Paul Kléber Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The occult in the age of enlightenment (Yale UP 2013).
In 1650, scientific thinking could not be separated from fascination for alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, spell casting, and prophecy – for short, “the occult”. By 1815, the separation was pretty definite, even if attempts to confound the two persist to this day. Monod’s book, focusing on England and Scotland, covers the transition over these years in its many levels and dimensions, illustrating the transition with story after story of various people engaged in one way or another with the occult.
In the early days, many expected scientific discovery to combine with magic and alchemy and thus rediscover a natural wisdom once possessed by Adam, Moses, and Solomon. No one worried that science and alchemy might not mesh; if anything, the worry was that the darker enticements of magic would lead people away from Christian faith. Hobbes’s thorough disdain for the occult was unusual. Nearly everyone else recoiled from Hobbes’s resolute materialism, and remained fully confident of the influence of spirits and invisible powers upon the visible world. Newton and Boyle steered clear of mentioning the occult in their published works, but they privately pursued secret knowledge along with everybody else. “Magic and science, empiricism and the supernatural: within alchemy, these were not in opposition, but constantly played off each other, combining and separating through a language both allusive and elusive, never fully merging but never wholly apart” (51)
In the practical sphere, alchemical remedies and astrological almanacs were booming businesses. This of course led to a proliferation of quacks and charlatans; and this invited the attention of caustic satirists like Jonathan Swift. Between the great scientists’ reluctance to publish openly about the occult, and the broad lampoons of magical thinking, alchemy faded from the intellectual scene over the first half of the 18th century, with a few exceptions. “The Newtonian magi” continued to bring together natural and supernatural knowledge. They insisted on natural explanations where available, but “the mythology of the Egyptians, the cosmologies of the Greeks and the healing powers of pagan priests provided fragmentary evidence of God’s plan for the universe” (159). William Stukely evidenced great interest in Druids, and offered impressive speculations about their ancient origins.
Eventually, by the last half of the 18th century, people had become comfortable enough with devils and ghosts to enjoy the first gothic novels and the first haunted houses. The occult became a mildly scary and fun subject, and less learned authors capitalized on its revival. One stage production, Omai, was rooted in the true story of a Tahitian man brought to London by Captain Cook. This rather fantastic version of the story includes Tahitian sorcerers and ghosts, and also features a segment entitled “Apotheosis of Captain Cook”, a special effect extravaganza in which Britannia herself elevates Captain Cook to heaven. He holds a sextant that resembles a Masonic compass.
In the end, Monod’s book brings on the same realization every great history book tries to bring about: that while some things have changed, other things have not. People are now, have always been, and will always be suckers for magical thinking. They may be intellectually serious about it, or they may be trying to make a quick buck. Perhaps they are trying to restore some mythic unity to all human knowledge, or perhaps they are just lazy and superstitious in their thinking. But if we take ourselves to know better today – if we think that science has prevailed in a battle against magical thinking – then, if we are honest, we must also recognize that science and the occult grew up together, and were for a while as inseparable as the twins of Gemini.