In The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (2020) Michael Hunter wrote that change came about gradually, ‘through a kind of cultural osmosis’, dependent as much on long-available ideas of classical antiquity as on any apparent breakthroughs in knowledge. And ads that ‘the Enlightenment did not reject magic for good reasons but for bad ones’.
In fact, a growing amount of historical scholarship today argues that magical beliefs and practices had an important influence on the development of natural philosophy and that around the beginning of the eighteenth century the educated classes chose to retain some elements of magical systems while rejecting others.
As Michael Hunter details magical and occult philosophies had long been central to how people studied the natural world. Consider the hermetic and cabalistic influences on John Dee (whereby the Rosicrucian Chymical Wedding featured a prominent image of Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad), Paracelsus’s quest for nature’s hidden secrets, or Isaac Newton’s alchemical experiments. At the same time, the mechanical systems of Gassendi and Descartes, which were dependent on the unseen motion of invisible pieces of matter, presented people in the seventeenth century with occult or hidden explanations for natural phenomena that functioned much like earlier systems that had depended on invisible sympathies or magical forces.
Most Europeans believed that the natural world represented an important means of understanding God as Creator; some even referred to the physical universe as the Book of Nature, a metaphorical text that contained crucial knowledge about the divine. Before the eighteenth century, most people would have found it unthinkable to separate God Some of these traditions, like hermeticism, were first encountered by Renaissance scholars trying to recover traces of the “golden age” of ancient Greece and Rome. Others, like the Judaic tradition of the Kabbalah, had already existed in Europe for hundreds of years but received closer attention from Christian writers and philosophers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as they searched for new and more powerful ways of understanding their universe. This means that “scientific” inquiry often had religious implications.
Physicians and other medical practitioners commonly resorted to astrology in order to diagnose and treat their patients, and the fundamental idea of magic, the belief that the world contains hidden forces and powers that can be harnessed to accomplish specific tasks, was seen as a powerful tool in the arsenal of some medical practitioners. One such practitioner was the infamous medical reformer Paracelsus born Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493–1541) who, in the early decades of the sixteenth century, combined a respect for nature’s secrets with a deep reverence for God in his efforts to create an entirely new way of healing.
And while it seems clear that attitudes toward magic did change in the seventeenth century and that, for much of the eighteenth century, we find numerous people claiming that a belief in magic was irrational, superstitious, and ignorant, there is evidence that magical beliefs were not swept aside by scientific rigor and a commitment to rationality, as the disenchantment theory would suggest.
The Enlightenment was not a blank slate on which Europeans sketched a new world. It was more like a piece of old parchment imperfectly scraped clean, still bearing traces of past ideas around which modernity took shape.
The alleged secrets of the universe
To understand the above we best go back around 1460, when the philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) received a message from his patron, Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464), the most powerful man in the Italian city-state of Florence. Up to this point, Ficino had been hard at work translating the works of the ancient philosopher Plato (c. 424–c. 348 BCE) from their original Greek into Latin, but his patron had other ideas. He wanted Ficino to begin translating a different Greek manuscript, one that Cosimo had only recently acquired. Obligingly, Ficino set Plato aside and turned his attention to this new work. He soon realized that he had stumbled across something very important.
The works that Ficino translated became known as the Corpus Hermeticum, and they contained the recorded wisdom of a mysterious figure known as Hermes Trismegistus or Hermes “the Thrice-Powerful,” a contemporary of Moses and a sage of unparalleled learning who had lived thousands of years earlier in ancient Egypt. His writings promised to reveal the secrets of the universe to those willing to learn, and this soon included Ficino, who became a passionate advocate for the ideas of Hermes and was. instrumental in disseminating them throughout Renaissance society. Ficino, along with many others, believed that the Hermetic writings contained traces of ancient, uncorrupted wisdom that might restore human understanding to the heights achieved by those, long ago, who had known God and His creation in ways since lost to modern people.
The tradition disseminated by Ficino is known as hermeticism, and it incorporated both philosophical lessons on the nature of the divine as well as hands-on instructions for magical work. Both hermeticism and the other tradition we explore in this chapter, cabalism, are examples of learned magic – that is, magic studied and practiced by the educated elite. This is very different from the magic worked by healers, midwives, and others in small communities and rural areas across Europe, practices usually labeled by historians as “folk magic.” Learned magic had its roots in the distant past, and those who embraced it did so with the hope that they would uncover secrets and mysteries that would transform European society forever. This idea was so powerful and compelling that it fundamentally altered intellectual life in Europe and continues to inspire people today.
This also concerned the Rosicrucian manifestos (referred to widely by among others popular philosopher/occultists like Rudolf Steiner founder of today's Waldorf schools) presented the recovery of ancient esoteric wisdom as the key to humanity’s spiritual “reformation,” and together they demonstrate how traditions such as hermeticism and cabalism evolved during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, long after Ficino’s original translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. There is little evidence that the Rosicrucians actually existed, however; their manifestos may have been part of a grand hoax, or perhaps the idealistic imaginings of a single person. Even if this shadowy society did not exist, however, the philosophy laid out in the Chymical Wedding and other works described a quest for esoteric and occult knowledge inspired directly by the hermetic and cabalistic traditions.
Hermes Trismegistus as the founder of “Natural Magic” depicted in a floor mosaic in the Siena cathedral:
From a magical worldview to Science
The shift in how early modern people conceptualized and used occult causes leads us to the work of the historian John Henry, who in contrast to Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) has suggested that, rather than 'disenchantment', we should understand the fate of magic as one of fragmentation in which philosophers retained some elements of magic and rejected others.1
Thus early modern chemistry included a wide range of different practices and methodologies, including chrysopoeia, the pursuit of metallic transmutation. When Herman Boerhaave (1668 –1738) called for a reformation of chemistry in 1718 he was concerned about the respectability of the discipline, which he saw as endangered by the fraud and trickery of quack alchemists. He knew very well, however, that chrysopoeia was only a small part of the larger practice of chemistry, even in the heyday of alchemy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and he also understood that the discipline of chemistry had already integrated fundamental alchemical ideas and practices into its foundations. The study and transformation of matter, which had been central to alchemical work for hundreds of years, also defined the discipline of chemistry as it emerged in the eighteenth century. Boerhaave’s deliberate attempts to draw a line between “respectable” chemical work and the fraudulent practices of transmutational alchemists were therefore not a wholescale rejection of alchemy. Instead, it was a careful repudiation of particular alchemical practices. He, and others like him, tried to establish chemistry as a respectable discipline of academic study by breaking it apart into pieces. They separated and then pruned away its most troublesome elements, leaving behind a set of theories and practices with a deep (but unspoken) debt to alchemy.
Magical beliefs and occult systems were already part of the natural philosophies that proliferated in the Enlightenment. And when the educated classes of the eighteenth century for example adopted Newtonian science with enthusiasm, they were unaware or uncaring that its foundations were rooted firmly in religious and alchemical traditions.2
Science, as we understand the word now, is a modern invention. Its careful methodology, its well-defined disciplines, its culture of white coats and laboratories full of sophisticated technology go back perhaps 150 years; in fact, the word “scientist” was coined only in the late nineteenth century by William Whewell. Before that, investigators of nature called themselves "natural philosophers".
It is challenging to talk about the Enlightenment as if it was a singular phenomenon because it looked very different in different places. Some of the most important articulations of Enlightenment ideals originated in France, but other countries experienced the Enlightenment in different ways. Whereas many French thinkers attacked the dogmatic traditions of the Catholic Church and its influence on French society, people living in the German states were generally more interested in reforming the practice and structure of government, and some historians remain uncertain whether the Enlightenment actually took hold in Britain at all. There are enough common elements across different nations, however, to suggest that we can identify some universal beliefs and ideals that defined “the Enlightenment” for most people.
It is widely accepted that this period in European history defined much of what we in the West now understand as “modernity.” In other words, the Enlightenment effectively created the idea of the modern West as most of us experience it today. For example, the separation of church and state enshrined in most modern democracies was articulated most forcefully by Enlightenment thinkers, along with ideas about religious tolerance and the importance of individual liberty. Most of these changes were rooted in conscious and deliberate reactions against the status quo that had prevailed in Europe for centuries.
As we generally understand it today, to be enlightened is to be modern and open-minded. This is no accident; the individuals at the forefront of the Enlightenment modeled in their own lives a progressive ideal that equated rationality and tolerance with modernity. Of course, this ideal had limits. Notions of tolerance and liberty generally were applied only to white men and existed in clear opposition to the practice of slavery which still existed in some European colonies during the eighteenth century. Similarly, the famous cry of “Fraternity!” or brotherhood that defined the spirit of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century excluded women and the poor. If the Enlightenment gave us modernity, it also left us with some of the most enduring social problems of the modern era, including racism, sexism, and a persistent lack of respect for the working classes.
Though many people living in the Enlightenment applied its ideals imperfectly, however, those same ideals still represent a profound change in how Europeans understood their own society as well as the wider universe. This was in part a culmination of some of the trends described in previous chapters: for example, the slow but steady rejection of ancient authority and its replacement by innovative methods of inquiry and experimentation. At the same time, the strong connections between natural philosophy, religion, and magic that had persisted for hundreds of years became deeply and irrevocably strained in the eighteenth century. Some of the most outspoken Enlightenment thinkers dismissed both organized religion and magical beliefs as ignorant superstition, even as they quietly integrated elements of earlier magical philosophies and practices into the new and powerful natural philosophy that came to dominate the eighteenth century.
The emphasis on reason in the Enlightenment tended to privilege particular ways of thinking about the world and, in turn, created new institutions and priorities for European society. If someone wanted to argue that the application of reason was crucial to the development of a new and enlightened nation-state, then public education would need to change in order to cultivate a properly rational mindset in that nation’s citizens. Disciplines that had already embraced the exercise of reason, such as the physical and mathematical sciences, could now act as important exemplars for other disciplines, meaning that educated people began to emphasize quantitative methods and approaches in fields like biology, chemistry, and anthropology. At the same time, anything that might endanger the exercise of reason, particularly the irrational belief in religious dogma or the divine basis for the monarchy, needed to be minimized or suppressed. To varying degrees, all of these changes happened in different places during the Enlightenment.
While self-consciously removed obvious traces of religion and magic from the wider study of nature, they denigrated ideas that they found objectionable or incompatible with their “age of reason,” calling them ignorant or superstitious. Nevertheless, the world inhabited by these enlightened thinkers was as filled with enchantment as it had been for people living in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. What people had once called “magic,” the Enlightenment called “science.” The triumphal narrative of the Enlightenment, written first by “the enlightened” themselves and then taken up by those who came after them, depicted a glorious new world ruled by reason and liberty, free from the tyranny of ignorance, superstition, and mindless tradition. This rhetoric, all but overflowing with a shining kind of idealism, is compelling even now, it seems familiar to many of us today, perhaps because we still find traces of these ideals in many of the institutions of the modern West. Ultimately, though, the Enlightenment was more complicated and contradictory than this narrative suggests. Its proponents and supporters tried to make a new world, and in some ways, they succeeded. In other ways, however, they did not. Not unlike the natural philosophers who tried to overthrow Aristotle in the seventeenth century but whose worldviews were shaped irrevocably by the very thing they wanted to dismantle, the great thinkers and reformers of the Enlightenment never quite escaped the society they wanted to transform. True liberty and freedom were still reserved for the elite few, while the pursuit of “reason” justified ideas that were decidedly irrational.
And whatever the successes and failures of the great project that was the Enlightenment, it is worth looking back over the preceding centuries to remind ourselves how radically the world changed for European people. Whereby the influence of classical antiquity was where the European gaze was fixed on the distant past, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Europe was in the midst of another cultural movement defined instead by a gaze directed to the horizon ahead. Nevertheless, the ancient world has never lost its hold on the Western imagination, at least not entirely. From the eighteenth century, there have been periodic revivals of classical themes in architecture, art, philosophy, and literature, and to this day millions of people admire pieces of classical statuary in museums and galleries or visit sites like the Acropolis of Athens and the Roman Colosseum.
Where the influence of antiquity has waned is in our collective understanding of the natural world. The preeminence of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen lasted for almost 2,000 years, there increasingly where individuals who sought to understand the cosmos in ways that were different from the philosophies of antiquity. In histories of the “Scientific Revolution,” men like Copernicus, Paracelsus, Descartes, and Francis Bacon are hailed as reformers and innovators who carved modernity from the solid, weighty philosophies of the past in the same way that the artist Michelangelo (1475–1564) described freeing a sculpture hidden within a block of marble with chisel and mallet. These attempts to abandon the teachings of the ancients were often imperfect or limited, but taken together they represent a crucial shift in the European mindset that paved the way for new ways of studying and understanding the world.
An informed and educated citizenry
The Enlightenment vision of an informed and educated citizenry drove a series of developments in the eighteenth century that opened up the methods and discoveries of science to larger and larger audiences. A member of the middle classes living in 1750 would have been exposed to mainstream scientific ideas in a way that hardly existed a century earlier. Information was now conveyed in the vernacular rather than in Latin, and natural philosophers recognized an opportunity both to educate the public and to secure sources of financial support and social prestige by staging demonstrations and exhibitions open to everyone, including women and children. More than at any previous point in European history, the average person living in the eighteenth century had opportunities to see and understand the new world described by mathematicians, taxonomists, and geologists.
Some classical philosophies, like Aristotelianism, had virtually no room whatsoever for a deity, while others, like Epicureanism, had as their goal the diminution or rejection of divine causation in the universe. With the widespread acceptance of Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era, however, large numbers of people started to consider the role of an omnipotent, omniscient God in the natural world. Some ancient philosophies of nature, like that of Plato and his Neoplatonist followers, lent themselves relatively easily to the Christian conception of a singular and all-powerful deity, but European philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages struggled to reconcile the teachings of pagans such as Aristotle with the foundations of Christian belief and doctrine. The intellectual flourishing of the Renaissance, sparked by the recovery of ideas and texts new to Western Europe, included a deep fascination with the prisca sapientia, the ancient wisdom of Creation. Philosophers as disparate as Marsilio Ficino, John Dee, Francesco Patrizi, and Robert Fludd sought to bypass centuries of degeneration and touch the mind of God by reading the Book of Nature in new and powerful ways, guided by those with an older and more perfect understanding.
The chaos of the Reformation and the splintering of Christendom made that task more difficult as there was now widespread and acrimonious disagreement about the very nature of faith. Thus, from the sixteenth century onward we see a shift in how people understood the relationship between God and His creation. Philosophers and naturalists remained as pious as before; consider Johannes Kepler “thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” or Paracelsus wandering the world in search of the divine secrets hidden in nature. Yet, the religious anxieties that led Dee to converse with angels, that landed Galileo in front of the Inquisition, and that drove both Descartes and Gassendi to demonstrate the presence of God in their mechanical philosophies all suggest that the relationship between God and nature, once assured, was now the subject of question and doubt. When Newton suggested that comets were sent periodically by God to correct imbalances in the vast cosmic machine, yet another attempt to demonstrate God’s presence, the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) accused Newton of making God seem like an inferior mechanic forced to tinker with an imperfect universe. In Leibniz’s outrage, we catch a glimpse of profound anxiety that existed around the turn of the eighteenth century, one motivated by depictions of God as mere caretaker, winding up the cosmic watch and then walking away.
Newton, however, was committed absolutely to the idea that the Creator remained present in His creation, proposing at one point that universal gravitation was the invisible hand of God at work in the cosmos. There is a deep irony, then, in the fact that many philosophers in the eighteenth century interpreted the Newtonian universe as one ruled not by God, but by mathematics and reason. The rise of deism and its distant, unknowable God went hand-in-hand with the proliferation of Newtonian science, thanks in part to efforts by leading Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot to separate organized religion from secular institutions. In response, some theologians and philosophers proposed new evidence for the presence of God. For example, the English clergyman William Paley (1743–1805) published his Natural Theology: or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity in 1802 and argued that the presence of design in nature was clear evidence for the existence of God. Paley is known today for his “watchmaker analogy,” which claims that the intricate complexity found in many living things must be the result of deliberate design rather than chance or accident, and which remains a central idea held by present-day proponents of creationism and “intelligent design.”
For all of these developments, however, the typical European person in the eighteenth century had a religious outlook that was largely unchanged from that held by previous generations. Most Christians went to church each week, followed the teachings of the Bible, and shared an understanding of God that would not have been out of place in the seventeenth century. Popular religious movements such as Pietism or the revivalist fervor of the Great Awakenings were grassroots affairs, inspired not by sophisticated theologies but by broad social trends and attitudes. In some cases, however, changes to religious attitudes and practices had their roots in the ideas of the educated elite, as in the increasing emphasis on religious tolerance that was encouraged and mandated by Enlightened monarchs and governments.
For most people, then, the unseen hand of God remained present in the universe. They were untroubled by the problem of occult or hidden causes that had preoccupied generations of philosophers and theologians. Even in antiquity, Aristotle and Plato had struggled to define not just the role of hidden causes in the universe but also the question of how to study phenomena that could be known only by their effects. The universe bequeathed to the eighteenth century by Isaac Newton solved this problem not by banishing or revealing occult causes, however; on the contrary, he made occult causation central to his philosophy. When Leibniz criticized Newton’s explanation for universal gravitation as lacking a clear description of its causes, the latter agreed that his work described “general Laws of Nature” whose “Causes be not yet discovered.” In fact, Newton seemed unconcerned that the causes for gravitation were hidden. His natural philosophy described the effects of gravity on the matter, what he called “manifest Qualities”, while conceding that “their Causes…are occult.”3 Thus, Newton resolved the problem of occult or hidden causes by suggesting that it was not a problem at all. Someone could use Newtonian methods to measure and understand gravity’s behavior without needing to know anything at all about what caused it.
That Newton was able to sideline or ignore the problem of occult causation owes a significant debt to the mechanical philosophies that had appeared some decades earlier. The tiny atoms of Gassendi or the invisible corpuscles of Descartes were no less occult than the sympathies and correspondences of the hermeticists or the hidden properties of the Aristotelians; none of these things were visible to ordinary perception. Yet, there had been relatively little concern from contemporaries that these mechanical causes for natural phenomena were hidden from sight – even if Cartesian corpuscles remained invisible, someone still could infer their motions and behaviors by reference to natural laws and geometrical principles. The widespread acceptance of mechanical explanations for natural phenomena meant that, by the latter decades of the seventeenth century, mainstream philosophies of nature had already embraced occult causes. It was hardly more problematic for Newton to describe the action of an invisible force such as gravity on similarly invisible pieces of matter.
Thus, the Newtonian universe was one in which occult causation was the rule and not the exception.2 By 1750, most of the European middle classes understood the universe to be a vast expanse in which the Earth was merely one planet among many. What a difference from the small contained cosmos known to the educated elite of the Middle Ages, which ended just beyond Saturn’s orbit at the sphere of the fixed stars. In such a realm, where humanity was both the literal and figurative center of everything, the interconnectedness of the premodern world made a deep and intuitive sense to many people. The relationship between microcosm and macrocosm, the practice of sympathetic magic, the influence of the heavens on human health, personalities, and events, all sprang from an understanding of the universe in which everything had its proper and natural place within a complex web of correspondences and associations. By and large, however, Enlightenment philosophers rejected the mystical and spiritual elements of the Renaissance worldview in which humanity, Nature, and God all existed as part of an interconnected whole. What persisted into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a desire to understand humanity’s place in the wider universe. Attempts by the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) to understand all life in the context of evolutionary change, by Carl Linnaeus to integrate humans into biological taxonomies, and by Georges Cuvier to reconcile human history with geological and paleontological discoveries all suggest that this theme of interconnectedness was transmuted rather than dismantled. Humanity had been displaced from the center of the physical universe by the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo, but metaphorically we humans remained the polestar around which all of Nature revolved.
1.“The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic,” in History of Science 46 (2008): 1–48.
2. Sir David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (Edinburgh, 1855), vol. 2, pp. 374–5.
3. Isaac Newton, Opticks, Based on the Fourth Edition London, 1730 (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), Book III, Part I, Query 31, p. 401.