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Education: Higher Education

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

Class 3: Magic, Science, and Ethics


One of the clearest messages in the Harry Potter series revolves around the ethical and responsible use of magic. Some, like Voldemort and his followers, see magic as a tool to be used for their own gain, while Harry and his friends are taught that any exercise of power—magical or otherwise—must always be done ethically, for the greater good. Unsurprisingly, many historical figures felt the same way about magic, which was deemed too powerful and potentially destructive to be used lightly. Some, like Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535), Paracelsus (1493–1541), and Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) believed that the magus should be, above all, pious and ethical. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) felt much the same; he wrote a popular tract—The New Atlantis (1626)—in which he described a utopian society ruled by benevolent philosophers and proto-scientists who investigated and exploited the secrets of nature as Paracelsus, Agrippa, and Bruno once advocated.

In spite of these utopian and optimistic visions, however, there remained widespread suspicion about the motives of some magical practitioners. Many feared that philosophers and magicians communed with demons, either for access to forbidden knowledge or merely to trick gullible patrons into financing their work. The story of Faustus, who sells his soul to the Devil for unlimited magical power, is an excellent example of these suspicions, reflecting popular fears about the motives of so-called magicians. In some respects, these fears have never left us, making some members of the public suspicious of scientists today as they were of Faustus.

Some of these fears were held most strongly by philosophers and theologians, who foresaw both tremendous potential for magic as well as the disastrous consequences of its misuse. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the fierce debates that linked together magic, natural philosophy, and witchcraft. Witches were thought to manipulate nature as other magicians did, but for evil ends, and were viewed by many as representing both the power and peril of magic. For some, like Joseph Glanvill (1636–1680), the investigation of witches was a serious philosophical pursuit that promised to reveal much about the workings of nature as well as query the ethics of its manipulation.

“All things that we use on earth, let us use them for good and not for evil.”
—Paracelsus, De Religione Perpetua, 1533

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
—Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

“… we ought to labour in nothing more in this life, then that we degenerate not from Excellency of the mind, by which we come nearest to God and put on the Divine Nature: least at any time our mind waxing dull by vain idleness, should decline to the frailty of our earthly body and vices of the flesh: so we should loose it, as it were cast down by the dark cloud of perverse lusts. Wherefore we ought so to order our mind, that it by itself being mindfull of its own dignity and excellency, should always both Think, do and operate something worthy of itself; But the knowledge of the Divine science, doth only and very powerfully perform this for us. When we by the remembrance of its majesty being always busied in Divine studies do every moment contemplate Divine things, and by a sage and diligent inquisition, and by all the degrees of the creatures ascending even to the Archetype himself, do draw from him the infallible vertue of all things …. But the understanding of Divine things, purgeth the mind from errors, and rendreth it Divine, giveth infallible power to our works, and driveth far the doubts and obstacles of all evil spirits, and together subjects them to our command.”
—Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, 1533.

Key Concepts
  1. For many Renaissance thinkers, magic was a powerful but double-edged tool: it could vastly improve human life, but its abuse or misuse could also have dire consequences, as in the case of witchcraft.
  2. Some actively wrote about the piety and responsibility that the magus must possess. Others described utopias in which magic and “science” were used responsibly, for the good of society.
  3. At the same time, however, popular anxieties about magical practitioners often appeared in works like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. There was widespread suspicion about the motives and ethics of magical practitioners—were they benevolent manipulators of nature, or diabolical frauds?
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. (Specifically the Dedication to Book III)
  • Bacon, Francis. The New Atlantis. London, UK 1626. Reprint, Book Jungle, 2007.
  • Glanvill, Joseph. Saducismus triumphatus, or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions. London, 1681. //
  • Institoris, Heinrich, Jakob Sprenger, and Anton Koberger. The Malleus Maleficarum. Nuremberg: Germany, 1494. //
  • Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
  • Webster, John. The displaying of supposed witchcraft… London: Jonas Moore, 1677. //
Secondary Sources
  • Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Jobe, Thomas H. “The Devil in Restoration Science: The Glanvill-Webster Witchcraft Debate.” Isis 72, no. 3 (1981): 342─356.
  • Levack, Brian. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. London: Longman, 1987.
  • McAlindon, T. Doctor Faustus: Divine in Show. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994.
  • Nummedal, Tara. “Alchemical Reproduction and the Career of Anna Maria Zieglerin.” Ambix: The Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Early Chemistry 49 (2001): 56─68.
  • Stephens, Walter. Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Stillman, Robert E. “Hobbes’s Leviathan: Monsters, Metaphors, and Magic.” ELH 62, no. 4 (1995): 791─819.
  • Weinberger, J. “Science and Rule in Bacon’s Utopia: An Introduction to the Reading of the ‘New Atlantis’.” The American Political Science Review 70, no. 3 (1976): 865─885.
  • Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991. (Specifically chapters on Agrippa and Bruno)
  • 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 is the general structure of Bacon’s utopia? What role is played by the investigation and manipulation of nature in his perfect society?
  2. How did Bruno envision his perfect society, and how did he go about trying to achieve it?
  3. Why do you think the societies envisioned by Bacon and Bruno never came about?
  4. Draft the outlines of a modern-day utopia. Does it resemble the societies envisioned by historical figures like Bacon? How does science figure in your scheme?
  5. How do you feel about the character of Doctor Faustus in Marlowe’s play? Is he a sympathetic character?
  6. How much of the Faustian myth has been transferred to modern culture? Do we now suspect scientists as past peoples once suspected magicians? Can you think of examples from popular culture of these suspicions and fears?
  7. How did Anna Zieglerin construct her patron-client relationship as a female alchemist? Was this a case of fraud, do you think, or did Anna genuinely believe her own claims?
  8. Who regulates science and medicine today? How are instances of fraud investigated and reported?
  9. Find an example in popular culture of suspicions or anxieties about scientists and physicians, and present this example in class. What do these portrayals have in common? How widespread are they? Does the public genuinely distrust modern practitioners of science and medicine? If so, why? If not, why do these popular portrayals persist?
  10. What was the difference between natural and demonic magic, and how did people distinguish between the two?
  11. What were thinkers hoping to establish by studying phenomena like witchcraft and ghosts? Why was this so important to them?
  12. Consider Joseph Glanvill’s study of witches and spirits—does this resemble a scientific collection of data? Why or why not?
  13. Locate and analyze contemporary debates about ethics in science and medicine. Do these debates seem to cluster around specific issues or problems? Judging from the way these debates are publicized, do you think scientists today are as concerned about the misuse of knowledge as were thinkers in the Renaissance?
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