Reflections on Men and Ideas
by Giorgio de Santillana
MIT, 381 pp., $15.00
This book consists of essays, articles, and lectures written by Giorgio de Santillana during the last twelve years, nearly all of them already published in various journals and collective works. I am heartily in favor of this practice. So much valuable work is otherwise effectively buried in periodicals, Fest-schriften, etc. Moreover, such collections can give a more complete picture of the range of a scholar’s interests and the consistency of his thought than do his separate books, as is the case, for example, with recent collections of Ernst Gombrich and Karl Popper. Santillana’s range is staggeringly wide; as Hugh Trevor-Roper says in his Foreword:
He will quote Hrabanus Maurus and Bertold Brecht as effortlessly as Metrodorus or Athanasius Kircher, and carry us with him, a little breathless perhaps, and dizzy with his throw-away allusions and polyglot versatility, from Anaximander and Parmenides to Einstein and Oppenheimer, from Hesiod and the Epic of Gilgamesh to Kafka, Auden, Salvemini and Simone Weil.
Since I am ignorant about some of these subjects, this review may well be unfair by reason of its omissions and its concentration on the few topics I happen to know a little about.
Trevor-Roper also rightly praises Santillana’s broad and imaginative approach to the history of science, and remarks that it is these qualities that make his best-known book, The Crime of Galileo, so dramatic and thought-provoking. There are indeed many examples in these essays of the illuminating insights which result from such an approach; but these go together with some very worrying defects.
In the piece on Newton, for example, Santillana is surely right in stressing the importance of Newton’s belief in an ancient tradition of wisdom, in a prisca theologia that included scientific truths, as recent work by J.E. McGuire and P.M. Rattansi on the unpublished Scholia to Book III of the Principia has amply shown. But what are we to make of the following:
The subject of the Hermetic Philosophy (so named after the mythical master, Hermes the Thrice-Greatest) was the cosmos itself and its interlocking forces; not the cosmos of our cosmonauts, to be sure, nor even that of Copernicus and Galileo. It was the archaic Universe, which went back to the grey dawn of our civilization, brought forth by powerful minds lost in anonymity, the object of many great thinkers in successive ages—now lost to modern consciousness but deeply studied by Newton in a multitude of texts that no one can even read now, or cares to.
Now it is true, and significant, that Newton did read the Corpus Hermeticum, though Santillana gives no evidence for it. It may be true that the Hermetic cosmology goes back “to the grey dawn of our civilization”; the texts, however, are of the second and third centuries A.D., and their content is typical of the Gnosticism of that age, as the first of Festugière’s four volumes on La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste shows in detail. But it is certainly …