In Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment, Middlebury College history professor Monod challenges contemporary assumptions that the Enlightenment successfully quashed belief in disciplines—like astrology, witchcraft, and alchemy—that were not founded in reason.
How did you get interested in the relationship of the occult to the Enlightenment?
In the mid 1990s I was writing a book that involved research into the papers of a late 17th-century astrologer, Samuel Jeake, which made me interested in the question of when occult beliefs began to decline in England and Scotland. I had read Keith Thomas’s classic study, Religion and the Decline of Magic, years before, but his explanations and chronology didn’t seem right for Jeake or for many other astrologers, alchemists, and ritual magicians. They didn’t seem right for my own family either, as my grandmother, who grew up in the southwest of England, had preserved a lot of magical and occult beliefs well into the 20th century. So did these ideas decline at all in the 1700s, or did they take different forms? This line of questioning opened up an enormous amount of source material for me.
You state in your introduction that the connection between the Enlightenment and occult philosophies and practices has been studied in continental Europe, but that the occult’s relationship to the British Enlightenment has generally been overlooked. Why do you think this is?
Many historians, especially in the period down to the late 20th century, tended to see the British as more rational or reasonable than their neighbors. After all, they had embraced the Reformation, the Glorious Revolution, religious toleration, and “secularization” without much protest. Academic historians today know better, but they have often fallen into the trap of assuming that British culture after 1560 was hostile to “superstition” or occult beliefs. They have pictured the Enlightenment in Britain as almost a natural fulfillment of British values. European history outside Britain, especially in France, Germany, and Russia, has been more open to the peculiar mixtures of thought and belief that characterized the Enlightenment.
How long did the research and writing take you? Were there any particular challenges or surprises?
It took me about 12 years, in large part because I was engaged in two other book projects at the same time. The biggest challenge was putting a very great deal of material into some sort of coherent order, and figuring out how the messages conveyed by that material changed over time. The sheer quantity of occult sources surprised me at times, but also the degree to which occult writers integrated current research into their thinking. I found astrologers who were ardent devotees of Copernicus in the late 1600s and alchemists who were reading the latest experiments of Humphry Davy in the early 1800s. The alchemical pursuits of Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle did not surprise me so much, because they are by now well-known, but it is still a shock to realize how much time the great theorist of gravity spent on copying obscure alchemical formulae.
How do you hope that your research will change perceptions of the Enlightenment and British history?
I hope it will make readers see the Enlightenment as more varied, more contradictory, and more human. It did embrace a cult of reason, but devotees of the occult seem to have found all sorts of spaces for themselves around the margins of enlightened values. As for British history, I have tried to question the assumption of linear development towards fixed ideals of modern science, reason, and secularism. The writers, artists, and thinkers I have dealt with in the book were often enthusiastic about science, but they felt reason had gone too far, and secularism would not have made much sense to them. The assumption of a simple dichotomy between reason and the occult does not work very well for this period, and I doubt that it ever has.