Scripture tells us that young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams. In these tales of Swedenborgians, theosophists, illuminati, Mormons and Freemasons, David Katz gives us much of both as we travel from neoplatonism to American fundamentalism via the Cock Lane Ghost.
Katz, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, sees the occult tradition as a coherent intellectual stream with its beginnings in Plato, flowing through the European Renaissance and industrial revolution to arrive at US fundamentalism with its detailed myth-ology about the End of Days based on an esoteric reading of the Bible.
He takes "occult" to mean hidden from the senses: the belief that there is knowledge accessible by covert means which allows practitioners to know the workings of the universe and even manipulate its operation. The occult tradition is a fusion of three streams of thought, Katz says, in a book for anyone excited by knowledge and the interpretation of ideas. First came the neoplatonists with their view that things had properties which were transferable: using the heart of a brave animal such as a cock or a lion would help promote bravery; eating the breast of loving creatures like sparrows or turtles would induce love.
The second store of ancient lore he notes is the mystical contem-plation of the Judaeo-Christian gnostics. Finally come the writings that were supposedly handed down from the (mythical) figure Hermes Trismegistus, who represented a body of knowledge from Egypt, therefore predating Grecian and Roman civilization.
These form a continuous core of belief which over the centuries has informed not just religion and politics but science, too. Katz follows historian Frances Yates in feeling it is not enough to construct a history of science by looking for thinkers in the past who got it "right"; we need to study the period when alchemy was evolving into chemistry and astrology into astronomy to see why experimental choices were made.
That makes this a deeply subversive book. Scientists, if they think about the philosophy of science at all, cleave to a 19th-century narrative which says that in all civilizations as they developed, superstition came first, then religion, then science, which at last was the truth. In fact the founders of modern science were swimming in a stream of occult lore, much of which they retained and passed on to us in disguised form.
Thus Paracelsus claimed to have discovered, by alchemical means, the very building blocks of the universe, and the key to their construction, which was chemistry. He passed on the occult notion of macrocosm and microcosm: anything true in the laboratory must be true in the universe at large. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for adhering to an Egyptian world picture with the sun as the centre of the universe and the chief divinity. The heliocentric universe could be analysed by Copernican calculations, but it was based on the Hermetic tradition.
Newton, the man credited with being the first modern scientist, devoted at least half his active working time to the interpretation of esoterica. Newton's conviction was that a misreading of the heavens goes along with a misreading of religion. God provided two alter-native sources of information: the written book of scripture and the visible book of nature. Basic metaphysical truths are obtainable from both.