Banner graphic for Studies in the history of science, technology & culture
Help keep high-quality, independent scholarship on the Web and freely available to all: Donate to!

Q U I C K   L I N K S

For one example of Hermetic influences on the early-modern scientific imagination, see the introductory essay on Robert Hooke in the Players section.

For another example of Hermetic influences on the early-modern scientific imagination, see the introductory essay on Cornelis Drebbel in the Players section.

For more about the gnostic mystery religions of the 2nd–3rd centuries, see the IN BRIEF topic on gnosticism.

For an example of the Hermetic and Gnostic symbolism used by early-modern designers to embellish printed works, see the She-philosopher.​com Concept page.

First Published:  August 2012
Revised (substantive):  30 June 2021

Ornamental border from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)

[ a In Brief topic ]


Opening quotation markSecret, esoteric doctrines appear in many cultures. The psychological attraction of knowing matters which most cannot understand, or the social advantage of a learning closed to the masses, may lead individuals to seek illumination in a hidden doctrine. In the history of science, some importance has been ascribed to a type of esoteric lore known as Hermeticism, originating in the gnostic mystery religions of the 2nd–3rd centuries. Like most such doctrines, Hermeticism claims a far greater antiquity, back in the beginnings of civilization, as its sacred writings were attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly an Egyptian high priest living about a century after Moses. They present an optimistic view of mankind, at least in potential, envisaging the human mind as a mirror reflecting the whole of creation. As a microcosm of the world, the truly wise man can understand the world; and by his mental grasp of its secret principles control it. Hermetic texts describe magical techniques for communicating with astral deities, or directing their influence. The Hermetic cult could in particular be linked to the solar worship of late Roman times.

“ These teachings submerged with the rise of Christianity but were preserved in certain Byzantine circles. In the 15th and 16th centuries those who looked for a new syncretic religion which might replace Christianity and Islam hoped for enlightenment from Hermeticism as a major element of the Ancient Theology (prisca theologia). Among them were Bruno (1548–1600) and Campanella (1568–1639). To most these doctrines rather supported Christianity by extending the boundaries of its revealed truths. The Hermetic writings were translated into Latin by Marsilio Ficino (1433–94) c1460. By 1500, they had become associated with the Cabbalah, similarly an esoteric doctrine with gnostic roots, laying claim to great antiquity. From then on, Hermetic ideals were quite popular, although often seen as not truly orthodox. The idea of a comprehension of the cosmos through the mastery and decoding of its occult properties, encouraged Renaissance thinkers to believe the world potentially intelligible. The solar mystique may have also helped Copernicus (1473–1543) and Kepler (1571–1630) and even Newton (1642–1727), to maintain that their cosmology was even more ancient and so worthy of respect, than that of Aristotle (384–322 BC). However, in 1614, Casaubon (1559–1614) proved that the Hermetic writings were not earlier than the 2nd century AD. By c1700, this was generally accepted, and since then the influence of Hermeticism has been confined to the theosophical fringe of religion.Closing quotation mark

: : : : :

SOURCE:  Alexander G. Keller, “Hermeticism.” In Dictionary of the History of Science. Edited by W. F. Bynum, E. J. Browne, and Roy Porter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981. 184–5.

Ornamental border from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)


go to TOP of page

go up a level: IN BRIEF page