An exploration of how “we have always responded in two ways to the mystery of being: we have explored nature and supernature.”
Popular historian Wilson (The Traitor's Mark: A Tudor Mystery, 2015, etc.) covers a prodigious period of great thinkers and changing ideas from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, 1450 to 1750—no small feat. Acknowledging that superstition has been one of humanity’s most significant psychological responses to the unknown encourages us to look at great thinkers in their own times and in context. Medieval pagan magic conjured demons and was motivated by pursuit of wealth and personal adulation, whereas Christian magic drew on biblical references and ancient Jewish texts. The Neoplatonists, seeking the origin of religion and philosophy, envisioned three other types of magic: natural, celestial, and ceremonial. Whatever the source, many questions remained. The author’s chronicle of those attempting to understand these mysteries is formidable. He gives just enough biographical material to whet our appetites and see how these thinkers arrived at their conclusions, or lack thereof. Three main discoveries drove these new philosophers: the printing press, the microscope, and the telescope. The Bible was first printed in vernacular soon after the printing press was invented, and its availability raised many questions of interpretation. This fed the rise of individualism, giving ordinary people more questions to which the church had no answers; the threat to the church’s authority was real. The concept of thought processes was debated endlessly by those who rejected Aristotelian methods, including Galileo, and shifted the focus from unproven theory to observable fact. The author shows how the danger to the institution of the church was tangible and caused many to defer publication of their works. Furthermore, the dissemination of newfound knowledge caused a major re-evaluation of lives, leading to dislocation and wars. The debate between science and superstition has been revamped since medieval times, but it is certain to endure for centuries to come.
A good introduction to a significant historical period and encouragement for those with a great idea to continue seeking acceptance.