Renaissance, the rise of curiosity and the rise of magic.
The Renaissance the rise of curiosity and the rise of magic provide the context to the development of the scientific revolution. The Renaissance was crucial for the reshaping of intellectual and cultural priorities. It began in Italy in the C14 and C15 and had spread throughout Europe by the C16. It saw the revival of interest in classical antiquity and the rejection of the medieval period. The revived Greek texts, interest in Greek mathematics and a more mechanistic view of the world contrasted with and in some cases contradicted contemporary ideas about Aristotle. The revival of mathematics and the consequent development of more sophisticated maths were a pre-condition to later scientific developments and gave rise to the questioning of the Aristotelian synthesis of knowledge about the world.
This led to a conflict between these new and novel elements of the renaissance and the humanist return (looking back) to antiquity which can be seen as essentially conservative. Humanism advocated an increased priority with regard to life, how it is led, the dignity of man and the means to affect the world, which implied a radical change in intellectual priorities and a changed attitude to the natural world. Man was to become detached from nature (and become god-like) and change from the other-worldliness of the middle ages to a relationship where man manipulated nature and became this worldly (man in control of his environment). This was to form an important element of the scientific revolution along with the rejection of philosophy and reason as explanations for events in favour of increased interest in practical knowledge, crafts and arts such as mining and metallurgy, ballistics and fortifications. Practical crafts had been ignored by scholars since the middle ages and this renewed interest was evidence of the changed attitude of the time.
This attitude was equally reflected in the re-shaping of university curriculum, especially with regard to mathematics in response to the increased interest. This led to the foundation of a number of chairs of mathematics and attempts to integrate maths and philosophy as a means of understanding the new “mathematized” view of nature. Similarly C16 medicine began to challenge the tradition of Galen. Studies of human anatomy allied with the new sciences led to new ideas with regard to how the body works and overflowed into the study of botany and the medicinal use of plants. There is undoubted importance with regard to these changes within the universities but it is the influence of the princely courts that is of crucial importance. Galileo for example abandoned university employment for the more lucrative and less onerous princely court, even though there was the constant need to produce results and to present his findings as dedicated to his patron (eg the Medician stars). The role of the princely court underlines the importance of patronage and the need to enhance the prestige of the patron. There is a direct link between the new interest in practical subjects and the need for the solution to practical problems encountered by the Prince such as the need for improve weapons and fortifications. The demands of the princely courts were essentially pragmatic in nature and included the demand for better understanding of hydraulics for better fountains, gunpowder for fireworks all of which were intended to display the wealth, importance and knowledge of the Prince.
Another important aspect of the Princely court was the renewed interest in curiosities and collecting. Curiosity had been considered a vice but found a new direction during the renaissance. Paula Finden sees this princely interest as an attempt to bring the whole of nature together in one room. The collecting habit was widespread throughout Europe and used for various purposes, including social research.
The re-discovered texts of Plato and Hermes Tresmegistus (rediscovered in the C15) raised interest in the mystical and spiritual and transferred attention away from logic and the notion of causes towards ideas of revelation. In this neo-platonic ideas can be seen as more openly magical and led to the interpretation that it was possible to manipulate the spiritual. The texts of Hermes Tresmegistus were particularly influential for humanists in preference to Plato. Tresmegistus was believed to be a contemporary of Moses and underlines the interest in and the importance of antiquity, elevating the importance of the hermetic tradition. Francis Yates saw magical items as crucial to the rise of modern science, and champions Giordano Bruno, an outspoken critic of orthodoxy and Aristotelian science, as a fore-runner of early modern science. Yates sees the hermetic texts as giving rise to new ideas of cosmology and the concept of man as magician with magical powers and knowledge, able to manipulate nature through the forces available in the world. She regards this as a necessary preliminary to the rise of science and sees the influence of heretic ideas as widespread for instance n the works of Copernicus and Kepler (the presence of renaissance neo-platonism in the idea of elliptical orbits and the Pythagorean solids). This is in tune with Francis Bacons later conviction that man could manipulate and dominate nature
Yates’ ideas are important in the context of the 1960’s when they were put forward because they were part of a growing criticism that questioned the traditional values of western science. This was part of a growing scepticism with respect to our views of science and also formed part of the debate on what magic was and what did it contribute to the rise of science. Yates ideas are criticised for being vague in that they are related to the idea of one great magical tradition. Yet magic was not as unitary as Yates implies and it was certainly not homogenous, being a series of overlapping traditions based on a single view of the universe comprising the celestial and material realms with “correspondence” between them in the form of “signatures” and secret influences. This provided the opportunity to tune in to the harmony of the world as a means of manipulating these influences by those who had the knowledge to understand them (a form of mind-over-matter).
Alchemy was the ability to purify “spirit” out of a mixture, whereas astrology was an attempt to identify the “correspondence” between the celestial and terrestrial by monitoring the influence of the celestial on the terrestrial by plotting the position of the stars. It was therefore directly linked to both science and magic and was associated with other magical arts such as palmistry and the use of talisman etc.
Magic had existed in medieval times but had grown considerably in the C16 as a result of the increased appetite for knowledge within the renaissance tradition. There was a degree of conflation between the mechanical and magic arts., the latter being seen as essentially empirical and based on forces waiting to be discovered if they could be sought in a methodical way, hence the interest in mathematics and the harmony of the heavens. C16 magic also contained the roots of modern magic. The need to sanitize magical ideas in the C17 and C17 left a residue that remains as “magical” today. Magic then as now was crucial, popular and quasi-religious. The question that needs to be answered is whether the rise of magic in the C16 was the result of a disillusionment with religion or as a result of the decline of something else?