In what ways might natural magic be seen to have contributed to the emergence of modern scientific method?

‘All truth is simple’ -- Is that not a compound lie? --

-- Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols1

The hypothesis that natural magic is a precursor to scientific method appears more of a magical mantra than a scientific theory. Cum hoc, or post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- the logical fallacies that distinguish magic from science are the very same as those underlying the theory linking one to the next. Natural magic and the scientific method are certainly often found in strikingly close relation, and substantial similarities exist between them. The theory that natural magic contributes to the Scientific Revolution is correspondingly simple: natural magic outshines science prior to this date, and science outshines natural magic after it, therefore the development of natural magic leads to the development of science. However, this scheme, in reality, fails: it does not explain the tandem existence of natural magic and science both before and after the Scientific Revolution, fails to provide causal relationships between them, and fails in its claim to explain the Scientific Revolution itself. Another scheme, though, amends these principal problems: a common antecedent of both natural magic and of the scientific method, crucially explaining their correlation, removes the need for one to cause the other and provides a scheme in which both can exist at once. This essay demonstrates magic and science as outgrowths of their commonalities: “faith [...] in the order and uniformity of nature”, “principles of association”, and the “search for general rules whereby to turn the order of natural phenomena to [one’s] own advantage”.2 The “emergence of modern scientific method”, that is, its grand application in the Scientific Revolution, deserves and gets a sufficiently more complex explanation, one lying in its environment: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the rise of realpolitik; all of which are necessary for and conducive of the “emergence of modern scientific method”.

To demonstrate a common antecedent, precise definitions are necessary, and this “common antecedent” must come first. James Frazer, in his Golden Bough, states that “[magic’s] fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science”: “faith [...] in the order and uniformity of nature”, where specific cause always precedes specific effect, in contrast with a conception of “external causes”, such as acts of God. Both apply “principles of association”: pattern recognition, association of related ideas, postulation of causal relationships, and the abstraction of individual events and sensory experiences into general laws.

The fundamental difference between science and magic lies in its application, or misapplication, of these principles. Scientific method sublimates them, applying far more scepticism to the attainability of knowledge. It distinguishes between correlation and causation, has tests for this distinction, distinguishes hypothesis, theory and theorem, and has procedures to bridge the gaps. Magic, however, lets the principles of association reign. These fail, for example, to distinguish correlation from causation, and as such, magic’s conception of causation is at best Pavlovian. It asserts the inter-connectedness of things with similarities of nature, as Giambattista della Porta, in his 1558 work Natural Magic, gives example: “every kind of things, and every quality can incline and draw, and allure some things to it, and make them become like itself [...] fire being very active, does more easily convert things into itself, and so water into water.”3

A related difference lies in what it regards as its “ultimate authority”. Magic builds knowledge cumulatively, age serving as a measure of reliability, and forces all experience to fit previously conceived abstractions. Its basis is the syllogism and its proponent Aristotle, whose authority stemmed from his antiquity. His Organon states that “all instruction given or received by way of argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge,”4 which della Porta echoes: “one’s understanding cannot comprehend high and sublime things, unless it stand firm on most true principles.”5

Scientific method has as its ultimate authority nature itself. It forces its theories to agree with nature, allowing knowledge, of whatever age, to be falsifiable. Its logical basis is inference, drawing conclusions from reality rather than previously established conclusions. Its ancient forerunner was perhaps Plato, whose “emphasis on form and structure [...] meshed well with the emerging axiom that, as Galileo [...] expressed it, the universe is a vast book ‘written in mathematical language’.”6

Definition must beware of historical confusion of terms. Della Porta tells us that “Magick is nothing else but the survey of the whole course of Nature [... a] whole Science”, and, in the same work, that, in converting tin to silver, we should “melt it seven times, and quench it every time in the Urine of children, or else in the Oil of Walnuts.”7 "The medieval German language [...] made no distinction between ‘gas’ and ‘spirit’. [...] Scientific experiments often risked charges of sorcery.8

Both, then, are really two sides of the same coin. They are proximate in their commonalities, in contemporary lack of distinction between them, and meet at many points, even individuals, such as “Cardinal Nicholas Cusanus (1401-64)”, who "repeated the idea of the earth’s rotation, predicted calendar reform, and prophesied the end of the world in 1734,9 or Isaac Newton, in whose manuscripts there are “detailed plans of the Temple of Solomon, based on the measurements given in the Book of Ezekiel”10.

The suggestion that natural magic was a precursor to scientific method assumes this proximity to mean that one can cross between them with little problem. It can blithely assert that natural magic can easily change into scientific method: it is simply not much of a change at all; magic sublimates its principles of association and develops scientific method. Thus, surely, natural magic is a precursor to scientific method.

This answer is unsatisfying, relying ironically on two of the flaws of magic: the confusion of correlation of the two with a direct causative relationship between them, and an assumption that their similarities automatically grant the one influence over the other. This confusion does not necessarily make the theory incorrect. The time-order relationship allows it; almost by definition, before the “emergence of modern scientific method”, magic outshines science, and after it, science outshines magic.

This scheme, however, is misleading. It firstly suggests that scientific method is absent until the Scientific Revolution. This is untrue. The Islamic mathematician Alhazen used the scientific method in disproving the theory of light as originating in the eye, and contributed the ground for the later developments in astronomy. Roger Bacon, in the 13th century, “was almost a scientific man”, who, in alignment with scientific method’s basic authority, “saw that experience alone teaches anything.”11 He and his tutor, Robert Grossteste, produced descriptions of scientific method as repeated cycles of observation, hypothesis, and experimentation.

The theory, by asserting such causation, claims to explain the Scientific Revolution itself, which within this scheme must be the invention of scientific method and its application in science. If this is taken to be a “revolution”, then one needs contributory, external factors in order to explain the transition from natural magic to scientific method within less than a century. These are curiously absent. If, on the other hand, it is taken as an gradual internal process, then one at least needs to chart this emergence with its internal and external factors. These too are absent.

It secondly suggests that that magic declines after the Scientific Revolution. However, we may observe the continuation of natural magic up until the present, under the various names of “occultism” or “esotericism”. Antoine Faivre gives four conditions for esotericism similar to our conception of natural magic. First, “correspondences [...] between the planets and parts of the human body” defines association by similarity, and “between nature [...] and the revealed texts” defines authority by antiquity. Second, the belief that “nature [...] is essentially alive in all its parts” is perhaps similar to the Aristotelian argument that “everything [has] a nisus, [...] a built-in potentiality as each object strives to become the Platonic form of which it is a copy.”12 Third, “mediation [...] by rituals, symbols, angels and intermediate spirits”, and fourth, “practical application of the ideas of imagination of mediation”13, define the basic role of the magician. This esotericism continues through the eighteenth century and Freemasonry, through the nineteenth and Aleister Crowley, and through the twentieth and the popularity of astrological columns.

A more convincing explanation, in explaining the correlation between science and magic, is that they share a common antecedent. James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, states his belief in as much: “The principles of association are excellent in themselves, and indeed absolutely essential to the working of the human mind. Legitimately applied they yield science; illegitimately applied they yield magic, the bastard sister of science.”14 This explanation resolves the problems with the former. The coexistence of scientific method and magic, as we have seen before and after the Scientific Revolution, is allowed for. Moreover, this theory does not make false claims to explain the occurrence or path of the Scientific Revolution; such a process deserves a more complex analysis. It remains for us to describe the external causes and environment of this revolution, and explain how they were so conducive to the acceptance of scientific method.

The Scientific Revolution, which I shall take as synonymous with the “emergence of modern scientific method”, certainly deserves the name -- it has been called “the most important event in European History since the rise of Christianity”15. But do not let this confuse us -- this revolution is not the invention of, but the grand application of, scientific method.

The developments of science were in part internal. Developments were cumulative: those in optics were necessary for the telescope and microscope, in turn necessary for astronomy and biology. From this perspective, the expansion of scientific method relied somewhat on the emergence of such inventors as Galileo Galilei or Hans Janssen. Technological developments demonstrated the close link between knowledge and power. “The Portuguese explorers wanted their new instrument for navigation; the German mine-owners asked questions about metallurgy and about machines for lifting and carrying heavy loads; Italian engineers improved their canals and locks and harbours by applying the principles of hydrostatics; English trading companies employed experts who used new methods of drawing charts.”16

The same link between knowledge and power was emerging in politics. Machiavelli’s The Prince, effectively an instruction manual for the early modern prince, espoused politics in terms of power rather than ethics, in a descriptive rather than normative way. The scientist was hence of use to the prince of the early modern era. “[Galileo] was made professor of philosophy at the University of Pisa and appointed court philosopher and mathematician to Cosimo [de Medici].”17 Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis “[illustrates] the conviction that [scientific] investigation should be nurtured because scientific knowledge is indivisible from political power, and political power is a competitive reality. Bacon sees scientific empiricism as being fundamental to the goal of political empire”18. “[Plato’s] all-powerful philosopher-kings had strong appeal for the upstart dictators of Renaissance Italy.”19

Equally important was the destruction of the view of truth as absolute, and of the Church as its pinnacle authority. At the heart of scientific method was a fundamental epistemological scepticism, demanding unprecedented rigour before it provided any benefit, and rejected all previous knowledge which would not fit its schema; its radicalism is captured in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. This iconoclasm would not survive where truth was officially laid out and absolute. Two developments, the Renaissance, and its religious partner, the Reformation, separately laid the way for the destruction of this.

In the “fundamental shift from the theocratic or God-centred world-view of the Middle Ages to the anthropocentric or man-centred view of the Renaissance”, Renaissance humanism “is connected with the stirrings of science -- that is, the principle that nothing should be taken as true unless it can be tried and demonstrated.”20 Humanism replaced God with man as the ultimate arbiter of truth.

The Reformation, while it “looked askance at scientific curiosity”21, contributed to the rise of scientific method. In splitting theology into many camps, it undermined the idea of the literally catholic Church. The new atmosphere was more willing to accept the uncertainty upon which scientific method was based, and was essential to its growth. This is firstly true insomuch as the uncertain climate was conducive of revolutions in general, but secondly true in that the Scientific Revolution itself contributed to this atmosphere: John Donne, in 1611, wrote that “[The] new Philosophy calls all in doubt”22.

The relationship between natural magic and modern scientific method is decidedly antagonistic. The rigour of modern scientific method rises from natural magic not in terms of an embellishment of it but in terms of a conscious rejection of its laxity. Yet both of these explanations represent a gross oversimplification. The “emergence of modern scientific method” is ultimately grounded in its own internal technological developments, its subsequent demonstration of knowledge as power, the development of realpolitik and recruitment of science, and the development of humanism and the Reformation, undermining the authority of the Church as final authority. The Scientific Revolution, perhaps more than any other, deserves an explanation “as simple as possible, but not simpler.”23


  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, (Penguin 1990), p. 33.
  2. James Frazer, The Golden Bough. Chapter 4. Paragraphs 1-2.
  3. Giambattista Della Porta. Natural Magick, Book 1, chapter 12, paragraph 1.
  4. Aristotle. Posterior Analytics, Book I, section 1.
  5. Giambattista Della Porta. Natural Magick, Book 1, preface, paragraph 4.
  6. Katz. p. 20.
  7. Giambattista Della Porta. Natural Magick, Book 5, chapter 1, paragraph 2.
  8. Norman Davies. Europe: A History. Pimlico (1997), p. 435.
  9. Davies. p. 436.
  10. David S Katz. The Occult Tradition. Random House (2005), p. 1.
  11. Charles S Pierce. 'The Fixation of Belief. Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), 1-15.
  12. Katz. p. 19.
  13. Katz. pp. 14-15.
  14. Frazer. Chapter 4, paragraph 2.
  15. Davies quotes the source as: “Herbert Butterfield, in The Origins of Modern Science, 1300 -- 1800 (London, 1947).”
  16. Sir George Clark. Early Modern Europe from about 1450 to about 1720. Oxford University Press (1975), p. 104.
  17. Bowler, P. J., and Rhys Morus, Iwan. Making Modern Science. 2005, p. 29.
  18. Bruce, Susan. Introduction to Three Early Modern Utopias. Oxford University Press (1999), p. xxxv.
  19. Katz. p. 19.
  20. Davies. p. 479.
  21. Sir George Clark. Early Modern Europe from about 1450 to about 1720. Oxford University Press (1975), p. 103.
  22. John T McNeill. Review of John Donne and the New Philosophy. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 17, No. 3 (July 1937), p. 307.
  23. The “razor” of William of Ockham (c. 1288 -- c. 1348): entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Paraphrase attributed to Albert Einstein.


Originally written as an essay in my History undergraduate for the Early Modern “period topic” module at the University of York.

Tagged #science, #magic, #renaissance, #history, #essay.

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