Fragments: “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism”

“Newton was by no means the only natural philosopher who had drawn upon magical traditions. Indeed, Newton’s own interest in various magical traditions can best be understood by locating it within a late-Renaissance movement to reform natural philosophy by paying closer attention to various magical or occult traditions.

Although it is now (at last) diminishing, there is still enormous resistance among the more positivist philosophers and historians of science to any suggestion that magic might have been instrumental in the emergence of modern science. It is remarkable, for example, that the authors of two recent books on the role of alchemy in the Scientific Revolution, one introductory and the other advanced, both felt the need to justify the claims they were making on behalf of alchemy because of its ‘associations with magic and the occult’. For the most part, the arguments against the possible influence of magic on science are presented a priori, while the historical evidence is simply ignored. So, magic is characterized as irrational and its influence upon a supremely rational pursuit like modern science is easily dismissed as inherently implausible. Similarly, magic is said to be concerned with the supernatural and therefore could only be antithetical to mankind’s heroic intellectual endeavour to explain phenomena in entirely naturalistic terms. What is particularly unfortunate about this approach is that, by dismissing magic at the outset, it fails to put any effort into understanding the nature and significance of magic in the pre-modern and early modern periods. But this ahistorical approach is intellectual chauvinism of the most arrogant kind, and the result is undoubtedly a diminishing of our understanding of the origins of modern science. To carry on in this vein is to repeat the errors of Sir David Brewster, Isaac Newton’s first biographer. Taking  the opportunity to scrutinize Newton’s manuscript remains, Brewster soon came across the huge mass of alchemical manuscripts. His appalled response is well known:

… we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world, could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave.

When seen in the light of Brewster’s overwhelming admiration for Newton this is highly significant. An observer might have expected that Brewster would be led by his otherwise slavish veneration for his great forebear [sic] to conclude that, if Newton was so interested in alchemy, then there must have been something in it. But no, evidently Brewster’s conviction that alchemy was worthless rubbish outweighed even his awe of Newton’s genius.

It seems perfectly clear that something recognizably like modern science first emerged as a direct result of the absorption of various aspects of the magical tradition into traditional contemplative natural philosophy.”

Henry, John. 2012. “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic“ in Religion, Magic, and the Origins of Science in Early Modern England. (Surrey: Ashgate) 4-7.

A Tale of Two Alchemists

The story of Isaac Newton’s alchemical concerns is a relativity recent, but already much explored facet of the father of modern physics. Yes, he was predicting when the world would end using heretical biblical exegesis. Yes, he was trying to spiritualize matter. The “occult” quality of gravity was actually informed by the occult, and his contemporaries were completely justified in criticizing it as such.

Yet what is more interesting to me is how Newton’s alchemical project compares to that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s. Goethe as a young man, ostensibly a poet and man of letters at this time of his life, went through several years of intensive alchemical study and experimentation. And yet over time he became increasingly critical of the material truth of his project, calling it a “beautiful idea” and instead dedicated a reasonable part of his later intellectual activity to elucidating its spiritual truth.

Thus we have a state in which Newton, the “great” of British science, clung to a literal view of his alchemical work, while Goethe, viewed by some historians of science as a mere dilettante, tried its truths and rejected their materiality, opting instead to focus on the power of the ideas themselves.

The matter becomes only more interesting if you consider the opposition of Goethe’s and Newton’s optics. But that is a story for another time.

Resources of Interest:

Gray, Ronald D. Goethe the Alchemist: A study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary and Scientific Works. Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2002.

Jantz. Harold. “Goethe, Faust, Alchemy, and Jung” in The German Quarterly, Vol. 35,No. 2 (Mar., 1962), pp. 129-141.

Raphael, Alice. Goethe and the Philosophers’ Stone: Symbolic Patterns in ‘The Parable’ and the Second Part of ‘Faust’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.