Book Notes

Magical Thinking and the Enlightenment

December 19, 2021

How superstition can thrive even in a time of scientific reason

Science wins out, if barely, and only because it actually works.

By the 1500s, most people knew of the stars, if only because it was the basis of time-keeping and the calendar.

They lost interest when the astronomy turned to the talk of numbers and formula. But this did not dim their view of what the movement of the stars could foretell.

And as long as the astrologers kept predicting dire outcomes, they would be proven often enough in those turbulent times.

It is the job of natural philosophy to explain the occult, Francis Bacon said. In his time, natural magic could be indistinguishable from actual scientific experimentation. Both produced mysterious forces.

The late 16th century saw surge of patronage to men claiming to have created gold from base metals.

Their formulas were all largely similar. They were clear on the easy parts (distillation, calcination) but vague at explaining how to actually create the gold itself.

Some cool illustrated ancient symbolism hid how incomprehensible the text was.

Further reading of Marie Boas' 1962 book "The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630."