The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason

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by John V. Fleming
     
 

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Why spiritual and supernatural yearnings, even investigations into the occult, flourished in the era of rationalist philosophy.

In The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, John V. Fleming shows how the impulses of the European Enlightenment—generally associated with great strides in the liberation of human thought from superstition and traditional

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Overview

Why spiritual and supernatural yearnings, even investigations into the occult, flourished in the era of rationalist philosophy.

In The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, John V. Fleming shows how the impulses of the European Enlightenment—generally associated with great strides in the liberation of human thought from superstition and traditional religion—were challenged by tenacious religious ideas or channeled into the “darker” pursuits of the esoteric and the occult. His engaging topics include the stubborn survival of the miraculous, the Enlightenment roles of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, and the widespread pursuit of magic and alchemy.

Though we tend not to associate what was once called alchemy with what we now call chemistry, Fleming shows that the difference is merely one of linguistic modernization. Alchemy was once the chemistry, of Arabic derivation, and its practitioners were among the principal scientists and physicians of their ages. No point is more important for understanding the strange and fascinating figures in this book than the prestige of alchemy among the learned men of the age.

Fleming follows some of these complexities and contradictions of the “Age of Lights” into the biographies of two of its extraordinary offspring. The first is the controversial wizard known as Count Cagliostro, the “Egyptian” freemason, unconventional healer, and alchemist known most infamously for his ambiguous association with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which history has viewed as among the possible harbingers of the French Revolution and a major contributing factor in the growing unpopularity of Marie Antoinette. Fleming also reviews the career of Julie de Krüdener, the sentimental novelist, Pietist preacher, and political mystic who would later become notorious as a prophet.

Impressively researched and wonderfully erudite, this rich narrative history sheds light on some lesser-known mental extravagances and beliefs of the Enlightenment era and brings to life some of the most extraordinary characters ever encountered either in history or fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephen Greenblatt
“John Fleming has written a fascinating, compulsively readable account of the shadowy world that lay just beyond the clear, clean, well-ordered boundaries of the Age of Reason. His protagonists, vividly brought to life, are a motley collection of miracle workers, charlatans, confidence men, and half-crazed visionaries, caught up in a frenzied pursuit of occult truths, secret powers, and illicit pleasures. Never has the Enlightenment seemed stranger.”
Hans Aarsleff
“Fleming’s book is about two cultural commonplaces, the so-called darkness of the Middle Ages and the reputed brightness of the later age that called them dark. In nine greatly informative and entertaining chapters, Fleming turns the tables by showing that the enlightenment had a dark side that was an integral part of it. Hence, its dark side must be understood as co-Enlightenment, not as what is often called the Counter-Enlightenment. This, in a deep sense, is an important book in the cultural study of history.”
Lawrence Lipking
“This is a book that sparkles with wit and learning and mischief. In place of a pale age of reason, John Fleming guides us through the witching hour of the Enlightenment, a time haunted by visions of magic, mystery, and the occult—enchanted and enchanting.”
Library Journal
Even today, most historians are more at ease with the study of empiricism than with that of the esoteric, but of no age is this truer than the hyper-skeptical Enlightenment. Thus the importance of this study by Fleming (humanistic studies, retired, Princeton; The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War), which directs attention away from the standard skeptics of that age to its occult side. The mainstream thought of the Enlightenment, he argues, was not materialist as much as sacramental: "The material world paralleled another that was immaterial and invisible." The activities of the time that he discusses often looked like science, but they weren't; occultists, alchemists, and members of secret societies appropriated the form and language of the sciences to reach radically different conclusions. In interlocking chapters, Fleming discusses an English "stroker" who healed by touch; Cagliostro, an alchemist, magus, and charlatan; Rosicrucians and Freemasons; and the career of sentimental novelist Julie de Krudener, who ended her life a mystic. VERDICT Written with a verve not usual in scholarly works—and all the better for it—this exceptional book will attract all who love history, and not just its scholars.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews
A former professor (Humanistic Studies/Princeton Univ.) shows that the intellectual glow of the Enlightenment contended with the forces of religious faith, superstition and quackery. Fleming (The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War, 2009, etc.) acknowledges that he comes at his new subject with an educated amateur's credentials. However, his learned but reader-friendly text undercuts his modesty. The author deals principally with significant, illustrative figures from the period--names unfamiliar to many--beginning with Valentine Greatrakes, a man who discovered he could touch and cure those afflicted with scrofula. Fleming notes that Greatrakes refused to take payment or otherwise profit from his successes--and there were many. Next, the author turns to the Convulsionists, those who experienced convulsions and were healed by novenas spoken at the Saint-Médard cemetery. He follows with long sections about the Rosicrucians and Freemasons, carefully charting their history while pausing occasionally to point out contemporary analogies. Then, he turns his attention to the "occult arts"--magic, sorcery and alchemy--and spends some time describing the equipment alchemists used and explaining the aims of their practices. He ends with critical biographies of two remarkable individuals, Alessandro Cagliostro, who rose quickly as a healer, then fell when he was associated with the scandal involving a priceless necklace (Marie Antoinette appears here); and Julie de Krüdener, who rose to prominence as a novelist (with the help of Madame de Staël), then turned to religion and numerology before her tumble from fame. Fleming continually steps back to point out the survival of some of these ideas in modern life--President Ronald Reagan, for example, was a chiliast, or one who held a "historical or theological view based on an interpretation of the Apocalypse, and by extension any attempt to apply Bible prophecy to an interpretation of secular history." Learned, sophisticated and amusing at times--and invariably enlightening.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393242171
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
07/15/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
600,638
File size:
4 MB

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