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Magic and the Occult

Page history last edited by Katie Cox 15 years, 4 months ago



During the 15th and 16th centuries, Aristoteleanism began losing its hold over natural philosophy in several different fields.  Galileo attacked Aristotle in astronomy, mathematics, and physics. However, magic and the occult saw a reawakening of empiricism applied to medicine and alchemy giving direct opposition to Aristotle's epistemology.    


Magic in the Medieval era: 

     Magic in the Medieval era was not simply the wizardry and sorcery we consider it to have been, but was a diverse study containing various topics such as divination, palmistry, astrology, alchemy, numerology, and Neoplatanism.  Today, these topics comprise what we consider the Psuedosciences.  In more general terms, magic was an attempt to control the powers of nature for the sake of one's own advantage, and to manipulate nature in order to produce certain outcomes. Technology is similar to magic in this way. There were two main branches of magic, which were demonic magic and natural magic. Natural magic, which was the most influential, supposed that the powers of nature could be uncovered by studying it; natural magic also includes all of the topics previously mentioned.  Natural magic could also be found in ancient texts.  Demonic magic was the second branch which sought to use demons to harness the power of nature. Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), who wrote De Occulta Philosophica in 1510, was an avid user of demonic magic by his own admittance.



Magic, Empiricism, and Natural Philosophy: 


Characteristics of Magic: 

  • Correspondences: or "signatures," where similar external appearances are looked for between sympathetic objects, seen in Aristotle's," Great Chain of being."  One example is the correspondence between alchemy and astronomy where the seven main metals in alchemy correspond to the seven planets in the solar system. 
  • Microcosm-Macrocosm: A central part of natural magic that basically consisted of the idea that the events on the earth (microcosm) are mini-representations of the the events of the celestial realm (macrocosm).  In other words, some believed that the human heart corresponded with things found in nature, such as a Walnut. 
  • Occult and Manifest Properties: In Latin, occult is just defined as 'hidden,' where you can observe the effects, but not the cause. Two examples of hidden things are magnetism and the effects of drugs. Manifest properties are the revealed ones, the outward appearance, such as properties you can taste, color (see or sight), or touch.



Noted Practitioners: 


Marsilio Fincino and Hermeticism: Marsilio Ficino's ( 1433-1499) conception of the world relied on astrological relationship between the celestial and terrestrial realms. A Spiritus Mundi (world spirit) linked God and terrestrial beings, and the stars infused divine virture into the world, including humans. We are therefore divine ourselves, but corrupted by the material world. If we can free ourselves from material existence we will have true knowledge of God and regain our true nature. We would also become a magus or adept that would know the intimate, secret operations of nature that we could then control. Reading of ancient texts and empirical investigation of nature will help us determine how to rid ourselves of material corruption.


Giovanni Mirandola: Giovanni Mirandola (1463-1494) was an Italian philosopher who emphasized the importance of old Jewish texts such as the Kaballah. Mirandola urged that the universe exists as an "emanation" of the devine. He also believed that the spoken word was capable of evoking certain powers. For example, in the Kaballah light appears when God says "let there be light. Well known words proported to have magical properties include "abra kadabra" and "hocus pocus."


Cornelius Agrippa: Agrippa (1486-1535) was a German magician, occult writer, theologian, astronomer, and alchemist. His work "De Occulta Philosophica" (1510) was famous for including demonic magic in practice. Agrippa was influential in moving magic to Northern Europe and was also an instigator in the Faust Myths.


Practicioners of  The Medical- Chemical Tradition:


Paracelsus: One of the most important figures and "thoroughly disagreeable person" during this period was Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known today as Paracelsus. Paracelsus (1495-1541) had a drastically different opinion of natural philosophy and medicine than the ancient texts. In fact, he was known to throw works by classical authors such as Aristotle or Galen onto bonfires, claiming they were worthless. Paracelsus believed that the more one understood about nature, the more one could manipulate it. Because of this, he focused extensively on alchemy, which was based entirely on observation. He also developed a "seed" theory of pathogens, saying that sicknesses do not result from imbalance of humors as Galen believed, but instead were the result of something (what Paracelsus called a "seed") that entered the human body and weakened it.


Jean Baptiste von Helmonst:  A Belgian living from 1579-1644, Jean Baptiste advocated the idea of sympathies, being particularly known for the "sword salve." He concluded that you could apply salve to the sword itself in order to cure a sword wound, drawing on the idea of sympathetic things. In 1648 Helmont wrote Ortus Medicinae which the reflected the concept of macrocosm and microcosm. He especially favored quantitative experimentation. Helmont also concluded that water was the fundamental "stuff."


Empirical Investigation to Find 'Hidden' Relationships:


William Gilbert (1544-1603): author of De Magnete (1600). He described the magnetic properties of the earth, which he considered occult (hidden). For Gilbert, the directing power of magnetism implies a rational soul, that is, a world-soul, something similar to the Stoic doctrine. 



Primary Sources



Key Terms and Definitions

Empiricism:  Philosophy holding that knowledge of something is derived from experience. 

Magic: A set of beliefs claiming knowledge of how to capture and control the powers of nature for one's own purposes.

Occult: Something that is hidden and not visibly tangible; i.e. gravity or magnetism. From the Latin occultus.

Manifest:  Something thatis visible or tangible by the senses- (color)

Microcosm/Macrocosm relationship:  The idea that the events or things on earth are related or correspond to events in the outside universe such as celestial events.

Spiritus:  This was the central focal point or receptacle in the human body of all things that affected or entered the mind.  The idea that causing changes in this would bring about manipulation of the body and mind was first put forth by Marsilio Ficino.

Kaballah:  A group of ancient Jewish religious texts.

Demonic Magic: magic that calls forth a demon to harness the power of nature

Natural Magic: magic that holds that the powers of nature can be harnessed through the study and manipulation of nature

Sympathy: the relationship between two objects, i.e. the relationship between a sword and the wound that it inflicts. 

Philosophica: the elaborate 1510 work on magic by Agrippa in which he admitted to the use of demonic magic.




Relevant Links


Comments (5)

jonathan stutte said

at 5:06 pm on Nov 4, 2008

started it, didn't do anything with empiricism and natural philosophy or touch on any of the notable boyos.

jgm829@... said

at 6:27 pm on Nov 4, 2008

I added info about a couple of people involved in the subject we are discussing.

Peter Ramberg said

at 11:30 am on Nov 5, 2008

I added some material on Fincino, since I treated rather briefly and/or poorly in class yesterday. You should incorporate this into the rest of your discussion.

Grant Berry said

at 1:18 pm on Nov 5, 2008

Basic info on Paracelsus. I'll add more later.

liz mastroianni said

at 6:41 pm on Nov 17, 2008

changed some wording and added some dates but looks good

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