The Politics of Renaissance Hermeticism, and the Magic of Science

I’ve been reading Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). Part of her project is to dispel the myth that Bruno was burnt at the stake primarily for his heliocentrism and generally scientific and materialist attitude. This was certainly one of the Roman Inquisitions many accusations, but the real reasons the Church lit his public pyre were political.

…the legend that Bruno was prosecuted as a philosophical thinker, was burned for his daring views on innumerable worlds or on the movement of the earth, can no longer stand…little attention was paid to philosophical or scientific questions in the interrogation…[instead, stress was laid] on Bruno’s religious mission. (p. 355)

His religious mission was to attend to the creation of the City of the Sun on Earth, which involved practicing the Hermetic arts of magic, astrology, and what after Jung we might call active imagination. This mission also had a political dimension, leading Bruno to ally with the likes of Henry of Navarro, who was to become King Henry IV of France. Bruno saw the potential for a universal reform of the Catholic religion in France, which was fresh off King Henry’s victory against the Spanish-backed Catholic League. Many heretical thinkers in 16th century Europe with more liberal views on religion were hoping Henry would bring peace to a continent ravaged by wars of intolerance. The Catholic Church, of course, had no interest in ceding its power to such a movement. The counter-Reformation was in full force.

Yates also tells the story of Tommaso Campanella, another Hermetic Magus who followed in Bruno’s footsteps by seeking to create the City of the Sun. Campanella lead a rebellion of Dominican monks against Catholic reformers in 1599.

But what did Bruno and Campanella’s religious mission have to do with new scientific ways of thinking and with the Copernican heliocentric theory? Campanella “praises Ptolemaeus and [admires] Copernicus, although Aristarchus and Philolaus were before him (in teaching heliocentricity)” (transl. Yates, p. 372). Both geocentric and heliocentric systems are upheld as worthy of study. Bruno’s primary reasons for holding to the heliocentric perspective were not mathematical or scientific (Ptolemy’s system was still more accurate than Copernicus’ at this point), but magico-symbolic and politico-religious. The return of the heliocentric theory was read by Bruno as an omen, a sign in the sky sent from God, prophesying the coming Golden Age when Europe would be ruled by Philosopher-Magi skilled in calling the winds of justice down to earth from the heavens.

What interests me in Yates’ historical account is the way Bruno was both modern and non-modern in his Hermetic religion: modern in that he affirmed the infinite reality of the universe; non-modern in that an infinite cosmos is the necessary counter-postulate to an infinitely real God. Modern in that he saw the moral necessity of religious freedom, but non-modern in that he felt the universe (or earth-heaven continuum) must be inter-woven throughout with astral spirits and permeated by an anima mundi (or world soul). All the beings in the universe are magically linked through the soul of the world to one another, and also to the One God, who is beyond being. The One beyond being, infinite in itself, is necessarily in relation to the beings of Being. This relation takes place through a series of revelations, beginning with the heavens. God’s infinite Speech/Word is “stepped-down” into the songs of the spiraling stars and dancing planets, which Plato identified with the Cosmic Intelligence of the World Soul. This revelation of the One through and to the many continues through every individual creature of earth, which in its individuality contains in hologrammatic form the entirety of the cosmos. As an earlier Hermetic thinker, Nicholas of Cusa, had intuited, the universe, as a reflection of God, “is a sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Yates ends his study on Renaissance magic by asking why it was that the scientific revolution of the 17th century began when it did. She speculates that the Renaissance Hermeticist’s new attitude concerning the place of the human being in the natural world re-directed the will, such that penetrating the secrets of the universe and coming to have mastery over nature no longer seemed so far fetched.

Behind the emergence of modern science there was a new direction of the will towards the world, its marvels, and mysterious workings, a new longing and determination to understand those workings and to operate with them. (Yates, p. 448)

Compare this attitude with that of the 3rd century Church father Tertulian, who argued that those interested in the workings of nature:

persist in applying their studies to a vain purpose, since they indulge their curiosity on natural objects, which they ought rather [direct] to their Creator and Governor.

There is a vast difference between the mechanism and mathematics of thinkers like Mersenne and Descartes and the animism and magic of thinkers like Bruno, Campanella, and Robert Fludd. But the transition between the two is not as clear cut as it would seem from our modern perspective. Like Bruno, many of the supposed fathers of the scientific revolution were deeply interested in occult knowledge. On Nov. 10th, 1619, while still a young man striving to discover a new foundation for knowledge, Descartes had a series of dreams and visions that he believed came from a higher source (Yates, p. 452). He began searching for the elusive Rosicrucian order (a Hermetic society) in Germany in the hope that they might help interpret his visions of a universal science of nature. He finally gave up in 1623 and returned to Paris, though some speculate that he actually did make contact with the secret society and had been initiated into the brotherhood. Kepler was also a rather transitional figure, having studied the Corpus Hermeticum quite closely alongside his astronomical research. Then there is the importance of alchemy to Isaac Newton, which is increasingly well-known: see especially Phillip Fanning’s recent book Isaac Newton and the Transmutation of Alchemy: An Alternative View of the Scientific Revolution (2009).

Yates points out that the early mechanists attempt to distance themselves from the magicians left them with a rather embarrassing problem: if nature was all mechanics, where did the knowing mind of the scientist fit in? The problem was especially pronounced and given its clearest formulation in Descartes infamous dualism between the res cogitans and the res extensa. “This bad start of the problem of knowledge,” writes Yates, “has never been quite made up” (p. 454).

Yates goes on:

[The mechanists] may have discarded notions on mind and matter which, however strangely formulated, may be in essence less remote than their own conceptions from some of the thought of today. (p. 455)

Writing in the early 60s, she was well-aware of the paradigm shift continuing to unfold as a result of the quantum revolution:

It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics. An enquiry into both phases, and their interactions, may be a more fruitful line of historical approach to the problems raised by the science of today than the line which concentrates only on the seventeenth-century triumph. Is not all science a gnosis, an insight into the nature of the All, which proceeds by successive revelations? (p. 452)

Might there be room in contemporary science for the return of the anima mundi?


5 Comments Add yours

  1. John Bryant says:

    If Bruno was a witch, he wasn’t a very good one.

  2. Eshuneutics says:

    Interesting to see that the work of Yates is not forgotten. Her work was truly ground breaking…but something of a lost voice today,

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