From Elizabethan Magic to Prospero and Foucault's Pendulum - Dr John Dee

13 July 1527, the mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, imperialist and courtier Dr John Dee was born in London.
"There is nothing which so much beautifies and adorns the soul and mind of man as does knowledge of the good arts and sciences. Many arts there are which beautify the mind of man; but of all none do more garnish and beautify it than those arts which are called mathematical, unto the knowledge of which no man can attain, without perfect knowledge and instruction of the principles, grounds, and Elements of Geometry." (Dr John Dee)

Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852 – 1913): John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I

It seems that in the beginning was not the word but the number. At least according to the empirical cognition of Renaissance scholars under the influence of Neo-Platonism, Neopythagoreanism and, almost consequently, Hermeticism and Hermetic Magic. Sleuthing the secrets of God’s creation had nothing to do with ecstatic or intuitive knowledge acquisition or similar supernatural revelations but with logic-based calculations and assumptions of a knowable episteme governed by natural laws with mathematics playing a central role. The very basics of our modern, disenchanted science. Even if the basic assumptions and perceptions of John Dee’s image of the world look somewhat musty these days. With a primary focus on mathematics, the word, language, finished up at least second. Not only as an epistemic and descriptive tool, but as a method to influence matters directly. Thus, the summoning of angelic spirits with the aid of formulae and commanding words into a crystal sphere to learn the language of creation and derivate the blue prints of the cosmos and God’s plan was a perfectly rational thing to do in those days when every kind of knowledge beyond of what Aristotle had dubbed techne, more or less technical skills, and exegesis of the Scriptures was at least to a certain degree occult.

Portrait of John Dee by an unknown contemporary artist  

Dr John Dee’s world was full of conscious charlatans, deceiving for material gains, and the origins of his Enochian language, the speech of the angels, is at least as obscure as the basic idea of a dictionary of creation. Dee’s partner, the self-proclaimed spirit medium Edward Kelley was an accomplished conman who reduced the good doctor’s honest intentions to a sham. Nevertheless, the accomplished map maker and astronomer Dee proved to be not only a major influence on England’s 16th century’s sailors and explorers, but coined the idea of the “British Empire” overseas and shaped the politics of Good Queen Bess’s court decisively. His contemporary Shakespeare memorialized him as Prospero in “The Tempest”, but after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the anti-occult atmosphere of James I’s reign ensured that Dee fell from favour and he is chiefly considered a mage, rediscovered during the late 19th century’s occult craze and instrumentalised by the likes of Aleister Crowley. However, pop culture, at least the better read and more sophisticated parts of it, remembers him as the translator of Lovecraft’s fictional “Necronomicon”, as a central figure in Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” and as a character in various alternative history and fantasy novels and games.

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