The Fear of the Occult

Symphorien Champier and the Reception of the Occultist Tradition in Renaissance France (Berlin/New York)

by Brian P. Copenhaver
Mouton, The Hague, 1978, distributed by Walter de Gruyter & Co.,, 368 pp., $54.50

When Fontenelle was composing his éloge of Isaac Newton for delivery in the Académie Royale des Sciences, he was able to consult notes by John Conduitt from which he would have learned that one of Newton’s motives in beginning his work in mathematics was to investigate whether judicial astrology had any claim to validity. In writing his éloge, Fontenelle omitted any reference to this fact, an omission which, as Brian Copenhaver points out, was normal in the Age of Enlightenment. Astrology for Fontenelle was unworthy of even passing reference. “The occultist tradition and all its claims about the powers of magic, alchemy, divination, witchcraft, and the secret arts, no longer demanded a serious response from serious thinkers.” How did it come about that such subjects had disappeared from the mainstream of European mental equipment, banished from the surface to pursue in future only a discredited existence underground? Copenhaver writes, “By the time the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared in 1771 the transformation was complete. The first Britannica gave only one hundred and thirty-two lines, less than a full page, to articles on astrology, alchemy, Cabala, demons, divination, the word ‘occult,’ and witchcraft. Astronomy occupied sixty-seven pages, and chemistry one hundred and fifteen.”

An irresistible historical transformation had taken place. Modern science beginning its victorious career had blotted out the immediate past. In such overwhelming movements, the facts which one generation consciously omits are genuinely forgotten by its successors. Later generations forgot Newton’s interest in alchemy until confronted with his unpublished papers. But the Fontenelle attitude dies hard, even when faced with documentary evidence that Newton attached equal, or greater, importance to his alchemical studies than to his work in mathematics.

Efforts have been made in recent years to penetrate the curtain which shrouded the influential figures of the past in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century histories of thought. When I was a young person (I will not say a young student for I did not study these subjects in any university) the books which I read on Marsilio Ficino described him as a Neoplatonic philosopher, which of course he was, but they did not mention that he was a Neoplatonic magician. Ficino’s theories on magic, and his use of talismans, have been a discovery of recent years. D.P. Walker’s examination of Ficino’s astral medicine proved its dependence on the Asclepius, the magical treatise attributed to “Hermes Trismegistus.” Similarly, when I read thirty years ago about Giordano Bruno, the books of that time presented him as an enlightened Renaissance philosopher, defender of Copernicanism against reactionaries. Yet it turns out that Bruno quoted at length from the Asclepius on magical reform, and that his defense of heliocentricity was itself influenced, perhaps inspired, by “Hermes Trismegistus” on the sun. This rereading or reinterpretation of noted figures in the history of thought is a process which has only recently been begun. It needs to be extended in detailed studies of many other figures, preparatory to a general reassessment of the processes through…

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