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Natural Magic and Modern Science

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   Dmitri Kaminiar (student #995059083)
   Friday, April 11, 2008
   Joseph Berkovitz

Natural Magic and Modern Science

   In the modern day and age, the concepts and imagery of magic and science seem to stand as far apart as possible. Magic brings to us images of sorcerers and wizards, images greatly influenced by contemporary books, games and movies of the fantasy genre, like Harry Potter - in other words incompatible with daily real life. Conversely, we do not think of science much at all - outside of the sci-fi genre, and when we do, we think of it as technologically and socially progressive, as opposed to the superstitions of the Middle Ages. The truth, however, is different from these ideas, as neither initial magic nor original science had many similarities with their current counterparts, and in fact modern science has its roots in the so-called natural magic of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period of the Western world. Consequently, this essay is going to talk first about natural magic and its role in the human society before the advent of the true science of Galileo, Giordano Bruno and others, and then about the development of this true science out of natural magic during the Renaissance/pre-Enlightenment period.
   The Renaissance period differed from the Middle Ages that preceded it by the fact that with the fall of the Constantinople to the Muslim forces a large number of ancient Greek and Roman texts suddenly became available to the Western Europe, including the philosophers' tractates about the world and some of these works talked about magic.
   Until that time, the attitudes in Europe towards magic were fluctuating between profoundly negative of the church to merely scornful and callous by most of the educated laymen of that time, who considered magic to be beneath them. However, at the same time, they considered the ancient Greeks and Romans to have been superior people to them. Thus, when the educated pre-Renaissance Europeans uncovered the ancients' genuine texts of magic they had something akin to cultural shock.
   Contrary to the Christian point of view, the pagan Greeks and Romans had a considerably more relaxed view towards magic; to them it was not the work of the demons and Devil, but rather it was a part of nature. These differences in attitude to magic are a direct consequence of the difference in pagan and Christian philosophical outlooks: black-and-white Christian viewpoint vs. the more "colorful" and accepting pagan view.
   These differences raised something of a furor in the pre-Renaissance Europe once they became translated into contemporary languages. The Catholic Church, which preached that there were only divine miracles and all other abilities to do magic came from the Devil, could not readily accept an idea that it might not be so. By that time, though, the Catholic Church's authority was losing ground as the Protestantism was growing popular, and therefore various laymen of education were beginning to dwell on and develop further the ideas of their antique forebears.
   As for the natural magic itself, despite the initial Middle Age's attitude of scorn, some of its "disciplines", such as alchemy, meteorology and the occult and natural philosophies had endured the religious persecution but only undercover, illegally. Now, in their newfound light of antique practices, they gained new followers and developed a respectability of sorts that they lacked before; people from different social classes than before began to study natural magic practically in the open, in various academies and educational societies, founding of which became popular by these times. The younger generation was especially enthusiastic in this study, and that was essentially how the "transcendence" of magic into science began.
   Contrary to many modern stereotypes, such "real-life" magicians as alchemists, astrologists and even healers did possess something that relates them to modern scientists - primitive workshops that would in modern days become laboratories. It is not as clear if the magicians of Ancient Greece and Rome possessed them, but their Renaissance counterparts definitely did, for social reasons if not for scientific: in these times, many of the Renaissance magicians became clients of various princes and heads of states, including the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire himself. Consequently, the practitioners of magic stopped being at the foot of the social ladder but instead ascended much closer to the top, as to reflect their new-gained status.
   Yet, this was just the first step in the journey from magic to science. The life of the renowned Italian scholar, Giambattista Della Porta illustrates quite well:
   Della Porta was born in 1535, the second son of Nardo Antonio Della Porta, a Neapolitan nobleman.  Like most of the Italian nobility, he and his two brothers, Giovan Vincenzo and Giovan Ferrante, were taught by private tutors.  Their education consisted not only of classical letters, but also of "chiyalric exercises" such as music, dancing, riding, and gymnastics.  (...) In addition to his books on natural magic, Giambattista wrote on alchemy, astrology, physiognomy, cryptography, the art of memory, agriculture, optics, geometry, pneumatics, and munitions.
   Science and Secrets of Nature, Eamon - Chap 6. (1994)
   However, Della Porta's most famous work was Magiae Naturalis, "Natural Magic", published in 1558, revised and continuously expanded during the author's lifetime and consisting of 20 volumes by 1589. In this monumental work, Della Porta covered a variety of subjects, all related to natural magic in various degrees. The Church, which as said before, claimed something of a monopoly regarding magic, was not amused and when in 1580 a French lawyer Jean Bodin led an attack on Della Porta, it joined in eagerly, even though by that time Della Porta's works contained very little content of magic per se:
   In 1592, when he tried to publish an Italian edition of his work on human physiognomy, the Inquisition stepped in.  On orders from the Holy Office in Rome, the Venetian Inquisition halted the work's publication and forbade Della Porta, under pain of excommunication and a fine of five hundred ducats, to publish anything without the express permission of the Roman High Tribunal.
   Science and Secrets of Nature, Eamon - Chap 6. (1994)
   It must be understood that Della Porta's (as later Galileo's) troubles with the Church did not arise from magic and demonology, as Bodin wrote; rather it happened because Della Porta was popularizing the scientific knowledge of that time, such as occult and natural philosophy, alchemy and even mathematics. The Church did not appreciate that, especially since Della Porta and his cohorts, such as Johann Wier, did not limit themselves to natural sciences, but intruded into deeper waters, such as demonology:
   The Criptologia was a head-on challenge to the Church's conception of popular magic:  "In this book are treated the most hidden secrets that are buried in the intimate bosom of nature, for which neither natural principles nor probable explanations can be given - but are not for that reason superstitions."  There were great truths in popular magic, Della Porta concluded.  But these truths were distorted by popular superstitions and by learned demonology.  On the one hand, the common people were extremely foolish to believe that the effects of natural magic were caused or enhanced by the invocation of supernatural aid.  Witches and cunning men produced their effects by using natural forces.  The ceremonies, rites, and spells connected with their practices were useless and blasphemous.  On the other hand, the scholastic philosophers and, following them, the Church were just as credulous in attributing these effects to demonic agencies.
   Science and Secrets of Nature, Eamon - Chap 6. (1994)
   From the scientific point of view, which is rather atheistic and tends to disregard the supernatural as much as Della Porta's predecessors and contemporaries tended to get fixed on it, Della Porta's opinion marked a stepping stone of sorts regarding the path from magic to science. On one hand, Della Porta definitely believed that the demons (and angels) do exist. On the other, though, his books marked a shift from the traditional theological point of view to a more liberal/scientific one.
   Moreover, if we are to speak about science, Della Porta and his contemporaries made yet another important move in that direction: the scientific method of trial and error, especially prominent among the alchemists and their ilk (not counting the con artists among their number). Doing their experiments to create the philosopher's stone, the ultimate panacea to all sickness, and, of course, gold, they also made a number of various important discoveries regarding the qualities of metals and ores. In addition, other branches of "natural magic" included the direct ancestors of our sciences, such as astronomy and mathematics.
   Medicine, for example, has especially benefited from the introduction of natural magic into the Renaissance world. Until then, the doctors of Western Europe had largely used Galen's medical method, which stated that all parts of human body have matching with the four elements - fire, water, air and earth. Thus, for example, blood could be matched with the element of fire, because ancient doctors considered it both hot and fluid, while saliva, as it was cold and fluid could be matched with the element of water. Therefore, a Galenite doctor would try to match heat with heat, cold with cold when dealing with a sickness - i.e., when a person had a fever, the doctor would try to heal it with heat. Conversely, the doctors who followed Paracelsus, believed that humans had a certain number of various minerals in their bodies, and when these minerals got out of balance, then people got ill. Without a doubt, this is still a long way away from science: Paracelsus' healing method shows clear science of astrological influence, but it was a step in the right direction, as compared to Galen.
   Math was another area that benefited from the studies of natural magic: "because of the close links between mechanics and mathematics, this kind of exploitation of machinery was often called `mathematical magic'" (Henry, 2002, p. 44). Moreover, mechanics lead us to astronomy and astrology. The two fields of study are closely interconnected; both practically study the same objects - stars, planets, and other celestial bodies, yet astronomy is science, while astrology is magic. The reason behind it lies in the fact that the two are different fields of study and people treated them differently almost from the start:
   Deceptive tricks with lenses and mirrors had always been among the more dazzling of the natural magician's arts, and the telescope and microscope were treated with extreme caution by most natural philosophers when they were first introduced into the study of nature.
   Henry, John. Magic and the Origins of Modern Science. (2002) (p. 46)
   Since the times of Ptolemy and Alexander the Great people knew about the stars, sun, planets, and others, yet they thought that Earth was in centre of all the creation, a motion further reinforced by the Christian Church. Now, the telescope and similar inventions began to challenge this notion, and once again, the root of these scientific advances lay in the ideas of natural magicians and philosophers that a scientist (in the Renaissance meaning of this term) must have sharp eyes, like a wild cat or a bird of prey.
   Of course, natural magic and the people who studied it, like Della Porta and others, was still as much magic as it was science, if not more, and the ideas like that white magnets could be aphrodisiac or that demons did exist, clearly show that. Yet, despite such statements, natural magic was leading its scholars, followers and adherents out of the obscurantism of the Dark Ages, disregarding the disapproval of the Church and its clergy. As the abovementioned example of Della Porta can demonstrate, sometimes this disapproval could become quite costly, and occasionally - like with Giordano Bruno, downright mortally perilous.
   Overall, though, the fate of natural magic and magic in relation to the science may be seen in the fate of Della Porta, in the last parts of his life. Until 1610, he was one of the prominent men of natural magic and Renaissance science of the European world, but in 1611, Galileo, a scientist of a newer formation, began to eclipse him. Together with Della Porta's patron, the marchese Cesi, Galileo was taking Della Porta's initial followers in a new direction in which: "Esotericism gave way to an identification with the `republic of letters.'" Natural magic with its universal harmony and the delicate, if forced upon, balance of magic and science was relinquishing its position to the new way of science that was both continuing natural magic's path of confrontation with religion and turning against magic show-man ways as well. In a matter of centuries, by the time of the Enlightenment, the pair would part their ways altogether: magic would eventually remain only on stage among the flashing smoke and mirrors, while science will largely abandon the showman way, and become the cornerstone of the progressive technologically-savvy society that we live in today.
   Reference
   Henry, John. Magic and the Origins of Modern Science. In The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002) (p. 46)
   Science and Secrets of Nature, Eamon - Chap 6. (1994) Retrieved Saturday, March 15, 2008, from http://homepages.tscnet.com/omard1/jp_eamon.html
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