. Small advances can be made as new knowledge and information about a given subject gradually accumulates, he argues, but this information is always interpreted within some overarching paradigm that governs basic understandings about the field in which the advancement is being made. These paradigms do not alter gradually under the weight of accumulated eveidence; indeed, they cannot, since all evidence is interpreted within their structure. Paradigms themselves change only through relatively sudden, dramatic ruptures.”[2]

So when it comes to the shift from a scientific paradigm that accommodates the supernatural to one that manifestly does not, we should look for two things. First, we should be able to identify a time where a “sudden, dramatic rupture” separates the old view from the new. This would be the eighteenth century Enlightenment. But we should also look for something else. Every “sudden, dramatic rupture” is built on gaps in the previous system, things that cannot be accounted for under the current paradigm:

“Every dominant paradigm has certain problems, certain information that it cannot easily accommodate. Normally these are either explained in some not wholly satisfying fashion or else they are simply ignored. The Ptolemaic, earth-centered conception of the universe, for example, could only accommodate planetary retrograde motion by the introduction of complex epicycles. Occasionally, however, radical suggestions of alternate paradigms emerge, and sometimes, as with Copernican heliocentrism, the come to supplant the earlier paradigm, producing a major revolution. Kuhn maintains, however, that new paradigms do not triumph because they objectively provide a better interpretive system than the old paradigm, at least not immediately. For example, while Copernicus’s heliocentric theory did explain some of the observed properties of astral bodies in simpler and more elegant ways than did the old Ptolemaic system, the better part of a century was to pass before the details of a heliocentric model that was objectively superior to the Ptolemaic system were worked out. During this transition, experts did throw their support behind heliocentrism because of the weight of accumulated evidence, but, Kuhn suggests, more out of aesthetic impulse and intuition than anything else.”[3]

We should therefore expect to see some problems that the old paradigm had difficulty dealing with. This would give intellectuals a reason from abandoning a worldview that allows for magic, and throwing their weight behind one that rejects the supernatural. This is where things get interesting:

“Here too we have encountered the issue of confidence in a system, namely in the area of witchcraft and particularly with witch hunting. In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many authorities lost confidence, not initially in the basic system of thought that supported the idea of witchcraft, but in the ability of legal institutions to identify and prosecute witches fairly and effectively. The previous chapter suggested that this judicial dilemma eventually led to a broader skepticism about the reality of witchcraft in general.”[4]

The previous chapter is indeed a fascinating one. It uproots many of the preconceived notions held by both proponents of modern science and modern claimants to the magical tradition. Rather than being driven by the Church or by the major authorities of Early Modern Europe, the witch trials were miscarriages of justice within local communities, whether intentional manipulations of the law for personal gain, or something like mass hysteria. It was in regions where the Church and centralized government held the least authority that the witch trials flourished. Where higher authority held tighter control over witch trials, the accused was acquitted far more often, and when convicted, was rarely executed. This is a fascinating chapter, and I hope to visit it in detail when this study returns to that period.

What is significant at the moment, however, is the way this fits with Kuhn’s paradigm:

“To rephrase this process in Kuhnian terms: the inability of courts to prosecute witches effectively was, if not an inherently incompatible anomaly, certainly a problem in an intellectual and moral paradigm that held witchcraft to be a real and terribly threatening crime. The solution of simply curtailing witch trials resolved the immediate problem but would have been intellectually unappealing and inelegant because it meant that there were horribly dangerous and destructive malefactors in the world against whom legal authorities could provide no protection. The rise of skepticism about the very existence of witches provided a more comprehensive solution. Yet because the idea of witchcraft was only one facet of European conceptions about magic, and more basically about demonic and divine power operating in the world, denial of the reality of witchcraft entailed a major shift in prevailing systems of thought and required that something like a new paradigm be accepted.”[5]

This suggestion is stunning. We often treat the period of Early Modern witch hunts as something totally unrelated to the “enlightened,” “disenchanted” era that followed, but according to Bailey, they “may have been a key factor contributing to the ultimate eighteenth century disenchantment of Europe.”[6]

An important aspect of this revelation is the fact that the problem witchcraft presented was not essentially a scientific or philosophical one, but a moral one. It made the old paradigm seem implausible not because it didn’t fit with known facts about the natural world, but because it upset the moral and political world in which Early Modern Europeans lived. Intellectual shifts, even in the natural sciences, are sometimes driven by moral and political concerns.

This is an important idea for Christians today to grasp. Many of us would like to reverse the trend of secularization in our society. We may even feel that it is necessary for our own safety and the safety of the broader Church. But if we are going to convince people that a Christ-centered way of looking at the world is worthy of consideration, and more worthy than the alternatives, we need answers to all sorts of problems—certainly to scientific ones, but also to moral and political ones.

Christian morality and politics is often not much more than red-state conservatism, or red-state libertarianism, with a few out-of-context proof verses slapped on for good measure. Our beliefs, and many of the arguments we use to defend them, are not very different from those of our secular neighbors. And not to leave anybody out, the same is true for blue-state and centrist Christianity. All of us draw on political traditions that are skin deep, no more recent than the 1960’s. Is it any wonder our secular neighbors look at our lifestyles and opinions and wonder why faith in Christ is necessary?

But Christianity has a long history of moral, political, and philosophical discussion. We have a wide range of views represented in the Church Fathers, in medieval scholastics, in Reformation and Counter-Reformation intellectuals, and in more recent Christian tradition. Behind that stands the very Word of God, not in some hodgepodge collection of discrete verses, but as a library of wisdom poetry, royal chronicles, legal documents and case studies, philosophical meditations, and examinations of the connections between the kingship of Christ and our daily lives in a world that does not recognize Him. We have resources.

Looking at the impact the Early Modern witch hunts had on European intellectual thought should shame us and spur us to action. Christianity had been firmly established in Europe for long centuries before the witch craze set in. During that time, the conception of witches as the sort of threat they appeared to be in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was nearly nonexistent. Church and secular authorities certainly saw no reason to prosecute or punish them in the way it was done in that era. Could we not have found a better solution?

Likewise, we are today confronted with a wide range of political and moral conundrums that beg for an answer. How does Christian just war theory apply to ISIS and to Syria, to the use of drones or of “enhanced interrogation” techniques? Does a historically Christian perspective on the common good call for open borders and an untrammeled free market, or are our rulers called to nurture specific communities? Does the Bible and the conversation of Christians across time call for a more nuanced alternative to that question? How are Christians to behave in nation that is hostile to their beliefs? How are we to behave if we gain power over a nation consisting of many unbelievers? Both of these questions were asked and answered over the course of centuries in the Roman Empire. We are not without resources.

The study of magic is a fascinating one. It opens up new imaginative vistas, and it sheds light on the past from new and interesting angles. While wisdom for its own sake is clearly an end worth pursuing, we should also be open to the lessons history teaches us. I took, and I hope you take, this particular lesson as a wake-up call.

[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 210-211.

[2] Bailey, 211.

[3] Bailey, 211.

[4] Bailey, 212.

[5] Bailey, 212.

[6] Bailey, 213.

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.