Traditionally, the period of history we call the Scientific Revolution has been placed in the seventeenth century and it is usually portrayed as a heroic age, when man sloughed off mysticism and religion, and began to see the universe as it really is. According to this view, this revolution’s highpoints were in astronomy and physics, where thanks to a few fearless men of imagination—Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, among others—a new worldview was fashioned that fundamentally changed the human being’s understanding of the universe. As the historian of science Herbert Butterfield put it in 1948:
The Scientific Revolution outshines everything since the rise of Christianity
and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere
internal displacements within the system of medieval Christianity.
This is a bit of an overstatement, though it does reflect sentiments that were already expressed in the eighteenth century. Consider Alexander Pope’s famous couplet: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”
If you have learned to be suspicious of anything, however, it should be of blanket or celebratory pronouncements on the modernity of people who lived and died more than two centuries before anybody in this room was born. In fact, the idea that all was light after Newton pronounced the new physics is itself a selective whitewash. First, Newton did not free the universe from superstition at all. In Newton’s universe God was present as a tinkerer, giving Creation a nudge here or there as the need arose. Second, to the end of his life Newton remained a convinced alchemist, seeking to transmute metals as a way of delving ever deeper into Creation’s secrets. Indeed, there is reason to believe that Newton suffered from mercury poisoning when he died in 1727--mercury being the essential to all alchemical work. Finally, there was more to science before Newton than simply astronomy, as advances in chemistry and medicine also laid the foundation for generations of subsequent scientific work.
So if we are to consider science in the early-modern world, we must expand our horizons beyond merely the seventeenth century and astronomy. I want to accomplish this today by following two themes. First, I will emphasize how early-modern science was rooted in Renaissance humanist textual criticism. Second, I will show how central magical and alchemical traditions were not only to the break with the medieval worldview, but also to the rise of modern scientific traditions.
So let us begin by looking back to the early Renaissance, in order to trace some of the attitudes and practices that would become fundamental to early-modern science. In my lecture on the Italian Renaissance I discussed how important Petrarch was to the development of Humanism in fifteenth-century Italy, for it was Petrarch who first cultivated a sense of difference from the medieval past. We can make a similar case for Petrarch’s importance to the history of science, since he was also the first European writer to glorify observation of nature since ancient times. Thanks, in part, to him it became fashionable to observe nature as a counterbalance to the untrustworthy medieval inheritance. That is to say, one way of overcoming slavish medieval adherence to textual authority was to treat nature as an alternate text with its own form of authority.
You also know, of course, that another key aspect of the Renaissance was the return of lost classical texts to the European canon. The same holds true for the history of science. In 1406, for example, Jacopo Angelo returned from Constantinople with the first copy of the Ptolemy’s Geography to be seen in the west since classical times. This is an important moment to the history of science, but it is also of more general significance, since it inspired new interest in geography just before Europe was preparing to sail off to what would become the New World. The text’s return is also quite an heroic tale. You see Angelo had gone to Constantinople for the purpose of collecting manuscripts. Unfortunately, his ship sank during his return trip, and the Geography was the one text that he was able to rescue for posterity.
I should also add two examples from the history of physics and medicine, respectively. First, consider that in 1417, Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) discovered in an Italian monastery the sole surviving copy of Lucretius’ De rerum natura. Lucretius was a Roman philosopher and poet in the tradition of the Greek philosopher Democritus, which mean that he subscribed to the classical Greek doctrine of atomism. The republication of Lucretius’ poetry sparked interest in Greek atomism and it became fundamental to the rise of atomism in science during the seventeenth century Europe. Second, medicine benefited from another discovery in Italian monasteries, when Guarino de Verona (1370-1460) recovered Celsus’ De medicina. This text was important for two reasons. First, the Latin prose was beautiful, which gave it an allure beyond its content. Second, it became an alternate source of medical authority beyond the ancient Galenic texts that the scholastics had emphasized.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this general recovery is, however, the spread of Greek among European scholars. We have already noted how important Greek was to both the Renaissance in Italy and the Reformation in northern Europe. In science, its return is equally important. In a previous lecture I discussed the importance of Manuel Chrysolorus as a teacher of Greek in Florence for the Renaissance. In 1439, another Byzantine scholar, Gemistos Pletho, arrived in Florence to teach Greek, and his influence sparked an even larger revival in Greek studies. As a result, by the end of the fifteenth century, many scholars were engaged in large projects of translation. The humanist scholar Thomas Linacre (1460-1524), for example, translated all of Proclus (410-485) and some still unknown Galenic texts into Latin. In Paris, Johannes Guinter of Andernach (1505-1574) translated almost the entirety of Galen’s medical works into Latin, and this was important, as we will see, because Guinter taught Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), the founder of modern anatomical study.
Still, with the return of Greek also came something that the modern mind finds strange, Greek mysticism. I have already mentioned in another lecture Plato’s mysticism, one aspect of which some of you have run across in his two-world theory. In a few words, one world is physical, but unreal, while the other world is ideal, but real; philosophers, of course, can think their way to the real world. In the third century AD an Egyptian philosopher named Plotinus reinterpreted this dichotomous worldview in hierarchical terms, holding that the physical and ideal worlds existed in a continuum, which meant that human beings could think their way up to the Supreme Being. This theory is what historians of philosophy refer to as Neo-Platonism, and it is enormously important historically, since it shaped generations of European minds.
Neo-Platonism, in turn, helped to set the stage for the arrival of the most important mystical tradition, Hermeticism. During the fifteenth century, texts ascribed to one Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice-Great Hermes) began to appear in Italy. This Hermes was believed to have lived in ancient Egypt and to have been the inventor of writing, and among his greatest works were the mystically inspired Corpus Hermeticum. It turned out later that these texts were not written in ancient Egypt by the inventor of writing, but were written down somewhere between the first and third centuries AD, probably in Hellenistic Alexandria. Written mostly in Greek, these texts included speculation on alchemy, astrology, theology, and philosophy. When a copy of this corpus finally arrived in Florence in 1463, Cosimo de Medici required the famous scholar Marsilio Ficino to translate the entire collection of 17 books before doing any other work. (You need to think about this, for a moment. The greatest scholar of Greek in Europe was required to translate works on the occult, even before turning his attention to Plato’s lost dialogues. This is not take cast aspersion on the decision, but to show you how important these texts were thought to have been at the time.)
The Hermetic texts almost immediately became central to the elaboration of a system of natural magic. Yes, magic was once central to science in early-modern Europe. It is important to understand, however, that this was not black magic or witchcraft. The magic of the scientist was considered to be an essential part of God’s universe, because all parts of the universe existed in harmony. We can see this in the general belief in the macrocosm/microcosm relationship. Put simply, many people in the fifteenth century believed that man was a microcosm of the larger universe, connected in mystical ways to the divine whole. This meant, as a practical matter, for example, that man could be affected by the stars, but could also affect them. We may chuckle at this idea now, but it was enormously productive in the cultural realm. Much of Renaissance Italian art was deeply affected by the macrocosm/microcosm arrangement, and Renaissance science derived much from it as well.
One example of mysticism’s fundamental contribution to science, perhaps even its central one, is the elevation of number in early-modern eyes. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras had founded a philosophical tradition that took numbers to be symbols for greater things, thus injecting numerology into Greek philosophy. The interest in numbers persisted in Greek thought right through Plato, who included numerological speculations in his dialogue Timaeus. This meant that things such as numbers and geometric shapes became pregnant with meaning in the Renaissance world. In 1584, for example the Renaissance scientists Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615) published Natural Magick, in which he expounded on the natural sympathies that coursed through the universe. In Germany, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) associated magic with religion in his De occulta philosophia (1509-1510), thus bringing together the study of nature with religious worship. And one final example, the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler believed that the solar system was designed to coincide with a series of geometric shapes. Thus, astronomy became a way to derive religious meaning from the design of God’s universe.
What all this means is that things we believe do not belong to science were fundamental to scientific practice right through Isaac Newton, and even beyond. The universe was a sympathetic place, in which correspondences existed that could be manipulated through the proper understanding of things such as number. This belief ran across all the modern sciences that appeared at the time, such as astronomy, medicine, and chemistry. And now I will offer a brief overview of some key players in the creation of modern science.
We will begin with chemistry, since modern science derives mostly from early chemical work and language. The most important person in the history of early chemistry is Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, otherwise known as Paracelsus, or “beyond Celsus.” From just outside of Zurich, Paracelsus’ father was a rural doctor with a penchant for Renaissance science, which meant that the younger von Hohenheim grew up being exposed to the latest Humanist criticism. Paracelsus is important to both the history of chemistry and the history of medicine. In chemistry, he first directed people’s attention to the fact that compounds can be dissolved, and his emphasis on the use of tools such as distillation equipment pointed to the future of laboratory science. In medicine, he turned people’s attention away from Galenic humors and encouraged doctors to look for the causes of disease outside the body.
In medicine, a series of important people command attention, including Realdo Columbo (1510-1559), Gabriele Falloppio (1523-1562), Andreas Vesalius () and William Harvey. All of these men either studied or taught at the university of Padua. Vesalius and Harvey are the two most important of them. In 1543, Vesalius published the first complete anatomical text written in Europe since Galenic times, his De humani corporis fabrica (1543), which became a benchmark in the medical world for its emphasis on direct observation in medicine over commentary on ancient texts. Galen no longer had all the answers.
One important outcome of this new attitude toward direct observation of the human body was William Harvey’s discovery of the human circulatory system. In his De motu cordis (1628), Harvey put together the first correct explanation of human circulation. Whereas Galen had believed that blood actually passed through invisible pores in the heart’s central wall, Harvey showed how it went through the right side of the heart, then to the lungs before passing through the left side of the heart on its way out to the rest of the body. Harvey’s work is now considered a masterpiece, but it was accepted ony very slowly. The marked differences between the early-modern world and our own is that one of Harvey’s earliest and most vocal supporters was Robert Fludd, who believed that Harvey’s hypothesis offered insight into deeper mystical truths.
It is in the context of Renaissance chemistry and medicine that we can approach the astronomical segment of the Scientific Revolution. Every history of modern astronomy begins with Nicolaus Copernicus, the first astronomer to posit a heliocentric universe over the traditional geocentric one. Although we see him as the creator of a new astronomy, Copernicus was a man of the middle ages. His work was not based on new observations of astral phenomena, but simply an aesthetic reinterpretation of the traditional cosmology.
Whereas, medieval Aristotelian cosmology had held that the universe rotated around the earth, Copernicus posited as an hypothesis that the earth revolved around the sun. This shift in perspective would allow the astronomer to get rid of what were called epicycles. The problem was that the other planets appeared to move backward in the sky at certain times of the year. Astronomers had long posited epicycles, circles within circular motion to explain this relative motion. Copernicus held, however, that it would make more sense simply to put the earth in orbit around the sun to get rid of all the epicycles. In 1543, Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which explained the entire system from the new perspective.
As was the case with Harvey, the acceptance of this new hypothesis was slow, at best. But over the next century most astronomers accepted the new system. Johannes Kepler accepted the Copernican approach, because he could not make the old system square with the volumes of observations he inherited from his mentor the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Kepler, reduced the Copernican system to s series of laws that governed planetary motion, though as I have mentioned, these laws covered for a deeper mystical arrangement behind God’s universe.
Kepler was rooted in the Renaissance, but the mystical influences lessened in the work of men such as Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. Galileo’s contribution was to reduce the importance of the why question in astronomy and physics and to concentrate on the how. That is, it was more important to observe and explain how things moved in the universe than to speculate on God’s plan for the entire universe. To that end, he introduced basic experiments in acceleration that are still done in physics classrooms. He also destroyed the last remnants of the scholastic vision of the universe by being the first to use the telescope to observe the Heavens. Among other things, he discovered that the moon was not a perfect sphere and that other planets also had moons. There was, therefore, no reason to believe that the heavens were a realm of perfection.
Isaac Newton brought together all of these advances in physics and astronomy, providing the first unified theory of planetary motion. In his Principia Mathematica (1687) Newton brought together the Copernican system with Kepler’s laws of motion, and Galileo’s interest in physical experiment. In this text Newton posited a universal theory of gravity and demonstrated how planetary motion could be explained exactly by the application of this rule. Of course, as I have already noted, there was till plenty of room in Newton’s mind for speculative work, including his alchemical studies. How Newton’s legacy was purged of these less-than-scientific-elements is another story. The point for us to keep in mind now, however, is to see Newton’s universe as an outgrowth of a larger process of change that began with the Renaissance and extended into the eighteenth century. Modern science may have arrived in 1687, but early-modern mysticism managed to hang around for a while longer.