Philosophy & Magic

I am a philosopher.

The well educated, the nobles, the lawyers, and the clerics were brought before courts and judges to answer for the crime of sorcery, and they all answered with the same defense: I am a philosopher.

Apollonius of Tyana, who lived in the first century AD, came before one of Nero’s senior judges on the charge of sorcery because, it was claimed, he had foreseen and possibly cured the city through magic. Apollonius replied that he had in fact predicted the plague, because he was able to better understand the natural signs: in other words, through application of natural philosophy. The plague had been alleviated by the action of the god-hero Heracles, and that Apollonius had propitiated the god with a honey cake, rather than a blood sacrifice as a sorcerer would have done.(1) If I have remarkable abilities, it is not because I’m practicing the kind of magic you’re thinking of (the illegal kind), it’s because I’m so clever and learned about the ways of the world that I know what’s happening and the right thing to do about it. The magistrate ultimately found in Apollonius’s favor. Once you’ve distinguished whatever it is that you’re doing from the kind of magic the church and state authorities are concerned with, you’re relatively safe.

Giordano Bruno, in his essay On Magic (2), sets out ten commonly used definitions of magic and magicians. Bruno speaks approvingly of the older (philosophy-centric) definitions, and promotes the use of divine (religious), natural and mathematical magic, while denigrating both the practitioners and persecutors of the less savory types of magic as foolish. The magician, says Bruno, should just be a philosopher with “the power to act” and a strong knowledge of the natural and metaphysical worlds. This is in line with the ideal of the Renaissance magus as a learned man, skilled in many arts and in tune with the powers of the universe.

The presence of magical material in De Umbris should be understood in this context. In one sense, the presence of Neoplatonic, Hermetic and astrological material in this volume is clearly magical in nature, in the sense that this was seen as particularly effective philosophical material by Bruno and his audience; it is the best theory of physics and metaphysics available at the time, according to the cognoscenti of the time. Using it is also a sign that the author is part of the smart group. Hermetic, Platonic and Neoplatonic material, as originally translated by Marsilio Ficino and others some decades before, was still seen as “new knowledge”, balancing the existing Aristote-centric corpus of knowledge taught at the leading universities of the day, and which would lead the reader to new insights and capabilities. If Bruno had been writing in the present day, he might have included material on neuroscience and quantum mechanics as part of a pop science book; it is in the book to show that Bruno’s Art of Memory is based on the new, very old learning. Third, the material is included because it is interesting and slightly daring; it is an act of marketing, as if Bruno were to begin his mathematical astronomy lessons by putting on a pointy hat covered in stars, and stating that his students were about to learn some very secret, very sacred information. “You aren’t doing algebra, you’re doing ‘magical operations of the highest order’.”


  1. Georg Luck. (1985) Text 53 & notes in Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Johns Hopkins University Press
  2. Bruno, Giordano “On Magic”, in Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: And Essays on Magic. (1998) edited and translated by Blackwell, Richard, de Lucca, Robert, and Ingegno, Alfonso. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy

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