Do you believe in magic?

I’m in a bit of a quandary about this post for two different reasons. Firstly I didn’t really want to write yet another negative post at the moment and was considering various positive options when somebody drew my attention to the article that is going to be the subject of this one. However having once read through it I just couldn’t let it go. On the other hand having always been a powerful advocate of seriously investigating the so-called occult science activities of the scholars in the Early Modern period I find it slightly bizarre to now be giving the Hist-Sci Hulk treatment to an article that appears to do just that. The article in question is posted on the Vox website and is entitled, These 5 men were scientific geniuses. They also thought magic is real.

Before dealing with the ‘5 men’ there are a couple of general points of criticism that have to be levelled at this article. To begin with the whole thing is written in a supercilious tone of superiority. Despite the authors disclaimer, “We have the benefit of hindsight today, which gives us an unfair advantage over these geniuses” he creates the impression the whole time of ‘I’m just a simple Joe’ but I’m way more enlightened than these ‘geniuses’. Not a good way to approach any historical topic. The other major failure that weaves its way through the whole article is the equating of astrology, alchemy and magic, as one and the same thing. This is of course historically a serious mistake and disqualifies the entire article from the start. The grounds for justification, academic status and the levels of acceptance of the three disciplines differ from each other, as well as over time and place. Each one of them has to be dealt with separately within the given context and they cannot and should not be lumped together. This of course relates to the authors supercilious tone of superiority and is typical of the woolly thinking of all too many gnu atheists and adherents of scientism. Anything that doesn’t conform with their, often badly articulated, concept of science is dismissed as ‘magical thinking’ and as worthless. Let us now turn to the ‘5 men’.

First up we have Tuscany’s favourite son, Galileo Galilei who apparently believed “astrology changed everything”:

Today, Galileo (1564-1642) is held up as a paragon of rationality. He advocated heliocentrism — the idea that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system — fought an anti-heliocentric church at great risk, and greatly advanced astronomy throughout Europe.

He also was something like a fortune teller.

Galileo didn’t just believe in astrology: he practiced it, conducted it for wealthy clients, and taught it to medical school students. If students at the University of Padua had taken MCATs, Galileo would have included a question about whether a Leo should date a Gemini.

Galileo wasn’t alone in keeping up on his signs. His contemporary, Johannes Kepler conducted his own astrological studies, though more reluctantly (he called people who believed in astrology “fatheads”).

Ignoring the opening paragraph and cutting to the chase a Renaissance astrologer, particularly an academic one, would object intensely to being referred to as ‘a fortune teller’. In the Renaissance astrology was generally accepted as a reputable academic disciple, a science i.e. a system of knowledge, whereas most other forms of divination i.e. fortune telling were frowned on as charlatanry. Here we have historical context, blithely ignored by our author, poking its nose in. Medical astrology, or iatro-mathematics, was a mainstream academic discipline taught at all Renaissance universities in the medical faculty, usually by the professor of mathematics. So if Galileo did indeed teach iatro-mathematics he would have been merely fulfilling the terms of his contract. I say if because it is to be assumed that Galileo did indeed teach such courses, however the proof that he did so doesn’t exists. The comment about ‘whether a Leo should date a Gemini’ is just plain stupid, as iatro-mathematics has nothing to do with judicial astrology, that is the everyday horoscope astrology, a completely different branch of the discipline.

Of course Galileo, who really did accept the truth of astrology, did practice judicial astrology famously casting and interpreting his own horoscope and those of his daughters. He also cast and interpreted the horoscopes not of ‘rich clients’ but wealthy patrons; there is a substantial difference. Rich clients would imply that Galileo’s services as an astrologer were for hire like any other street vendor, this was not the case. Rich patrons sought out Galileo’s company to share in his intellectual talents. Here his abilities to cast and interpret horoscopes became instruments of credit. Galileo entertained his patrons by supplying witty and stimulating after dinner discourses or debates or by providing the required horoscope. In exchange Galileo received favours from his patrons, a case of good wine, help with the cost of publishing his books or introductions to important and influential people such as the Pope.

On the good Johannes Kepler our author walks right into one of the most persistent myths of all in the history of science based on a classic case of quote mining, the claim that he was reluctant about astrology. Kepler was much more concerned about astrology, which he definitely believed in, than Galileo and wrote several books about it. However he totally rejected conventional horoscope astrology believing that the stars signs were artificial constructs with no significance whatsoever. He developed his own system based on planetary alignments, astrological aspects, and directio (directions, which I’m not going to explain!). Not unsurprisingly he didn’t find any takers for his reformed astrology. However his vitriolic diatribes against the conventional horoscope astrology and its practitioners, when quote mined, leads many people to the mistaken belief that he was in some way anti-astrology.

Our author next reveals, oh my god, that Newton was an alchemist. This is probably the most often ‘revealed secret’ about Grantham’s most famous son. This is titled “Isaac Newton thought alchemy was the future”, as we will see Newton was actually much more interested in alchemy’s past.

John Maynard Keynes called Isaac Newton (1642-1726) “the last of the magicians” with good reason. Newton spent half his life obsessed with alchemy, the transformative magic most frequently associated with turning different metals into gold. To make things even more complicated, in 1696, Newton became Warden of the Mint, and he became master of the Mint in 1700. The Royal Mint, of course, makes the coins for the entire United Kingdom. To be clear: an alchemist was the person in charge of making all the money.

Newton wasn’t the only respected mind who had visions of diving into gold coins. Robert Boyle is considered the father of chemistry, but he dabbled in alchemy as well. In fact, he was so committed to the alchemical cause that he fought to make alchemy legal, since Henry IV had banned it (because alchemy wasn’t good for the monetary supply). Needless to say, the repeal wasn’t necessary.

The philosopher’s stone Newton chased after wasn’t only able to “cure” metals that weren’t gold. It also had medical powers that fascinated Newton and his peers. Unfortunately, today you can only find the philosopher’s stone in the British subtitle of the first Harry Potter book.

Alchemy is not magic and any medieval or renaissance alchemist would have been deeply insulted if anybody had accused him of practicing magic. Alchemy as practiced by Newton or Boyle considered itself to be a well-founded knowledge system and it was this that attracted Newton. Newton certainly never had vision of diving into gold coins and neither did Boyle. Newton’s beliefs were in fact even weirder than our author thinks. Newton was an adherent of a widespread Renaissance philosophy known as prisca sapientia.

This theory thought that humanity had been in possession of perfect knowledge of the world shortly after the creation. This knowledge had become lost over time and Newton believed that his scientific discoveries were not discoveries but rediscoveries. He also believed that alchemy was the oldest form of knowledge and that if he could discover the secrets of alchemy he could tap into that ancient source of all knowledge. Pretty bizarre, I know, but it all formed a coherent whole in Newton’s worldview. On a scientific level the Newton experts are now convinced that his belief in alchemy enabled him to develop his theory of universal gravity, which, with its action at a distance, heavily contradicted the prevailing mechanical philosophy. The Cartesian and Leibnizian mechanical philosophers criticised his theory of gravity for exactly this reason.

Our author seems to think that there is something wrong with an alchemist becoming Warden or Master of the Mint. In fact Newton’s extensive chemical knowledge, won through his alchemical experimentation over many years, enabled him to develop and to put into practice new much improved methods of assaying metals to test the purity of coins. A major win for the Royal Mint.

The closing comment about alchemy and Harry Potter is a perfect example of the author’s childish attitude, supercilious superiority. This attitude is displayed to the full in his paragraphs about Tycho Brahe, entitled “Tycho Brahe made everyone believe he was a sorcerer”.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) created his own model of the universe and, though he didn’t get things quite right, helped advance astronomy and catalogued more than 1,000 stars. He also convinced everyone he was a sorcerer.

He did so from the unique perch of his private sorcerer’s island, Hveen (today known in English as Ven). Fantastically wealthy, Brahe built multiple observatories there, had a squad of astronomical assistants, and he used tiny automata (robots) to convince the locals he had magic powers. It didn’t hurt that he partied hard, had his nose partly sliced off in a duel and got his pet moose drunk at parties.

But Tycho didn’t just hoodwink the public into believing he was magical — he believed it too. He publically lectured against anyone who believed astrology was fake, and he also believed alchemy was the future for mystical discoveries. Brahe even became so synonymous with magic that an entire calendar of magical days was made in his honor (and his name was slapped on to give it magical credibility).

This is a bizarre mixture of half true facts and fairy stories. Tycho only catalogued 700 stars but added 300 more from the Ptolemaic star catalogue to bring his own up to 1000. He did nothing at all to convince anyone that he was a sorcerer. The island of Hven was his fief, awarded to him by the Danish King as his birth right as a highborn aristocrat and to call it a sorcerer’s island is not only wrong but also childish. He only built two observatories, one in his mansion house Uraniborg and the other a sunken observatory in the grounds called Stjerneborg. The story about the automata is a myth created by Pierre Gassendi in his biography of Tycho. The nose and moose stories are actually irrelevancies to the subject under discussion along the lines of, if I show that Tycho was weird then people are more likely to believe the rest of the shit that I’m dishing up.

Once again we have a very fundamental category error. Tycho was a practicing astrologer and a Paracelsian pharmacist neither of which activities is magic. Tycho held an oration at the beginning of a guest lecture course on astronomy that he held at the University of Copenhagen defending the validity of astrology, a not unusual presentation in that age. Rheticus’ public oration on being appointed professor for mathematics in Wittenberg was on the same subject. Tycho an adherent of the Renaissance microcosmos/macrocosmos philosophy, as above so below, also believed that alchemy served the same function on earth as astrology in the heavens but both were in his opinion ‘scientific’ and not mystical. Tycho’s interest in alchemy centred on his belief in and practice of Paracelsian medicine, a leading medical theory in some circles in Europe at the time and consisted mainly of research into and production of medicines.

The Magical Calendar is an engraving not a book and the author, Adam McLean, of the modern book on this object that our author links to writes the following:

“Although his name appears at the bottom right hand corner of the plate, the Magical Calendar probably has no direct connection with Tycho Brahe […] It seems most likely that the well known name of Tycho Brahe was associated with the Magical Calendar in order to gain a degree of publicity and supposed authority for the work. Certainly there is nothing in Brahe’s accepted corpus of writings of a similar nature.” [my emphasis]

Doesn’t quite say what our author wants it to say, does it?

Our author’s next selection is a truly bad example of low fruit. He presents us with Carl Linnaeus with the title “Carl Linnaeus classified magical animals like the hydra and believed in mermaids”.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) imposed taxonomical order on animal and plant life. In his era, scientists were discovering all sorts of new species at a rapid clip (Linnaeus himself thought that pelicans might be a myth). That rapid pace of discovery led Linnaeus to believe, perhaps reasonably enough, that humans would soon find a host of mythological animals.

Linnaeus devoted a whole section of his landmark Systema Naturae to these strange beasts. It was called Animalia Paradoxa and included:

  • the hydra
  • the satyrus (a monkey-like man, similar to Pan in Greek mythology)
  • the phoenix (the bird that rose from the ashes)

Did Linnaeus believe in these animals? It’s hard to know, and some of Linnaeus’s defenders say he only included the animals to point out how absurd they were. In the 1730s, he became famous for debunking a hydra in Hamburg. However, we can reasonably claim that Linnaeus believed he’d found a troglodyte, was pretty confident he’d seen a unicorn horn, and was very excited at the chance to find a mermaid.

Whatever the motivation, Linnaeus wasn’t alone in believing in bizarre, vaguely magical animals. Gottfried Leibniz managed to help found calculus, yet he still wanted to fill a museum with weird (and imaginary) animals like the myrmecoleon (some sort of ant-lion).

The tone of this whole section is concerned with how superior our author is in comparison with the poor benighted Linnaeus; the heavy sent of mockery cannot be overlooked. He gives no consideration to the time in which Linnaeus was working and writing. He also appears to have left his own theme, as there is nothing ‘magical’ about the things he lists Linnaeus as having done.

Linnaeus lived and worked in the eighteenth century there was no Internet, no telephones, no telegraph, not even a reliable let alone universal postal system; a letter to South America, for example, would probably take months to arrive at its destination and quite possibly might not arrive at all. Linnaeus lived all of his life in Northern Europe and was dependent on the reports of others for descriptions of non-European species of plants and animals. If he got no chance to view one personally then a tiger was just as much a mythical animal as a manticore and he had no chance of proving the real existence of the one or the other. What we have here is an eighteenth century natural historian carefully classifying all the plants and animals that are known to him through multiple written sources. It’s worth noting that Linnaeus places those mythical creatures that he classifies into a separate category that he names Paradoxa the Greek pardoxon meaning contrary to accepted opinion, i.e. dodgy. Systema Naturae went through many editions and in the later ones this category was left out. Only one real animal was included in Paradoxa, the pelican, which given the fact that travellers tales described the pelican as cutting its own breast to feed its children was not an irrational decision. None of the mythical animals was included in a category with real animals. What we have here is careful rational scientific behaviour not magical thinking.

Linnaeus included humans as primates, which of course caused a controversy in the eighteenth century. He also included two other species in the genus homo, Homo troglodytes based on the accounts of Jacob Bontius and Homo lar based on other reports. He asked the Swedish East India Company to look for confirming evidence of the existence of Homo troglodytes, which they couldn’t deliver and Homo lar was later categorised as a gibbon, again a good natural historian doing his work. Belief in unicorns, some form of single horned horse, based on the existence of narwhal tusks was still very widespread in the eighteenth century, so to try and ridicule Linnaeus or this is pathetic. The same applies to mermaids.

The author’s attempt to besmirch Leibniz is really clutching at straws. What the hell is ‘managed to help invent calculus’ supposed to mean? That’s not exactly the usual way of talking about one of the greatest mathematical achievements of the seventeenth century. Curiosity cabinets and natural history collections played a central role in scientific activities throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one of the largest, that of Hans Sloane, forming the basis of the British museum after Sloane’s death. Leibniz’ Drôle de Pensée, amusing thought, was to extend the curiosity cabinet into a much larger public exhibition space with active displays and machines alongside the passive objects displaying the full spectrum of science, technology and medicine, Science Museum anyone? That his long list of potential exhibits contains one mythical animal hardly makes this something to deride.

Our author’s fifth genius is, as would be expected, Paracelsus who apparently “loved natural magic and himself”.

Paracelsus (1493-1541) did a lot when he was alive, including basically inventing toxicology and naming zinc. But when he wasn’t revolutionizing scientific methods and naming metals, he was a big fan of magical things.

Born as Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, he renamed himself Paracelsus, both because it was shorter and it literally meant he was “better than Celsus,” a first century Roman medical researcher (in Paracelsus’s defense, he may have been renamed by his biggest fans). Paracelsus wrote that from an early age the “transmutation of metals” was his obsession, and he pursued it with vigor as an adult.

When he wasn’t traveling the world performing surgeries, he tried to utilize “natural magic” to help patients. He was quoted as saying “magic is a great secret wisdom,” and while his understanding of natural magic occasionally lent itself to scientific inquiry, he also believed that “the soul strongly desires sulphur.” As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult.

In his defense, that belief in magic was grounded in a commitment to inquiry: Paracelsus thought magic was just science that wasn’t understood yet. In a way, that unites all the scientists on this list, who pursued new knowledge even when it meant looking in some very unusual places.

The claim that Paracelsus basically invented toxicology, although not original to our author (who I doubt has any original thoughts), is historically highly dubious as poisons have been studied extensively since antiquity and it is rather strangely based on the legendary Paracelsus quote Dosis sola venenum facit, the dose makes the poison. Paracelsus was not born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, I refer the reader to my earlier post on the subject of his name.

The rest of the paragraphs on Paracelsus are a confused mess of unrelated claims picked at random from other peoples writings and doesn’t earn the right to be analysed so I won’t. I would ask the author why, having suddenly introduced the term, he doesn’t actually explain what natural magic is or was. Possibly the worst single sentence in the whole sorry mess that is this article is, As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult. Anybody who actually knew anything about either Paracelsus or Aristotle could not conceive of writing this sentence, even as a parody.

Returning to my initial criticism of this apology for a historical article, astrology and alchemy are not magic if dealing academically and historically with these disciplines and because he introduces it at the end ‘natural magic’ is not magic as it is generally understood either. As often the case I find it fascinating that people who quite literally don’t know what they’re talking about think that it’s OK to write an article about the history of science on a widely read popular website. If they were to write about something popular, such as football or cars, on the same level no editor in the world would allow them to publish it, so why do they treat the history of science with such disrespect?





Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

21 responses to “Do you believe in magic?

  1. Reblogged this on Forbidden Histories and commented:
    Excellent comments from the alter ego of the fell HISTSCI_HULK about a recent post regarding some early modern scientific icons and ‘magic’:

  2. I really think that calmly setting the record straight hardly qualifies as Hist-Sci Hulk treatment — another job well done, Thony. One minor point on the use of “believe”; it is such a loaded term, and can mean very different things to different readers. I prefer to substitute “thought was correct” or similar whenever appropriate. It often elevates the conversation out of the realm of blind acceptance, into one of thoughtful assessments. Just sayin’.

  3. jimhexis

    These days serious historians often include a last chapter in their books that covering how the events they narrate were understood over the years. There are entire works on the posthumous careers of Cleopatra or Henry VIII. Seems to me that a history of memory approach is especially illuminating when it comes to the way people understand alchemy, magic, and astrology. So much of what happened in the 16th Century really took place in the 19th, not only among the warfare of science and theology ideologues but perhaps even more among those looking for an alternative to the soulless modernity of the Industrial revolution. A lot of the stuff written about the so-called occult sciences is obviously wrong, but error is always more than a mere deficit of literal truth. From my point of view, what’s inexcusable about the Vox Website version is its startling lack of creativity, not its falsity. There are interesting errors and dumb ones. You shouldn’t sell myths or eggs that have passed their expression dates.

  4. laura

    The prisca sapientia stuff is pretty cool, just for how ubiquitous it seems to have been. My favourite example is Simon Stevin, about the least “weird” early modern natural philosopher imaginable, who presented his early innovations as things never before heard of by any person since Creation. Later when he had become acquainted with the humanists at Leiden he changed his style in accordance with theirs and started promoting his innovations in his later books as knowledge not known since and recovered from the age of sages. (my source for this is Rienk Vermij in The Calvinist Copernicans). And he also wrote about how the ancient sages must have spoken Dutch!

  5. Excellent post!

    Looks like “alchemy and geniuses” themed “articles” are in trend probably because it’s very easy to write on them based upon a few myths and made-up stories. A few months ago, I read another one in (sadly) Nautilus with the author’s ridiculous statements such as “Newton was a crank. Newton was a weirdo alchemist.” etc.

    I am really wondering if people EVER read more than ONE book in their lives. Or do they just go with the myths and completely wrong stories of historical figures and don’t even bother to think about if they make sense.

    It is really sad to see what people think “alchemy” is.

    Paracelsus (his life and his science) in particular is one of my personal interests. Would you please suggest some books about him? Thanks.

  6. Pingback: Do you believe in magic? | Chain Letters from a...

  7. Pingback: It’s magic! | Corpus Newtonicum

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  9. Lucy

    Was the lone-genius myth around prior to Albert Einstein? If not, then surely this popular misconception comes about because of the myth created about Einstein, about which generations of historians of science since effectively said zilch (i.e. no letters signed by 150 top historians) Maybe that’s a candidate explanation why history is treated how it is. Just sayin’.

    • The lone genius myth has been around since science first emerged in antiquity

      • jimhexis

        Yep and it was especially prominent in the Renaissance. A random piece of evidence: one of the early print best sellers was Polydore Virgil’s 1499 work, de inventoribus rerum (On Discovery), a big Latin tome that chalked up ever conceivable human institution, practice, and device to a particular individual. The notion of anonymous or gradual innovation was alien to his way of thinking as, for that matter, it was to the ancients.

      • Lucy

        OK fair enough. But are we talking about the same phenomenon or the same words. In the past, this misconception was actually quite understandable for basically anyone who wasn’t in the loop of the pioneers who were forging science. For the pioneers, ‘a lone genius’ probably would have been a really counter-intuitive idea, since they were not only communicating but in new ways, involving precisions, which was a revolution all its own.
        But to an outsider, either domestic to one of the geniuses, or in wider society. They weren’t necessary seeing the letter writing. And without that, it probably a fairly isolated situation from most viewpoints. The other ‘lone genius’ myth that I can think of, is things like someone in 1930 reads the profile of someone in the 1800’s like Faraday, and assesses Faraday as if he lived in their present. Which if he had with that profile, he would’ve been an outsider.
        But the important point unless you know different, is that science and those involved, and all the other people that matter to that phenomenon, weren’t subject to that myth. It was a pretty benign misconception.
        ,But now it isn’t.
        That naff history that you try to enlighten people about, is the history that the actual scientists and thinkers who are supposed to be discovering the next big breakthrough of fundamental knowledge, believe that naff history.
        Does it matter, if they are not historians? Yes, because there’s been no fundamental progress for decades, and they have turned to history as a source of insights. And that history isn’t real.

      • A special case or offshoot of the hero archetype.

  10. Daniel

    what’s the difference between Rowling and the New Atheists? one writes fantasy unmoored in any reality, has a target audience of 11-year-olds, and openly says they don’t care if they don’t ever read what they’re criticizing and get everything wrong because what they’re talking about is not real anyway

    the other wrote Harry Potter

    on a more serious note the technocrats always consume their own: once they praised the 18th century as a glorious era, now it’s superstitious, feudal horror; once they praised the 19th century for industrializing and bringing wage labor and deforestation to the masses, now the erstwhile “age of science” transmuted into a repressed. plague-ridden sinkhole

    once the leading lights out of darkness, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Tycho, Linné, etc. are no longer sustainable as the great purifiers on Man’s Upward March: rather than admit science and magic can coexist in one head, they assume it’s some sort of contradiction within these men’s skulls: once exponents of Free Thought, they’re being reduced to superstitionists, expelled from the now-shrinking Circle of Reason

  11. Joshua

    Reblogged this on Humanities and the Sciences and commented:
    Excellent treatment of subjects too often muddled together; on the importance of field distinction.

  12. Pingback: Do you believe in magic? | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.

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