Renaissance Natural Philosophy Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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."