Magic and Science in Early Modern Europe – Are They Really So Different?

Magic and science:  to us in the twenty-first century, these practices are poles apart. ‘Magic’ and the ‘supernatural’ are often associated with superstition, irrationality, and even ignorance.  Science, on the other hand, is symbolic of logic, reason and knowledge.  The birth of modern science is traditionally located in ‘the scientific revolution’, which is seen to have taken place over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Figures such as Nicolas Copernicus, Paracelsus, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton have been immortalized in modern, western culture as those who aided the ‘discovery’ of science.  And yet, as we will see, these men were deeply influenced by thought systems which embodied all that modern ‘science’ is seen to reject. This article does not argue that the ‘discovery’ of modern science should be situated later than the early modern period, nor does it deny the impact of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton on future knowledge.   Rather, it explores the relationship between ‘magical’ and so-called ‘scientific’ practices in the work of Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno and Francis Bacon.  It demonstrates that ‘science’ was made, not discovered, and has its roots in thought-systems seen today as its decided antithesis.

Paracelsus Medical Marvel or Magus?  14740664146_0acdf77a94_o

We begin with Paracelsus, who earned his place in the proto-scientific ‘canon’ in large part due to his emphasis on empiricism (knowledge based on experience and experiment rather than theory), his use of chemical medicines to treat illnesses, and his influence on developments in medicine such as a new emphasis on specificity. What is less remarked upon is the extent to which Paracelsus’ achievements were rooted in his sense of himself as a magus, working with ‘supra-material forces.’ It’s important to state that the early modern magician, or ‘magus’, didn’t turn up at parties with a pack of cards and a rabbit in a hat.  ‘Natural magic’ was a branch of natural philosophy, a rigorous and intellectual discipline which could help the practitioner to know his Creator, and the world that God had created for mankind.  Paracelsus’ understanding of the cosmos was certainly a spiritual one; he conceived it, in his own words, to be composed of ‘two bodies, an eternal and a corporeal, enclosed in one’. Paracelsus understood medicine in terms of a spiritual relationship between the ‘eternal’ body, or universe, which he called the ‘macrocosm’, and the ‘corporeal’, human body, the ‘microcosm’. The physician’s job was to bring the astral influences of the macrocosm (the universe) to bear upon the microcosm, (the body of the patient). Paracelsus argued ‘it must be understood that the substances received [from the macrocosm] are transmuted by the natural power of the members [body parts].’ The ‘novel sense of specificity’ he developed, a ‘scientific’ advancement for which Paracelsus is often praised, was born from ‘stressing the importance… of the parts of the body and of the influences upon them’. His seemingly ‘scientific’ ideas were informed by a magical, astrological understanding of the cosmos.

A close reading of Paracelsus’ work also reveals that he did not perceive the spiritual relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm as a means via which to develop better ‘science’, or even better medicine per se.  The ultimate aim was to bring the heavens and the earth into balance and thus reconcile man and God. Paracelsus stated ‘It is the concordance’ of heaven and Earth ‘which makes man whole, from which he derives knowledge of the world and hence of himself’. Paracelsus was pursuing a spiritual goal; in knowing himself, the individual could know his maker, ‘For God, who is in heaven, is in man.’ In conceptualising the role of the physician as one who harnessed astral influences to bring microcosm and macrocosm into alignment, Paracelsus was working within a decidedly magical tradition and pursuing magical aims, rather than practising ‘science’.

Giordano Bruno – Martyr or Magician?   14582310440_d7c4536c9e_o

We can see similar trends in the work of Giordano Bruno, remembered as a scientific martyr who was burnt for heresy by the Roman Inquisition in 1600.  Bruno is praised for the defence and development of the Copernican system, which denied that the earth was at the centre of the universe. In his philosophical tract, ‘The Ash Wednesday Supper’, Bruno argued that ‘it is useless to search for the centre or circumference of the universal world’, because ‘all natural motion tends to be circular, either about its own centre or about some other centre.’ From a modern standpoint, these statements seem ‘scientific’.  Yet closer reading indicates that Bruno, like Paracelsus, was deeply influenced by a magical, animist philosophy, which held that celestial objects possessed a ‘soul’.  As historian Francis Yates argues in her seminal article, ‘The Hermetic Tradition in Renaissance Science’, Bruno was nurtured on the theological texts of Hermes Trismegistus, thought to be a pagan sage and contemporary of Moses. The Hermetic tradition, argues Yates, led Bruno to interpret the cosmos as ‘an infinite universe ruled by the laws of magical animism.’ Bruno justified his cosmology on the grounds that that ‘the earth and the other stars move according to the peculiar local differences of their intrinsic principle, which is their own soul’. These ‘souls,’ he continued, are ‘[not] only sensitive… but also intellective.’ Bruno’s denouncement of geocentricism (the notion that the earth is at the centre of the universe) was deeply indebted to a magical, animist thought system which would not be considered ‘scientific’ in today’s terms.

Francis Bacon – Scientist or Sorcerer?  14583025188_4095581339_o

The final historical actor we will put under the microscope is Francis Bacon, whose denouncement of scholasticism and humanism, and insistence on ‘scientific’ experiment have led to his posthumous identification as the father of the modern scientific method. Bacon too, however, was strongly influenced by magical traditions.   There are strong similarities to be found between Bacon’s writing and the conception of the natural philosophical method as expounded by the sixteenth century natural magician, Giovanni Battista della Porta.  For della Porta, the aim of natural magic was to ‘openeth unto us the properties and qualities of hidden things.’ This, too, was the philosophy Bacon defended when he derided the scholastics for dismissing aspects of nature hidden from the intellect as ‘unknowable’. As he argues in ‘The New Organon’, a work critiquing the current natural philosophical method, ‘They [the scholastics] assert simply that nothing can be known; but we say that not much can be known in nature by the way which is now in use.’ The explanation of the natural philosophical method in ‘New Atlantis’, another of Bacon’s famous works, reveals that, like della Porta, he envisaged intellectual enquiry to be geared towards the revelation of Nature’s secrets; ‘The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things’ (my emphasis). Bacon was arguing for the necessity of studying the occult and was conforming to the definition of natural magic as a practical means by which to reveal the secrets of nature ‘hidden from the intellect’.

The influence of magical discourse can also be seen in Bacon’s attack on Aristotelian deduction, the traditional means of making knowledge in which theories or ‘axioms’ form the start point, rather than the end point, of intellectual enquiry. One way to think about this is to consider deduction as ‘top-down’ logic.  Bacon proposed a reversal of this model, arguing that deduction should be replaced by induction, or ‘bottom-up’ logic.  The natural philosopher should start with experiments or ‘particulars’, moving ‘step by step’ towards ‘the most general axioms’. The cornerstone of this ‘inductive’ or ‘bottom-up’ methodology was the use of practical experiment; and it is perhaps in this sense that Bacon’s philosophy most keenly reflected the writings of della Porta.  Della Porta argued that the natural philosopher ‘must be a skilful workman, both by natural gifts, and also by the practice of his own hands: for knowledge without practice and workmanship… [is] nothing worth’. Bacon’s arguments were strikingly similar; ‘For the subtlety of experiments is far greater than that of the senses… we speak of experiments which have been devised and applied specifically for the question under investigation with skill and good technique.’

Bacon’s experimental method, which looks ‘scientific’ from a modern standpoint, was clearly influenced by magical traditions.  This is not to suggest that Bacon saw himself as a magus; in fact he denounced the traditional esotericism, or exclusivity, of natural magic. Yet his experimental, empirical methodology both embraced and rejected magic, and in both instances was a response to it.


Clearly, ‘science’ and ‘magic’ cannot be viewed as two separate practices in the early modern period.  The ‘scientific’ elements of Bacon’s philosophy —  his rejection of scholasticism and Aristotelian logic, his emphasis on empiricism and experiment — bore a striking relation to the role of the magus as perceived by della Porta. Bruno’s defence and development of the Copernican system was deeply influenced by his magical, animistic understanding of the cosmos which held that the stars and the planets had souls. The most striking example of the role of magic in Renaissance thought is perhaps found in the work of Paracelsus, whose supposedly ‘scientific’ advancements were products of a magically informed understanding of the universe and a desire to achieve spiritual reconciliation between man and God.

Written by Martha Bailey


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