Magic, Medicine and Science

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This course examines the metaphysical and epistemological origins of three systems of thought – the organic, the magical, and the mechanical – and considers the extent to which modern science can be seen as arising from their synthesis.  Topics include Plato and neoplatonism; Aristotle's cosmology; the Hermetic Corpus; the Renaissance magic of Ficino and Pico; Galen and Paracelsus on the metaphysics of disease; magic and medicine in Elizabethan England; hermetic influences on Copernicus and Kepler; Descartes and the rise of the mechanical philosophy; and finally, neoplatonic and hermetic influences on Newton.

II.  Texts
A.  At Bookstore:

  • Cohen, I. B. (1985) The Birth of a New Physics, Norton.
  • Kassell, L. (2007) Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London:  Simon Forman:  Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician, Oxford University Press.

B.  Online:

C.  Supplemental material for papers:

  • Copenhaver, B. (1986) "Renaissance Magic and Neoplatonic Philosophy:  Ennead 4.3-5 in Ficino’s De vita coelitus comparanda"in G. Garfagnini (ed.) Marsilio Ficino e il ritorno di Platone, Florence, pp. 351-369.
  • Farmer, S. A. (1998)  Syncretism in the West:  Pico’s 900 Theses (1486), MRTS, pp. 115 - 132.
  • Munitz, M. (ed) (1957) Theories of the Universe, MacMillan.  Selections from:  PtolemyThe AlmagestCopernicusOn the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.
  • Walzer, R. and M. Frede (eds.) (1985)Three Treatises on the Nature of Science, Hackett (excerpt).
  • Westfall, R. (1984) "Newton and Alchemy", in B. Vickers (ed.) Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, Cambridge:  Cambridge Univ. Press, 315-335.

III. Course Requirements

1. Attendance is mandatory.  A sign-in sheet will be passed out at the beginning of each lecture.  If you feel that you will not be able to attend all lectures, please do not enroll in this class.
2. Two papers of 5-7 pages.  Suggested topics will be provided at least 2 weeks before due dates.
(a)  All papers must conform to writing guidelines handed out and discussed on the first day of class. 
(b)  Late paper policy:   Late papers will be given an initial penalty of a third of a grade point, and a further penalty of a third of a grade point for every period of 4 days after the due date.  Example:  An A paper turned in one day late will receive an A-; an A paper turned in 4 days late will receive a B+; an A paper turned in 8 days late will receive a B; etc Late papers will not be accepted after the date of the final.
3. Six quizzes will be given at the beginning of class on the dates listed below.  These will consist of 3 questions from the study guide quesitons.  You will have 15 minutes to complete them.  The best 5 of 6 quiz grades will count toward your total quiz grade.
4. One midterm and one final will be given.  They will consist of short answer questions and short essay questions.

IV.  Grade Distribution

Quizzes: 20% total
Papers: 40% total     (2 @20%)
Midterm: 20%
Final: 20%


V.  Reminders on University Policies

1. Incompletes.  It is university and TCS departmental policy that incompletes can be given only in very extenuating circumstances (medical emergencies, etc.).  In particular, an incomplete cannot be given because of a heavy course load, job commitments, or because you've simply fallen behind in the course.  For this reason, you should attend every lecture and make sure you're aware of assignment deadlines and exam dates.  If for whatever reason you find yourself falling behind during the semester, do not hesitate to see the instructor as soon as possible.
2. University Honor System.  All students should be aware of the university policy on cheating and plagiarism.  Cheating on an exam, or plagiarizing on an essay assignment, are sufficient reasons for receiving an F in the course
3. Moses Statement.  If you are student with a disability who is requesting accommodations, please contact New York University’s Moses Center for Students with Disabilities at 212-998-4980 or  You must be registered with CSD to receive accommoda-tions. Information about the Moses Center can be found at The Moses Center is located at 726 Broadway, 2nd floor.

VI.  Class Schedule 
The following schedule may be subject to revision over the course of the semester.  Reading assignments must be completed by the date on which they appear.

1 Mon 1/22  Introduction.
Background:  Kearny (1971) 17-48.
Weds 1/24  Plato.
Lindberg (2007) 21-44.  Timaeus excerpts.
2 1/29  Aristotle.
Lindberg (2007) 45-66.
1/31  Aristotle, cont.
On the Heavens, Metaphysics excerpts.  Q1
3 2/5  Plotinus.
Enneads excerpts.
2/7  The Hermetic Corpus and Magic.
Yates (1964) 1-43.  Copenhaver (1992) 1-7; 67-92.
4 2/12  Ficino:  Natural Magic and Cosmic Medicine.
Yates (1964) 44-83; Kaske and Clark (1998).
2/14  Pico:  Supernatural Magic and the Cabbala.  
Yates (1964) 84-116.  Q2
5 2/19
No Class (Presidents' Day)
2/21  Galen:  The Four Humor Theory of Disease.
Kearney (1971) 114-125.  Paper1
6 2/26
No Class (Prof out of town)
No Class (Prof out of town)
7 3/5  Paracelsus:  The Ontic Theory of Disease.
Pagel (1960).
8 3/12
9 3/19  Paracelsus and the Chemical Philosophy.
Debus (1978) 16-33.
3/21  Forman:  The Making of an Astrologer-Physician.  
Kassell (2007) Chaps 1-3.  Q3
10 3/26  Plague and the College of Physicians of London.
Kassell (2007) Chaps 4-5.
No Class (Prof out of town)
11 4/2  Forman:  The Casebooks.
Kassell (2007) Chaps 6-7.
4/4  Alchemy, Magic, and Medicine.
Kassell (2007) Chaps 8-10; Conclusion.  Q4
12 4/9  Two World Views:  Ptolemy and Copernicus.
Kearney (1971) 96-104; Cohen (1985) 24-52.
4/11  Galileo and the Telescope.  
Cohen (1985) 53-80.
Descartes, cont. 
13 4/16  Galileo and Aristotle on Motion.
Cohen (1985) 2-24; 81-126.
4/18  Kepler and Neoplatonism.
Kearney (1971) 130-140; Cohen (1985) 127-147.  Q5
14 4/23  Descartes and The Mechanical Philosophy.
Westfall (1977) 25-42.
4/25    Biology and the Mechanical Philosophy.
Westfall (1977) 82-104.  Paper2
15 4/30  The Cambridge Platonists.
Koyre (1957) 110-154.
5/2  Newton and Ancient Wisdom.  
McGuire & Rattansi (1966).  Q6
16 5/7  The Newtonian Synthesis.
Cohen (1985) 164-184.
Author:Rev. JP Vanir
Published:Jul 31st
Modified:Jul 31st

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