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Magic And Science In 16th Century Europe History Essay


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Reading the book, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women4, by the world's greatest living magician, Ricky Jay, and then turning to Steven Shapin's more serious treatise, The Scientific Revolution5, one quickly realizes the similarities between magic and science. Both can prove very entertaining; alter our perceptions of the world around us; tell us that what we see and believe possible might diverge; and put us in awe of their practitioners who demonstrate a mastery of the world and "secret" forces that we envy and wish we had, too.

One can best appreciate the link-up between magic and science and the wisdom captured in the Arthur C. Clarke quote above, by rereading Mark Twain's classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.6 In Twain's book, of course, late 19th century technology, e.g., electricity, firearms, was magic when transported to the England of King Arthur. Once there, it caused initially great good, but, eventually, despite the Yankee's good intentions, became a force for destruction as it clashed with and ultimately lost to the established order, including the resentful wizard, Merlin.

In their very interesting volume, Professors Burton and Grandy observe that, "the propensity to think and dream big is common to both magic and science and may help explain their juxtaposition during the Renaissance. . . . some of the architects of early modern science were involved in magic."7

This essay has a simple thesis. The interests in magic and science in Renaissance Europe sprung together from the need to make sense of and assert some authority over an environment that must have seemed spinning out of control to its inhabitants.

Traditional religion and long, very long established political, economic, and social structures and systems had begun to crumble, often violently, under the pressure of Gutenberg's press -- think of it as the internet of that day -- the flood of rediscovered ancient knowledge that came via the refugees from Constantinople, and the inexorable rise of Protestantism and capitalism. With the amazing voyages of the great Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English explorers, the "discovery" and colonization of the Americas (and its subsequent flood of gold and silver, which introduced huge distortions in the traditional European economies) and the increased contact with China, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa, the sheer complexity and even the physical size of the world had expanded dramatically. European society had experienced what economist Nassim Taleb might call a rapid series of "black swan" events, disconcerting and hard-to-predict developments beyond the realm of normal experience.8

With the change in his environment, Renaissance man, gradually, had begun to declare independence from God, or least from the iron-grip of His earthly representatives, and to assert himself as an autonomous actor in control of his own destiny. All this change and heightened freedom, came at the same time, however, as this new, proudly "independent" found that he still remained highly vulnerable to an impressive array of diseases, including plagues, and to the many other happiness- and life-ending whims that Mother Nature so charmingly exhibits just to remind all that she still rules the nest.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that thinking persons--and even some not used that activity--would find themselves perplexed, wracked, and even tormented by doubts and fundamental questions. What's happening? What does this mean? How do I make sense of it all? How do I predict it? How or even can I control or shape it? Who has The Answer -- or least, an answer?

The Search for Answers

Two events came almost simultaneously in the mid-fifteenth century that produced lasting effect upon European civilization and the subsequent development of interest in magic and science: the 1451-52 appearance of Gutenberg's moveable type press, and the 1453 fall to the Muslim Turks of Constantinople, capital of the ancient but decaying and shrinking Christian Byzantine Empire.

Johannes Gutenberg's invention, which he unsuccessfully tried to keep secret, made possible the relatively cheap and quick reproduction of large numbers of books. With the gradual growth of literacy and increased general prosperity, Gutenberg's process, which replaced both hand written and block printed books, offered a means for the rapid spread of ideas. As Kreis notes, within less than fifty years of the invention, Europe had over 1000 printers in business with Gutenberg's technique; they had produced more than nine million volumes from 30,000 different titles. Books, for the first time, became accessible to persons other than the rich and powerful aristocratic and religious ruling elites.9

The fall of Christian Constantinople proved the final and dramatic last act of the 1100 year Byzantine Empire, direct heir to the old Eastern Roman Empire. The end of the Byzantine era sent political and religious shockwaves through Europe.10 Besides serving as Christendom's last outpost in southeastern Europe, bi-continental Constantinople had long served as a repository for the teachings of the ancient Greeks, teachings only sparingly and imperfectly known in most of the rest of Europe. As many have noted11, when Greek-speaking scholars fled Constantinople, they brought with them large numbers of these prized texts to Europe, sparking a renewed interest in the old wisdoms, including those on magic, such as the teachings of the reputedly prophetic Greek-Egyptian sage, magician, and religious philosopher Hermes Trimegistus, who allegedly had met both Moses and Jesus.12

Although skeptical of the widely used term "scientific revolution" to describe the process that began in Europe at this time, Shapin does acknowledge the development of a "diverse array of cultural practices aimed at understanding, explaining, and controlling the natural world, each with different characteristics and each experiencing different modes of change."13 Without entering into a sterile academic debate over whether what we saw meets the definition of "revolution," something undoubtedly significant happened that changed Europe and the world. The new Gutenberg press, allied with the Byzantine texts, and the fledgling Renaissance already underway in parts of Europe, notably in those parts of Italy under de Medici patronage, provoked an expansion in learning and a demand for more of it. The object of this learning consisted largely of trying to figure out, explain and, if possible, control the world.

Professor Mebane provides a useful insight on how to think about the Renaissance age and the role of magic (emphasis added),

"It is difficult to prove that any period of history was dominated entirely by a quintessential 'sprit of the age' which influenced virtually all important thinkers; the Renaissance, in particular, was a period of diverse activities and intense conflicts, of clashes of ideas and values which lend themselves to dramatic treatment. If we acknowledge, however, that progressive or radical forces were firmly opposed by conservative and reactionary ones during the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and early seventeenth centuries, we may retain, with important qualifications, our conception of the Renaissance as a time when a significant number of artists, humanists, poets, philosophers, and scientists placed a new emphasis upon human freedom and asserted a new acceptance, in both the secular and the religious spheres, of self-assertiveness and ambition. One of the most potent symbols in Renaissance thought and literature of this new conception of human nature was magic."14

Professor John Henry notes that, "magic was (and continues to be) a system of beliefs underpinning a body of technical or craft knoweldge and practice, which sought to capture and control the powers and processes of nature for man's (or perhaps merely the individual adept's) advantage."15 The Renaissance's search for "control of the processes of nature" led persons, for both altruistic and pecuniary reasons, to learn, dabble in, and practice whole-heartedly "processes" such as alchemy and astronomy. These eventually would veer into what we now would recognize as science or least some sort of proto-science. Henry reminds us, however, that not all "magic" played a role in the rise of science; he notes, in particular demonic or black magic did not.16 He goes on to underline, however, that the belief in magic formed part of the life of the educated man of the era,

"Current opinion about the mystical and anti-rational nature of magic should not blind us to the fact that many leading intellectuals in the past regarded it as a perfectly rational and legitimate source of truth about the nature of the world. Indeed, the historical evidence suggest that our present, derogatory view of magic has resulted from the fact that the most naturalistic and rational aspects of the magical belief system were absorbed into the new philosophy of the seventeenth century and only those parts of the system which were rejected continued to be called magic."17

No less than one of the greatest scientists of all time, Sir Isaac Newton, proved an avid alchemist, but, fearing public shame, practiced it in "high silence."18 Alchemy, although legal by Newton's time, had acquired a bad reputation as the province of crooks and mountebanks, many of whom used their knowledge of metals to go into the counterfeiting business. Newton biographer Michael White notes,

"What stuck in the craw of [his] early biographers was a body of material found in Newton's vast library . . . that made it very clear that the most respected scientist in history, the model for the scientific method,, has spent more of his life intensely involved with alchemy than he had delving into the clear blue waters of pure science. . . . . he had expended a vast amount of time studying the chronology of the Bible, examining prophecy, investigating natural magic . . .." 19

Newton, as did other alchemists, became involved in what we, today, might call chemical technology. These alchemists covered the field from making paint pigment, all manner of medicines, artificial precious stones, and, most famously, the Holy Grail of alchemy, seeking to make the "philosopher's stone." As historian Bill Newman describes it, that stone, which Newton sought to make for some 30 years, "was thought to be an agent of universal transmutation . . . and viewed as a curative agent that could 'cure' metals of their impurities and cure human beings of their illnesses . . . a sort of universal panacea."20

Magic, of course, had and has its many flaws as an instrument for expanding the frontiers of human knowledge. The main one--some might argue a flaw it shares with religion--is that unlike what we now regard science, magic or a philosophy of the occult depends on special revelations and secrets. Unlike science, it does not provide a means of testing by replication the results; we cannot establish a causal link between the action of the magician and the result of his action. Did a rain dance cause it to rain? Did a particular ceremony cure an illness or stave off a volcanic eruption? Can an astrologer or a palm reader accurately and with precision predict a specific event? Can the magician repeat that performance on call, and show us why it works? Not likely.

Throughout his book, Mebane stresses not just the allure of magic for both the educated and uneducated, but that the major aim of serious magicians -- we might throw Newton into that lot -- consisted of seeking the redemption of mankind and of the world, both natural and social.21 In accord with this view, we must not see the magician as an aberration, a throwback, or some other anomaly in the so-called "Age of Reason." In the pre-science age, magicians, at least serious ones such Newton and Boyle, used magic as another instrument of navigation as they sought The Answer, or at least some answers, to the reasonable questions of the Age of Reason. That many (most?) set off on the wrong path, or got otherwise lost on their journey, should not make them objects of our ridicule, anymore tan should a brave explorer or mountain climber who takes a wrong turn and falls into a crevasse or becomes lunch for a hungry bear.

That said, we end this little exposition with a marvelous quote from the famous German-born magician, theologian, soldier, adventurer, and philosopher of the occult of the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth. His book remains available to this day,

"Magic is a faculty of wonderful virtue, full of most high mysteries, containing the most profound contemplation of most secret things, together with the nature, power, quality, substance and virtues thereof, as also the knowledge of whole Nature, and it doth instruct us concerning the differing and agreement of things amongst themselves, whence it produceth its wonderful effects, by uniting the virtues of things through the application of them one to the other."22

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