On July 17, the Washington Post published a review by the columnist Michael Dirda of two new books featuring aspects of the wisdom tradition. This unusual choice by Dirda is less surprising when we note that this Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Post received his Ph.D. in comparative literature in medieval studies and European romanticism from Cornell University.
This review is of interest to the UPR community because these new books reflect the growing interest in heterodox opinions in the current culture. By way of drawing in more orthodox readers, Dirda begins his review with a nod to Jung, a figure who spans orthodoxy in contemporary culture and the heterodoxy in the wisdom traditions:
“The psychologist C.G. Jung — who was deeply interested in alchemy and astrology — might label the simultaneous appearance of these two similar-sounding books as an instance of what he called “synchronicity.” In truth, though, John V. Fleming’s “The Dark Side of the Enlightenment” and Paul Kleber Monod’s “Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment” are surprisingly different, even though they both survey what we usually, and rashly, dismiss as pseudoscience from the mid-17th to the early 19th century.”
That our culture “rashly” dismisses much of the esoteric is no surprise, but in condemning this neglect as being without due consideration, Dirda is suggesting that so-called “normal” educated readers might find these books and the material in them worthy of attention, even important as offering what he later calls “absolute wisdom.”
Here is the heart of Dirda’s review:
“As Fleming reiterates about this period, “The mainstream of European thought was not materialist but sacramental. In the sacramental view, the material and visible world paralleled another that was immaterial and invisible.” Science, magic, religion — they are all attempts to understand what is hidden from us, and sometimes the three blur together. Isaac Newton, as is well known, left hundreds of pages of notes on alchemy and astrology. Benjamin Franklin was a member of an elite Freemason Lodge called “The Nine Sisters.”
If Fleming’s book, despite much interesting material, feels slightly rambling and inconclusive, Monod’s impresses by its scholarly detail. This is a serious yet lively work, chockablock with facts, anecdotes and original research. Its focus, however, is restricted to Britain and, as such, is both an extension of, and correction to, Keith Thomas’s classic “Religion and the Decline of Magic.” Monod doesn’t focus on folk practices or beliefs, however; instead, he studies written texts and how they were used.
Moreover, he early on makes clear a point similar to Fleming’s controlling theme: “The basic premise of occult knowledge is that a search for hidden causes in nature may lead towards something higher than nature: absolute wisdom, supernatural power or the divine.” Naturally such an ambition can readily verge on the heterodox, not to say the diabolical, given its echo of the serpent’s insidious promise, “You shall be as gods.”
If you were a would-be alchemist in the late 17th century, which books would you want in your library? Monod lists the top three: (1) “The Divine Pymander” of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus (this is a translation of the first 14 books of the “Corpus Hermeticum”); (2) Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s “Three Books of Occult Philosophy”; and (3) the “Ars Notoria,” often called the “Little Key of Solomon.”
Even though Dirda gives the standard warning of potentially diabolical influences from such esoteric mysteries, these books offer an opportunity to study current thinking and research, both valuable for graduate study as well as offering useful knowledge.
Both Fleming’s and Monods’s new books are moderately priced, although Monod’s is over $30 for its 440 pages. Both, however, are cheaper on Kindle, and for those who may not be aware, the Kindle Reader can be downloaded free from Amazon.
- Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Yeshiva University
- Doctoral Faculty, Pacifica Graduate Institute
- Author of ten books on Early Greek philosophy and the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson