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Dossier Airesis: Science & Irrational / 6



Paolo Aldo Rossi - History of Scientific Thought - Università di Genova






The Latin aphorism Natura hominum deorumque domina perfectly captures the idea of Nature during the classical antiquity. As any master, Nature is jealous of her own power; she is not willing to share it with anyone, but demands absolute obeyance to her first commandment: Natura sequere. As Mother, though, she offers, to the loving and respectful son, all he needs for his own survival. All etymologies hint at her as mother, wet nurse and pedagogue. Uncreated, therefore eternal, she is the most powerful god, to which all other gods obey. In front of her, Moira, Anankys and Zeus himself, Father of all gods, resign themselves. Her law is both physical and ethical; in ancient Greece, cause-effect and guilt-punishment had the same epistemological and moral implications: they were the laws ruling the physical and social environment where gods and humans lived.

As the substance of things having in themselves “the principle of their own movement” (becoming), Nature represents also the metaphysical primum as well as the theological and moral one.

Her second commandment is Nulla ars imitari solertiam naturae potest; it perfects the first one: in addition to following Nature’s laws, it is impossible to force her. Robert Lenoble, using a very fascinating formula, has defined this as “the taboo of the natural”. Obviously, that taboo, transposed from the individual plan to the social one, acquires the connotative characteristics of incest. (To reveal, to penetrate, to violate Nature’s secrets.)

Mother Nature! How many times has been this definition invoked to qualify a very strong, visceral kinship! To break it causes an automatic punishment. To follow Nature’s laws, though, does not exclude art. Actually, if the craftsman respects Nature’s laws, he can imitate his Mother’s creations, even if his results will be very different. Anyway, Nature will always look at her son with benign indulgence. Yet the subdivision between natural and artificial is not the only one possible in the phenomenal universe. Ab absurdo, the unnatural can join to the natural and the praeternatural. The desire to preserve phenomena, a constant in Aristotelean thought (as, later, in Galileian thought), that is to explain appearances though a theoric system in which things, sicut apparent, are brought back to theory’s objects and so they have specific proprieties and relationships, did not force the Aristotelean physics (nor the Galileian science) to address exceptional or ineffable phenomena, linked to occult causes or to epiphenomenic manifestations of divine will. The miracle due to faith or to laical prodigies, related to the challenge against the divinity, is not naturalis nor artificialis; from a rational point of view, the miracle-performing supernatural and the miraculous unnatural do not exist or, at least, have no relationship with the natural world. Otherwise, how to read the ontological necessity ruling it, if such necessity could be disrupted at any moment by prodigious works or by the intrusion of the supernatural?


Raffaello Sanzio: La Scuola di Atene (part.); on the left, Plato indicates the sky with Timeus'  book; on the right, Aristotle, with his Ethica, indicates Earth. 


The battle begun for the Nature (released from the divinities present in all phenomena, replaced by naturalistic principles) continues for more than two centuries in the Greek world, from the Milesian protophysicists through Xenophanes to Democritus and Aristotle. But it was a battle where no one had any doubt about a basic principle: the incontrovertibility of the natural order. The first discourse about the world was necessarily a mythical one, that is based on marvelous-revealing words. We refer to “affabulative power”, the magical use of words, a need even more stringent than the need to use reason. We can not invoke ignorance to justify the mythical approach; ignorance does not explain anything, whereas this kind of thought knows all and explains all. No fact can affect it, because, in bringing them back to their origin, it brings them back to an arché having soul and moral characteristics. The ambiguity of Platonic cosmogony is only in this concession to myth: it gives both a physical-mathematic structure and a soul to the universe, but recisely refuses the original scandal of all mythical-religious visions: creatio ex nihilo. Greek thought abhors this definition: the Greek god does not create, but orders; he is a tool by which natural law perfects itself. According to Eleates, it was impossible to pronounce or even to think such a statement. But even when Greek culture, after the Parmenidean drama, succeeded, with Plato, to preserve phenomena and so to repropose the theme of the origin of the universe, it never contemplated creation. As we have already said, the Greek god orders, but does not create, thus he can not violate the Cosmos. Often poets say to us that gods can do anything, but they refer to the accidental. The Greek god has no chance to perform miracles. The most immediate constraint imposed upon him is the impossibility to master Death. In the Greek religion, the Divine rarely manifests itself when it is question to save, admonish, punish, or reward humans; rather, it pervades Nature as form, essence and being. In other religions, the god fights for his people, using all his supernatural powers; when he manifests itself, he communicates an amazing gravitas, an overwhelming remoteness. The Greek god, instead, is always acting in history; in Homeric poems, he looms beyond any event. But he does perform no miracle. He lacks the sanctity of other peoples’ gods and their exceptional powers too. Moreover, he is not out of the history. He represents the sacrality of Nature, that, without losing her venerable divine vests, manifests herself in her sensible and intelligible reality. Nothing can happen outside the necessity fixed in things; the same Law rules both the polis and the periechon.


That’s why the world is intelligible and rational: the city is ruled by moral law, the universe by physical law: they are two sides of the same “necessary cause”. Law guarantees the freedom of the polis and the survival of the universe.

It becomes clear that universal law, the unifying principle of reality, had to be protected against any violation. In Greek mythology, Furies (severe Dike’s emissaries) embody the power devoted to the defence of the rules; they keep the natural and social order. Order is absolutely inviolable, when, possessed by hybris, Man becomes jealous of the gods, he desires to “go beyond”, to break the order, only to be punished by ftonos, the talion law, the ineludible punishment that can not become forgiveness, because its aim is to restore the same order that the will (not the act) of Man had tried to break.

Aristotle wearing Renaissance clothes in an oil painting by Justus of Gand (active between 1460 and 1475)

In this perspective, Pimander cosmogony reveals the abysmal distance between Renaissance naturalism and ancient Greek physics. Therefore, the Ficinian rediscovery of Hermes and the consequent use of magic in Pico’s Sermo Perfectus can not be considered as a recovery of the Greek natural philosophy, but as a mirror path, exactly opposite to the former. All in all, it was a philosophy very different, in particular, from Aristotelianism, that, on the contrary, had always tried to guarantee natural order. Now it is easy to understand why, at least until the middle of the XVIIth century, very few philosophers believed it was necessary to completely destroy the classical philosophy. Actually, Aristotelianism was still very fascinating even after two millennia, remaining the most convincing systematic interpretation of the world. Its force was augmented by the weakness of other systems, that, unlike Aristotelianism, could not propose an universal and necessary theory for “preserving phenomena”.

In Physics’ second book, Aristotle recognized the difference between Nature’s work and Man’s work as a difference between substantiality and accidentality: “Nature is principle and cause of the movement and of the quietness of all things; being pertains to it in primis and per se, not accidentally”. Therefore, the Aristotelean physics becomes a colossal definition of the concept of Nature. In Metaphysics’ fourth and fifth books, the author perfectly explains what Nature is for him: “Substance of things containing movement in themselves”, whereas physics is said to be the science whose subject is “that substance having in herself its becoming”.

So we have found the touchstone to identify what is natural and what is not. Only the “non-existent” can be defined unnatural. It is not casual that Aristotle demonstrates the non-existence of the void, showing that the movement of an object in it would be unnatural; otherwise, ab absurdo, there would be objects which would not tend to their aim: the perfection of their form, substance or nature. The artificial, instead, is not outside the natural order, but belongs to the accidental sphere, it is a part of Nature. The craftsman, though, who would try to replace Nature’s industry, without being satisfied to imitate her, he should resign himself to suffer the vengeance against any hybrizontes: failure. It is impossible to act against Nature; only he who committed that crime is damaged by it.

Thus, Aristotelean physics is the peak of the classic naturalism Weltanschauung; faithful to the idea that it is possible to build both physics and theology on metaphysical principles, the Aristotelean philosopher will not explain the miracle (an event always external to the metaphysical approach) and, when forced, he will go by to a divine and providential design, as Saint Thomas, or he will try, as Pomponazzi did, to integrate the miracle into the natural order, reasoning that it is the exception that proves the rule.

They are two very dangerous solutions, not adopted by Aristotle nor by XVIIth century scientists, for which, in a correct epistemological way, what does not belong to the universe of objects of the theory should not be considered, because it “does not exist”. Breaking the theoretical basis, the miraculous event would mean a victory of disorder, therefore the meaninglessness of any cognitive function.

Paradoxically, he was the supreme Christian commentator of Aristotle, Saint Thomas, to instil doubt in Western culture that, in this extremely qualified point, the Stagyrites did commit a mistake. Questio 178 in Secunda Secundae, De gratia miraculorum, was written against the foundation itself of classical philosophy. Saint Thomas, after having pointed out that the miracle is “something going beyond Nature’s faculties”, and that the miracle happens “to manifest the supernatural”, asks himself if “also wicked men can perform miracles.” The answer is negative, because “miracles are performed only by God, for the advantage of Man.” He admits, though, the existence of prodigious events, enabled to disrupt the natural order.

From now on, the difference between miracle and prodigy is set: only God can work miracles, modifying, for spiritual aims and by supernatural means, the natural order created by Him, whereas Satan works prodigies and, by his human emissaries, upsets the natural order by perfectly human means. For Scholastics, the miracle issue obeys to the Aristotelean distinction between natural and artificial. Devil is God’s monkey, as art is Nature’s monkey; prodigy imitates miracle only in its happening, not in its being.

Any demonology written during the XVIth century have a very simple recipe: after all, demonologies are upside down theologies (in which Satan replaces God, but only accidentally). Satan is the great naturalist of that epoch: he knows stones’ and herbs’ virtues, astral influxes, he keeps alive the ancient human dream to rule elements and Nature, he knows formulae, that is the things’ names, thus he knows the things themselves. Full of his own hybris, Satan is alchemist, cabalist, astrologist, necromancer, geomancer, pyromancer, hydromancer, aeromancer, haruspex, augur, natural Magus… He is called “prince of this world”, that is he who rules the sub-lunar sphere. But his power is not charismatic; he has to conquer it by continuously defying Nature. He is the Father of naturalistic mentality and disorder. There is no order, there are no laws to set, but only a fecund Chaos, to be constantly reconstructed. But then, what is the meaning of the adjective “natural”, so diffused in Renaissance philosophy? Ficino declares that true magic is performed by “they who rightly treat natural materials and causes, to be manipulated by a certain admirable law” and “[…] we do not refer to prophane magic, founded on the cult of demons, but to the natural magic, using benign celestial influxes by natural means.” Pico della Mirandola states that the magic operation is the world’s wedding, it happens “actuando vel uniendo virtutes naturales”. Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim warns that the Magus reaches his aims by “[…] the concordance of the world, where heavenly things attire superheavenly ones, and natural things supernatural ones, by the virtue circulating in all things” and claims that magical operations are not supernatural or praeternatural, but they come from Nature and are made according to Her. Pomponazzi even thinks that angels and demons too must act according to natural laws. Della Porta cautions that “he who looks for a reason for everything, he destroys both science and reason; he who has no faith in Nature’s miracles, he tries to destroy philosophy”. For him, the Magus extracts secrets from Nature’s womb. In describing New Atlantis, Bacon himself states that there is a house of deceptions, a sort of laboratory where people apprehend any art able to perform marvels by illusionistic techniques. Solomon House wise men, though, do not use them; they prefer to perform “miraculous” operations using a natural way. Renaissance naturalism’s Meisterwerk is the renunciation to the Aristotelean difference between naturalia and artificialia, proclaiming the artificiality of the natural. “For XVIth and XVIIth centuries men,” Bacon writes “everything is natural and nothing is impossibile to do, since Magic rules everything and Nature herself is but Magic performed by God, the supreme Magus”.



Ficino’s pia philosophia or docta religio is now upside down. There is no rule anymore; the irrepressible Pimander’s Eros, between Man and Nature, freely flows; ascesis is forgotten, the return to the One-All is put aside, the sacerdotal function of magic becomes uninfluential; the Renaissance Magus wants a direct relationship with Nature, that, from a means to ascend to God, becomes an aim in se. The only epistemological and methodological principle guiding the naturalist, occultist or natural Magus, is analogy, as free association of ideas (considered, by a curious rereading of adaequatio, not only a law of the thought, but also an universal rule). Analogy does not need a method: it is already a method, founded on the rupture of any scheme; it is a rebellion against disciplined thought, a free and uncontrolled flux of metaphors; a kaleidoscope of analogic structures, univocal and equivocal, recalling each other, cancelling each other, reinforcing each other. In the “sorçier”’s recipe book there is no really normative prescription; each Magus, astrologist, alchemist, has a recipe book of his own, declared false by others and unique and infallible by its writer. XVIth century builds its physical-naturalistic theory on the conceptual predicates of Divina Analogia, that is sympathies and virtues, which permit to correctly define phenomenic proprieties and relationships. But no Renaissance Magus agrees to admit that magic miracles violate natural laws: “Natural magic,” writes Agrippa “having contemplated the power of all natural and heavenly things and, with curious diligence, their order, reveals the occult natural forces copulating inferior things with superior ones […] therefore, often many marvellous miracles are produced”. A careful reading of his work, De Occulta Philosophia, shows that Agrippa’s declared aim is the conquest of omnipotence. He wants to perform more and more portentous things, to become similar to God’s Son, to transform himself in God’s image and to become one with Him. In order to do this, he uses techniques, forbidden by Ficino and considered silly by Pico, as ceremonial magic. The third section of his very famous work is precisely devoted to a magic that does not disdain exorcisms, demonic invocations and necromancy.

Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-1535): one of the most important Renaissance magician-scientists


In his Steganographia Trithemius explains how to invoke angels (and, with some small variation, demons too) of various districts. Unlike Ficino, who, from Pseudo-Dennis, had mutuated only the web of relationships among Trinity, angelical Intelligences and Spheres, but was piously interested, from a merely operational point of view, only about planets, Trithemius teaches how to telepathically connect with Spirits and how to cheat the secrets of the Universe from them.

John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician who rediscovered Euclid evokes the dead with the help of the notorious crook Edward Kelley. Gerolamo Cardano, maybe the most genial modern algebrist, practises all kinds of magic and uses mathematics as a technique for his astrological-cabalistical operations. The famous physician Jean Fernel applies astrology to therapeutics (a practise typical of any modern physician), but with the help of talismans, evocations and formulas. Also Michael Servetus (Vesalius’ co-pupil), the first to imagine the lung circulation, unreservedly uses magic. Among the great astronomers of that period, we can not forget the clearly magic-astrologic leaning of Tycho, Digges, Regiomontanus and Kepler; among mathematicians, there are Cardano, Dee and Copernicus; among philosophers, Bruno, Pomponazzi and Campanella; among physicians, Fernel, Servetus, Fracastorus and Paracelsus; among physicists, Gilbert and Della Porta and, among engineers, Besson and Solomon of Caus.

Kepler’s Somnium is emblematic. A fictional work, but containing several autobiographical elements, it clearly reveals the cultural roots of the father of modern astronomy and optics. He tells that, when he was still a child, initiated by his mother, a witch, to the popular magic’s techniques (actually Katarina Kepler was tried for witchcraft and she managed to save herself only thanks to her son’s intervention), having lost some talismans, he was given in the place of them to a sea captain, who carried him to the Isle of Uranisburg, where he sold Kepler to Tycho Brahe, that taught him astronomy and astrology’s secrets.

 This parable resumes an epoch: in Duracotus’s instruction (the pseudonym chosen by Kepler), natural son of the witch and putative son of the Scholar-Magus-Astronomer, we recognize the Renaissance path, brief but intense; a period where Man is the son of the Witch and of the Scientist. Born from fancy, insuppressible Eros of Life, and from desire-conceived dreams, Renaissance cultivates a fecundly chaotic structure, made though of strictly ordained and functionally connected parts.

The relationship between Man and Nature that, during Renaissance, went beyond the taboo of incest with Mother Nature, almost becoming a carnal relationship with the Lover, becomes, at the beginning of the Modern Age, a scarcely poetic but very practical union. The relationship Man-Nature, the marvellous hermetic myth proposed by Ficino to the Western culture, is replaced by Bacon’s master-servant dialectic; in the first, we see the exalting and restless fancies and the unsatiable desires of a young and ardent Eros; in the second, the just conquered maturity produces an union where “Ars est homo additus naturae” and “Naturae solum imperando nisi parendo”.




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