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Education: Higher Education

“Things Most Strange and Wondrous”: The Hidden Roots of Modern Science and Medicine

Class 2: How Magic Became Science


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 class 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

Key Concepts
  1. A variety of scientific disciplines have their roots in magical or occult traditions. Magic, which was thought of as the manipulation of unseen forces, bears striking resemblances to modern science.
  2. Because magical philosophies emphasized the use and study of hidden or secret virtues, they tended to encourage the value of empiricism and hands-on experience of the natural world.
  3. Magic could be theoretical or practical in scope, just like science today.
  4. Esoteric traditions, like alchemy, were often a prime breeding-ground for ideas about the study of nature as well as models for the development of modern scientific practices.
Class Resources
Primary Sources
  • Agrippa Von Nettesheim, Heinrich Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Translated by James Freake. Edited by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1993.
  • Boyle, Robert. On Transmutation of Metals. In The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest by Lawrence M. Principe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Della Porta, Giambattista. Natural Magick. London, UK 1658.
  • Jacobi, Jolande, ed., Paracelsus: Selected Writings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Newman, William R., ed. The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber. Brill Academic Publishers, 1991.
Secondary Sources
  • Baldwin, Martha. “The Snakestone Experiments: An Early Modern Medical Debate.” Isis 86, no. 3 (1995): 394─418.
  • Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York, 2006.
  • Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Henry, John. “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic.” History of Science 46 (2008): 1─48.
  • Hunter, Michael. The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science, and Second Sight in Late 17th-Century Scotland. London, UK: Boydell Press, 2001.
  • Newman, William R. Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Principe, Lawrence M. The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • ———. “The Alchemies of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton: Alternate Approaches and Divergent Deployments.” In Rethinking the Scientific Revolution, edited by Margaret J. Osler. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Smith, Pamela H. The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Zetterberg, J. Peter. “The Mistaking of ‘the Mathematicks’ for Magic in Tudor and Stuart England.” Sixteenth Century Journal 11, no. 1 (1980): 83─97.
Visual Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. What were some of the factors that contributed to the “fragmentation” of occultism? Which specific fragments worked their way into the development of modern science and medicine?
  2. Past peoples sometimes confused technology for magic because they were ignorant of the causes operating to produce particular effects, but do we really understand the technology of today any better? Or are we simply less concerned about our collective ignorance?
  3. Describe a sophisticated piece of technology (i.e., a television, a mobile phone, a computer) as if you were talking to a 16th-century person. Now try describing it as if talking to a 21st-century person. What’s different, and what remains the same?
  4. Why was empiricism such an important part of many magical traditions?
  5. Can we call Paracelsus a sort of “proto-scientist”? Why or why not?
  6. Are there modern parallels with, or analogues of, Paracelsian ideas?
  7. Imagine a conversation with Paracelsus: how would you describe modern science and medicine in terms he would understand?
  8. What were the main principles of alchemy? Should we understand it as primarily a physical or spiritual enterprise—or did these distinctions vary from practitioner to practitioner?
  9. Why did Robert Boyle practice alchemy? What were his methods?
  10. What was Isaac Newton’s interest in alchemy, and what role did this play in other aspects of his thought, such as his theory of universal gravitation?
  11. How does the historical practice of alchemy parallel modern scientific and medical debates about cloning, stem cell research, and the Human Genome Project?
  12. Research and examine the various “Philosopher’s Stones” currently being pursued by modern science. What do these have in common with the quests undertaken by Boyle, Newton, and their fellow alchemists?
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