When did what end?

One of the advantages of this blog is that many of those who comment here are more intelligent, better read, better informed and better educated than the blog author, this means that in their comments they question, provoke and suggest all of which provides new food for thought and saves me the trouble of thinking of something new to blog about. One such questioning was provided by the good Dr. Becky in a comment on my second stab at explaining the demise of astrology in academia. She asked quite simply and naively:

Or another question. Why did alchemy, or biblical prophecy, remain important areas for Boyle, Newton etc, but not astrology?

Now of course the answer to this innocent question is anything but simple and what follows should not be regarded in anyway as a definitive or authoritative but rather more as some speculations on my part based on my limited knowledge of the topic.

The first thing that must be cleared up is that although we might put astrology, alchemy and biblical prophecy into one pot as varying form of superstitious woo, when considering the Early Modern Period we have to differentiate between the occult sciences, i.e. astrology, alchemy and natural magic, on the one hand and biblical prophecy on the other. The three occult sciences that I have listed, and here the term occult science means hidden or secret knowledge, became part of the general academic debate at the beginning of the 15th century largely through the influence of the hermetic corpus as translated by Ficino, which coincided with the rise of astro-medicine in Europe. All three disciplines were dependent on the Renaissance philosophy of celestial influence and micro-cosmos, macro-cosmos as sketched here. Astrology was the science of interpreting celestial influence whereas natural magic and alchemy were both supposed ways of influencing or manipulating it.

Biblical prophecy, however, is a core element of original Christian belief. In its origins Christianity was a messianic eschatological religion. The early Christian community had very little in the way of ritual, scriptures or church festivals because they believed in the imminent return of the Messiah or Christ and the Final Judgement. Why bother establishing a church when the rapture is just around the corner? As it became increasingly obvious that the second coming was taking its time the early Christians began to create a church with structures culminating in the establishment of the Church of Rome and the Bible as we know it in the 4th century. Starting here members of the Church began searching the Holy Scripture for indications of when the second coming would actually take place, biblical prophecy.

Returning to the occult trilogy, each of the three disciplines displayed a different development trajectory in the 15th and 16th centuries. Natural magic had the most difficult problem in becoming accepted as although its proponents claimed that it was the product of manipulating celestial influence they never really managed to escape the suspicion that it was actually a form of demonic magic and thus it was the first of the three occult sciences to be rejected not because it was thought not to function but because it was tainted by its association with demonic magic. Never as accepted as astrology or alchemy, natural magic had been effectively rejected by the beginning of the 17th century, although we still find Kenelm Digby suggesting the use of sympathetic magic to solve the longitude problem in the middle of the 17th century.

I have already discussed the rise and fall of astrology in two previous posts so I will now turn to alchemy. Like astrology, alchemy has a long and complex history and like astrology it played an important role in the geneses of a genuine science. Whereas the history of astrology is deeply intertwined with that of astronomy the history of alchemy is deeply intertwined with that of chemistry, many of the methods, equipment and discoveries of early chemistry find their origins in alchemy. Whereas astronomy found its modern form as a science at the beginning of the 17th century in the work of Kepler, Galileo and others and began to separate itself from its twin, astrology from here on in, chemistry, in the modern sense, still laid some way in the future. Leading 17th century investigators who made major contributions to development of chemistry such as Libavious or van Helmont are still firmly embedded in the alchemical tradition. Boyle’s The Sceptical Chymist discusses the pros and cons of alchemical investigators such as Paracelsus and van Helmont. At the end of the 17th century alchemy is still very much alive and the separation from its twin chemistry still hadn’t really taken place. Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda had a series of posts on exactly this topic last year.

Returning to biblical prophecy the search for the date of the second coming reached at high point at the first millennium and the belief that one thousand years would be a good round number for a mathematical god. When the Messiah failed to materialise a new game came to the fore and the theory that the world would exist for six thousand years after the creation, the six days of creation with one day equal to one thousand years, and we see the rise of Bible chronology in order to exactly determine the date of creation and a permanent millennialism. This is the form of biblical prophecy that Newton and Boyle were indulging in at the end of the 17th century because if creation really did take place four thousand years plus BCE then they weren’t so far away from the second coming. It’s not something that I’ve followed but I assume that millennialism finally went into decline, assuming that your not a Jehovah’s Witness or similar, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries with the discovery of both historical and deep time. Of course Bible chronology played a significant role in the discovery of the true dimension of historical time and with it the realisation that the Bible could not be literally true.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

13 responses to “When did what end?

  1. Pingback: When did what end? | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Rebekah Higgitt

    Thanks Thony! Though my question wasn’t perhaps completely naive. I wasn’t putting alchemy and prophecy into one category, but suggesting them as two separate areas that might challenge the general change in metaphysics that you outlined. My thought was that although both included elements of individual investigation, they also involve a lot of reliance on authority – against the general idea that empiricism is overthrowing Aristotle, nullius in verba, etc. In alchemy, for example, while there was plenty of practical experimenting there was also the ritual, copying of poetry, secrecy and the rest of it. In theology I was thinking more of Newton’s interpretations of the prophecies of St John and Daniel than biblical chronology.

    Of course, different areas of investigation develop at different rates, but if you put the rejection of astrology down to a change in metaphysical framework it is interesting that this should have this variable impact.

    I think the idea of solving longitude with the powder of sympathy and wounded dog – if that’s the one you mean – was probably a joke, delivered in an anonymous pamphlet (though Digby, and later Boyle, certainly investigated the powder).

    • I think the central point is that Newton’s belief in the Bible has a completely different metaphysical basis than the Renaissance belief in the occult sciences although his investigations of alchemy were certainly based on a belief in the truth of the hermetic corpus long after it had been shown to be a forgery. However his belief in the hermetic corpus was not dependent on the Renaissance macro-cosmos micro-cosmos philosophy. All of this would tend to suggest that Newton’s mental processes were very complex.

      My suggestion that your question was naive was more the thought that I could ever provide anything approaching an adequate answer in a blog post.

      • P.S. Newton’s interpretations of the prophecies were intimately connected to his chronology.

      • Rebekah Higgitt

        Not really expecting a reply at all! Just thinking out loud😉

        Interestingly, while there was previously a tendency, with Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and others, to try to make sense of Newton’s combined interests, and to see how they influenced each other, the recent(ish) move has been to think of them as quite distinct, each with their own methodology.

      • I think Newton’s interests were connected by a search for THE TRUTH as he conceived it. Our problem is in understanding his conception of the truth😉

  3. Thanks for this–the good question and the good response. It is far, far too common to throw everything that we (allegedly) “[can] no longer believe” into the same bag, and then puzzle over either whatever made them once plausible or caused them to fall from plausibility– as though it must have been one thing. By this same rationale, we might think that phlogiston, Ptolemaic epicycles, and spontaneous generation of maggots were all part of one over-arching worldview which we, happily, have now shed. Are there any clean breaks in history? What would that even mean?

  4. Jeb

    Boyles interest in prophecy was not limited to millennialism.

    “The fulfilling of prophesies and the working of miracles, demonstrate the being of God.”

    Prophecy “have a peculiar advantage above most other miracles, in the force of their duration; since the manifest proofs of the prediction continue still, and are visable as the extent of the Christian religion.”

    Peter Harrison makes some interesting comments on prophecy, scientific prediction and astronomy in a paper on Humes argument against miracles.


  5. It’s not quite true that alchemy disappeared (was transmuted?) into chemistry without residue. Alchemists are still at work in Santa Fe, and the Jungian interpretation of its symbolism remains very popular among what might be called the laity of the occult. In its heyday, however, alchemy was as much an activity of a group of artisans as a high-cultural intellectual pursuit; and the nuts and bolts or rather retorts and beakers aspects of the tradition did flow into chemistry and chemical technology.

    I think you have to look at the sociology of alchemy to understand its similarities and differences with astrology and prophesy. The mystifying language the astrologers used makes it easy to overestimate the philosophical dimensions of the traditions and underestimate the extent that it was a technology. Practical men who made their livings compounding drugs and pigments or making artificial jewels used elusive language to describe their discoveries to protect trade secrets in an era before effective patents. Adepts certainly did find spiritual meanings in laboratory operations, especially if they were seeking to increase their respectability by interpreting their activities in terms of high prestige systems of thought; but they were also actually working with substances. Symbolism works from high to low as well as low to high. Anyhow, just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes butter of antimony is just butter of antimony.

    New metaphysical contexts and theoretical explanations appeared in the transformation of alchemy into chemistry, but the change involved a reworking of the relationship of artisan and high culture traditions. The sociology of knowledge dimension of the war of astronomy and astrology worked out differently, perhaps because the knowledge, skill, and glassware of the grubby alchemists were too valuable to ignore.

  6. sbej

    “Symbolism works from high to low as well as low to high” and the “relationship of artisan and high culture traditions.”

    The two key points that led to my own outside interest in the history of science and philosophy and a realization that they were vital to improve understanding of the areas of history and ethnology I have an interest in.

  7. Pingback: Why No Astrology? : Mormon Metaphysics

  8. You need to do some reading in early church history if you intend to pronounce on it!

    • What makes you think that I haven’t? If you disagree with something that I have said then say what and why. Unlike the Pope I’m not infallible and we all learn through criticism. However be warned I’m more than capable of fighting my corner if I believe that I’m right.

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