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The Literary Skeptic Emerges in 17th century Britain

by John C. Sherwood

If you listen hard enough, you can hear the weeping. It comes from the homes and offices of modern skeptics as they bemoan the ongoing pervasiveness of "medieval" thinking and beliefs. There's little consolation in it, but it may be worthwhile for them to remember that the pulse of collective human reason has been variable, strengthening and fading repeatedly as the generations pass.

Trace the history of magical beliefs – from the records of ancient Egypt's sorcerers through the claims of the modern psychic movement – and even the greatest champion of human reason must admit that the public as a whole always has held pseudoscience in higher regard that it merits. Yet, fortunately for the development of progressive thought, the historical record reveals an undercurrent of suspicion, doubt and rationalism – even in those supposedly dark medieval times.
Astrologers were known to the authors of the Bible, but such men were described as heathens. Alchemists and mystics resorted to the cabalistic jargon Christians eschewed. Trusting belief in witches and conjurers stemmed from centuries of traditional lore, verified by ignorant, fearful Church action.

Just as it is today, in ages past the world was safe for those who questioned any aspect of the “invisible world” that already conflicted with Church doctrine and who attacked ideas that seemed to defy divinity. Unquestioning faith in the prevailing doctrine and its corresponding prejudices remained the norm until the old skepticism of non-Christian “occultism” turned inward, and daring, forceful challenges no longer could be suppressed during the Renaissance.

The growth of the skeptical view has proved difficult for historians to document (Stone, "Causes," 108), but the appearance of truly vocal skepticism — particularly on the theater stage and in print — cracked the dike holding back the ocean of rational thought that welled among thinking people. By the mid-17th century, the fissure had widened, washing society with knowledge and ideas, leading to uncertainty and indecision. This created a new landscape in which answers were sought by a new type of "wise man," and in which rational thinking might emerge — leading in time to empiricism and scientific discovery.

Yet the change was only partial. Before the end of the 17th century, an individual of thought and reflection might find him- or herself straddling that flawed dike. Skepticism and reason were challenging superstition and religion, but individual minds — even those of the new breed of scientists — tended to retain their spiritual beliefs. Similar mental dikes and cracks existed throughout Europe, presaging what some have perceived as the Age of Reason but might better be called the Age of Discovery.

In Britain, the origins of the ideological flood can be tracked specifically through examination of the nation's literature. Even a cursory look shows that the sweeping political and social changes in 17th century Britain were mirrored by a revolution in secular attitudes toward the universe at large — and toward those who sought to understand it.

breakthrough As the 16th century ended, popular dread of the "invisible world," fostered by religious restrictions and social conventions, was challenged by a minority of skeptics. As these scoffers grew vocal, the collective social psyche let down its guard and permitted a mix of skeptical and superstitious views toward arcane topics and those who studied them. Such non-ecclesiastical subjects — already synthesized by medieval, proto- scientific study — were beyond the Church's direct purview.

Pursuits of hidden -- that is, occult -- knowledge were undertaken not by clerics or kings but by men of secular wisdom and knowledge — healers, astrologers, mystics and alchemists — out of whose work were to emerge the disciplines of medicine, astronomy, philosophy and chemistry by the 17th century's end.

These studies might not have developed as they did, had it not been for the emergence of a popular form of literary skepticism.


At the end of the 16th century, Christopher Marlowe — who received a revisionist characterization as a dashing "modern" artist in the popular film "Shakespeare in Love" — actually rested on the arid, conservative side of the attitudinal dike. Whatever Marlowe’s literary motive may have been for writing "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" in the early 1590s, nonetheless the playwright portrayed the legendary man of knowledge as "a scholar, once admired/For wondrous knowledge in our German schools" who defied the godly universe by seeking "To practice more than heavenly power permits."

In the play, it is understood that the wages of dabbling in such "unlawful things" as necromancy and witchcraft — to achieve godlike power tantamount to eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil — paves the way for spiritual damnation (Marlowe, 77-78).

James I of England would have taken Marlowe's message seriously. While still James VI and ruler solely of Scotland, the king himself strove in his "Daemonologie" (1597) to show that "such assaults of Satan are most certainly practiced and that the instruments thereof merit most severely to be punished" (Robbins, 277). His zealous concern about witchcraft, spurred by a case in North Berwick in 1591, actually served as a refutation to a "damnable" work that predated Marlowe, Reginald Scot's "The Discoverie of Witchcraft" (Wilson, 268), the first book in English on the topic (Robbins, 453).

Scot, in apparent contradiction to traditional and popular beliefs, had argued in 1584 that "Surelie the naturall power of man or woman cannot be so inlarged, as to doo anie thing beyond the power and vertue given and ingraffed by God" (Scot, 9). A near-total skeptic toward the occult, Scot denounced witch-hunting as folly and included in his book a lengthy discourse on conjuring tricks misperceived by many as works of witchcraft.

pentaspin Earlier volumes of conjuring tricks had appeared in the latter 16th century (Hall,48), but none had been so popular or so challenging to conventional belief as Scot's philosophical handbook. His "Discoverie" was issued in a variety of editions in London from 1584 to 1665 (Hall, 75-76) and widespread ripples of its tone of skepticism can be perceived during its years of accessibility, on literary and social fronts.

Scot's brand of skepticism echoes in the works of other major 17th century writers who themselves were to have profound influence on literature and ideas throughout the century. Most important of these was Francis Bacon, who — in contending for rational inquiry into natural mysteries — stated in 1605 in "The Advancement of Learning" his conviction that occult studies were more a matter of fancy than of truth. "The sciences themselves which have had better intelligence and confederacy with the imagination of man than with his reason," he wrote, "are three in number; Astrology, Natural Magic, and Alchemy; of which sciences nevertheless the ends or pretenses are noble."

Bacon believed the duty of a man of truth was to create enlightenment, so he excused alchemy's errors and credited it with having "brought to light a great number of good and fruitful inventions and experiments" (Bacon, 54).

hand John Donne took a similar position in his roughly contemporary poem "Love's Alchemy," in which he likens a shallow-souled lover to a self-deluded alchemist: "Oh, 'tis imposture all!/And as no chemic yet th'elixir got,/But glorifies his pregnant pot/If by the way to him befall/Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal ..." (Donne, 744). Yet there is a subtle difference: Donne's man of wisdom was wise by fluke rather than by design, hence subject to criticism. Even so, in another poem Donne could lament the loss of certainty to the "new philosophy" that "calls all in doubt" and makes "all coherence gone" (in Stone, "Causes," 109).

In his last years, Francis Bacon took up Scot's style of argument in his "Sylva Sylvarum" (1626), analyzing how a conjurer could locate a thought-of playing card in a segment indexed as "Enforcing a Thought upon another. Instance thereof in a Juggler's trick. Three meanes to impose a Thought" (Hall, 19). To promote a more cautious examination of provable truth, Bacon, like Scot, thus labeled the seeming mystic as a mere juggler. Bacon found it necessary to question and discredit medieval belief in the occultist, to pave the way for the seeker of empirical knowledge and wisdom.


William Shakespeare may have used Scot's "Discoverie" as a research tool, but merely for information on which to base his witches in "Macbeth" (Robbins, 453). Shakespeare was a literary colossus but a haphazard skeptic. Occult forces and popular notions about the supernatural pervade his plays, including informative ghosts and omens. Shakespeare occasionally throws out an occasional mocking jibe toward occult belief – as when Glendower boasts in “Henry IV” that “I can call spirits from the vasty deep” and Hotspur replies “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call them?” However, Shakespeare offers no consistent, rational view of bizarre events other than to use them to tell his tales. Thus the most influential writer of the 16th and 17th century used occultism only to augment his tales rather than to advance the cause of reason. Some modern thinkers may sigh regretfully over this, but Shakespeare gave the world so much literary wealth that perhaps he deserves to be forgiven this lost opportunity.

But literary skepticism was to have an even better publicist than Bacon or Shakespeare. Even as James I put his beliefs — and many accused witches — to the test in his early years on England's throne (Robbins, 280), and even had burned many copies of Scot's "Discoverie" as heretical, the court-favored poet-playwright Ben Jonson was able to place on the stage an outright refutation of popular belief in occult wisdom.

Perhaps Jonson managed to do this because he didn't challenge his sovereign king blatantly or directly — say, by writing about the subject of witchcraft. Jonson, most famous today for his "Volpone," instead achieved this remarkable accomplishment in one of his most readable though rarely performed plays, "The Alchemist."

pentaspin Jonson also profited from the religious politics of the day. With a Church independent of Rome, Britain was unique in Europe: It had no heretic-burning emissaries from the Vatican laboring to stamp out dangerous ideas. Thus Giordano Bruno could be burned at the stake in 1600 for propounding the Copernican theory (Asimov, 75-76), but Jonson could denounce mystical alchemy on the public stage during the reign of a decidedly conservative and occult-fearing king. Alchemy also had no apparent connection to Christian theology. Alchemy could be criticized openly — a process that, in time, would be extended to mysticism, other occult subjects and, finally, to organized religion.

Jonson's trenchant 1610 stage comedy ridiculed anyone who might trust in such contemporary alchemical scholars as Simon Forman (McCollum, in Jonson, xi) and Queen Elizabeth' own astrologer-mystic, John Dee (Wilson, 275-276), who had dabbled in activities closely aligned with necromancy and witchcraft (Robbins, 119-121).

Johnson echoed Scot’s unbridled cynicism and Bacon’s rationalism to portray the mystical title character of “The Alchemist” as a charlatan. Interestingly, he did this less than a generation after Marlowe’s traditionalist moral warning in “Doctor Faustus.” Whereas Faustus lusted for godlike power, Jonson’s character Subtle and his cozening assistant, Face, knew such powers didn’t exist and instead were motivated by mere greed.

Jonson’s own likely stance is stated succinctly by the streetwise and skeptical Pertinax Surly: “Rather than I’ll be bray’d, sir, I’ll believe/That Alchemy is a pretty kind of game,/Somewhat like tricks o’ the cards, to cheat a man/With charming” (Johnson, 44).

Thus the Faustus image was transmuted — in a negative fashion, as gold might be turned to lead — from a sublimely tragic to a ridiculously low figure, worthy of scorn not for defying God but for cheating his fellow-men.

As with most challenges to tradition, Jonson’s masterpiece wasn’t immediately accepted. Robert Herrick, one of Jonson’s “tribe,” reported sneeringly in a short poem: “Such ignorance as theirs was, who once hist/At thy unequal’d Play, the Alchymist;/Oh fie upon ’em!”
But Jonson’s influence over his fellow poets and playwrights was considerable, and his plays ultimately were popular (except when suppressed with other plays) for practically two-thirds of the century, receiving praise from John Dryden and Samuel Pepys (McCollum, in Jonson, xix). Thus mystical skepticism — as personified by the clever Surly — was a concept with which urban Britons of the 17th century became well familiar.

So it’s intriguing that Jonson’s contemporary and friend, William Shakespeare, at the end of his creative life should happen to return to the theme of magic within a year of the staging of Jonson’s “The Alchemist.” At the conclusion of "The Tempest" (ca. 1611), the central character of Prospero – as if to take the side of alchemy’s critics – forsakes his wonder-working magic, reclaims his worldly title and returns to the realm of mundane human matters, even though it will cost him his power and his life.

The world, it seemed, was suddenly enough for Shakespeare as much as it was for Jonson. One wonders whether, sometime around 1609, they’d discussed the matter over a few hearty draughts.


Literary skepticism went hand-in-hand with an attitude developing along the second front of Scot’s influence – that of popular tradition and leisure. Tricksters, gamesters and sleight-of-hand performers had existed in many centuries, but until Scot’s “Discoverie,” there had been no important survey of the art of magic as entertainment; as a wonderful compendium of amusements, tricks and fancies, its pages provided a wide assortment of entertaining diversions — and grist for the mill of the profiteering author and publisher.
Thus in 1612 a new sort of book began to appear. The first, “The Art of Iuggling,” ascribed to “Sa. Rid.,” derived much of its material from Scot’s “Discoverie.” Full of turgid allegorical and quasi-religious prose, it was touted as a cautionary book against “cheating at Cardes and Dice,” “the beggerly Art of Alcumistry” and “The foppery and foolish cousoning Charmes” (Rid., title page). Further, it was a treatise on performing tricks well, with the abjuration that “it behooveth you to be mindful whereabout you go in every trick, least you mistake and so discredit the art” (Rid., “Notes and observations”).
Today, one can purchase how-to books about magic tricks on the Internet – and even learn how to "read minds" and "bend spoons" from paperback guidebooks, although the existence of such information remains little-known and often is guarded by professional stage magicians. In the 17th century, the gateway to arcane knowledge was far more inaccessible. So, by putting in the public's hands the means by which "magic" might be accomplished, "Iuggling" hit with a double thunderbolt, upholding trickery as an evolving art form while further diminishing the formerly cautionary image of Faustus.

pentaspin This is the period when a new image — that of the artificial magician, the entertaining stage conjurer — became acceptable and popular. (Magic historians have credited early 19th century French performer Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin with creating the persona of the "modern" magician, but his achievement must not be confused with the 17th century's paradigm shift permitting audiences to enjoy a magic show without the immediate fear of being put under a spell or attacked by demons).

Other books similar to "Iuggling" followed. "Hocus Pocus Junior" enjoyed immense popularity, and was published in 13 editions between 1634 and 1697, with many editions to follow in the 18th and 19th centuries (Hall, 50-56). The first edition ends in a curious manner that reveals a great deal about the new British attitude toward the "invisible world":

"If thou rightly understand this, there is not a trick that any Jugler in the world can shew thee, but thou shalt be able to concive after what manner it is performed, if he do it by slight of hand, and not by any unlawful and detested means: that there are such it is not to be doubted of, that do work by unlawful means, and have besides their own natural endowments, the assistance of some familiar, whereby they many times effect such miraculous things, as may well be admired by whomsoever shall either behold or hear tell of them." (“Hocus,” 56)

The word "unlawful" in "Hocus Pocus Junior" recalls the heinous "unlawful things" of which Faustus had been found guilty two generations before, and yet now the fear was tempered by the author's assurance that his book had provided the means by which to detect almost certain fraud. Here were skepticism and superstition — last-minute, reassuring superstition, to be sure — almost in the same breath.

This seemingly double-minded condition toward the "invisible world" dogged British society for the rest of the 17th century, and indeed continues to hound the human psyche. Today, the famous Israeli "mental metal-bender" Uri Geller continues to be regarded as a genuine psychic by proponents who acknowledge that the former stage magician occasionally resorts to trickery. The same attitude was prevalent in the early 20th century among spiritualist believers toward mediums whose fraudulent techniques had been exposed.

Thomas Ady's "A Candle in the Dark" (1655) briefly heralded a return to Scot's skeptical style and philosophical intent. This book of tricks was published with the insistence that it "is profitable to bee read by all Judges of Assizes, before they passe the sentence of Condemnation against poor People, who are accused for Witchcraft." Later editions appeared in 1656 and 1661 (Hall, 15). Ady thus cautioned the would-be witch-burner against overzealousness, lest his "witch" actually be an innocent performer of tricks.

Meanwhile, the artificial magician continued to gain public acceptance. John Cotgrave's "Wits Interpreter, the English Parnassus" (1655) went so far as to suggest that the performance of clever acts of juggling and magic were genteel and sophisticated, describing conjuring tricks as among those "Accomplishments that compleat our English Gentry." Subsequent editions appeared in 1662 and 1671 (Hall, 31). Magic tricks thus left the realm of arcane wisdom and became entertainments in which any gentleman might participate. Faustus had entered the drawing-room as a welcome guest, not a devilish pariah.


But humankind still could go too far in defying the "invisible world." Revolutionist Oliver Cromwell demonstrated this on the political level by deposing Charles I and elevating himself to the kingly position only God should ordain. Like Faustus at the conclusion of Marlowe's play, Cromwell — who had died while still in power — was condemned posthumously. His body was exhumed and torn apart, for he had defied the proper order of the universe. This event, perhaps because of its ghoulish nature, served as an unconscious but undeniable symbol to all Britain that Cromwell had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, and had been cast away.

The skeptical view itself became suspect, for it offered few new answers to explain a host of concerns about the "invisible world." The best advice at the time was for everyone to tread cautiously, lest the Unseen intrude in some undesirable way. But the world had changed inexorably. In Cromwell's case, posthumous punishment had been meted out by his peers. But who knew now what past transgressions might now be recognized as such, and likewise avenged?

Thus Sir Thomas Browne could retain the thought in the 1682 edition of "Religio Medici" that "since I have understood the occurrences of the world, and know in what counterfeit shapes and deceitful vizards times present represent on the stage things past, I do believe them little more than things to come" (Browne, 337).

It was a time of utter uncertainty, and a muddled view of the universe prevailed. Undoubting trust in fate and astrology was still as widespread as ever, perhaps even more so because of ongoing improvements in broad communication. But the active application of astrology in actual, day-by-day guidance in the attempt to avoid an unpleasant fate remained minimal (Stone, "Family," 255). Unquestioning belief remained a habit difficult to shake, but one did not have to heed it every moment of the day.

pentaspin Browne, for example, could question the literal interpretation of Genesis and "suspect the efficacy of relics" (acts still regarded as blasphemous in some circles three centuries later) while believing wholeheartedly in "good and bad angels." He even tried to determine how useful witchcraft might have been, despite his fear of it: "Thus I think at first a great part of philosophy was witchcraft; which, being afterward derived to one another, proved but philosophy, and was indeed no more but the honest effects of nature" (Browne, 337-339).

Clarendon, too, could write in his seemingly objective "History of the Rebellion" that "men might well [that is, actually] think that heaven and earth conspired" to create the circumstances that ruined Charles I, and also write at length about "the greatest storm of wind that had ever been known," a natural phenomenon that was claimed to have occurred at Cromwell's death (Hyde, 424, 430). Clarendon apparently was reluctant to state outright any superstitious associations; this was, after all, a "skeptical" age.

It's likely that Samuel Pepys, who considered Jonson's "Alchemist" an incomparable play (McCollum, in Jonson, xix), was as much a skeptic as any well-informed man of his day. It was proper to be so. Pepys scoffed at any speculation that good weather at Charles II's coronation signified a portent ("Diary," 652) and realized that a mare might, by a trick, tell him at Bartholomew Fair how much money he had cast down — and whether he liked a nearby wench — not to amazement or to belief in occult power but simply "to admiration" ("Passages," 301).

Pepys also could question the divinity of his king and the magnification of his superiors by writing "the more a man considers and observes them, the less he finds of difference between them and other men" ("Passages," 167). He also could admire scientific notions filtering down from the scholars' lofty realms, make use of a 12-foot telescope to observe Jupiter and its satellites, and enjoy discourse about astronomical observations ("Diary," 659-660).

Yet Pepys could wake on a windy day and say, "I pray God I hear not of the death of any great person, this wind is so high!" and attribute to that wind the demise of an official the day before ("Passages," 113-114). He could be so distressed by "talk of spirits and apparitions ... so as to make me almost afeard to lie alone, but for shame I could not help it" ("Passages," 323). He recorded a variety of health-assuring religious charms, considered that Nostradamus had predicted the Great Fire of London and trusted the healing power of the King's Touch (("Passages," 150-153, 219, 226; "Diary," 650). He could set down the following mix of superstition and scientific interest in a single entry:

"To my office till past 12, and then home to supper and to bed, being now mighty well, and truly I cannot but impute it to my fresh hare's foote. Before I went to bed I sat up till two o'clock in my chamber reading of Mr. [Robert] Hooke's Microscopicall Observations, the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life." ("Passages," 153)

By this time, such ingenious books had become plentiful. In his diary entry for Jan. 9, 1665, Pepys noted the creation of the Royal Society's "new book, wherein is nobly writ their charter and laws, ... and the King hath put his [signature], with the word Founder" ("Diary," 657). It was possible for a quasi-superstitious man to celebrate such knowledge-advancing events — and those who produced them — as wonderful and important.

Even more influential, it had become possible for the royal house of the Stewarts to shift away from the promulgation of traditional religion (James I) toward the support and sponsorship of reason-based discovery (Charles II) — in just two generations.

In 1661, one of the Society's members, Robert Boyle — a physicist and chemist with strong religious beliefs — had published "The Skeptical Chemist," which would lead chemists to forget alchemical goals and concentrate on the very spin-offs that Bacon and Donne had praised years earlier (Asimov, 94-95). No longer would preconception and mystical dictate suffice. The onetime "Invisible College" of arcane scholars now subscribed openly to the notion of "Nullius in verba" — "Nothing by mere authority." The novel concept of empirical science required systematic application (Shumaker, 256; Asimov, 90).

Along with the loss of the geocentric universe came a collective realization that the world was not necessarily the creation of a unifying principal called God. Instead came "the dehumanization and despiritualization of the physical universe and a consequent feeling of isolation" (Shumaker, 198). Bereft of a man-centered creation, the 17th century was confronted with the notion that, as Schumaker describes it, "The universe is cold and unfriendly, and our adjustment to it is not yet complete ... [and] that in so far as the occult practices 'work' they do so only subjectively and therefore depend on self-delusion."

Such a change required new definitions. Isaac Newton wrote in 1687 that he intended to restrict himself solely "to subject the phenomena of nature to the laws of mathematics" to keep in line with "the moderns," whom he defined as individuals "rejecting substantial forms and occult qualities" (Newton, 1). His use of the word "occult" reflects the emerging notion of qualities that could not be observed but were discoverable only by experiment — a new definition to supplant the medieval description of occult arts as hidden, recondite sciences veiled and concealed "to save the credit of impostures," as Bacon deplored as the century began (Bacon, 54).

pentaspin But old beliefs die hard. Newton held in his hands the cutting edge of rational thought, but it still was possible for him to cut in either direction. A modest, nervous man susceptible to breakdowns, Newton harbored convictions about the universe that many still regard as paradoxical. Newton — discoverer of the calculus, the theory of optics and the theory of gravitation — also believed in the possibility of metallic transmutation and wrote at length on mystical biblical lore (Asimov, 109).

Even so, Newton became the first man of science to achieve near-deification, and his monument in Westminster Abbey is more grandiose than those of many British monarchs. That monument offers tangible proof that, during the 17th century, the mythical, tragic image of Faustus had been transformed into a living, rational yet godlike hero, one epitomizing the force of reason — not just for his own century but for those to follow.

The revolution that gripped Britain during this century of change thus embraced its attitude toward knowledge. Originally, narrow limits had dictated what humankind might learn. Now, while one could not eat in complete safety from the Tree, knowledge could be attained by cautious, empirical investigation — and had become potentially unlimited. Divine restrictions might not be so confining as once believed. An age of reason still might come.

John C. Sherwood has been a news writer and editor for Gannett Co. newspapers since 1967, and has been an actor, playwright and magician since 1962. He is the author of "Gray Barker: My Friend, the Myth-Maker," and “Gray Barker’s Book of Bunk,” published in The Skeptical Inquirer.


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