The Undiscoverable Country: Occult Qualities, Scholasticism, and the End of Nescience

The doctrine of occult qualities, as articulated and defended in early-modern scholasticism, remains imperfectly understood.1 The doctrine correlates cognitive with empirical failure. In other words, it posits that phenomena such as magnetism, which frustrate or elude causal sensing, are to that extent beyond the possibility of knowledge. Scholars have tended to conflate occult qualities with the Galenic theory of hidden sympathies and antipathies; with the modification of that theory by Neoplatonism and Paracelsianism; and with the predilection of those theories for astrology and magic.2 I will argue here, however, that the scholastic doctrine of occult qualities, as strictly construed in the period, is disjunctive, not conjunctive, with its esoteric (mis)representations. I will further argue that the disjunct illuminates an epistemological incontinence in esotericism—and perhaps in the Newtonian settlement that follows the latter. What happened to occult qualities in the scientific revolution was not just a matter of semantic redefinition, but of hermeneutic reinvention. The writ of scientific discovery, rendered unlimited by the esoteric retheorization of the occult, linked a posture of investigative ignorance to a postulate of human omniscience.

The Scholastic Doctrine

Empirical phenomena, in (some prominent versions of) early-modern scholasticism, present themselves through their "qualities" (or "properties"): the effects or characteristics that they impress upon our minds. Normally, a thing’s qualities are "manifest": direct, consistent, and unmistakable. We perceive, not only such qualities, but also what it is to perceive them. As Aquinas puts it, they "have a clear origin, about which there arises no doubt."3 Fire, for example, presents the manifest qualities of heat, light, burning, smoke-production, ash-production, etc. Our perception of these qualities does not appear illusory or strange; we do not have to ask ourselves what is happening, when we perceive them. The rest of the world, for that matter, seems to encounter them much as we do. Fire lights a room, as well as it does a face; warms soup, just as it does a pair of hands. What is more, fire performs much the same range of operations, in much the same way, whenever it occurs. Nobody has ever seen a fire that cooled things down, or suddenly produced fish, or turned bread into blood. Our perception of fire, in sum, appears reliable and intelligible. Knowledge of fire, accordingly (on this scholastic view), is possible.4

Not so with those phenomena (a restricted set) that present occult qualities. Although these are consistent, like manifest qualities, occult qualities are consistently elusive, indirect or strange. We do not perceive what is happening, when we perceive them. Indeed, it is unclear whether—or not—we can validly say that we perceive them at all. Examples include some purgative plants (notably rhubarb); fabulous creatures, such as the remora (a fish with the power to stop ships); and static electricity. But the locus classicus of the doctrine, as already mentioned, is magnetism. Sennert notes that "we see the attraction that arises from the magnet," but "we do not perceive" the quality through which it imparts motion into the iron.5 The effect, the quality, of the lodestone is to move the iron. Yet a finger placed between the two objects feels no motion. Neither do we see, or otherwise perceive, anything passing between them. We perceive that there is a quality—by definition, something perceptible; but we do not perceive whatever quality is there. The magnet evades, even vitiates, perception. A fortiori, it escapes cognition. For the way to empirical knowledge (again, on this scholastic view) is supposed to start with a thing’s quality. If the latter cannot even be grasped, then the construction of knowledge about the target phenomenon cannot even begin.

The usual way of putting this is to say that what is truly occult, in the world around us, cannot be made manifest. In early-modern scholasticism, this is partly for semantic, but primarily for epistemological, reasons. "It seems a kind of foolishness," writes the sixteenth-century natural philosopher Giovanni Olmo, "to seek the reason for a thing that we call occult, and actually perceive as such. Indeed, to call something occult, and then to seek the reason of it, implies a contradiction, and demonstrates tremendous ignorance."6 The seventeenth-century Aristotelian Alexander Ross, polemicizing against the Copernican John Wilkins, finds the latter saying that "the eye is an ill judge of naturall secrets." "You should have said," Ross retorts, "that it is no judge of naturall secrets." For "the visible workes of nature are no secrets"; while "nature’s secrets are invisible," by definition.7 Ross’s older contemporary Sennert makes clear that the issue here is not merely one of usage. The Aristotelian chemist inveighs against people who accept occult qualities, based on the observational evidence of magnetism etc.; but then dare to explain or illuminate the occult designation that they have supposedly granted, in terms of elemental mixtures.8 It is precisely those who try to explain away the nature of occult qualities, for Sennert, who are playing around with the facts. Those, by contrast, who want to understand how things are, have to accept that occult qualities are a priori and de re unintelligible.

The occult, in sum, is a technical and local opacity within scholastic epistemology. As such, it is decidedly not a synonym or catch-all for the mysterious, or the unapparent. Scholastic defenders of occult qualities theorize the doctrine restrictively. "That of which we do not see the cause," writes the sixteenth-century Aristotelian doctor and theologian Thomas Erastus, "is not immediately to be considered occult."9 His contemporary Olmo offers a tripartite distinction between the manifest, the "obscure," and the "absolutely occult"; only that which is "incomprehensible to us," he writes, merits the last designation.10

Sennert, finally, insists that occult qualities are not just the occlusion of a manifest default: "an unknown proportion of manifest qualities," he writes, "does not make occult ones."11 To some extent, these distinctions may seem consistent with the conceptual triviality, and terminological redundancy, that have traditionally (at least since the seventeenth century) been alleged against scholasticism. Nonetheless, both defenders and deniers of the occult-qualities doctrine in the period recognize modes in which phenomena can be causally obscure—hidden, recondite, abstruse—without being, in the strict sense, occult.

The most important of these non-occult modes involves the theory of sympathy and antipathy: the universal doctrine, associated with a Galenic conception of "total substance," that opposites repel and likes attract. For the sixteenth-century Galenist and contagious-disease theorist Hieronymus Fracastorius, the theory of sympathy/antipathy eliminates occult qualities—which Fracastorius finds annoyingly uninformative—from natural philosophy. An iron compass needle, for example, does not point north because of any unique and inexplicable force transferred to it by a magnet. Rather, there are "mountains of iron, and of magnet, under the poles," which distantly attract their likenesses all over the world. It is simply the delicate suspension of the compass needle that allows it to respond to the weak polar force.12 Of course, if magnetism is just sympathy, the question arises "why a magnet does not attract a magnet more strongly than it does iron; and why iron does not move more strongly toward iron, than toward a magnet."13 The answer, Fracastorius says, is that the apparent dissimilarity between the two is deceptive: magnets actually have "another principle, latent within themselves, which is similar either to the iron itself, or to a principle within it."14 The posit of sympathy and antipathy, in short, explains and even explodes so-called occult qualities.

We find something similar in Jean Fernel—like Fracastorius, a progressive sixteenth-century Galenist. In his De Abditis Rerum Causis, Fernel explains contagion by recourse to occult qualities; but he then goes on to explain away occult qualities, by recourse to sympathies and antipathies. These are "implanted in everything," he writes, and are "the causes of all the occult results that are credible on no obvious grounds."15 But clearly, to nominate a cause for something called occult—a cause, indeed, more intelligible than the "occult result" itself—is to commit exactly the fallacy attacked by scholastic defenders of occult qualities, such as Olmo and Sennert. Indeed, Fernel "tries to throw doubt on the validity" of the occult/manifest distinction, somewhat in the later manner of Descartes.16 But establishing and securing the validity of the distinction is a non-negotiable priority, as we have seen, for scholastic defenders of the doctrine founded upon it.

To be sure, both Fernel and Fracastorius can validly be called "scholastic." My claim here is not that early-modern Aristotelianism precludes commitment to the theory of sympathy and antipathy. My claim, rather, is that sympathy/antipathy and occult-qualities, within the complex weave of eclectic early-modern scholasticism, are disjunctive, not conjunctive, theories.17 Others, such as the late seventeenth-century Wittenberg philosopher Caspar Schon, assert that the two theories overlap, but are not coterminous. "In wine, which is poisonous to many people," Schon writes, "nothing occult is found; neither in the fire that frightens the lion, nor in the mouse that puts the elephant to flight." In short, "not every quality of antipathy and sympathy is among the occult qualities."18 Erastus takes a similar tack, using the example of cat-phobia. If this were due to an occult quality presented by the species of cats, then cat-phobia would be general to people; just as attraction by magnets is general to iron. But that is not the case. Therefore, the antipathy is not an occult quality.19 Ross, similarly, notes that people can produce esoteric effects via a "phantasie and prejudicate opinion"; but this is precisely not the same as the operation upon them of "an occult quality."20

Sennert, finally, turns the tables on the Fracastorian view. In the second topic of his Hypomnemata Physica (1636), Sennert defines what he takes to be the six main sub-categories of occult qualities. The first, "which always coincide with certain species of living things," covers the remora and other fabulous creatures;21 the third—"of things, which are not alive, which nonetheless have their specific forms, other than from the elements"—covers magnetism.22 The second, meanwhile, covers sympathies and antipathies. "These properties," Sennert writes, "are not common to the whole species, but are proper to certain individuals … they must be referred to natural strengths and weaknesses arising from a strange tendency of the body, or of a part of it."23 Sennert’s point is not to elide the prima facie distinction between sympathy/antipathy and occult qualities— much less make the latter a sub-set of the former (in the manner of Fernel and Fracastorius). Rather, Sennert’s point is (1) to conserve the prima facie distinction between the two kinds of phenomena; and (2) to make sympathy/antipathy a subset of occult qualities. Like Ross, Sennert makes occult qualities the "causes of sympathies and antipathies"—whereas the Galenists argued exactly the other way around.24 Criticizing Fracastorius for relying on a vague notion of magnetic species (iterations and projections of a phenomenal essence), Sennert notes that "it is not easy to explain what these immaterial species should be." But for exactly that reason, he goes on (pace Fracastorius), it is clear that "in the first place they are occult qualities."25 The whole advantage of occult qualities over sympathies, in this regard, is that they do not require—but reject—explanation. They organize natural philosophy around a fundamental, and ineliminable, strangeness of the natural world.

And what of the supernatural world? Not much. Here again we find a disjunction between sympathy/antipathy and the doctrine of occult qualities. Fernel fulsomely praises, and traces many significant effects, to astrological influence.26 Case speaks of "the most certain predictions and oracles of Astrology."27 Levinus Lemnius, a late seventeenth-century adherent of the sympathetic theory, compares magnetic sympathy to "the influence of the Starrs … upon sublunary bodies."28 Erastus, by contrast, explains the doctrine of occult qualities in part by stating bluntly that "the stars neither produce, nor maintain, the occult properties of things."29 Olmo, similarly, states against Ficino that the occult qualities of things are not a sidereal function, arguing in evidence that "the magnet, due to its own nature, draws iron at all times and in all places; and its effect is not changed by the changing heavens."30 Sennert, in his lengthy account of what he reckons to be the six kinds of occult qualities, simply does not include any astral or otherwise cosmic variety among them.31 Ross, admittedly, is more eclectic: he includes bad air, "infected with the impression of malignant and occult qualities from the influence of the Stars," among the causes of disease.32 This, however, is but a passing moment in the Scottish Aristotelian’s very capacious Arcana microcosmi. The latter, in turn, is but one of several topics in which Ross has a very great deal to say about occult qualities— without making them, in any significant way, a function of cosmic influence.

Of course, there is one supernatural power that is unquestionably relevant, and quite problematic, for the doctrine of occult qualities: the power of God. Magnetism (inter alia) may be occult to us; but it is surely not so to Him. Accordingly, it is conventional in the period to place occult qualities among the "secrets of God," into which it is either foolish or blasphemous to look. The resulting implication, however, is that God is directly and constantly responsible for occult qualities—at least as far as we can tell. All we can say about them, perhaps, is "that God thus willed."33 But surely this is to say, in natural-philosophical terms, nothing; while suggesting or recalling that there are valid reasons to say the same, and nothing more, of the whole created world. This is Occasionalism: the dark side of Christian (or, more broadly, monotheistic) Aristotelianism, where divine omnipotence cancels out the finite gains of human knowledge.34 "The study of philosophy is useless," Erastus notes, under such conditions.35

Luckily, Erastus, Sennert, Ross et al. are able to deny that occult qualities reduce to divine volition. Instead, they backstop on substantial form. This is the key theoreme of Aristotelian ontology: the irreducible essence or nature of a thing, what makes it what it is.36 Indeed, the doctrine of occult qualities, for at least some of its neo-Aristotelian defenders in the period, seems to be valuable precisely as a marker of substantial form. At Creation, Sennert writes, God "created all things, and gave to them their forms, making those not idle and ineffective, and deprived of strength; but instructed as to their own qualities and properties and powers."37 Form determines quality, manifest or occult, as an ordinary and non-Occasionalist part of the way things are. To be sure, there is uncertainty among scholastic theorists as to the exact nature of the form-quality relationship. Erastus is unwilling to see it as simple or straightforward; occult qualities, he writes, are "not in the form, as we are in our house." Nonetheless, qualities or properties "proceed from" their forms.38 The relationship is key. Ross concludes the Arcana microcosmi with a long defense of it.39 Olmo gives what is perhaps the most acceptable view: occult qualities "neither be form, nor nature; but by nature, and after form."40 Insofar as occult qualities proceed from the substantial form of a given phenomenon, they are absolutely, even quintessentially, natural, and non-superstitious. They constitute a function of—rather than an exception to—the observable natural order.

Indeed, the scholastic doctrine of occult qualities—and this is a summary point—is first and foremost an empirical doctrine. It holds that the world simply contains, as a matter of observational and temporal fact, certain natural phenomena that violate the canons of perception and cognition. Scholastic exponents of the doctrine have seen magnets (to all appearances mere stones) move iron; have undergone notable purgation after eating manifestly innocuous plants; and have heard creditable reports of such incredible creatures as the remora. Moreover—and this point, too, is summary—the qualities that correlate with each of these natural phenomena are caused by those phenomena themselves. It is not just coincidence, for example, that ships suddenly stop dead in the water when proximate to a remora. Neither is this phenomenon to be explained by any other cause—reefs, for example, of which the remora is a mere sign (Fracastorius’s view, cited by Case41). Rather, the ship-wrecking quality of the remora is totally and directly caused by the remora itself. An occult quality is an objective function of the creature from which it arises.

Finally: as empirical and objective violations of perception and cognition, occult qualities cannot be understood. This is where we started. What we have learned, however, is that the unintelligibility of occult qualities is itself an intelligible point within a whole system of intelligibility—the system of scholastic knowledge (scientia). A certain dropout from that system is represented by Shakespeare as telling his best friend, still a graduate student, that "there are more things in heaven and earth … / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."42 Horatio, fresh from Wittenberg, might well answer: "Sure. But that means they’re irrelevant to (our) philosophy. Also, we’re not dreaming." Occult qualities are not a vitiation, but a demarcation, of scholastic knowledge about the natural world. The observational evidence is that one does not know the nature of magnetism (for example); the epistemological fact is that one can never hope to. The resulting doctrine is not just a matter of unanswered questions, but a matter of unanswerable questions. Occult qualities constitute the undiscoverable country of early-modern scholasticism.

The Esoteric Inversion

Early-modern esotericism, by contrast, does its best to enter that country. Neoplatonism and Paracelsianism—and alchemy under the sign of either or both— challenge the scholastic doctrine of occult qualities. The esoteric move, however, is to violate the scholastic conception (as it were) by embracing it. Through a combination of misprision and misrepresentation, esotericists re-theorize, to the point of inverting, the scholastic occult.

The process starts from the top. Esoteric theorists of occult qualities (or properties, or virtues) do not limit them, in the manner of the doctrine’s scholastic defenders, to the created action of substantial forms. Rather, esotericists refer occult qualities directly to the transcendent and eternally-active will of the Creator. "The occult properties of things," writes the Neoplatonist Cornelius Agrippa, are continually "infused from above"; "all vertues," indeed, "are infused by God."43 His compeer Giambattista della Porta agrees, finding that occult phenomena, rather than being terminal functions of substantial form, "receive their force and power from Heaven."44 The Paracelsian Richard Bostocke draws the ontological consequences: arcana naturae make a mockery of the scholastic idea that God "medleth not under the moon." The fact is that God directs nature all the way down, precisely "in secrete: that is, in power."45 Of course, it remains the case that God has to work through nature in order to produce His effects therein. This He does, in the Neoplatonic picture, via celestial intermediaries. For Agrippa, "every occult property is conveyed into Hearbs, Stones, Metals, and Animals, through the Sun, Moon, Planets, and through Stars higher than Planets."46 For della Porta, the natural philosopher needs to consider "the Heavens, the Stars, the Elements, how they are moved, and how they are changed," in order to "find out the hidden secrecies of living creatures, of plants, of metals, and of their generation and corruption."47 The philosopher, watching the zodiac, should lay matter before the stars "at such a time as such an influence raigneth"; just as a man might "lay iron before the Load-stone to be drawn to it."48

Instrumental activity of this kind is natural magic. In the formulation of the Paracelsian alchemist (and opponent of Erastus) Gerhard Dorn, magic "is said to be the fundamental knowledge or understanding of natural things, in the elements of their existence, such as the strengths, virtues, and occult potencies placed and ordered in them by God their creator."49 In other words, the magus is to know, to understand, the nature of occult phenomena. But how is the magus to arrive at this extraordinary knowledge, which clearly violates and exceeds the induction from qualities canonized by more orthodox scholastics? In the only way possible: he gets it from God. Magi, writes Dorn, are a product of "the supernatural heavens" (and not just "the natural stars").50 According to one of the epistles of the Czech alchemist Michael Sendivogius (in a seventeenth-century manuscript translation), magi result from a process of oral tradition leading all the way back to "Caballistical Principles" "infused by God, into our first parents."51 The Paracelsian notion of this tradition takes exegetic form: the magus, precisely because he is a magus, is able to derive a fundamental physics by allegorically and repeatedly interpreting the creation-narrative of Genesis. The same interpretative authority, argues Dorn, applies to the destruction-narrative of Revelation; from alpha to omega, only the magus, "born or chosen," can legitimately expound God’s works. "To the manifestation of secrets, therefore, magic is necessary." The same heavenly powers that produce occult phenomena produce the human minds capable of understanding them.52

Thus the magus, via supernatural agency, produces intentional results—real, indeed, precisely because they are intentional. His empirical insights are an a priori function of his mental and spiritual conformity to God. For that matter, the natural secrets that esoteric practitioners seek to manipulate are themselves intentional. "To the rude," writes a seventeenth-century translator of Dorn, "stonnes and metalles and also minerales the meane betwixte those … seme not to lyue." Philosophers see differently.53 "The parts and members of this huge creature the World," writes della Porta, do in good neighbour-hood as it were, lend and borrow each others Nature; for by reason that they are linked in one common bond, therefore they have love in common; and by force of this common love, there is amongst them a common attraction, or tilling of one of them to the other. And this indeed is Magick … Hence it is that the Load-stone draws iron to it, Amber draws chaff or light straws, Brimstone draws fire, the Sun draws after it many flowers and leaves, and the Moon draws after it the waters.54

The obverse of the same phenomenon is repulsion of one thing by another. Both Agrippa and della Porta, in their vast and untidy calendars of these effects, cite cat-phobia—the very phenomenon distinguished from occult quality by Erastus. The scholastic, it will be recalled, points out that cat-phobia cannot be an objective quality of the cat, since most people receive no such effect from it. Agrippa, as though parodying that logic, writes that the phobia cannot be a subjective projection of the phobic: "which fear it is manifest is not in them as they are men."55 What causes things like cat-phobia, for esotericists, is an intentional dynamic between certain cats and certain people, under certain celestial influences, as perceptible and intelligible by certain favored minds. Such phenomena, moreover, are totally exemplary of the way nature works, from the magus’s point of view.

This is the full-fledged esoteric version of the theory of sympathy and antipathy. It is flexible and confident enough to swallow occult qualities whole. Della Porta, echoing Fracastorius, explains that the lodestone (for example) attracts iron because it is stone containing iron.56 The difference between the sixteenth-century Galenist and the seventeenth-century mage, however, is that the former conceives himself to be debunking occult doctrine by the theory of sympathy/antipathy, while the latter conceives himself to be illuminating it, by the same theory. Sympathy/antipathy comes to be the content, rather than the displacement, of the erstwhile scholastic doctrine. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, late in the seventeenth century, attacks the doctrine of occult qualities as "that shameful asylum of ignorance."57 Like della Porta, and like Fracastorius, Kircher considers magnetism, in particular, to be intelligible as a manifestation of sympathy/antipathy. Kircher, however, goes on to argue that sympathy/antipathy is nothing other than the general manifestation of magnetism. The Jesuit polymath does not, like Fernel, explain away the occult quality; he claims to explain the occult quality, precisely by making it a basis for further, and yet intelligible, explanations.58 This is perhaps the ultimate deconstruction of the scholastic view.

Indeed, the fundamental distinction between what I am calling scholastic and esoteric constructions of the occult is that the former entails inexplicability, while the latter does not. Occult can become manifest, according to alchemical, Neoplatonic, and Paracelsian writers. "In the world of the senses," writes Kircher, "there is nothing strictly occult, of which at least a probable cause cannot be assigned." The countervailing view—the scholastic doctrine of occult qualities—moves the Jesuit to a displeasure "that can scarcely be expressed."59 According to Dorn, "God does not want any secret [arcanum] … to be so hidden [occultum], but that at any time it might be revealed and made manifest [manifestum] by man through magic."60 Dorn considers the manifestation of the occult to be the most natural process in the world; as a matter of fact, it is the natural process of the world. "As the rich and secret [occultum] seed is pressed by nature into the earth," he writes, "so its secret [occultum] appears openly [in manifesto] above the earth."61 As grain produces corn which in turn produces grain, so life revolves via "the occultation of the manifest, and then the manifestation of the occult."62 Thus where natural philosophy stops, for Erastus, Sennert, Olmo et al., is precisely where it starts for Kircher, Dorn, Agrippa, et al.: with the failure of the senses, necessitating a turn to pure reason, guided by revelation. The occult as undiscoverable becomes the occult as—merely—undiscovered.

Theoretical Implications

The difference between the two positions boils down to a question of what it is not to know something. On the doctrine of occult qualities, not-knowing is essentially nescience: an encounter with unknowable facts. One does not know certain facts; and one can’t; and no-one can, ever. (The question of whether, or how, one can know this—happily—is irrelevant to discussion of the scholastic idea that one does.) Knowability-in-principle is not epistemically requisite to facts as such. Rather, facts divide, epistemically, into the knowable and the unknowable.63

If some facts are unknowable, knowledge is finite—explicitly, and by definition. The human mind knows what it can; but it is always confronted and limited, actually or potentially, by the encounter with what it cannot. In the case of magnetism (for example), what one knows is precisely that the nature or cause of magnetism is unknowable. Knowledge in such a case cannot consist in finding out or bringing to understanding the unknown, qua unknowable. It can only consist in augmenting and manifesting the understanding of the known. Nescience implies an intensive, rather than an extensive, research program: not the indefinite expansion of factual reference, toward its positable limits; but the indefinite enrichment of factual reference, within limits that have (as it were) always-already been established.

This is consistent with the over-arching scholastic idea of knowledge (scientia): "a perspicuous scheme under which to bring together acknowledged phenomena."64 It is not so much an empirical account of the way things are—what scholastics call knowledge quia—as a teleological account of why things have to be the way they are—knowledge propter quid. The gold standard of scientia, in (many versions of) early-modern scholasticism, is demonstration: a rigorous syllogism, based on essential foreknowledge of its subject-matter, and arguing from necessary premises to necessary conclusions.65 As Stephen Gaukroger has argued, the scholastic method of demonstration was simply not a method of empirical discovery.66 The latter is the hermeneutic mode of coming to know new facts; but nescience-scientia, as we have just seen, is not fundamentally interested in coming to know new facts. It is fundamentally interested in improving its grasp of established ones.

Now, the hermeneutic corollary of discovery is secrecy. Unknown facts present themselves via the interpretation of data-sets; prior to interpretation, the facts are obscured or occluded (secret) within the data. Interpretation, if successful, discovers the dative secrets, and thereby transforms them into (non-secret) facts. For scientia, however, conditioned by nescience, some unknown facts are unknowable. Hermeneutically, that means that some uninterpreted data-sets are uninterpretable. To revert to the traditional metaphor: some secrets are undiscoverable. To be sure, not all secrets; but a secret that cannot be found out, clearly, is more secret than one that can. Secrets per se are really secret—terminally and inalterably—as a hermeneutic consequence of scholastic epistemology.

This of course is precisely the point of the doctrine of occult qualities. Yet it is easy to miss. Alexander Ross’s Arcana microcosmi [the secrets of the microcosm], for example, is subtitled The hid secrets of man’s body discovered. Like many in the period, Ross’s heading tantalizes with the prospect of occult manifestation. Ross’s actual argument, however, is precisely and consistently that the human body, especially in its interaction with pathology, functions in innumerable ways that must remain secret to us. Pica (dirt-eating), for example, suggests a digestive power of the stomach which, if physical in the ordinary way, "would doubtlesse corrode the stomach it self’; therefore, "the safest way is to acknowledge an occult quality."67 Poisons "do not work by their temper which consist of elementary qualities, but by their substance or form, whose qualities are occult to us."68 Even natural heat, the all-purpose interpretant of early-modern medicine, is for Ross occult: the brain is cold with a coldness that cannot be felt; the lungs are hot essentially, "cold only by accident."69 In showing "how many strange wonders and secrets are couched up within the Microcosme of our body," Ross precisely does not show secrets, in the sense of revealing them, thereby terminating them.70

He shows secrets, rather, in the sense of showing them to be interminably secret, beyond revelation.

Della Porta does not propose to "discover" secrets in the curious scholastic sense of showing them to be terminally and essentially secret. On the contrary, he proposes to discover secrets in the Neoplatonic sense of essentially manifesting them—thereby terminating, or at least endangering, their status as secrets. The magical art, he writes at the outset of his compendium, "openeth unto us the properties and qualities of hidden things"; "such Things as hitherto lay hid in the Bosome of wondrous Nature."72 Della Porta then goes on, for hundreds of pages, to give recipe after recipe, treatment after treatment—even, in his hydrostatic and electro-magnetic topics, parlor trick after parlor trick. To be sure, della Porta rarely gives a detailed account of the mechanisms behind his secrets. But that is because, in his estimation, he doesn’t have to. He considers the mechanisms of all strange phenomena to be given in advance, as it were, by the theory of sympathy and antipathy. Ross, with his scholastic conception of the occult, would insist that we can never know, even in a vague or general way, how or why a given occult phenomenon is the way it is. Della Porta, with his esoteric conception, thinks he knows this always-already.

And yet—by that very token—the magus is reluctant to show everything he knows. A pose of pedagogic or communicative reticence is absolutely ubiquitous in esoteric writings of the period. In considering whether to publish Natural Magick, della Porta writes, "I was somewhat unwilling … that it should appear to the publike View of all Men."73 "I had almost forgotten wat silence I am charged with concerning the secretts of nature shutt up in a Shell," wails the author of one alchemical manuscript, fearing to have said too much. "It was not my intent to have written this at all," incontinently states another.74 Typically, the esoteric author responds to his own problematic power of revealing secrets by adopting an hermeneutics of encoding, characterized by enigmatic utterance and intentional contradiction. Della Porta, for example, says that he has "veil’d by the Artifice of Words" his most wonderful and dangerous secrets.75 Paracelsus, according to Bostocke, has written "couertly and darkely," even in "the plaine letter."76 Agrippa, by his own account, generates "Enigmas"—justifying this method by the examples of Plato, Pythagoras, Porphyry, Orpheus, Virgil, the Eleusinian mysteries, the apocryphal topic of Esdras, and others.77 Sendivogius, similarly, states himself to have followed the example of the ancient philosophers, who "have everywhere invented fables; made Emblems; and thrown many stones in the way … to hide the Mysteries."78

Now, mysteries require hiding only insofar as they have been revealed to those who hide them. Only the knower of a secret knows that he has to keep it. In this way, esoteric rhetoric projects the early-modern magi as having opened up the secrets of nature. It is as though, as Lemnius puts it, the magus’s penetration and retailing of secrets might have "furnished Nature with no store."79 Only and precisely because nature is no longer secret to him must the magus be secretive when talking about it. Furthermore, there is a very strong suggestion in esoteric texts that the decoding of the magus’s utterances can never really come to an end. The reader must be patient, attentive, suspicious; he must read the same passages over and over again; he must confer places, and be alert to potentially-significant contradictions. If understanding still does not follow, that may simply be because the reader is not intentionally favored. In other words, he may be too vulgar to understand what he is reading. By that very token, the reader who thinks he does understand may need to go back and re-read, in case he has deceived himself. In the end, the secrecy of the esoteric text is, effectively, interminable. The magus does not just seem to possess the secrets of nature; he seems to possess them in an open-ended set.

In a word: omniscience is the epistemological precipitate of magistic hermeneutics. The natural-philosophical magi of early-modern esotericism suggest or imply that they know, effectively, all the natural-philosophical facts (once secrets) that there are to know. This is not to say that they really do, or even really think they do. It is to say, rather, that the mode of knowledge the magi project as normative for natural philosophy is determined and defined transcendentally. Whatever the magus actually knows, or does not know, each instance of his knowing is suggestively continuous with, and projects the extremely vast manifold of, the whole and unified realm of facts.

How, then, can not-knowing be theorized, on the epistemology of omniscience? Clearly it can have nothing to do with nescience—the theory of unknowable facts. For there are no unknowable facts, on the epistemology of omniscience. The omniscient being, by definition, is the being who knows all facts. Knowability-in-principle, from this perspective, is epistemically requisite to facts as such. The difference, accordingly, on the epistemology of omniscience, between a being who knows some facts, and a being who knows all of them, is quantitative, not qualitative. In other words, you can get there (omniscience) from here (knowledge). The knowing of a fact, on this view, is a cognitive procedure which, if it could be repeated ad infinitum, would, in principle, produce omniscience.

The contrast to scholastic scientia is absolute. Here, the knowing of a fact is not, by definition, a cognitive procedure that would produce omniscience— not even in principle, not even if it were allowed to run ad infinitum. Here, the difference between the being who knows all facts, and the being who knows only some of them, is qualitative, not quantitative. For knowability-in-principle is not epistemically requisite to facts as such. The omniscient being, by that very token, is precisely the being who stands outside scientia. To him, all facts are knowable, and he indeed knows all facts. But to the (for lack of a better word) scient being, not all facts are knowable; and he knows, if possible, only those that are. You can’t get there (omniscience) from there (scientia).

We can construct a theoretical quadrant of correlations and antinomies by way of filling in its final corner—the idea of not-knowing that corresponds to the esoteric idea of the occult. Nescience correlates with scientia: the not-knowing of unknowable facts, with the knowing of knowable facts. Scientia is the antinomy of omniscience: the epistemology for which not all facts can be known, against the epistemology for which all facts can be known. Clearly, the missing term will correlate with omniscience (for which facts are either known or not known); and will be the antinomy of nescience (the not-knowing of unknowable facts). And this fourth term can only be ignorance: the not-knowing of unknown (but knowable) facts.

Scientia : nescience omniscience : ignorance

Ignorance is the mode of not-knowing that correlates with omniscience as a standard or idea of knowledge. This is what it is not to know something, on the esoteric retheorization of the scholastic occult.


The uncharitable reader may find this result a poor pay-off for the work that led up to it. Nonetheless, the significance of our finding is as follows.

As I have argued, the strict scholastic doctrine of occult qualities is not to be confused with any esoteric theory of sympathy and antipathy. The difference between the two theories may be small, but the vector that emerges from this difference is huge. Occult qualities and sympathy/antipathy trickle down opposite sides of an epistemological watershed. One leads to the idea that some things can never be known; the other, to the idea that everything, in principle, can be known. The ordinary and (to modern eyes) familiar conception of ignorance, moreover, goes with the latter idea, not the former.

As is well known, Isaac Newton recalibrated late seventeenth-century natural philosophy to allow the validity of results based on an occult phenomenon (gravity).

This replaced the dogmatic insistence of Cartesian mechanism that the occult/ manifest distinction was wholly nugatory. According to the canonical narrative of this intellectual history, Newton’s settlement of the issue was something like the origin-moment of modern natural science. And so it may have been. The current point, however, is that Newton proffered his natural-philosophical theory of gravity on a basis of ignorance, and not of nescience. He would "scruple not to propose the principles of Motion" in his Principia, "and leave their Causes to be found out."80 The idea that the cause or nature of gravity might be beyond the possibility of finding-out is remote from, and antithetical to, Newton’s thinking about it.

Thus Newton absolutely did not reintroduce to science any idea of occult qualities in the strict scholastic sense. Rather, he kept faith with the idea of sympathies and antipathies in the more modish, esoteric sense. Arguably, therefore, Newtonian physics, as much as Neoplatonic and/or Paracelsian natural magic, leaves open the possibility of human omniscience. The incoherence or questionability of this possibility is what is illuminated by the countervailing early-modern scholastic doctrine of occult qualities. The invention of discovery, as effected by the esoteric magi of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, makes knowledge quasi-divine, or not knowledge at all. This rather strange epistemic conception, normalized since by the hegemony of modern natural science, followed from, and depended upon, the end of scholastic nescience.

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