Debate Magazine

Renaissance Magic & Science

By Cris

Few things could seem as far apart as magic and science, though if we consider the history of science, we find that the two were intimately twined. This was particularly true during the Renaissance run-up to the classical founding of science in the persons of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). While we might add Copernicus (1473-1543) and Kepler (1571-1630) to this list of founders, I will set them aside for the moment because their status as astronomer-mathematicians is especially pertinent to my later discussion.

It is of course well known that Newton was anything but a pure scientist, at least in the modernist sense of the word: he was steeped in Christian mysticism and believed he was discovering, or uncovering, God’s lawful work in nature. The Principia was, in Newton’s eyes, far more than a founding document of science: it was a tribute to the divine as manifest in matter and mathematics.

Considered in broader historical context, Newton’s mysticism was hardly novel. The Italian Renaissance was inspired in large part by the idea that the universe was a harmonious whole and the heavens emanated continuous influences over all things on earth. These harmonious influences could, moreover, be divined through number and manipulated by math. Those who concerned themselves with such matters were astronomers, astrologists, mystics, and mathematicians, often bound up in the single person of a Magus. Prominent among such persons were Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), both Renaissance humanists and magi without peer. Bruno is often remembered as a champion of the Copernican model who burned at the stake after being tried for heresy by the Inquisition. As such, he has become a martyr of science.

While there may be some truth to this, the matter is more complex, just as Bruno was complex. If one takes a Catholic view of such matters, there can be no doubt that Bruno was a theological heretic. He did, after all, declare that Jesus was not God but merely an “unusually skillful magician.” Had Bruno made this pronouncement (and others like them) as a skeptic, we might justly consider him an early scientist. It appears, however, that Bruno is better placed as a late magician, a Neoplatonic mystic steeped in Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and Pantheism. Bruno’s deepest desire was to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and find the true religion, in these traditions. The key, he thought, was number. In Bruno we find a near perfect merger of magic, mysticism, and mathematics: the universe as seamless web and harmonious whole.

It is not hard, on one hand, to see how Bruno’s unorthodox views would have upset Catholic authorities and ultimately led to his fatal demise. It is not hard, on the other hand, to see how these views are consonant with modern cosmology and mathematics. So where to place or how to figure Bruno? This is the question asked and well answered by Frances Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), a book that has been on my reading list for years but which I only recently bagged. Aside from its inherent interest for Bruno aficionados, it is an important work for the history of science. As part of her inquiry into Bruno, Yates asks why it was that scientific methods, particularly mathematical ones, appeared when they did. She is not satisfied with the standard, simplistic narrative in which science straightforwardly triumphs over superstition and religion. Here are some key excerpts which shed light on her answer:

The intense concentration on the complexities of universal harmony, which is one of the most characteristic aspects of Renaissance thought…so forcefully directed attention on number as the key to all nature that it may be said to have prepared the way for genuine mathematical thinking about the universe. As is well known, Kepler still saw his new astronomy in a context of harmonies, and he was well aware that the Pythagorean theory was also implicit in the Hermetic writings, of which he had made a careful study (151).

Copernicus introduces his [heliocentric] discovery to the reader as a kind of act of contemplation of the world as a revelation of God, or as what many philosophers have called the visible god. It is, in short, in the atmosphere of the religion of the world that the Copernican revolution is introduced (153).

Copernicus’ discovery came out with the blessing of Hermes Trismegistus upon its head, with a quotation from that famous work in which Hermes describes the sun-worship of the Egyptians in their magical religion (154-55). Bruno’s use of Copernicanism shows most strikingly how shifting and uncertain were the borders between genuine science and Hermeticism in the Renaissance. [This is] a theme which I believe may be of absolutely basic importance for the history of thought — namely, Renaissance magic as a factor in bringing about fundamental changes in the human outlook (155).

The mighty mathematician [Kepler] who discovered the elliptical orbits of the planets had, in his general outlook, by no means emerged from Renaissance influences. His heliocentricity had a mystical background; his great discovery about the planetary orbits was ecstatically welcomed by him as a confirmation of the music of the spheres; and there are survivals of animism in his theories (440).

Hence, it is now suggested, when “Hermes Trismegistus” and all that he stood for is rediscovered in the Renaissance, the return to the occult this time stimulates the genuine science. The emerging modern science is still clothed in what might be described as the Hermetic atmosphere (450).

Bruno was an out-and-out magician, an “Egyptian” and Hermetist of the deepest dye, for whom the Copernican heliocentricity heralded the return of magical religion…Through a Hermetic interpretation of Copernicus and Lucretius, Bruno arrives at his astonishing vision of an infinite extension of the divine as reflected in nature (451).

Drained of its animism, with the laws of inertia and gravity substituted for the psychic life of nature as the principle of movement, Bruno’s universe would turn into something like the mechanical universe of Isaac Newton, marvellously moving forever under its own laws placed in it by a God who is not a magician but a mechanic and a mathematician (451). It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics (452).

Yates concludes her book by astutely commenting on the ways in which all this affected Descartes, whose methodological dualism so fatefully separated mechanical or “inert” matter from animist or “spiritual” mind. This powerful legacy remains with us today, despite our alleged modernity and secularity.

I will conclude with two additional observations. First, Yates’ entire theme is proof in favor of Robin Horton’s continuity thesis, by which he argues that the links between traditional religion and modern science are deeper (both historically and structurally) than we frequently suppose. Second, there is irony in the fact that some modern cosmologists, particularly mathematical physicists, occasionally arrive at mystical or “spiritual” positions not so far removed from Bruno’s Hermetic universe. It’s magic, or math, as the case may ultimately be.


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog