11th July 1603. A Polymath of his Time.
Astrology has continued to hold its influence throughout the centuries, despite Augustine of Hippo’s warning to avoid astrologers and mathematici (divination).
One of its followers, born Today in 1603, was the eccentric natural philosopher, Sir Kenelm Digby whose many interests encompassed what were later known as the ‘six follies of science’. (1)
These included, the squaring of the circle, perpetual motion, the philosopher’s stone, magic, astrology, and the elixir of life. These earned him intermittent derision among his peers with Diarist, John Evelyn describing Digby as a ‘teller of strange tales’.
Digby lived at a time when scientific enquiry had not settled down in a disciplined way; one of his notions was his ‘Powder of Symptoms’, a ‘Sympathetic Magic’ potion usually applied in accord with the appropriate astrological signs, but daubed not on the injury, but the cause.
However from the mid-17thc time of Charles II, the then termed natural philosophy, was developing from the ‘Mancys’ of medieval mysticism, which saw a separation between faith and reason resulting from the philosophy of Occam.
The upsurge in scientific inquiry didn’t mean the abandonment of religious belief for Hooke, Boyle and Newton were closely concerned with the occult, supernatural and magic; Oxford at that time had Chairs of Natural Philosophy, but applied science was judged to ‘stifle the acquirement of knowledge for its own sake’, and experimentation was despised.
By the early 1700.s even Isaac Newton had moved away from mathematics and science in favour of alchemy and studied Egyptian and Hebrew in an attempt to fix biblical dates right back to the Creation.
His notes also suggest he was looking for the Philosophers’ Stone, which supposedly changed base metals such as lead to gold, silver or even aqua vitae, the ‘elixir of life’, said to guarantee immortal life.(2)
Digby who corresponded with Descartes and Hobbes, wrote a huge treatise on the Natural World and the Soul and ended up as a Fellow of the Royal Society, rubbing shoulders with Robert Boyle and Wren.
However posterity remembers the polymath Digby for his practical bent in his invention of the dark green, wine bottle and managing his family’s coal-fired gasworks.
(1) Kenelm was three when his father Everard was hanged as a member of the infamous Gunpowder Plot.
(2) Scientists were keen to show how these were sources for good as proving God’s beneficent creation (Newton did much work on the Books of Daniel and Revelation). These scientists were creationists with an aim to demonstrate to doubters the wonders of God’s creation.
A statue of Newton is to be found in Grantham, gowned as a Master of Arts.