Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

Primed by my research for North to latch onto any mention of the Copernican Revolution, I recently popped into a meeting of the John Dee Society in Mortlake. Authors Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince were due to speak on Dee’s relationship to this momentous breach between ancient and modern cosmologies. As it turned out, Prince was unable to attend, so Picknett gave an entertaining talk alone. She mentioned a recently-published (2011) book of theirs, The Forbidden Universe, devoted to the hidden (or forgotten) esoteric facets to the scientific revolution that the Copernican shift catalysed. Curious to see what was being made of all this in the popular sphere (Picknett and Prince gained a cameo in the Da Vinci Code film in recognition of their influence on Dan Brown), I snapped a copy up.

It’s relatively well-known these days that virtually all the key figures in the genesis of modern science — Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton — were not just devout Christians, but were steeped in the non-Christian influences which played such a pivotal role in the Renaissance. The historical narrative we’ve inherited is that as these brilliant figures honed in on the fundamentals of modern science — theory and experiment working together through tight feedback, mechanistic materialism, natural laws such as gravity — they steadily shed or sidelined the religious beliefs which stood in the way of this enlightened progress. Their public professions of faith, we’ve been led to believe, probably had more to do with the Church’s intimidating social power than with their personal convictions. Their commitment to truth inevitably saw them each advance the shift away from the God Delusion. But more and more it looks like they were, by and large, personally committed to doctrines which both the Church and the nascent tradition of science condemned. Magical, occult beliefs even played some role in inspiring the discoveries at the base of modern science. Newton’s private beliefs weren’t heretically materialist, but rather heretically alchemical — and many think that only a mind as saturated with occult philosophy as was his could have made the leap to believe that the universe is permeated by invisible lines of force attracting bodies of matter to each other.

Playing a major role (perhaps a dominant, crucial role, as Picknett and Prince argue) among these occult influences on early modern science was the Hermetic tradition. A collection of texts attributed to an Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus, translated by Renaissance Neoplatonists in Italy, greatly impacted the mindset of this period, and led to a reverence for ancient Egypt which has streamed right through the modern world’s occult undertow.

Depiction of Hermes Trismegistus in the Cathedral of Siena

Hermeticism valorised human potential, seeing people as gods-in-the-making. Magical ritual could lead to communion with an immanent godhead which existed in a mutual, dyadic relationship with humanity. Picknett and Prince’s central argument is that the Church’s obvious fear of such empowering spirituality was the drive that suppressed the Hermetic revival in the Renaissance, and that its disavowal by science was intimately related to this suppression. The atheist materialism that eventually became science’s default metaphysical position was an almost accidental, and spiritually catastrophic by-product of the Church’s horror of occultism. The divorce between religion and science was a bust-up over a liminal tradition which could have kept them married and in love. The real reason for this bitter separation was swept under the carpet, and the pair have been locked in a petty stand-off ever since. The final part of this book makes the case that the breakdown of mechanistic materialist science in the twentieth century — seen in quantum weirdness, the Gaia hypothesis, and a ‘reasonable’ take on Intelligent Design — speaks of a necessary return of Hermeticism, destined to render the few centuries of modern science as a tumultuous blip in the spiritual history of humanity.

Statue of Giordano Bruno in the square in Rome where he was burned at the stake

For most of my readers there’s probably little new here. But the survey of Hermeticism in early modern science is a good read — even if the authors push the ‘secret society’ angle, the dramatic staple of research bordering on Da Vinci Code territory, a little far at times. That said, their embrace of the stories of unsung heroes of the Copernican Revolution — especially that deeply important figure Giordano Bruno — does seems to warrant a reassessment of the standard histories of this transition. Was Galileo secretly a committed follower of Bruno’s attempt to revive Egyptian sun worship, his doggedness about the heliocentric theory an outgrowth of this politico-religious stance? Maybe not. Did heliocentrism’s association with Hermeticists such as Tommaso Campanella spook Church authorities in part because of his role in the attempted revolt in Calabria? It certainly looks that way, and the authors seem to be justified here in emphasising the role of the threat posed by Bruno’s vision of a Hermetic revival in the complex dynamics of this period.

Perhaps the most interesting news to me in here regards the discussion of the antiquity of the Hermetic texts. Famously, these texts were believed to herald from ancient Egypt, preserving the religious ideas of this venerable civilisation. Equally famously, in the seventeenth century Isaac Casaubon succeeded in showing that the texts were actually from a much later period — the third or fourth centuries CE. This undermining of the heritage of the Hermetica played no small part in taking the wind out of Renaissance Hermeticism’s sails, and became a milestone in the advent of a more rational, sceptical approach to knowledge. But apparently Casaubon was misguided. More recent scholarship, while it agrees that the texts were written a few centuries after Christ, argues that the ideas and beliefs they contain are almost certainly much, much older — probably preserving concepts from Pharaonic Egypt, just as the Hermetics of the Renaissance believed. This vindication of the magicians and alchemists seems very important, and Picknett and Prince are right to seize it as part of their effort to re-insert Hermeticism into the Western cultural mainstream.

Inevitably, though, as I read I found the perspective of North — which embraces the realities of hunter-gatherer cosmologies in order to destabilise the opposition between the modern world and the ancient world — chiming in. Don’t get me wrong; Hermeticism is a tremendously important tradition, managing better than most civilised religious philosophies to incorporate a primal sense of animism, of an immanent bond between ourselves, nature, and the sacred, into its worldview. But it is very much a product of civilisation, and for me it lacks the kind of critique which a pre-civilised (or pre-agricultural) perspective gives, and which may help us better wrestle with the traps of civilisation.

There has never been a culture — from rainforest tribes to the greatest civilizations such as Rome, ancient Egypt or even the modern West – which did not begin with an understanding of the world based on a belief that it is both purposeful and meaningful, arising from a supernatural ordering of things.1

Here, ‘rainforest tribes’ stand for a vast range of indigenous cultures, among which are complex and crucial variations in cosmological grounding. It seems likely that indigenous Amazonians are on the authors’ minds — cultures whose tribal organisation, hierarchies, and various agricultural practices make them quite unrepresentative of the kind of culture which would have been typical until a few tens of thousand years ago. It’s not at all clear that what is meant by ‘supernatural ordering’ here means the same thing for such cultures as it might for mobile hunter-gatherers such as the Hadza or the Congo pygmies. Certainly, the cosmologies of these latter peoples have very little to do with what Picknett and Prince go on to describe this supposedly universal understanding of the world as: a ‘yearning for the transcendental’. The animism which governs the mobile hunter-gatherer world — the entire human world until relatively recently — is more concerned with informal, immediate complexities than with overarching supernatural orders.

Later, they refer to ‘the magical worldview hardwired into humanity’, in which ‘specially trained individuals can enter into a state of communion with the gods’. Again, such specialist access to the sacred is certainly a widespread feature of agricultural societies. But the further one delves into the egalitarian hunter-gatherer world, the more one senses that such specialisation is an artefact of social hierarchies, not ‘hardwired’.

Many aspects of Hermetic tradition evince rather enlightened social attitudes. Campanella’s utopian ‘City of the Sun’ valorised the work of all labourers, posited a four-hour work day, and deemed possessions to be common property. On the other hand, Campanella defended the unconditional supremacy of the papacy, and despite his utopian fantasy, advocated a ‘universal monarchy’ under the king of Spain. In his multifaceted, often contradictory attitudes, we can sense the struggle between the flame of primal ‘horizontal’ animism and egalitarianism — which Hermeticism certainly gives some space for — and a bewitchment by centralised power, which began steadily accumulating when such structures arose alongside sedentary living and agriculture. The Copernican Revolution unseated the ambient cosmological grounding for such power — the polar sense of the world being pivoted on a singular axis. But the sun as the new centre was quickly seized upon as a new locus for hierarchical authority. Significantly, Campanella’s last work was in praise of the birth of Louis XIV, who became le Roi Soleil, ‘the Sun King’, who believed in the divine source of monarchy, and who consolidated a system of absolute, centralised power that persisted long after his death — until the French Revolution.

Like Bruno, Campanella was motivated in part by the destructive schism between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Their projected Hermetic revival drew on the quite holistic monotheism of this tradition to emphasise unity — and they hoped this theology would underpin a new unity and harmony in society and politics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy comments:

The stance adopted by Campanella in relation to universal monarchy is directly linked to the prophetic ideal of re-uniting humanity in a “single fold under one shepherd.” The central text for this topic is Monarchia del Messia (Monarchy of the Messiah), the manifesto of Campanellan theocracy. The original unity of king and priest, which derives from the divine unity, permits human beings, after the multiplicity of sects introduced by the devil and fomented by ambition and ignorance, to return to a single priestly law, under which the entire human race can come together, transcending divisions and conflicts. According to Campanella, Adam and Hermes Trismegistus were simultaneously kings, priests and wise men. Uniting kingship and priesthood in the same person is extremely advantageous and auspicious, for the people will more willingly obey those whom they believe have their authority from God; and their laws will be more respected and observed, whether in public or in the inner sanctum of the human heart.2

Now of course I can appreciate the appeal, and the good-heartedness, behind such sentiments in the context of the Thirty Years War. Campanella lived through 21 years of this massively destructive clash, and died nine years before its end. And despite their enthusiasm for re-reviving Hermeticism, I’m sure Picknett and Prince aren’t rooting for absolute divine monarchy. But the general tenor of Hermeticism’s overlaps with real-world politics seem deeply unappealing to me.

Again, when we look to Hermeticism’s origins — which are traced here to the Pyramid Texts of Pharaonic Egypt, and the cult centre of Heliopolis — we find ambivalence at best. Ancient Egypt was a culture where women seem to have been accorded higher status than in classical Greece, and where all social classes were essentially equal under the law. Slavery existed, but the customary image of the great pyramids being built by hordes of people literally slaving away is generally false. For the most part, these monuments were built by paid workers.3 On the other hand, these workers seemed to have led quite difficult lives, building vast structures to aid the afterlife of the idle pharaoh. Was this a more subtle form of slavery, in which the chains are formed by psychic bondage to a system of religious glamour, entwining thousands of people in a social structure which precisely mirrored the shape of the pyramids they were constructing?

Picknett and Prince disagree with the common idea that the afterlife promised to the pharaoh — immortality among the stars around the north celestial pole — was only for this divine autocrat. They reckon the Pyramid Texts, which detail the post-mortem stellar ascent, ‘are specifically concerned with the King because they happen to be in royal tombs, but nowhere do they say that this afterlife is reserved for him alone.’4 This seems to be reaching a bit. In Stairway to Heaven Peter Levenda does talk of a gradual ‘”democratization” of heaven’ in Egypt,5 but this is mummification and appropriate rituals for those who could afford it (a blend of democracy and plutocracy that we’re only too familiar with). In any case, in this life, privileges were very clearly, and very unequally divided between classes.

In the end, the culture that produced the Hermetic tradition was one of the most rigidly stratified ever to have existed. The mystical ‘unity’ of all organisms, applied to society, usually results in an ‘organic’ vision of ‘harmonious hierarchy’. Society is differentiated like an organic body; everyone has their place, and the head governs from the top down. Such visions may sometimes have manifested better rather than worse social orders. But they need to be treated with the utmost suspicion, because in combination with stress on unity and centralisation, they contain the seeds of fascism. Picknett and Prince make very clear their concern is with good things like human rights and freedom. But their enthusiasm for the undeniable appeal of Hermeticism clouds some of its less obvious, troublesome potentials. It’s unclear whether — had Bruno and Campanella been more successful — their undoubted good intentions would have been enough to keep the shadows of hierarchical pagan civilisation at bay.

When it comes to discussing the implications of recent scientific developments, they argue in favour of a kind of Intelligent Design application of the anthropic principle: the universe that modern science has revealed is so ‘finely-tuned’ for the emergence of life that someone must have fine-tuned it. Together with the ‘observer-created universe’ theory of John Archibald Wheeler, they — rightly, to an extent — compare the cosmological possibilities being thrown up by contemporary science to the cosmology of the Hermetica. Humanity and divinity blur in a wondrous co-creation.

But the obvious objections arise. Why talk about ‘design’ all the time? The Hermetica facilitate a more sophisticated creationism than that offered by Genesis, but it still begs the question — who designed the designer? They push back against the adherence to ‘randomness’ and ‘chance’ in orthodox science. But philosophies such as Taoism — not to mention the pragmatic attitudes of hunter-gatherers, who are seldom concerned with imaging the world as being ‘constructed’ — remind us that spontaneity as a cosmic principle need not be solely the province of cold-hearted science. For me, the very notion of a ‘designer’ or ‘maker’ of the universe is a historical product which only evolved after the Agricultural Revolution, after the things we designed and made began to dominate our consciousness. We then projected this especially human quality onto our cosmic images — the onset of the anthropocentrism that Hermeticism is certainly a child of.

Picknett and Prince argue that this system which glorifies the ‘miracle of man’ is the best antidote to Christianity’s denigration of human worth, and the way in which materialist science has alienated us from cosmic importance. But this opposition to Christianity — a supercharged humanism set against a self-mortifying belief in ‘original sin’ — looks to me like two sides of the same coin. Two extremes locked in a tight embrace, squeezing complex reality out of the picture. I certainly agree with them that elements of Hermeticism have much to contribute to a revival of some kind of animist ecological balance. But when they talk of the ‘unlimited horizons’6 opened up by Hermetic philosophy, I can’t help but think of the ‘unlimited horizons’ which modern science — in tandem with capitalism — has always promised, and which in terms of the environment, has led to such disastrous results. I don’t think that science only took the ‘scientific wisdom’ from Hermeticism, and completely jettisoned ‘the underlying transcendentalism’.7 In many ways, this humanist transcendentalism infected modern science, which usually saw itself as bestowing Promethean fire on the world for universal human betterment. Lost in its own good intentions and sense of lacking limitations, and fatally implicated with the commercial sphere, it inadvertently landed us in this ecological disaster area.

This is a good read, and worth checking out for an entertaining and generally well-researched alternative take on the history of modern science. But for my tastes, the adherence to Hermeticism is much too simple an answer to our problems. It needs to be supplemented with a perspective which steps — for important moments, at least — outside the civilised, agricultural world, which isn’t prey to dualistic stand-offs between transcendentalism and materialism, ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’, and which has a sharp awareness of the extent to which our image of this infinite cosmos is distorted by the particular conditions of human society in the blink of an eye since we began trying to control nature.