Yaakov A. Mascetti

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20032004 Forum on Belief

Yaakov A. Mascetti


"TO GO UP THE HILL": Hermetic and Alchemic Concepts of Belief and Gnostic Ascent in English Seventeenth-Century Poetry

The contemplation of nature entailed, for men of the 17th century, the investigation into the will of God, and the understanding of the first cause that brought about the existence of things. Knowledge of nature was for contemporary philosophers an epistemic tower of Babel, at the peak of which the individual could apprehend the Divine essence hidden in things. For occult natural philosophers like alchemists and magi, the epistemic work inherent in contemplation was one of pentration into the secrets of nature and the extraction and apprehension of the Divine presence in things. For new philosophers like Francis Bacon, on the other hand, the sole realm of human investigation was that of second causes.

While the material and the spiritual were irreparably driven asunder by the new philosophical search for objective truth, traditional conceptions of belief, providence, gnostic communion, and ascent were re-elaborated or dismissed. Knowledge was possible only with respect to the natures of creatures and not, as occultists claimed, with respect to God himself. The contemplation of nature could not lead the individual to a "knowledge of God," but could only produce a sense of wonder, or as Bacon calls it, a "broken knowledge."

Dr. Mascetti seeks to recover, in his research, the possible meanings and intentions of contemporary alchemic responses to the dichotomizing force of Bacon's arguments. Alchemy, that is, appeared to be a mediating cast of mind between the analytic mind of Baconian philosophers and the synthetic proneness of occultists, acknowledging the former in order to recreate the latter.