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  • Religion, Magic, and the Origin of Science in Early Modern England by John Henry
  • Leen Spruit
Religion, Magic, and the Origin of Science in Early Modern England. By John Henry. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing. 2012. Pp. xii, 328. $170.00. ISBN 978-1-4094-4458-9.)

The essays collected in this book focus on a central issue in the history of early-modern science: the rise of mechanical philosophy. New philosophers and scientists such as Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes claimed that physics could be confined to kinematics—the motions of bodies and the interactions arising from their motions were all that was required to explain any set of circumstances. For many authors, however, a strictly mechanicist kinematics seemed unworkable. Inspired by ideas derived from theological, magical, and alchemical traditions, many physicists, neo-Platonic philosophers, chemists, and physicians held that any physical body, or matter in general, was endowed with “active principles.” The animate nature of the Earth in William Gilbert’s De magnete, Robert Boyle’s “cosmical qualities,” and Isaac Newton’s action at a distance are cases in point. Until recently, efforts to trace the intellectual origins of Newton’s concept of active principles concentrated either on the influence of alchemy or on that of Cambridge Platonism. However, it was not Newton who reintroduced occult qualities into natural philosophy. Several exponents of English mechanical philosophy before him entertained the possibility of unexplained active principles in matter. In the present volume, John Henry reconstructs a highly interesting [End Page 370] “prehistory” of Newton’s natural philosophy. Walter Warner (1570–1642/43), who arrived at his mechanical philosophy by blending elements from medieval and Renaissance neo-Platonism with ideas from Thomas Harriot and Galileo, held that all bodies possess an efficient power or virtue. Walter Charleton, following his mentor Pierre Gassendi, argued that the atoms at their creation by God are endowed with “internal energy.” Francis Glisson (Regius professor of physics at Cambridge) wrote an entire treatise on the “energetic nature of substance.” Also, Boyle did not subscribe to a strictly mechanicist account of physics, as he acknowledged the need of active principles, and assumed the existence of “aerious, etherial, luminous” spirits in all mixed bodies. Robert Hooke used inherent vibrations of matter to explain light and gravity. Thus, Newton’s introduction of active principles in matter cannot be seen as his major philosophical innovation, as has been usually assumed in historical studies. However, Newton vigorously rejected Leibniz’s objection that gravity was an occult quality. Active principles are manifest; only their causes are occult.

The author further develops his central claim in essays devoted to Henry More, Boyle, Hooke, and Newton. He shows that the differences between More and Boyle—apparently allies brought together by common interest in Cartesianism and the use of mechanical philosophy—were crucial, extending from their epistemological views to their beliefs about the nature of the world and of God. Hooke’s matter theory cannot be seen as simply mechanicist: his defense of the magician John Dee, written in 1690 toward the end of his career, shows a real concern for the importance of natural magic in the “improving of natural knowledge.“ A close reading of Newton’s frequently quoted letters to Richard Bentley, apparently excluding the possibility of action at a distance, shows that Newton’s pronouncements upon gravitational attraction are consistent with the view that he believed gravity to be a super-added inherent property of bodies that was capable of acting at a distance. In the final essay, the author argues that the leading figures in the magical tradition (including Girolamo Cardano, Girolamo Fracastoro, Giovan Battista Della Porta, Giordano Bruno, and Francis Bacon) turned to the occult not because they were fools with an occult mentality, but because occult traditions seemed to offer a source of help to find solutions to problems that the Aristotelian and Galenic traditions could not resolve.

With this collection, Henry offers a surprising and innovative perspective on the intellectual history of early-modern Europe with particular attention to the impact of theology and Christian faith on philosophical and scientific views of natural reality. Most of the authors discussed here assumed that God endowed...


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pp. 370-372
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