Friday, 19 May 2017


This is to introduce Superstition and Science - Mystics, sceptics, truth-seekers and charlatans, which will be published on 25 May. In this book I try to describe the major developments of Western thought in the three centuries between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in a way that is accessible to the general reader. This is a mammoth subject and it may be that I was audacious to attempt it. However, I believe that there are valid reasons for dissecting this period of intellectual history.

The reason that is the most immediately obvious is that these centuries (c.1450-c.1750) produced some of the more remarkable and fascinating characters in the history of our civilization - people who challenged old certainties, advanced new ideas, plunged deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos than anyone had dared to plunge before, and made discoveries that benefited their own and later generations. They are a varied pantheon of brilliant, often clashing, intellects - Copernicus, Luther, Harvey, Spinoza, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal, Dee, Locke, Rousseau and many others. Some are household names, familiar to most of us. Others are worthy of being rescued from relative obscurity. But, important as they are, we must not examine them in isolation in order to understand them. We must not locate them in an ivory tower labelled 'History of Thought'. They were of their own time, responding to contemporary events and fashioned by the world in which they lived. For most of the period under review that was a violent world. Political and religious conflict unleashed devastating wars and unspeakable violence which decimated populations but also inspired invention. Some of Leonardo da Vinci's visionary drawings were for war machines. The telescope was first conceived as a tool for military leaders. Improved navigation for fighting ships was an offshoot of star gazers' speculations about the movements of heavenly bodies.

Then, there is still a need to underpin with fact our study of the development of philosophical thought. It is not a single, simple line that can be drawn on a graph which begins in naive ignorance and rises to sophisticated understanding. The book is deliberately called Superstition AND Science, not Superstition TO Science. Human affairs are much too complex for such simplicity. Religion and magic are no more boon companions than science and atheism are inevitable bedfellows. The quest for truth in medieval Europe was, almost exclusively, the preserve of churchmen. They held a monopoly of learning and learning was based on revelation and observation. Revelation consisted of truths enshrined in the Bible, the writings of the great doctors of the Church and the wisdom inherited from the classical world - predominantly from Aristotle. The sine qua non of all intellectual speculation was that 'life, the universe and everything' could only be understood in terms of the interaction of two spheres - nature and supernature. The two momentous events that gave rise to the Renaissance - the invention of movable-type printing, and the influx of ancient Greek and Latin texts following the collapse of Byzantine Christendom - did not change this basic approach to scientia (knowledge). Throughout the period covered in Superstition and Science scholars continued to seek truth in the 'Book of Nature' and the 'Book of God'. By 1750 atheism had scarcely dared to show its face. Most men of science were also men of faith. Thus, Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, in A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of nature (1686) attacked the atheism he associated with libertinism; and Sir Isaac Newton devoted more mental energy to the second coming of Christ than to the theory of gravity. And if we see Galileo's spat with the Vatican as proof that religion and science were incompatible in the 17th century it is because our vision is dimmed by 21st century secularist assumptions.

Speculation about the cosmos and man's relationship to it was not confined to scholars. Magic (black and white), alchemy, herbalism, astrology and folk religion were all facets of the prism that was popular belief and which cast its rainbow of everyday life. Even mathematicians like John Dee and Tycho Brahe were primarily in demand for casting horoscopes. Who could doubt that, just as the seasons for planting and harvesting were determined by the cosmic dance of earth and sun, so in all other human endeavours it was wise to fall in with what was 'written in the stars'. And just as acorns turned into oaks and caterpillars into butterflies why should lead not be transmutable into gold? The Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, was not the only magnate who spent a fortune surrounding himself with 'wise men' who claimed to be able to harness the powers of the spirit world.

Meanwhile, official religion had not remained unaffected by the ambitious speculations of thinking men. Theologians responded to and contributed to the realignment of thought. The Reformation produced devout men and women who pitched individualism against the dictates of Catholic traditionalism, just as the Renaissance produced free-thinkers who challenged political and artistic conventions. From Luther to Wesley the lives and writings of Christian thinkers demonstrated new ways of thinking and believing. 

These are just tasters of the kaleidoscopic narrative that makes up Superstition and Science, a book that places the achievements of great pioneers like William Harvey, Andreas Vesalius, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Hobbes and the founders of the Royal Society alongside the puzzling assertions of mavericks like Paracelsus, Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno. It is as we see such remarkable individuals against the background of their own, often violent, world that we can assess more clearly the places they occupy in that bigger narrative that is the adventure of the human spirit.

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