Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"detached from the masses and usually disempowered"

In 1610 Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist was a big hit in London. It was one of Jonson's most successful comedies, and continues to be discussed, published and produced to this day (the photo to the right is from a production by Bell Shakespeare, an Australian company, while the photo at the very bottom of this post is from a Cleveland State University production - both of these are from the Spring of 2009, nearly 400 years after the play was first produced). The play satirizes human gullibility and it might superficially appear to be an "attack" on Alchemy itself, but Jonson clearly shows a great deal of detailed knowledge of Alchemy, and even assumes such knowledge on the part of his audience. As H.C. Hart wrote in his 1903 edition of the play, Jonson's pen "is levelled at" both "dupes" and "Puritans", whereas "the cheaters" (dishonest Alchemists) are themselves "never made hateful".

If you do a google search on "ben jonson alchemist" (without quotes) the very first hit is at Adam McLean's Alchemy website. Here is what McLean has to say about Jonson and his play:
Ben Jonson (1573-1637) was one of the foremost of the Jacobean dramatists. He wrote a number of plays (both comedies and tragedies) and a series of stylised masques for the Court. He had a keen eye for the follies of his contemporaries, and in this play he particularly satirises human gullibility. He displays considerable understanding of alchemy and makes many jokes based on its symbolism (and in two places even refers to Dee and Kelly). He obviously expected the audience for this play to have some knowledge of alchemical ideas. Jonson's The Alchemist written in 1610, thus presents us with a satirical window through which we can see one way in which alchemy was perceived in the opening decade of the 17th century.
Mclean also provides the entire text of the play at his website. The whole site is a goldmine of information and beautiful alchemical artwork, such as the image to the right of the quote above.

Alchemy was no passing fad among early 17th century Londoners, nor was Jonson by any means the first English writer to make use of that subject. Alchemy finds mention already in the 14th century Middle English classics Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales, for examples. And the cultural acceptance of Alchemy is dramatically demonstrated a bit later in the 17th century, when England produced her two most famous Alchemists: Isaac Newton, and Robert Boyle. That two of the greatest lights of the so-called Scientific Revolution should turn out to be Alchemists is in fact completely unremarkable, since what is today classified as Esotericism (and/or "Occultism") was in Newton and Boyle's day still a well established part of elite intellectual culture - as it had been throughout the entire history of European Christendom, and before that of classical (including late-antique) Paganism.

In 1687 Isaac Newton (at the ripe old age of 45) published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which he first presented to the world his Law of Universal Gravitation, and his Laws of Motion. Newton argued (in Latin) that all motions of all physical objects everywhere in the universe are governed by the same set of physical laws, and that these laws can be precisely stated in mathematical form. It can be difficult to grasp the significance of Newton's accomplishment - but it is also possible to overstate just how "revolutionary" it was. Stoic philosophers, going back to Zeno of Citium, who died 19 centuries before the publication of Newton's Principia, had always argued that the entirety of the physical universe (inclusive of "celestial" objects) is everywhere governed by one set of universal principles. And centuries before Zeno, Pythagoreans had already concluded that all of the cosmos is governed by mathematical relationships, and that these relationships can be discovered by conducting experiments.

In other words, while it is true that Newton contributed to overthrowing the stilted worldview that had hobbled the minds of European Christians for centuries, it is not true that Europeans had thereby discovered an utterly new "scientific" worldview that had never existed before.

25 years prior to Newton's Principia, Robert Boyle ("the father of chemistry and brother of the earl of Cork") formulated the Law governing gases that bears his name:
Boyle's Law: for a fixed amount of an ideal gas kept at a fixed temperature, the product of pressure and volume is a constant:
PV = k
Boyle's greatest contribution to science, however, was his masterpiece of scientific writing, The Sceptical Chymist, in which he often sounds as if he might be advocating a thoroughly modern and thoroughly scientific world view:
I perceive that diverse of my friends have thought it very strange to hear me speak so irresolvedly, as I have been wont to do, concerning those things which some take to be the elements, and others to be the principles of all mixt bodies. But I blush not to acknowledge that I much less scruple to confess that I doubt when I do so, than to profess that I know what I do not: and I should have much stronger expectations than I dare yet entertain, to see philosophy solidly established, if men would more carefully distinguish those things that they know from those that they ignore or do but think, and then explicate clearly the things they conceive they understand, acknowledge ingenuously what it is they ignore, and profess so candidly their doubts, that the industry of intelligent persons might be set to work to make further enquiries, and the easiness of less discerning men might not be imposed on.
[This is the opening sentence of the section titled, oddly, "Part of the First Dialogue"]
A little thoughtful reflection on Boyle's choice of words reveals that his "scepticism" is strongly and self-consciously Socratic, and that alone should give pause to anyone who wishes to interpret this scepticism as something fundamentally "modern". And for all of his scepticism and doubting, Boyle in fact makes no systematic distinction between Alchemy (of which he was an avid practitioner and proponent) and what we today call the "science" of Chemistry -- at least according to Lawrence Principe in his remarkable study of Boyle: The Aspiring Adept [pp. 30-1]. (For more on Principe see also here.) However, Boyle does proclaim the following:
Believe me when I declare that I distinguish betwixt those Chymists that are either Cheats, or but Laborants, and the true Adepti.
In other words Boyle divided Chymists into three groups: (1) dishonest charlatans, (2) honest and technically skilled Chymists who nevertheless lack any systematic understanding of what they are doing, and (3) "Adepti" who possess virtue, skill, and understanding. In fact Boyle strongly suggests a fourth category, that of the "aspiring adept", a group in which he implicitly enrolls himself (this being the origin of the title of Principe's book referenced above).

The examples of Boyle and Newton leave no doubt, regardless of any other considerations, that Esoteric subjects were treated seriously by some of the greatest intellects of the early modern period. Among those other considerations are two that must be kept clearly in mind in order to avoid confusion. First of all there is the traditional secrecy, well established since ancient times, that attends to closely guarded knowledge reserved for "adepts" and "initiates". Second of all there is the serious matter of the theological and legal status of Alchemy and Esoteric subjects in general -- which significantly adds to the need for secrecy and dissembling. The line separating Alchemy from such things as witchcraft and/or sorcery was far from clear, and people were still being put to death for such things, although that practice was fortunately becoming less frequent. Newton died in March of 1727, and in June of that year Janet Horne became the last person in Scotland to be executed for the crime of witchcraft. Horne's daughter was also found guilty and sentenced to die, but escaped.

Newton and Boyle were part of a long and proud tradition of elite intellectuals actively engaged in Esoteric studies and practices. Giordano Bruno, John Dee, Cornelius Agrippa, Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino were each intellectual superstars in their day. In addition to these "usual suspects" many more names could be trotted out: de Correggio, Lazzarelli, Trithemius, Patrizi, and so forth. Bruno's gruesome execution brutally demonstrates just how far from marginal and unimportant esoteric ideas and practices were considered to be.

The association of leading European intellectuals with Esotericism long predates the Florentine Renaissance. Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti are two well known and well-studied examples from 13th and early 14th century Italy. Meanwhile in Byzantium the Platonic school of philosophy founded in the 11th century by Michael Psellos flourished right up to the fall Constantinople. A major focus of that school was the Theurgic Platonism of Iamblichus and Proclus, as well as the Chaldean Oracles and associated philosophical texts.

In classical Pagan antiquity (at which point we are no longer talking about just, or even primarily, Europeans, it should be pointed out) that which is today considered "Esoteric" was in the vast majority of cases an unproblematic and unremarkable part of mainstream intellectual and religious culture. Divination, in particular, was a central pillar of traditional religion in classical (pre-Alexander) Hellenic culture, and also in the earliest forms of Roman culture. Herodotus' Histories and Xenophon's Anabasis are important and accessible primary sources for classical Greece, while Livy's Ab Urbe condita and Cicero's On Divination provide similar information about early Roman religion.

In his Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Ronald Hutton claimed that the Platonic/Hermetic Paganism of late-antiquity was "detached from the masses and usually disempowered" (pp.87-8). In this way he hoped to disparage and marginalize what he had previously believed did not exist at all: the connection between modern and ancient Paganism. Hutton even claims that "the private and avant garde nature of these ideas and practices gave them something else in common with those of modern pagans." However, from the early classical period until as late as the early 18th century, this Platonism that Hutton so disdains (he is also very keen to point out it's lack of Aryan purity due to the taint of Semitic and African influences) was very much a part of the cultural mainstream.


Al said...

I'm looking at my copies of Hutton's work for the term "Aryan Purity." Can you give a page cite for that one?

Honestly, it seems like we're reading two people with the same name since your impression of his work is radically different than my own. Perhaps it is because I'm not assigning motives to a man that I've never met. I seem to recall that we've had this problem previously though I don't recall which author it was.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Please note that I did not place "Aryan Purity" in quotes. Hutton is very concerned with showing the un-Europeanness of people like Iamblichus and Porphry - and the entire cosmopolitan millieu of late-antique Platonic Paganism. He is absolutely correct in pointing this out, but in my reading of Hutton his point is to problemtatize this phenomenon. The false idea of Paganism (modern or ancient) as "European" is discussed a little more fully in my post by the title "Paganism is not a European Religion":

Al said...

I've read your post before.

Personally, I don't see how one could go on too much about un-Europeaness of Iamblichus or the others given their roles as inheritors of the Greek philosophical tradition.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

"Greek" philosophy was from the beginning "eastward looking". M.L. West goes so far as to say that Greek culture as a whole should be categorized under Near Eastern cultures.

Porphyry tells us that once Plotinus started studying under Ammonius "under his guidance [Porphyry] made such progress in philosophy that he became eager to investigate the Persian methods and the system adopted among the Indians."