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.