19 February 2014


Paul Kléber Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment, Yale University Press, 2013.

John V. Fleming, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, W.W. Norton & Co., 2013

Since the 1970s there has been a gradual, if grudging, acknowledgement by academic historians that occult ideas and beliefs played a much more influential role in the Renaissance than previous generations would admit. Now, the same seems to be happening for the era to which the Renaissance gave way, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason.
I have already reviewed one example of this new trend, in which North American historians are taking the lead, in the form of Daniel Stolzenberg’s re-evaluation of the early Enlightenment polymath Athanasius Kircher, Egyptian Oedipus. Now two other distinguished historians have produced books calling for a re-evaluation of the standard interpretation of the entire period, one writing for an academic readership while the other aims at a more general audience.

The Canadian Paul Kléber Monod is a specialist in British history at the select Middlebury College in Vermont, and John V. Fleming is professor emeritus of medieval history at Princeton University. Both argue that the traditional view of the Enlightenment as representing the triumph of scientific rationalism over occult superstition is wrong: not only was the supposed hostility between scientists and occultists non-existent, but the occultists made vital contributions to Enlightenment thought. Such views, of course, clash head-on with conventional historical wisdom.

Or at least they do in the English-speaking world. As Monod notes, ‘These observations would not be surprising to historians of the Enlightenment in continental Europe,’ whereas ‘The suggestion that alchemists, astrologers, ritual magicians, magnetic healers and occult Freemasons could have had something to do with this triumphant procession towards modernity is not one that has occurred to many British historians.’ For his part, Fleming writes that, while French scholarship on the occult has generally been of a high quality, in the UK and USA is has ‘tended more to the eccentric and the dubious.’

To begin with the more academic and comprehensive of the two – 350 pages of main text and 70 of notes – Monod’s Solomon’s Secret Arts is a major contribution to the history of occultism, not only for what it tells us about the theory and practice of the esoteric arts during the Enlightenment but also for the insights it gives into the origins of modern occultism, as it was during this period that the essential mindset that would prevail in the 19th and 20th centuries was forged.

Although the subtitle implies that Solomon’s Secret Arts is about the Enlightenment in general, Monod is specifically concerned with its manifestation in Britain – indeed, almost exclusively in England, as there were significant differences to attitudes to the occult in Scotland.

Monod’s avowed purpose is ‘to devise a general framework within which the history of occult thinking can be understood in the century and a half after the English Civil War period,’ setting the story of the occult against the cultural, social, economic, religious and political changes of the time – what he describes as ‘the cacophonous yet vibrant disharmony of British public culture.’

‘Occult thinking’ is Monod’s preferred term for the esotericism of the period, which he defines as ‘a type of thinking, expressed either in writing or in action, that allowed the boundary between the natural and supernatural to be crossed by the actions of human beings.’ As he notes, employing ‘occult’ as a noun was a 19th century development; in the period in question the word was used exclusively as an adjective.

Monod takes three strands of occult thinking – alchemy, astrology and ritual magic (the last a catch-all category covering all forms of attempts to communicate with or utilise supernatural entities) – and traces them through three distinct periods between 1650 and 1800.

In the first, 1650-88, Monod demonstrates that science (or ‘natural philosophy’ as it was then known) and the occult ‘were not at war with each other.’ On science’s part, ‘no concerted process of outright debunking took place,’ while occultists ‘eagerly embraced’ the new scientific methods and discoveries. He argues that the period – somewhat unexpectedly to modern expectations - marked the high point of alchemy; in Britain and the rest of Europe ‘more material on alchemy was published in those decades than previously or afterwards.’ Astrology was then in its ‘silver age’ – its peak being the preceding half century – but it went into an abrupt decline after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

That event marked the beginning of a period of eclipse for occult thinking, as it split from the experimental science with which it had cohabited quite amicably. It wasn’t that individuals stopped doing alchemy, astrology and ritual magic, but it ceased being a respectable subject for public discussion.

The most important champions of occult thinking during the period of eclipse were what Monod calls the ‘Newtonian magi,’ who kept the occult side of their interests private. They include Jean-Théophile Desaguliers, who was Newton’s experimental assistant, and Newton’s ‘devoted acolyte’ William Stukeley [left], who knowingly lied about his hero’s alchemical pursuits in his published writings. Monod concludes that ‘Ultimately, the Newtonian Magi were not successful in rehabilitating occult thinking… Nevertheless, their appropriation of the occult shows the inadequacy of setting up an eighteenth-century Newtonian Enlightenment in opposition to the occult “irrationalism” of a former age. The interchange between natural philosophy and occult thinking continued, albeit on a more abstract level.’

But this period of eclipse was not to last. After 1750 – again unexpectedly to modern minds – there was a ‘dramatic and tempestuous revival of the occult.’ It was from this revival that the ‘modern concept of “the occult” would arise.’

Monod explores the many factors that contributed to this rise, fall and revival of interest in the occult – showing how it was affected by the social, political and economic changes of the time. But for him the most important factor was the various changes in religious attitudes. Throughout the whole period, it wasn’t science that took the lead in opposing the occult, but religion, in the shape of the Anglican (and in Scotland Presbyterian) Church. Monod shows that the waxing and waning of the occult’s fortunes had nothing to do with the rise of science and everything to do with the relative strength of the established Church. The degree of influence wielded by the Church over society in general and policy-makers in particular fluctuated, and the respectability of the occult changed in direct proportion.

One of the most important reasons for the strength of interest in occultism in the period 1650-88 was the weakness of the Church during the upheavals of the Civil War and Commonwealth: ‘As a result, a pool of religious ideas was carried to the surface that would previously have been condemned as heterodox or blasphemous.’ By contrast, ‘The defence of [Anglican] orthodoxy after the Civil War period posed a much more formidable challenge to occult thinking than did experimental science.’ This was the real reason, Monod argues, that scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle kept their occult and scientific studies separate, only publishing works on the latter.

The Enlightenment’s great opponents of occultism were motivated by their religious beliefs. Thomas Hobbes, for example, ‘combined a materialist approach to natural philosophy with a severely rationalist reading of Scripture’ that led him to reject the notion that God would allow anything to happen that didn’t operate through natural laws, while the view of Méric Casaubon – the cleric who successfully trashed John Dee’s reputation - that all occult practices were demonic ‘was, to a large extent, representative of Anglican orthodoxy during the Restoration period.’

Similarly, the revival of the occult’s fortunes in the second half of the 18th century was in large part due to another shift in religious attitudes, as Evangelical movements such as Methodism (which revived supernatural manifestations as a part of religious practice) and mystically-inclined schools such as Swedenborgianism challenged rigid Anglican orthodoxy.

Monod’s argument is strengthened by the absence of a similar revival north of the border. Scotland was the sceptical part of the British Isles, largely because of the unwavering strength of the Presbyterian Church, which was deeply hostile to the occult; Scots with an interest in the subject generally moved to England. A more sceptical attitude to the occult prevailed in Scottish scientific circles too – but again, ironically, due to the prevailing religious attitudes.

Even during the English revival, there was no great antipathy between science and the occult. As Monod points out, Joseph Banks, the long-reigning President of the Royal Society (1778-1820) was ‘a colleague and patron of some of the most remarkable occult thinkers in late eighteenth-century England.’ Conversely, ‘the denizens of the English occult revival showed little intention of actually opposing the Enlightenment. On the contrary, they would do their best to accommodate it.’

From this analysis Monod reaches the important conclusion: the assumption of many historians, that occult thinking was debunked by experimental science in the late seventeenth century, is essentially wrong. Scientific writing in this period almost never set out to undermine or attack occult assumptions. On the other hand, many scientists, including Newton, Boyle and [the mathematician William] Whiston, embraced aspects of occult thinking, especially alchemy and astrology.

He points out that ‘No major scientific figure of the period chose to publish a work against the occult,’ and that ‘For their part, adherents of the occult were surprisingly quick to adapt to new ideas.’ Even alchemy was never discredited by science, but collapsed under attack on religious grounds. He sums up that ‘the occult was not killed off by science or the Enlightenment. On the contrary, it coexisted with them, borrowed from them and was rarely the object of attacks from scientific or enlightened writers.’

Monod pins the reason for the eventual final eclipse of occultism as a respectable pursuit not on science but on politically-driven social change, specifically the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1793. Suddenly, ‘Unconventionality was suspect.’ Occultists tended to be reformists – many, for example, supported the anti-slavery movement, and the Astrologer’s Magazine spoke out in favour of the French Revolution – and it wasn’t a good time to be one: ‘The occult revival was eventually undermined by political developments that branded it as radical, treasonable and (again) heterodox.’ It was only after this that ‘the denizens of the occult world tend to look inwards, positioning themselves as the mortal enemies of the rational Enlightenment.’ The converse applies, of course, as science and rationalists became hostile to the occult and wrote their victor’s history of the Enlightenment.

Apart from his general thesis on occult thinking in general, Monod’s book is also relevant to those with a special interest in subjects within that broad category, such as the history of witchcraft (attitudes to which underwent a sea change during that period) and Freemasonry (which was radically transformed into its recognisably modern form during the 18th century).

Monod brings in some associated religious movements of the time, those based on belief in prophecy, ecstatic visions or the intervention of supernatural entities, such as the French Prophets and Scottish Quietists. Although not strictly speaking part of occult thinking they shared with it the belief that humans ‘could become vessels for benevolent spirits’ and, he argues, had more of an influence over 19th century occultism than the ‘scientific’ esotericism of Newton and his followers.

Monod’s overall conclusion is that the supposed dichotomy between Enlightenment thinking and the occult is a fiction created by historians. In reality, occult thinkers didn’t see themselves as detached from the Enlightenment, but rather embraced it: ‘the occult could be imagined as part of a “Super-Enlightenment” that elevated human potential and wisdom beyond the limits of rational understanding.’

Although no fan of the occult as a coherent and meaningful explanation of the workings of nature and the cosmos – he makes it clear in his introduction that he doesn’t ‘believe’ in the occult - Monod concludes that ‘It did not retard or undermine intellectual development, and may have enhanced it, through liberating the imagination.’ And so we should ‘lay to rest a conception of the occult as the eternal bogeyman of modernity, bent on the undoing of reason and progress. That bogeyman never really existed, except in the overheated imaginations of those who feared him.’

Solomon’s Secret Arts is an impressive work of historical scholarship and an important contribution to the history of the Enlightenment and of the occult. If I have a quibble, it’s that the title doesn’t do it justice, as it is rather unrepresentative of the contents. Monod says it comes from the fact that, in the Enlightenment, Solomon was ‘regarded as the master of all forms of secret knowledge, which he was thought to have enshrined in the features of his Temple.’ However, there are few direct references to Solomon or the Temple in most of the subjects he explores.

John V. Fleming, on the other hand, is upfront about the reason he chose the title The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: ‘It seems rather catchy’ and ‘not merely appropriate but inevitable.’ Although it gives an initial impression of being a pejorative title, it soon becomes clear that his view of the ‘wizards, alchemists and spiritual seekers’ of the period is a rather more positive one.

Fleming’s book is ‘intended for the educated general reader rather than the specialist,’ and so doesn’t have much in the way of references and citations, although there is a useful bibliography and suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter. He has also written it for a specifically American audience, and for patriotic reasons at that: ‘Really, all Americans ought to be interested in the Enlightenment as our nation is Enlightenment’s child.’

Before his retirement, Fleming was an eminent Princeton medievalist. Although he seems to be stepping outside of his area of expertise, part of the reason he has written it is that he is irked by the rigid distinction that many of his peers make between the Middle Ages and later periods, as if the former just stopped at a given moment in history and so became irrelevant. Fleming sees continuities from medieval to Enlightenment thinking that are as conspicuous and important as the changes.

Like Monod, Fleming argues that the conventional view of the Enlightenment, at both a popular and academic level, is too narrow. He, too, addresses the ‘awkward persistence’ of occult beliefs and movements in the Enlightenment (awkward, that is, for the conventional view), arguing ‘for a more capacious examination of what was “enlightened.”’ He observes that ‘historians of the Age of Reason have often taken a more restrictive definition of “reason” than did the thinkers and writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.’

Fleming simultaneously takes a wider view than Monod, dealing with the Enlightenment in Europe as a whole and including miraculous and religious phenomena rather than just the occult arts, and a narrower focus, as rather than attempting a full narrative history of the period he concentrates on specific individuals and movements that present ‘challenges to the generally held views of what the Enlightenment was, and what it did.’

His chosen subjects are the healer Valentine Greatrakes, the ecstatic Convulsionists of Saint-Médard church in Paris, Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, the ‘three occult arts’ of magic, the kabbala and alchemy, Count Cagliostro and the Christian mystic Julie de Krüdener. The challenge these people and movements pose to conventional wisdom is not just they existed and, in most cases flourished, during the Age of Reason but also that they were ‘enabled and defined’ by the Enlightenment just as much as the scientists and rationalist philosophers. They were not irrelevant sideshows of the age, but part of the main event.

Like Monod, Fleming sees the major influence on the period as religious – not rational – thinking, but he views it as not only explaining attitudes to the occult but as the key determining factor behind the whole of Enlightenment thought. For him, the Enlightenment was an attempt to fill the spiritual vacuum and ‘appetite for transcendental experience’ caused by the removal of the mystical and miraculous from mainstream Christianity. (I assume here he is referring to Protestant Christianity rather than Catholic – after all, the Enlightenment was chiefly the product of the Protestant nations of Europe and was resisted in the Catholic countries.) He writes that ‘candid students of the European Enlightenment must soon discover that it had a great deal to do with religion. Indeed, I am tempted to write that it was all about religion – salvaging it in some way, or finding a suitable replacement.’

Seen in this light, the apparent incompatibility (to modern eyes) between a thriving occult scene that actively embraced and fed off the ‘Age of Reason’ is reconciled. The Enlightenment was never about the rise of reason in its modern definition, for, as Fleming asks, ‘How could rationality unadorned possibly compensate for the loss of the mythic world?’

There are, as would be expected, differences in approach and emphasis between Fleming and Monod. In particular, Fleming adopts a rather less sceptical and cynical tone when it comes to a belief in the supernatural and the occult.

His first chapter deals with the celebrated ‘stroker’ [right] Valentine Greatrakes, whose claimed healing abilities aroused much controversy in Restoration England and Ireland, and who is today routinely dismissed as a simple fake or charlatan. As Fleming points out, the opposition to Greatrakes at the time was led by Churchmen, not scientists. The scientists of the time – notably Robert Boyle, one of the great heroes of science historians (who downplay his occult interests) – were genuinely interested in Greatrakes’ apparent abilities and studied them in person. The Churches of England and Ireland of the time had, partly in order to distinguish themselves from Papism, taken a stance against the miraculous, holding the view that, while God had directly intervened in the world in Biblical times, he no longer did, so miracles couldn’t happen – therefore Greatrakes must be a fraud.

For Fleming, whatever caused the cures, Greatrakes was transparently sincere and honest, and the accounts of them – often by respectable scientists – objective and accurate. He concludes that ‘All of Greatrakes’s cures remain mysterious, but particularly mysterious are the reports of the instant reparation of serious bodily injury from accidents – broken bones, deep lacerations, crushed and brutalized tissue.’

One subject on which Fleming would disagree with Monod is over his treatment of the enigmatic Count Cagliostro. Monod, who deals with him briefly, dismisses the Count as ‘that magnificent charlatan,’ whereas Fleming pulls up fellow historian Simon Burrows’ description of Cagliostro as ‘the greatest charlatan of the eighteenth century’ as being ‘conventional and monochromatic.’ He points out that the primary sources on Cagliostro’s life are not only scant but are almost exclusively written by his enemies, and that the political reasons behind official and social hostility towards him are not given their proper weight.

Fleming emphasises Cagliostro’s apparent successes, especially in healing, and concludes that ‘If Cagliostro was a confidence swindler, he was a singularly unsuccessful one, as there is no documented instance in which he profited financially from his transactions, including the sale of his medicinal “packets.” On several occasions, on the other hand, the man was himself the victim of swindlers.’ For Fleming, Cagliostro is ‘a quintessentially Enlightenment figure,’ which is a paradox according to conventional wisdom but not according to Fleming and Monod’s view of the Enlightenment.

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment is an enjoyable read, as Fleming writes with clarity and humour, employing pithy and very quotable turns of phrase that neatly encapsulate his argument. Particular favourites are, in his discussion of the ‘occult’ elements of Enlightenment science, ‘What was once considered the essence of science has now been banished by most scientists’; the distinction between Enlightenment chemistry and alchemy (‘the Queen of Enlightenment Science’) being ‘an act of linguistic modernization deployed in the service of the dignity of science’; and ‘science becomes pseudo-science only by majority vote.’

These two books complement each other beautifully. Fleming’s is – as befits a book written for general consumption – the easier read, whereas Monod’s is the more comprehensive and exhaustive scholarly study, although it is far from being a difficult and dense read. While they disagree on certain points, their basic message is the same: academic history has got it wrong where the Enlightenment is concerned. There was no hostility – or even distinction - between science and the occult; the idea that there was is simply a projection of 19th and 20th century historians. The story of the Enlightenment has been written to make it what modern rationalists think it should have been, rather than what it was.

From the rationalists’ perspective it is, of course, a huge irony that it was not science that opposed the occult during the Age of Reason, but the equally ‘irrational’ forces of religion.

Monod’s Solomon’s Secret Arts, in particular, deserves to be as groundbreaking as Frances Yates’ books of the 1960s and 70s which argued that an appreciation of the importance of the occult philosophy was needed for a proper understanding of the Renaissance. It will be fascinating to see whether this similar new trend in Enlightenment scholarship will take hold. 
  • Clive Prince


Billy Mavreas said...

Thank you for a fascinating read. I'm tempted by Monods' book.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the detailed reviews. These strike me as important books.

George P. Hansen