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The warfare of science
XVIII. From magic to chem-
istry and physics.







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IN all the earliest developments of human thought we find a
tendency to ascribe mysterious powers over Nature to men
and women especially gifted or skilled. Survivals of this view
are found to this day among savages and barbarians left behind
in the evolution of civilization, and especially is this the case
among the tribes of Australia, Africa, and the Pacific coast of
America ; even in the most enlightened nations still appear, here
and there, popular beliefs, observances, or sayings, drawn from
this earlier phase of thought.

Between the prehistoric savage developing this theory, and
therefore endeavoring to deal with the powers of Nature by
magic, and the modern man who has outgrown it, appears a long
line of nations struggling upward through it. As the hiero-
glyphs, cuneiform inscriptions, and various other records of an-
tiquity are read, the development of this belief can be studied in
Egypt, India, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, and Phoenicia. From
these countries it came into the early thought of Greece and
Rome, but especially into the Jewish and Christian sacred books ;
both in the Old Testament and in the New we find magic, sorcery,
and soothsaying constantly referred to as realities.*

* For magic in prehistoric times and survivals of it since, with abundant citation of
authorities, see Tylor, Primitive Culture, chap, iv ; also the Early History of Mankind, by
the same author, third edition, pp. 115 et seq., also p. 380 ; also Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual,
and Religion, vol. i, chap. iv. For magic in Egypt, see Lenormant, Chaldean Magic, chaps,
vi-viii ; also Maspero, Histoire Ancienne des Peuples de 1'Orient ; and especially the citations
from Chabas, Le Papyrus Magique Harris, in chap, vii ; also Maurv, La Magie et 1'Astrologie dans
1' Antiquite et au Moyen Age. For magic in Chaldea, see Lenormant as above. For examples of


The first distinct impulse which lifted mankind toward a
higher view of research into natural laws was given by the philos-
ophers of Greece. It is true that philosophical opposition to
physical research was at times strong, and that even a great
thinker like Socrates considered certain physical investigations
as an impious intrusion into the work of the gods ; it is also true
that Plato and Aristotle, while bringing their thoughts to bear
upon the world with great beauty and force, did much to draw
mankind away from those methods which in modern times have
produced the best results.

Plato developed a world in which the physical sciences had
little if any real reason for existing ; Aristotle, a world in which
the same sciences were developed not so much by observation of
what is, as of speculation on what ought to be. From the former
of these two great men came into Christian theology many germs
of mediaeval magic, and from the latter sundry modes of reason-
ing which aided in the evolution of these; yet the impulse to
human thought given by these great masters was of inestimable
value to our race, and one legacy from them was especially
precious ; the idea that a science of Nature is possible, and that
the highest occupation of man is the discovery of its laws. Still
another gift from them was greatest of all, for they gave scien-
tific freedom : they laid no interdict upon new paths ; they inter-
posed no barriers to the extension of knowledge ; they threatened
no doom in this life or in the next against investigators on new
lines ; they left the world free to seek any new methods and to
follow any new paths which thinking men could find.

This legacy of belief in science, of respect for scientific pur-
suits, and of freedom in scientific research, was especially re-
ceived by the school of Alexandria, and above all by Archimedes,
who began, just before the Christian era, to open new paths
through the great field of the inductive sciences by observation,
comparison, and experiment.*

magical powers in India, see Max Miiller's Sacred Books of the East, vol. xvii, pp. 121 et seq.
For a legendary view of magic in Media, see the Zend Avesta, Part I, p. 14, translated by
Darmsteter ; and for a more highly developed view, see the Zend Avesta, Part III, p. 239,
translated by Mill. For magic in Greece and Rome, and especially in the Xeoplatonic school
as well as in the middle ages, see especially Maun-, La Magie et 1'Astrologie, chaps, iii-v.
For various sorts of magic recognized and condemned in our sacred books, see Deuteronomy,
xviii, 10, 11 ; and for the burning of magical books at Ephesus under the influence of St.
Paul, see Acts, xix, 14. See also Ewald, History of Israel, Martineau's translation, fourth
edition, ii, 55-63 ; iii, 45-51. For a very elaborate summing up of the passages in our
sacred books, recognizing magic as a fact, see De Uaen, "De Magia," Lips., 1775, chaps, i,
ii, and iii, of first part. For general subject of magic, see Ennemoser, History of Magic,
translated by Howitt, which, however, constantly mixes sorcery with magic proper.

* As to the beginnings of physical science in Greece, and of the theological opposition to
physical science, also Socrates's view regarding certain branches as interdicted to human


The establishment of Christianity, though it began a new
evolution of religion, arrested the normal development of the
physical sciences for over fifteen hundred years. The cause of
this arrest was twofold : First, there was created an atmosphere
in which the germs of physical science could hardly grow ; an at-
mosphere in which all seeking for truth in Nature as truth was re-
garded as futile. The general belief derived from the New Testa-
ment Scriptures was, that the end of the world was at hand ; that
the last judgment was approaching; that all existing physical
Nature was soon to be destroyed : hence, the greatest thinkers in
the Church generally poured contempt upon all investigators into
a science of Nature, and insisted that everything except the saving
of souls was folly.

This belief appears frequently through the entire period of the
middle ages, but during the first thousand years it is clearly
dominant. From Lactantius and Eusebius, in the third century,
pouring contempt, as we have seen, over studies in astronomy, to
Peter Damiaii, the noted chancellor of Pope Gregory VII, in the
eleventh century, declaring all worldly sciences to be " absurdities "
and " fooleries/' it becomes the atmosphere of thought.*

Then, too, there was established a standard to which all science
which did struggle up through this atmosphere must be made to
conform a standard which favored magic rather than science,
for it was a standard of rigid dogmatism obtained from literal
readings in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The most care-
ful inductions from ascertained facts were regarded as wretchedly
fallible when compared with any view of Nature whatever given
or even hinted at in any poem, chronicle, code, apologue, myth,
legend, allegory, letter, or discourse of any sort which had hap-
pened to be preserved in the literature which had come to be held
as sacred.

For twelve centuries, then, the physical sciences were thus dis-
couraged or perverted by the dominant orthodoxy. Whoever
studied Nature studied it either openly to find illustrations of the
sacred text, useful in the " saving of souls," or secretly to gain
the aid of occult powers, useful in securing personal advantage.
Great men like Bede, Isidore of Seville, Rabanus Maurus, accepted

study, see Grote's Greece, vol. i, pp. 495 and 504, 505 ; also Jowett's introduction to his
translation of the Thnaeus, and Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences. For examples
showing the incompatibility of Plato's methods in physical science with that pursued in mod-
ern times, see Zeller, Plato and the Older Academy, English translation by Alleyne and Good-
win, pp. 375 et seq. The supposed opposition to freedom of opinion in the " Laws " of Plato,
toward the end of his life, ran hardly make against the whole spirit of Greek thought.

* For the view of Peter Damian and others through the middle ages as to the futility of
scientific investigation, see citations in Eicken, Geschichte und System der niitteliilterlichen
Weltanschauung, chap. vi.


the scriptural standard of science, and used it as a means of
Christian edification. The views of Bede and Isidor on kindred
subjects have been shown in former chapters ; and typical of the
view taken by Rabanus is the fact that in his great work on the
Universe there are only two chapters which seem directly or in-
directly to recognize even the beginnings of a real philosophy of
Nature. A multitude of less-known men found warrant in Script-
ure for magic applied to less worthy purposes.*

But after the thousand years to which the Church, upon sup-
posed scriptural warrant, had lengthened out the term of the
earth's existence had passed, " the end of all things" seemed fur-
ther off than ever ; and in the thirteenth century, owing to causes
which need not be dwelt upon here, came a great revival of
thought, so that the forces of theology and of science seemed ar-
rayed for a contest. On one side came a revival of religious fer-
vor, and to this day the works of the cathedral-builders mark its
depth and strength ; on the other side came a new spirit of in-
quiry incarnate in a line of powerful thinkers.

First among these was Albert of Bollstadt, better known as
Albert the Great, the most renowned scholar of his time. Fet-
tered though he was by the methods sanctioned in the Church,
dark as was all about him, he had conceived ideas of better
methods and aims ; his eye pierced the mists of scholasticism ; he
saw the light, and sought to draw the world toward it. He stands
among the great pioneers of physical and natural science; he
aided in giving foundations to botany and chemistry; he rose
above his time and struck a heavy blow at those who opposed the
possibility of human life on opposite sides of the earth ; he noted
the influence of mountains, seas, and forests upon races and prod-
ucts, so that Humboldt justly finds in his works the germs of
physical geography as a comprehensive science.

But the old system of deducing scientific truth from script-
ural texts was renewed in the development of scholastic theology,
and ecclesiastical power acting through thousands of subtle chan-
nels was made to aid this development. The old idea of the vast
superiority of theology was revived. Though Albert's main
effort was to Christianize science, he was dealt with by the
authorities of the Dominican order, subjected to suspicion and

* As typical examples, see the utterances of Eusebius and Lactantius regarding astrono-
mers given in the chapter on Astronomy. For a summary of Rabanus Maurus's doctrine of
physics, see Heller, Gescbichte der Physik, vol. i, pp. 172 et seq. For Bede and Isidore, see
the earlier chapters of this work. For an excellent statement regarding the application of
scriptural standards to scientific research in the middle ages, see Kretschmer, Die physische
Erdkunde im Christlichen Mittelalter, pp. 5 et seq. For the distinctions in magic recognized
in the mediaeval Church, see the long catalogue of various sorts given in the Abbe Migne's
Encyclopedic Thologique, third series, article " Magie."


indignity, and only escaped persecution for sorcery by yielding
to the ecclesiastical spirit of the time, and working finally in
theological channels by scholastic methods.

It was a vast loss to the earth ; and certainly, of all organiza-
tions that have reason to lament the pressure of ecclesiasticism
which turned Albert the Great from natural philosophy to theol-
ogy, foremost of all in regret should be the Christian Church, and
especially the Roman branch of it. Had there been evolved in
the Church during the thirteenth century a faith strong enough
to accept the truths in natural science which Albert and his com-
peers could have given, and to have encouraged their growth,
this faith and this encouragement would to this day have formed
the greatest argument for proving the Church directly under
divine guidance ; they would have been among the brightest
jewels in her crown. The loss to the Church by this want of
faith and courage has proved in the long run even greater than
the loss to science.*

The next great man of that age whom the theological and eccle-
siastical forces of the time turned from the right path was Vin-
cent of Beauvais. During the first half of the twelfth century he
devoted himself to the study of Nature in several of her most in-
teresting fields. To astronomy, botany, and zoology he gave
special attention, but in a larger way he made a general study of
the universe, and in a series of treatises undertook to reveal the
whole field of science. But his work simply became a vast com-
mentary on the account of creation given in the book of Genesis.
Beginning with the work of the Trinity at the creation, he goes
on to detail the work of angels in all their fields, and makes
excursions into every part of creation, visible and invisible, but
always with the most complete subordination of his thought to
the literal statements of Scripture.

Could he have taken the path of experimental research, the
world would have been enriched with most precious discoveries ;

* For a very careful discussion of Albert's strength in investigation and weakness in
yielding to scholastic authority, see Kopp, Ansichten iiber die Aufgabe der Ghemie von
Geber bis Stahl, Braunschweig, 1875, pp. 64 et seq. For a very extended and enthusiastic
biographical sketch, see Pouchet. For comparison of his work with that of Thomas Aquinas,
see Milman, History of Latin Christianity, vol. vi, p. 461. " H etait aussi tres-habile dans
les arts mecaniques, ce que le fit soup9onner d'etre sorcier" (Sprengel, Histoire de la
Medecine, vol. ii, p. 389). For Albert's biography treated strictly in accordance with ecclesi-
astical methods, see Albert the Great, by Joachim Sighart, translated by the Rev. T. A.
Dickson, of the Order of Preachers, published under the sanction of the Dominican censor
and of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, London, 1876. How an Englishman like
Cardinal Manning could tolerate among Englishmen such an unctuous glossing over of his-
torical truth is one of the wonders of contemporary history. For choice specimens see
chapters ii and iv. For one of the best and most recent summaries, see Heller, Geschichte
der Physik, Stuttgart, 1882, vol. i, pp. 179 et seq.


but the force which had given wrong direction to Albert of Boll-
stadt, backed as it was by the whole ecclesiastical power of his
time, was too strong, and in all the life labor of Vincent nothing
appears of any permanent value. He reared a structure which
the adaptation of facts to literal interpretations of Scripture, and
the application of theological subtleties to Nature combine to make
one of the most striking monuments of human error.*

But the theological spirit of the thirteenth century gained its
greatest victory in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. In him was
the theological spirit of his age incarnate. Although he yielded
somewhat at one period to love of natural science, it was he who
finally made that great treaty or compromise which for ages sub-
jected science entirely to theology. He it was who reared the most
enduring barrier against those who in that age and in succeeding
ages labored to open for science the path by its own legitimate
methods toward its own noble ends.

He had been the pupil of Albert the Great, and had gained
much from him. Through the earlier systems of philosophy, as
they were then known, and through the earlier theologic thought,
he had gone with great labor and vigor ; and all his mighty pow-
ers, thus disciplined and cultured, he brought to bear in making a
treaty or truce which was to give theology permanent supremacy
over science.

The experimental method had already been practically initi-
ated ; Albert of Bollstadt and Roger Bacon had begun their work
in accordance with its methods; but St. Thomas gave all his
thoughts to bringing science again under the sway of theological
methods and ecclesiastical control. In his commentary on Aris-
totle's treatise upon Heaven and Earth, he gave to the world a
striking example of what his method could produce ; illustrating
all the evils which arise in combining theological reasoning and
literal interpretation of Scripture with scientific facts, and this
work remains to this day a monument of scientific genius per-
verted by theology, f

The ecclesiastical power of the time hailed him as a deliverer ;
it was claimed that miracles were vouchsafed, proving that the
blessing of Heaven rested upon his labors ; and among the legends
embodying this claim is that given by the Bollandists and immor-
talized by a renowned painter. The great philosopher and saint is
represented in the habit of his order, with book and pen in hand,
kneeling before the image of Christ crucified, and as he kneels the

* For Vincent de Beauvais, see Etudes sur Vincent de Beauvais, par l'Abb6 Bourgeat,
chaps, xii, xiii, and xiv ; also Pouchet, Histoire des Sciences Xaturelles au Moyen Age, Paris,
1863, pp. 470 et seq.; also other histories cited hereafter.

f For citations showing this sulwrdinatiou of science to theology, see Eicken, chap. vi.


image thus addresses him : " Thomas, thou hast written well con-
cerning me; what price wilt thou receive for thy labor?" The
myth-making faculty of the people at large was also brought into
play. According to a wide-spread and circumstantial legend, Al-
bert, by magical means, created an android an artificial man. liv-
ing, speaking, and answering all questions with such subtlety that
St. Thomas, unable to answer its reasoning, broke it to pieces with
his staff.

To this day historians of the Roman Church like Rohrbacher,
and historians of science like Pouchet, find it convenient to pro-
pitiate the Church by dilating upon the glories of St. Thomas
Aquinas in thus making an alliance between religious and scien-
tific thought, and laying the foundations for a " sanctified science " ;
but the unprejudiced historian can not indulge in this enthusiastic
view : the results both for the Church and for science have been
most unfortunate. It was a wretched delay in the evolution of
fruitful thought ; for the first result of this great man's great
com promise was to close for ages that path' in science which above
all others leads to discoveries of value the experimental method
and to reopen that old path of mixed theology and science
which, as Hallam declares, "after three or four hundred years
had not untied a single knot or added one unequivocal truth to
the domain of philosophy " the path which, as all modern his-
tory proves, has ever since led only to delusion and evil.*

The theological path thus opened by these strong men became
the main path for science during ages, and it led the world ever
further and further from any fruitful fact or useful method.

* For the work of Aquinas, see his Liber de Coelo et Mundo, section xx ; also, Life and
Labors of St. Thomas of Aquin, by Archbishop Vaughan, pp. 459 et seq. For his labors in
natural science, see Hoefer, Histoire de la Chimie, Paris, 1843, vol. i, p. 381. For theological
views of science in the middle ages, and rejoicing thereat, see Pouchet, Hist, des Sci. Nat
au Moyen Age, ubi supra. Pouchet says : " En general an milieu du moyen age les sciences
sont essentiellement chretiennes, leur but est tout-a-fait religieux, et elles semblent beaucoup
moins s'inquieter de 1'avancement intellectual de Phomme que de son salut eternel." Pouchet
calls this " conciliation " into a " harmonieux ensemble " " la plus glorieuse des conqufi tes
intellectuelles du moyen age." Pouchet belongs to Rouen, and the shadow of Rouen
Cathedral seems thrown over all his history. See, also, 1'Abbe" Rohrbacher, Hist de
1'Eglise Catholique, Paris, 1858, vol. xviii, pp. 421 et seq. The abbe" dilates upon the fact
that " the Church organizes the agreement of all the sciences by the labors of St. Thomas
of Aquin and his contemporaries." For the complete subordination of science to theology
by St. Thomas, see Eicken, chap. vi. For the theological character of science in the middle
ages, recognized by a Protestant philosophic historian, see the well-known passage in Guizot,
History of Civilization in Europe ; and by a noted Protestant ecclesiastic, see Bishop Hamp-
den's Life of Thomas Aquinas, chaps, xxxvi, xxxvii ; see also Hallam, Middle Ages, chap,
ix. For dealings of Pope John XXII, of the Kings of France and England, and of the Re-
public of Venice, see Figuier, L'Alchimie et les Alchimistes, pp. 140, 141, where, in a note,
the text of the bull Spondent Pariter is given. For popular legends regarding Albert and
St. Thomas, see Elephas Levi, Hist, de la Magie, chap. v.


Roger Bacon's investigations already begun were discredited;
worthless mixtures of scriptural legends with imperfectly au-
thenticated physical facts took their place. Thus it was that for
twelve hundred years the minds in control of Europe regarded
all real science as futile, and diverted the great current of earnest
thought into theology.

The next stage in this evolution was the development of an
idea which acted with great force throughout the middle ages
the idea that science is dangerous. As we have seen in other
chapters, there was evolved more and more a vivid sense of the
interference of Satan with human affairs, and especially of the
interference of the ancient gods whom St. Paul had explicitly
declared to be devils, and who were naturally indignant at their
dethronement. More and more suspicion attached to all men
who attempted anything in the development of science. The
old scriptural warrrant for the existence of sorcery and magic
was brought in as a powerful argument against such men.
The conscience of th time, therefore, acting in obedience to
the highest authorities in the Church, and, as was supposed, in
defense of religion, brought out a missile which it hurled against
scientific investigators with deadly effect ; the mediaeval battle-
fields of thought were strewn with such ; it was the charge of sor-
cery and magic of unlawful compact with the devil. This mis-
sile was effective. We find it used against every great investi-
gator of Nature in those times and for ages after. The list of
great men in those centuries charged with magic, as given by
Naudd, is astounding ; it includes every man of real mark, and in
the midst of them stands one of the most thoughtful popes, Syl-
vester II (Gerbert), and the foremost of mediaeval thinkers on
natural science, Albert the Great. It came to be the accepted
idea that as soon as a man conceived a wish to study the works of
God his first step must be a league with the devil.*

The first great thinker who, in spite of some stumbling into
theologic pitfalls, persevered in a truly scientific path, was Roger
Bacon. His life and works seem until recently to have been gen-
erally misunderstood : he was formerly ranked as a superstitious
alchemist who happened upon some inventions, but more recent
investigation has shown him to be one of the great masters in the
evolution of human thought. The advance of sound historical
judgment seems likely to bring the fame of the two who bear

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Online LibraryAndrew Dickson WhiteNew chapters in the warfare of science, XVIII: From magic to chemistry and physics → online text (page 1 of 4)