Book Cover

Black Magic and White Magic

by Jacob Bronowski

The origins of science are intertwined with the pursuit of the occult subjects the contemplation of which would make many a modern scientist shudder with distaste.When John Maynard Keynes bought a trunk full of Isaac Newton's papers and inspected them,he was startled to find that Newton spent as much time studying alchemy and numerology as he did formulating the laws of motion.Newton,he declared,"was the last of the magicians." But not all magic is the same,as the scientist-philosopher Jacob Bronowski (1908 - 1974) explains.

....The form of magic that I shall discuss is the notion that there is a way of having a power over nature which simply depends on hitting the right key.If you say "open sesame" then nature will open for you;if you are an expert then nature will open for you;if you are a specialist of some kind or if you are remote,if you are esoteric,if you are an initiate there is some way of getting into nature which is not accessible to other people.

Now this was the dominant theme of all those centuries up to the fifteenth.And all primitive forms of magic - sympathetic magic,the kind of magic you read about in Lévi - Strauss for instance,magic that structuralists talk about - all come back to this notion: there is a way of having a power which is esoteric and does not depend on generally accessible knowledge. Now I think that is fundamentally false and I also think ,of course,that it is terribly dangerous, because it recurs in every generation. But let me say something about it in this highly specific context of magic up to the fifteenth century.

One of the things that must have struck you if you have read any book about magic is that there is a tendency for the rituals of magic to turn nature upside-down [Getting CAUSE and EFFECT the wrong way around-LB].For instance,if you have ever seen an illustration of a witch riding a broomstick,she does not ride the broomstick sitting forward,she rides the broomstick sitting backward.Now it may seem a childish thing for an eminent intellectual historian to be discussing which way witches sit on broomsticks.But the fact is that intellectual history is made up of exactly such points.Why did people think that satanic rituals had to be set backwards? Why did people celebrate the black mass by going through the mass in reverse? Because the concept of that conquest of nature was that whatever the laws of nature were,the magic consisted of turning them back.What Joshua said was,"Sun stand thou still";he didn't say anything about ellipses or inverse square laws.He said "let us stop the laws of nature and turn them back in their tracks." And really,one could say,if I may put this terribly crudely,that until the year 1500 any attempt to get power from nature had inherent in it the idea that you could only do this if you forced nature to provide it against her will. Nature had to be subjugated,and magic was a form of words,actions and pictures which forced nature to do something which she wouldn't of herself do.

Let me note here that science does exactly the opposite.But it is important to realize that the subjugation of nature is the theme of all magical practice.We must get her to do something for us which she wouldn't do for everybody else - which means we must make her disobey her own laws.Of course,people before 1500 didn't really have much of an idea of what a law of nature was.But insofar as they conceived of nature following a natural course, magic was something that reversed it.

What I am saying is in my view,although it is not the view of all those who have written about magic.Lynn Thorndike,for example,was an eminent writer on the subject.His eight-volume work on the subject is entitled The History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York:Columbia University Press,1923 - 58). It would be impertinent of me not to state that he thought differently.However,the very title The History of Magic and Experimental Science implies a view of science which is different from mine.What Lynn Thorndike said was that there are in magical and particularly alchemical practices many techniques which later formed an important part of technology and experimental science.Now that's undoubtedly true.But ,alas,in my view,this has nothing to do with the case.Of course there were people of all kinds practicing alchemy right up to the days of Newton,whose alchemical writings are so voluminous that they were never published.Nevertheless,my main interest is in their attitude toward how the world works and how you make it obey,and not at all in their discoveries of how you smelt this or how you make that process in metallurgy work.It was the view of Lynn Thorndike,and it has been the view of some other eminent historians of science,that there is a continuity running from even before the Middle Ages into modern science.This is what Pierre Duhem was anxious to show,and in a way this is what George Sarton said also.And of course, there is some truth in that.There is not the slightest doubt that any particular piece of science that you have today can be traced to some fantasy in the Middle Ages......

But it is my view that those continuities give a false perspective of the great threshold from which the burst of modern science comes.And I would put this quite simply: I don't know whether science was born before 1500 or not (though I don't believe it was) but I do know that,mysteriously,magic in fact died after 1500.

I ought also to pay a small obeisance to those historians who think that we ought not to look at the history of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance as if in some way it were a forerunner of today.I wrote a book of intellectual history and was amused to find that one of my kinder critics said that it was all very fine,but why did I think that the present age was any better than the fifteenth century? Well,I don't know whether it is better,but it seems to me terribly interesting that the fifteenth century has led to the present age and that the present age has not led to the fifteenth century.

My view of history is essentially an evolutionary one.I think it is right that we should look at history with hindsight,because I think,for two reasons,that the most important species-specific thing which man possesses and which started him off on his evolutionary career is exactly hindsight.If you make any plans,only hindsight will tell you whether they were any good.Secondly,we know from work on memory that it is only from hindsight,only from memory, that imagination and foresight develops.So I make no apologies for the fact that I shall discuss the history of the past as if the most exciting thing about it is that it has led us to the present......

A point which must be made very forcibly about science is that it took an irreversible step in the cultural evolution of man.I have noted that we did not lay enough stress on the fact not only that science has made our lives different but also that it was a threshold of this kind.Holding that view I am bound to say that the dates of the scientific revolution between 1500 and 1700 do represent a major threshold in the development of science.

Now that seems strange to people who have tried to trace the history of science back beyond that time,because they point out that,after all,there was a school of people - who read Aristotle,who were Averroists,who continued to talk about scientific truth and distinguish it from spiritual truth - in a number of universities,such as Paris and Padua, through the thirteenth,fourteenth,and fifteenth centuries.

The school that looks for a continuity in the development of science looks for it there.Now I think that view is mistaken because I think that in about 1500 something very remarkable happened in all intellectual history,of which science is a part and a crucial part.It's not terribly fashionable to talk about the Renaissance now,because everybody is very busy explaining how it all really started much earlier.And it's not very fashionable even to talk about humanism, because very eminent scholars,including Professor Kristeller of Columbia University,have pointed out that humanism was a special kind of academic syllabus that led to the elaboration of rhetoric and theories of language at the expense of theology and other practices.In itself,humanism did not make a new way of life,and of course it appears to have had no influence on science.All that seems to me to be quite right.And yet it is absolutely true that Florence in 1500 was a different city ( I cite Kristeller again) from Florence in 1400.Something had happened in Italy which made a great inroad in established,authoritarian,and traditional views of life.

When we come to revalue the Renaissance over the next twenty or thirty years of scholarship,the view that we are sure to come up with is that the most important thing was not that people in Florence started reading Plato instead of Aristotle,or that people from Padua argued about this or that,or that Ficino wrote this and Pomponazzi wrote that,but that in some way a dissolution of tradition took place and there developed an interest in new things in which the particular character of the new was not nearly so important as the shaking up of the old.And that characteristic was crucial to the development of science at that particular time.To my mind,the most extraordinary thing is that about 1500 the incursion of neo-Platonic and mystical ideas gave that impulse to the human mind,made that intellectual revaluation from which science and the arts took off together.The view that I am putting forward is that this revolution worked as much in the sciences as in the arts and that it is impossible to understand the really radical change that the Renaissance made unless we see science not as an afterthought but as an integral part of that humanism - rhetoric and linguistics and all.

Now to some small,interesting,specific examples:Between 1450 and 1465 Cosimo de'Medici began to collect a library of Greek manuscripts.They were being brought to the West by scholars and he sent his own merchants out to buy them up .They brought back the Dialogues of Plato,which had still not been translated from Greek,and they brought back also an incomplete manuscript of the Corpus Hermeticum [Ref: Davis & Hersh "The Mathematical Experience" {Underneath the Fig Leaf} p100 4.Hermetic Geometry;C.B.Boyer "A History of Mathematics" Ch14 p246 {Europe in the Middle Ages}],the fabulous book of magic of the Middle Ages of which, again,only a small part had been translated into Latin.His secretary was a man called Marsilio Ficino,and in 1463 he was translating the dialogues of Plato when Cosimo de'Medici told him to translate the Corpus Hermeticum first. In fact,Cosimo died the next year and he obviously felt that this esoteric knowledge,this magic,he had to know.Now the Corpus Hermeticum is an extraordinary book which remains in our language simply because we still use the phrase "hermetically sealed" to mean sealed by secret alchemical formulae.

Although the book is called Corpus Hermeticum because it was supposed to be a book about Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes is the Three Times Great who was supposed to have been a mythological Greek - Hebrew character),Ficino thought he might have been Moses himself. I need not tell you that the books are fakes, but that was not discovered until 150 years later - and anyway,as I have already explained,fakery was no crime at that time.

Ficino was an extraordinary character because he came at a moment when the old black magic,the witches' Sabbath, and so on,was not done anymore.Ficino never got up and said "I won't go to a coven of witches." He was too polite, too much of a gentleman,to do all this romping about in the nude in damp fields with satanic imagery and goats,and he was from a new kind of upper class society that was taking an interest in magic. They were sophisticated [The word "sophisticated" comes from the Sophists who had a penchant for making a point so unintelligible with flowery language that one could not tell if one were being deceived or not -LB] and gentlemanly,and this was not the kind of black magic in which they could be interested .And yet,Ficino really did sing hymns;he really did believe that he was conjuring down the influences of the planets and that in some way the world was opening up ,that Orpheus and Pythagoras and all those planetary influences were one.

This is really the central point of neo-Platonism as Ficino introduced it.The world is a great harmony,and harmony is the crucial word.It literally meant both music and mathematics and incidentally also poetry.All these things were different aspects of the universal spirit,the anima mundi,the thing that Plato and Plotinus said was like a great organic creature of the world.Indeed Giorgio said that all this was simply a description,that the universe was the face of God and that all its aspects - music,poetry,and mathematics - were different expressions of the fact that it was a harmonious whole [Such is the Quantum Physical view Ref: Danah Zohar "The Quantum Self"-LB].Music and mathematics go together because Pythagoras and the Greeks ,three thousand years ago,had discovered that in order to make an octave you have to make a musical string twice as long and in order to make the other main notes you have to have whole - number separations.And this extraordinary notion that the length of the vibrating string also gives pleasure to the ear and fills your soul with harmony had come down from the Greeks.For instance,Pythagoras invented the phrase "The music of the spheres." [Ref: C.B.Boyer "A History of Mathematics" p55 also { Pythagorean Pentagram}p49 and {Golden Section} p73;Blue File: pscript5.wri] Shortly after the time I am describing,Kepler tried to fit the five Platonic solids into the orbits of the solar system [Ref: C.B.Boyer "A History of Mathematics" p84 also {Elements-Earth ,Fire,Air Water};I.Stewart " The Problems of Mathematics" p195] because he naturally felt that all these things must go together - mathematics,music,harmony were one.Harmony is indeed the word to hold on to.

The exciting thing about these neo-Platonists is,first of all,that they made people interested in mathematics.It was from that moment onward that Greek mathematics was rediscovered,became exciting to people again;they started arguing about Playfair's axiom and all kinds of things that were unclear in Euclid.That led to natural knowledge though mathematics of which Newton really set the keystone.Secondly,people like Ficino had this marvellous sense that the world was at once both intelligible and beautiful.The phrase (which does not come from Ficino)about its being the face of God is the crux here.We have the sense that suddenly the Middle Ages were over.That rather heavy view of God sitting on the world with man quietly padding about making sure that he doesn't give offence had ended.There was suddenly a rainbow in the sky,the world was beautiful.We have the transcending sense of the beauty of nature,but above all the beauty of the creation.

We see this outlook in Copernicus when in the next century,in 1543,he published the book that he had been working on for nearly thirty years about the revolution of the planets.he talked about the sun,about how marvellous it is.Of course,the textbooks just tell us that in effect he said,"well it works simpler if we put the sun in the centre of the universe." But that's not what he said.He said the sun was fit to be at the centre of the universe.The sun was marvellous.And he took that straight out of Ficino,who in fact wrote a book called Of the Sun.It has only recently been discovered that when Giordano Bruno came to Oxford in the next century and lectured about the Copernican system,the Oxford Dons treated him with grave suspicion,and particularly because they all spotted the quotations from Ficino that he thought they wouldn't know.

This sense that man and the universe are one,that the presence of God in the universe is a different kind of presence, is what makes the neo-Platonic revolution crucial in the science of the Renaissance.I have called it antiauthoritarian,but I ought really to have said anti-traditional.Now I do not mean by this that people would suddenly go around saying God is dead,which would have been inconceivable then.What was happening was something quite different:there had been a hierarchy of God,man,nature.And that in that hierarchy God and man had moved into one position.Man was still dominating nature,but there was no longer the sense that he was under any higher authority.Everything that God had expressed was expressed in man.

We see this best in a follower of Ficino,Pico della Mirandola ,who in 1487 proposed to dispute a famous series of theses,which have since come down to us under the title Of the Dignity of Man.Now,the dispute really was to a considerable extent about the dignity of man,provided that you understood this equivalence of man and God.Pico della Mirandola was saying above all that man was a unique animal because he was the only animal that made himself,that had no species-specific properties.Well, that is something of an exaggeration,but you know it is not quite as bad animal behaviour as you would think,because it is certainly true that the most important part of the human equipment is its enormously greater flexibility and adaptability than any other animal.In biology we generally express this by saying that whereas every other animal fits into an evolutionary niche,man essentially is busy hewing his evolutionary niche out of nature for himself......

Pico della Mirandola was also very much against astrology.And he says so in the oration,which is full of all kinds of stuff out of the Cabala - all kinds of things that nobody reads anymore except in corners.And yet,he says in 1487,astrology is all wrong. Why? - because it outrages the dignity of man that we should be subject to the influence of the planets out there travelling on their immutable,dreary,predestined courses [But that view of the planets is a Classical deterministic view,which is not relevant to modern mathematics whence the motions are subject to Chaos theory-LB].That cannot be consonant with the dignity of man.It is a gorgeous thought;naturally we would put it rather differently now.We would say that it's not consonant with the dignity of a planet.

Both Ficino and Pico as well as a number of other people about 1500 were practitioners of magic,and yet their magic had a quite different quality.They were no longer trying to force nature into a different mode.In some way they were trying to exploit a preordained harmony in nature.Ficino says this quite firmly: "When I sing a song to the sun it is not because I expect the sun to change its course but (because) I expect to put myself into a different cast of mind in relation to the sun." Now this is a very important concept that developed between 1500 and 1550 - the notion that,yes,there is a magic,but it is a natural magic,a white magic.No one knows quite how it works,but it attempts to extract out of the universe its own harmonies for our good.And here we are on the way to science as we understand it.If one had to put a date to this,one would say that roughly speaking between 1500 and the publication of Porta's book in 1558,which was called Natural Magic,the turning point took place.Of course,I am not trying to make the sort of point that on the 27th of February it all changed.History doesn't work like that.But what did happen was that highly intelligent people were bothered about demons and angels and all the oppositions in the old magic; they were convinced that the universe was harmonious,that man could be in contact with it,and they asked themselves how this could be done.There is a fascinating series of writings to be explored still between 1500 and 1550 (complicated of course by the occurrence of the new humanism) - those of people like Erasmus,Luther (Protestantism) which keeps on saying - "Well,how could magic work?"

Now we come to several very interesting trends of thought.There are some people who say,"well,you see it's all psychological" and you get this.They say,"The faithful or the superstitious are in a special frame of mind where they really see these apparitions and feel these influences." All right - now nobody is much bothered about this,because psychology was the one thing they really understood.And they understood about the art of memory and about human imagination and about the power of imagination,but by 1500 they were asking themselves a very crucial question - "Can this be transferred to the outside world? We are all convinced that a man can hold the audience spellbound,but will this spell work on the chairs? Will this spell work on dead nature?" And this question - "Is white magic transitive - can it be transferred to dead objects?" This is what was now engaging everybody's attention.There was wonderful excitement about how different people treat this,but they all came back to the same thing.Now they took different lines.

Some of them said,"Well,yes,but in very special circumstances"; or "Well,yes,but it isn't exactly that you can make nature obey your will,but if you choose to do it at a moment when nature is ready,then you can just slightly distort her," and so on.Some of them,of course,began to say about this time that it's just not true.There isn't any magic at all.For several hundred years everybody had been saying that it is well known that menstruating women must not look in mirrors because they tarnish the mirror.And then,around 1500,people said,"Have I been looking in mirrors recently? I haven't noticed any tarnishing." And of course,at that moment, all those delicious old wives' tales about the influence of man on the environment began to disappear.To summarize,I quote from Pomponazzi,who,in a book called Of Incantations,says quite firmly,

It is possible to justify any experience by natural causes and natural causes only.There is no reason that could ever compel us to make any perception depend on demonic powers.There is no point in introducing supernatural agents.It is ridiculous as well as frivolous to abandon the evidence of natural reason and to search for things that are neither probable nor rational.

Well,of course,that's a very wild choice by this time.And Pomponazzi was an Aristolian from Padua to whom these things came,as it were,from the outside;but he did mark a great turning point in this period,the time when black magic was at an end;everyone had gone through the white magic period.In black magic,the belief was that you would make nature run against her will.In white magic,you began to say ,"Well,you know,let's make sure nature works with us.There is harmony;we could exploit it." Finally came the concept of natural law itself.And that was represented,in a most spectacular way,for the first time in the writing of Francis Bacon between 1600 and 1620.It was Francis Bacon,whom I was quoting,who was the first person to say "knowledge is power." It was Francis Bacon who said in the Norvum Organum "we cannot command nature except by obeying her." At this point,the scientific revolution was really complete.This is an important issue because there has been a good deal of argument about who Francis Bacon was - whether he wrote Shakespeare,for example.It is particularly important to determine how he fits into all this.And it's really only since the publication of Paolo Rossi's book,Francis Bacon from Magic to Science (University of Chicago Press,1968),that it has really become clear to us that he went through all this;he understood all this Italian stuff.And then at the end,he came out with this simple notion;it wouldn't work.

That's a very English thing to do.One could have an entirely separate chapter on that Puritan frame of mind which made him say,"all this stuff about the face of God and the harmony of the spheres and the number,mythology,and the love of God - how does it really work?" At any rate,it's clear that he was outraged by many of the fancies of the sixteenth-century writers on memory and magic,and that he came to this crucial conclusion,"we cannot command nature except by obeying her." There are laws of nature,and what you really do is not turn them back but to exploit them.

If I might give you one spectacular example,who would have thought in 1569 - when they were already well on the way to this concept - that if you really wanted to make the biggest bang that you ever made on earth,you would not in any way call up the sun,call up the volcanoes,call up the mystic power;you would just take ordinary atoms of uranium and you would put the U238 atoms in one box and the U235 in another box and that this simple rearrangement of nature by her own laws would blow up 120,000 people in Japan.

I've made a passing reference to a shift to England at this time and it would not be fair if I didn't draw your attention to the importance of Protestantism and Puritanism.There is a very curious history about magic I believe to be true.It has always been a puzzle why,certainly from 1640 and probably even before,the Protestant countries began to take the lead in science.Obviously the trial of Galileo in 1633 had tremendous influence,but there must be something in the background of the period 1500 - 1600 which began to to shift the centre of gravity.Now I believe that this has a great deal to do with magic,for a very curious reason.By 1600 it was open to anybody to say "you can't persuade people of one thing when another is true simply by using words." But unfortunately,Thomas Aquinas had committed himself to the statement that the words which are used in the elevation of the host have absolute power to change the bread into the body of Christ and the wine into the blood of Christ.And the statement that Thomas Aquinas made back in the 1250's was so absolute that it was really impossible to get around it. The words ,"this is my body," the words, "this is my blood," would, if uttered,make a difference even if they were made by a priest in bad faith,by a priest in unworthy circumstances,or by a priest who was not thinking about the subject.And if he did not utter those words,then no transubstantiation would take place.That was a very big issue throughout the sixteenth century because you could not get round authority of Aquinas on this,and yet here was something which in some way had to be explained away,and it was very adequately explained away.One could write about Duns Scotus's view,the Thomist view,how all this was dealt with in the sixteenth century.But the fact of the matter was that it created an attitude,in my view,about the nature of science and the existence of magical powers which was different in Roman Catholic countries and in the new Protestant countries.And we know this,because the Protestant writers were busy attacking what they called the superstition of the church.And of course,in Puritan England this was especially true.

I have made this long historical excursion because I wanted to demonstrate what I think Ficino did when he suddenly opened up the world and made the rainbow full of colour and said nature and man are in harmony. I said.... that I couldn't think of any way of being a human being other than by being an intellectual.To me,being an intellectual doesn't mean knowing about intellectual issues;it means taking pleasure in them.And to my mind is exactly what happened - exactly what transformed the attitude to science about the year 1500.the sudden sense of an opening universe - you get it in Copernicus,you get it in Galileo.If you read Galileo's Dialogues and all those corny jokes and all that leg pulling,here is a man who is in love with his subject and who is no longer practicing Faustian demonic magic and swearing to the devil.He is out in the open; he just think it's marvellous.I think ,of course,that science is wonderful in that way. And I end it with Francis Bacon for that very reason - that the Elizabethan Age,to us an age of literature,was exactly that age when all this science and literature together came to fruition in England.

I quoted the Novum Organum of 1620.It was as late as 1620 that "knowledge is power" was written for the first time.Twenty-five years later,on Christmas day in 1645,Isaac Newton was born;in another forty years,Isaac Newton published the Principia,and quite suddenly the world was transformed into something which is both rational and beautiful in just the way that the neo-Platonists believed with all their Averroist and their Aristolian tradition....At one moment in history,science and the arts rose together, because of the simple sense of man's pleasure in his own gifts.


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