Renaissance Natural Philosophy
Renaissance Natural Philosophy
Renaissance natural philosophy was a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century school of thought which rejected the Aristotelian conception of form, matter, and the nature of the soul, among other beliefs. The primary tenet of this philosophy focuses on the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Philosophers of nature argued, and most people of the time believed, that there exists a direct correspondence between man, the world, and the universe. The universe, according to the cosmology of the time, was infinite and contained an infinite number of solar systems with planets inhabited by conscious, rational beings. Most philosophers of nature, such as Giordano Bruno and Tomasso Campanella, contended that all organic and inorganic objects in the universe, including rocks, trees, animals, humans, stars, and planets, have souls and are united by a greater world-soul. This linkage of all creatures of the world, the microcosm, to those of the universe, the macrocosm, implies that the world of man mirrors that of universal nature. Some natural philosophers, such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, focused on the means by which the truth of nature and being could be revealed by observing and examining the symmetries between man, the world, and the universe. These philosophers and others further discussed astrology and magic as methods of understanding the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm. In their writings they also proposed how this knowledge might be practically utilized.
As the belief in the relationship between man and the universe was a widely held one, the belief in and practice of both astrology and magic were similarly common. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, astrology gradually grew from an aspect of the worldview into a distinct system of belief. Astrologers were commonly consulted by rulers such as Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. Also interested in astrological forecasts were courtiers and intellectuals in England and Europe. Astrologers servicing this elite class made general predictions regarding subjects such as weather, war, and politics. Another branch of astrology included the mapping of the stars and planets as they were situated at the time of a person's birth. This map, known as a nativity, was necessary for an astrologer to predict the right moment for a person to take specific actions in fulfilling his or her destiny. Astrology was made available to society as a whole primarily through almanacs, which predicted astronomical events, marked days of festivals and similar activities, and made prognostications, or forecasts, of notable events of the year. Astrology was also used in the practice of medicine, as different organs and parts of the body were thought to be influenced by planets and signs of the zodiac. Throughout all of these activities, numerous opportunities for astrologers to cheat and deceive people presented themselves, and this made the profession and its practitioners the target of satire in the literature and drama of the time.
The practice of magic, on the other hand, was viewed more seriously by society and by the Roman Catholic Church. Magic, like astrology, was understood to be a means of deciphering the relationship between man and the universe. The practice of natural magic utilized knowledge of occult forces within nature gained through experience, observation, and experiments. As supernatural aid was not involved in natural magic, its practitioners were not harshly judged. However, some forms of magic employed supernatural assistance, such as the aid of spirits and demons, and were practiced only in secrecy. Suspected practitioners of magic were accused of witchcraft and executed. Natural philosophers, such as Marsilio Ficino, Campanella, and Pico della Mirandola, who wrote about the nature of magic and its possibilities, were often imprisoned for their writings, and their works were condemned by the Church.
As the scientific revolution swept through England and Europe in the late seventeenth century, the popularity of the beliefs regarding nature and the universe upheld by Renaissance natural philosophers dwindled. The world and the universe began to be viewed as mechanical in nature. Astrology eventually became less widely practiced. Almanacs, perhaps the most widely utilized form of astrology, began to focus primarily on meteorological predictions and the designation of upcoming holidays and festivals. Magic became a less frequent topic of philosophical discussion. People were no longer executed for witchcraft. The scientific revolution hastened the death of Renaissance natural philosophy and forever changed literature, as the common faith of poets and dramatists in a correspondence between man, his world, and the universe was eliminated. As Marjorie Hope Nicolson has stated in regard to the effect of the "new science" on seventeenth-century poetry," … the animate macrocosm and living microcosm disappeared, and their places were taken by a mechanical clock and men with mechanical hearts."
SOURCE: "The New Astronomy and the New Metaphysics," in From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957, pp. 28-57.
[In the following essay, Koyré examines the development of astronomy and metaphysics by comparing the cosmological beliefs of Copernicus, Digges, Bruno, and Gilbert.]
Palingenius and Copernicus are practically contemporaries. Indeed, the Zodiacus vitae and the De revolutionibus orbium coelestium must have been written at about the same time. Yet they have nothing, or nearly nothing, in common. They are as far away from each other as if they were separated by centuries.
As a matter of fact, they are, indeed, separated by centuries, by all those centuries during which Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy dominated Western thought. Copernicus, of course, makes full use of the mathematical technics elaborated by Ptolemy—one of the greatest achievements of the human mind—and yet, for his inspiration he goes back beyond him, and beyond Aristotle, to the golden age of Pythagoras and of Plato. He quotes Heraclides, Ecphantus and Hiketas, Philolaos and Aristarchus of Samos; and according to Rheticus, his pupil and mouthpiece, it is
… following Plato and the Pythagoreans, the greatest mathematicians of that divine age, that [he]...
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Robert Hunter West
SOURCE: "The Basic Terms and Principal Authors," in The Invisible World: A Study of Pneumatology in Elizabethan Drama, University of Georgia Press, 1939, pp. 1-14.
[In the following excerpt, West discusses pneumatological writings that influenced seventeenth-century beliefs regarding witchcraft, demons, and magic.]
In The Year 1607, while Macbeth was perhaps on the stage in London, the Courts of Assizes of the adjacent county of Essex returned nine indictments for witchcraft, the celebrated occultist Dr. John Dee was still experimenting with his spirit stone, and a daemonologist sat on the throne of England. The learned Ben Jonson owned a manuscript of magical ceremonies, and the yet more learned Francis Bacon had gravely scribbled the margins of a work on how devils deluded old women. It was to be more than a hundred years yet before an academic history of witchcraft, as of a superstition whose time was out, would be written in England, and seventy before the bastions of the witch belief would begin to disintegrate under the pounding of John Webster. The good Sir Thomas Browne, a child of two in 1607, was mature and reputed a wise man when he wrote: "I have ever believed, and do now know, that there are witches. They that doubt of these do not only deny them, but spirits; and are obliquely, and upon consequence, a sort, not of infidels, but atheists."...
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Dick, Steven J. "The Heliocentric Theory, Scripture, and the Plurality of Earths." In Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, 246 p.
Discusses the influence of philosophers Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella and astronomer Johannes Kepler on Renaissance beliefs regarding the nature of the world and the universe.
Johnson, Francis R. Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England: A Study of the English Scientific Writings from 1500 to 1645. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1937, 357 p.
Discusses the writings of Copernicus, Thomas Digges, and Tycho Brahe in an analysis of the development of cosmological beliefs.
Allen, Don Cameron. The Star-Crossed Renaissance: The Quarrel about Astrology and Its Influence in England. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1941, 280 p.
Discusses the influence of the astrological beliefs of Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Giovanni Pontano on Elizabethan England, and examines Elizabethans' arguments and reactions to the astrological doctrine of their time.
Curry, Patrick. Prophecy and Power: Astrology...
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