The Most Prominent Real-Life Magus of the Renaissance: Doctor Dee

The Most Prominent Real-Life Magus of the Renaissance: Doctor Dee

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The most prominent real-life magus of the Renaissance was Doctor John Dee.

John Dee was an English polymath of the 1500s. Doctor Dee was an accomplished mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, and alchemist.

Dee is one of the most respected Elizabethan scientists. Still, he has been denounced as a quack because he had been actively interested in astrology and alchemy.

Dee’s interest and skill in astrology made him Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer and advisor. This status gave him the ability to build a well-equipped laboratory. There he conducted many scientific experiments. He also pursued alchemy and attempted turning lead into gold and uncovering the philosopher’s stone’s secrets.

Doctor Dee had one of the largest libraries in England in his time. As a political advisor to the Queen, he promoted the founding of English colonies to form a “British Empire,” a term he coined.

He was devoted to alchemy and Hermeticism.

Hermeticism is the esoteric tradition based on the writings of Hermes Trismegistus. These writings have been of great importance since the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Dee eventually left the Queen’s service and went on a quest for knowledge in the deeper realms of the occult and supernatural. He traveled through Europe and was accused of being an English spy.

He returned to discover his home and library vandalized while he was traveling. He returned to the Queen’s service but fell out of favor by her successor James I.

King James I, who the famous Bible version is named after, was highly suspect of magical activities. Doctor Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s advisor, was forced to defend himself and prove that his occult practices were in harmony with the court-sanctioned concepts of the divine. Though Dee succeeded in convincing a tribunal, he died poor and disgraced in 1608. His gravesite is unknown.

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Dr. Dee’s descent into anonymity was just two years before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest with its Magus main character of Prospero. Prospero is modeled on John Dee.

Science and Sorcery

From a 21st-century perspective, Dee’s activities straddle magic and modern science, but the distinction would have meant nothing to him. He was dedicated to science and mathematics. He lectured on Euclidean geometry in Paris while still in his early twenties.

He was a leading expert in navigation and trained many who would conduct England’s discovery voyages.

Along with Henry the Navigator of Portugal, John Dee is one of the most influential people in promoting the Age of Discovery. The age of exploration was a significant factor in the development of European culture.

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While being a towering figure in the advancement of science and technology, he also immersed himself in astrology, and Hermetic philosophy. Doctor Dee was a student of the Renaissance Neo-Platonism of Marsilio Ficino. Dee drew no distinctions between his mathematical research and Hermetic magic investigations.

All his studies were part of his quest for a transcendent comprehension of the visible world’s underlying forms.

The ancient Greek Pythagoreans had maintained that Nature is profoundly mathematical. John Dee followed this tradition. In the century after Dee, Sir Isaac Newton, another devotee of Hermeticism, would make some of the most startling confirmations of this Pythagorean premise.

Dee amassed one of England’s largest and most significant libraries. His scholarly status also took him into Elizabethan politics as an adviser and tutor to Elizabeth I and her ministers Francis Walsingham and William Cecil.

Maybe most importantly, Doctor Dee was the tutor of Sir Philip Sidney.

Sir Philip Sidney was an English poet, courtier, scholar, and soldier who is one of the most prominent figures of the Elizabethan age. His literary works include Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poesy, and The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. He is second only to Shakespeare in English literature.

Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, Seneca tutored Nero, and Doctor Dee tutored Sir Philip Sidney.

If the criterion for being a good tutor is the quality of the student’s achievements, Dee was the most successful of the three.

Sidney became a model of virtue for the next four hundred years. The founding fathers of the United States were all emulators of Sidney. Being familiar with his life and studying his model was part of classical education in the Enlightenment.

Elizabethan courtier, statesman, soldier, poet, and patron of scholars and poets, Sidney was considered the ideal gentleman of his day.

After Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella are considered the finest Elizabethan sonnet cycle. The Defence of Poesie introduced the critical ideas of Renaissance theorists to England.

Here is a list of some of the best Sir Philip Sidney poems from the sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella that everyone should read:

Sonnet 1: ‘Loving in truth’. …

Sonnet 31: ‘With how sad steps’. …

Sonnet 33: ‘I might (unhappy word!), O me, I might’. …

Sonnet 38: ‘This night, while sleep begins with heavy wings’. …

Sonnet 39: ‘Come sleep, O sleep’. …

Sonnet 71: ‘Who will in book of fairest Nature know’.

(Lover’s tip: pick one that resonates with you and handwrite it in a card to your mate. You can thank me later.)

Here is Sonnet 1, where he laments the limits of his ability to write and capture his feelings. He then writes some of the most excellent verse ever composed in the 108 sonnets and 11 songs of Astrophil and Stella. Sonnet 1 is a beautiful, humble, yet powerful conjuring and courting of his Muse.

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burnt brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write!”

It is not what Sir Philip Sidney did but what he was that made him so widely admired in his time and for centuries after. He is the embodiment of the Elizabethan ideal of gentlemanly virtue.

John Dee’s life and achievements represent a crucial inflection point in the development of English culture.

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