In the Harry Potter novels, J. K. Rowling creates an intriguing juxtaposition between our own modern world—the “Muggle” world—and the magical world inhabited by Harry and his friends. In the eyes of most wizards and witches, Muggle technology and medicine is strange, even laughable; in their own world, magic has replaced modern science and technology, and is in some ways vastly superior to them.
Today, we find it difficult to imagine connections between magic and science outside of the realm of fiction. Historically, however, these two things were closer than most people today would suspect—in some ways, they were in fact indistinguishable from one another. There is ample evidence that the foundations of modern science and medicine were established first in the magical philosophies of the Renaissance—everything from the experimental method to the theory of gravitation. Ultimately, we are more indebted to Renaissance magic and occultism than most would imagine.
This unit examines how elements of these magical traditions were borrowed and adapted by philosophers as they created what we today recognize as science. Alchemy, for example, was a practical and experimental enterprise that provided the foundations for modern chemistry, and both Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) were avid alchemists. The theoretical foundations of many occult philosophies were also instrumental in shaping our modern scientific method—as one example, the itinerant physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) espoused a thorough empiricism as the cornerstone of both natural philosophy and medicine. He taught that, in order to manipulate nature, one first has to unlock its secrets through examination and study, and that the naturalist should look to nature itself for answers rather than to books or the words of others.
“Magic comprises the most profound contemplation of the most secret things, their nature, power, quality, substance, and virtues, as well as the knowledge of their whole nature.” — Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, 1533
“Magick is nothing else but the knowledge of the whole course of Nature. …..It openeth unto us the properties and qualities of hidden things, and it teacheth us by the agreement and disagreement of things, either so to sunder them, or else to lay them so together, as thereby we do strange works…. Wherefore, as many of you as come to behold Magick, must be persuaded that the works of Magick are nothing else but the works of Nature, whose dutiful hand-maid Magick is.” — Giambattista della Porta, Natural Magick, 1658
“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words.” - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling