Secrets of Nature shows the many ways in which astrology (a form of divination) and alchemy (an artisanal pursuit concerned with the technologies of minerals and metals) diverge as well as intersect. Overall, it shows how an appreciation of the role of the occult opens up new ways of understanding the past.
Early modern alchemy was not a contemplative discipline focusing on internal spiritual development, an idea that would be popularized by nineteenth-century occultists and their later followers. The Mary Anne Atwoods and Eliphas Lévis of the occult revival were quite content to see both astrology and alchemy as encoded forms of wisdom whose real goal was the rechanneling of an internal “Mesmeric ﬂuid,” expressed in the form of planetary and metallurgical symbols. And yet it is clear that Renaissance ﬁgures such as Dee did see some reason for relating the two ﬁelds. But what precisely was that reason?
Was it simply the obvious fact that the all-pervasive realm of astrology could be used to ﬁnd favorable times to begin alchemical operations, in the same way that it could provide the best times for purging a patient, building a building, or starting a war? Or did Dee and other alchemists have something else in mind when they spoke of alchemy as astronomia inferior and referred to the science of the stars as a sort of celestial alchemy? Did the disciplines of alchemy and astrology have a privileged and integral relationship with one another that distinguished them from other ﬁelds? The quest for an answer supplies the problematic of this book.
Let us clarify the issues as follows. Astrology was a form of divination along with oneiromancy, arithmology, and a host of other techniques for auguring and at times altering the future, whereas alchemy was an artisanal pursuit concerned with the technologies of minerals and metals. The fundamental practices of the two ﬁelds were vastly different. Furthermore, if we withdraw our minds from the modern cultural stereotype of “the occult sciences,” it is not immediately obvious that the two ﬁelds shared a closely related theoretical framework. Already in the second century of our era, the Alexandrian mathematician Claudius Ptolemy observed that astrology was a natural part of mathematical astronomy.
Whereas astronomy predicted the positions of the planets, astrology predicted their effects on the earth: Both sciences were therefore part of a larger endeavor concerned with celestial prognostication. Alchemy, on the other hand, had close ties to Aristotelian and Stoic theories of matter, and its early practitioners were enamored of religious themes drawn from what John Dillon has called “the underworld of Platonism.” In the Middle Ages, alchemy was not usually considered a mathematical science at all but found itself subordinated to the study of natural philosophy and often compared to the science of medicine.
- Introduction: The Problematic Status of Astrology and Alchemy in Premodern Europe
- “Veritatis amor dulcissimus”: Aspects of Cardano’s Astrology
- Between the Election and My Hopes: Girolamo Cardano and Medical Astrology
- Celestial Offerings: Astrological Motifs in the Dedicatory Letters of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova and Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius
- Astronomia inferior: Legacies of Johannes Trithemius and John Dee
- The Rosicrucian Hoax in France (1623–24)
- “The Food of Angels”: Simon Forman’s Alchemical Medicine
- Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy
Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe By William R. Newman, Anthony Grafton pdf