Monday, September 17, 2007

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

Sierra Club


Accursed be he that first invented war.


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Lecture: Marlowe, Magic and Alchemy
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Christopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593) was a skillful poet and talented playwright. But, he nevertheless his works never managed to achieve the great recognition of that of his contemporary Shakespeare. He died young in a pub brawl. It has been suggested that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent, and that he could have been killed for what he knew about the Queen and various lords' secret doings, particularly within a clandestine organisation, The School of Night. One reason offered is that Marlowe was refused permission to continue his Master of Arts degree at Cambridge, but Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council reversed that decision in a letter in which they wrote that he "Was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheims... In all his actions he had behaved himself orderly and discreetly whereby he had done Her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing." Government agents often went to Rheims to spy on the Catholic seminary there, which was busily training Englishmen for the priesthood. English agents would visit Rheims to learn the identities of the future priests so that they could be arrested on their return to England. Marlowe was killed in a pub brawl with his own knife, apparently because he attacked another patron in an argument over "Le Reckoninge" or "the bill." That patron, Ingram Frizer, killed him and is known to have been an agent himself, and also to have worked for Sir Walter Raleigh. It has been speculated that Marlowe may have been ready to divulge secrets about Raleigh, because he had been called to give evidence before Queen Elizabeth's council of ministers known as the Star Chamber. Raleigh survived charges of `loose living` but was executed by Elizabeth's successor, James I in a bid to appease Spanish anger. The book The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl gives a good overview of the times and the people involved. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Christopher Marlowe.]

Marlowe, Magic and Alchemy
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]


Magic may be defined as the art of influencing the course of events by the occult control of nature, or of spirits. The definition begs the question as occult means magical process. That leaves us with: magic as the art of controlling events using magical means!

The traditional categories of magic: black, white, or natural magic allude to the source of occult power the practitioner draws on. Black magic would involve the recruitment of devils. White magic the recruitment of angels; while natural magic will draw on the occult idea of spirit without necessarily animating the occult spirit as devil or angel.

Human beings have always had some interest in magic -- one need only peruse the headlines of modern tabloid newspapers - but the great popular rise in interest in magic during the enlightenment -- the same era that witnessed a parallel rise in the belief of rational process -- seems paradoxical to us now. Unless we see this rise in magical interest as a reflection of the general dis-ease around the emergence of radically new thinking about the natural world.

Marlowe understands the psychology of his time. In his invocations of the dark forces of nature, Dr. Faustus -- a respectible academic -- is drawing on and playing with 16th century anxieties around the dramatic and turbulant shifts in global consciousness then in process. The shift can be characterized as a realignment of relationships in natural philosophy from the vertical to the horizontal. The old order of things had been a vertically aligned top down great chain of being with god at the pinnacle and man near the base. The arrangements of things in the natural order were understood in terms of formal and final causes. A new order things was flattening that grand old world into a colder more mechanical kind of place in which questions about efficiency and utility became far more important that questions about formal and final causes.

Still, gods, devils and spirits still had their roles to play in Marlowe's world but the emerging enlightenment program was thinking about expelling the gods and all of their magical agents from the heavens. In a real sense that paradigm was eventually to expel the heavens from the heavens -- the legacy of Galileo who was born in the same year as Marlowe -- by showing that this world -- earth -- was no different from that world -- the heavens. As a consequence there was no chain connecting this to that. This and that were really the same. Relationships were becoming horizontal.

In this light magic might be seen as a form of nostalgia for the good old days -- the days when spiritual process was unabashedly right out in the open. As new thinkers begin to poke fun at the gods, the older schools fight back with magic -- a secret art which was immune to this contaminating gaze of the rationalists for the very reason that it was secret -- and still is!

Magic as Rational

Although I am arguing that the new interest in magic in Marlowe's day can be understood as a reaction to an emerging rationalism I have a surprise to share with you. Magic itself can be understood as a reasonable and rational attempt to understand the world in something like scientific terms! I'm in really dangerous waters here because science properly understood is really a modern enlightenment concept. Pre-renaissance science is never not mixed up with considerations of things that modern science has rejected as beyond its scope.

This is key to understanding alchemy and to a certain degree astrology. Make no mistake. Alchemy and astrology have no currency in modern thinking. Alchemy and astrology died with the cosmologies that they used to explain.


Okay. Let's look a little more closely at the magic in Marlowe. The magic we see practiced in the context of Marlowe's work can be viewed as drawing on what was once viewed as a highly practical art: alchemy. Alchemy.

Alchemy was an ancient art based on a false theory and geared to the pursuit of the impossible: the transmutation of base matter into gold and silver. That is a rather reductionist view of alchemy that confines the art to history. Alchemy holds in its kernel, philosophies and ways of looking at the world that extend into other areas of philosophy and live on even today.

Although that gives alchemy a level of respect, it would be false to see alchemy as a precursor of modern chemistry -- unless you might in some altered state of consciousness allow for a chemistry of spirit. Alchemy as we will see has one foot very much in the spirit world -- something that's a definite no-no for any form of modern science.

There are other essential differences. Chemistry is rooted in modern method, forward looking, and geared to the understanding of natural law. Alchemy is rooted in a secret and ancient method and geared exclusively to the production of gold and silver.

Make no mistake though. Alchemy has a respectable pedegree. It is rooted theoretically on Greek notions of matter, spirit, and form. The context of that relationship is the capacity to control matter leading to a change in form through the agency of spirit..

1.Iron changes to rust. Matter persists. Form changes, Spirit is the agent of change.

2. Material -> Corrupt Material -> Seed -> Gold

Alchemy has a colourful and complex history one of its most important and influential documents was a peculiar little code called the Emerald Table written originally in arabic by Hermes Trismegistus in the 10th century.

The Words of Secret Things.

1. True and without deceit, certain and most true.

2. What is below, is like what is above, and what is above is like what is below, for the performing of the marvels of the one thing. [connection between heaven and earth through a middle substance.]

3. And as all things were from one thing, by the mediation of one thing: so all things were born of this one thing, by adaptation. [the one thing is mercury in its various forms]

4. Its father is the sun; its mother is the moon; the wind carried it in its belly; its nurse is the earth.

5. This is the father of all the perfection of the whole world.

6. Its power is integral if it be turned into earth. [spirit made concrete; word made flesh]

7. You shall separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, smoothly and with great cleverness. [this refers to the pulling of the stone in alchemy -- a process that requires great art]

8. It ascends from the earth into the heaven, and again descends into the earth and receives the powers of the superiors and inferiors. So thus you will have the glory of the whole world. So shall all obscurity flee from thee. [spirit is able to control wealth, health and power]

9. This is the strong fortitude of all fortitude: because it will overcome every subtle thing and penetrate every solid.

10. This the earth was created. [creation story]

11. Hence there will be marvellous adaptations, of which this is the means [how it is done]

12. And so I am Hermes Trismegistus, having three parts of the Philosophy of the whole world.

13. What I have said concerning the operation of the Sun is finished!

This enigmatic work suggests that the operation of the Sun was carried out by a universal spirit or pneuma This spirit could be solidified or turned into stone -- the philosopher's stone! This stone was the link between heaven and earth. This solid pneuma or quintessence could penetrate and overcome ANY nature. It is the source of the whole world.

While the emerald table is the theoretical basis of alchemy, practical alchemy as practiced in Europe in the middle ages is linked mainly to a work attrtibuted to Ramon Lull called the Testament of Lullius.

The work envisages a cosmos in which all existence is comprised of a single element -- mercury -- which manifests in varying degrees of granularity. The differences were due it seems to the presence of pneuma in varying degrees.

The Lull document actually provides a recipe for the preparation of distilled pneuma, the Philosopher's Stone.

Why did alchemy hold the imagination of so many for so long?

Well, it worked -- sort of. The creation of certain allows of gold and silver that the practitioners thought was gold was mistaken for positive results. There was also the work of tricksters who could easily fool their clients using -- for example -- the practice of etching the surfaces of highly debased substances.

The Decline

During the enlightenment alchemy did at last lose its grip. The winds of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon and Descartes who was 8 years old when Faustus was published pushed this old way of thinking to the side.

But, for many modern science seemed an inadequate replacement for the grand alchemical and astrological schemes of the past.

So, although alchemy as alchemy died, the underlying schema of alchemical thinking survived in another form -- as Hermetic philosophy. More on that perhaps at another time.

Books from Alibris: Christopher Marlowe

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