Sympathies Influences and Causes

Let us now try to assess the possible status of the doctrine of sympathies and influences in the general frame of contemporary science. The mechanistic conception, even when it accepted chance and irreversibility, only considered individual processes one at a time; it had the truth of a description of the Adagio of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony considering one melodic line and one instrument at a time. It grasped something of reality and of its structure, but it missed, as it were, the orchestra and the harmony: that is why it was incapable not only of explaining (we are still to some extent in the same quandary), but of admitting that an explanation was needed of the fact that certain instruments would play together all of the time, others would be heard only for short periods, and

14. M. Mersenne, Quaestiones in Genesim (Paris: Cramoisy, 1623).

the drums would mark by soft, isolated beats the presence of a mysterious power timidly but gratefully accepting the joy of the great company. For similar interplays of events and processes in nature mechanism could only invent a general pseudo-cause, namely chance, to conceal as it were its limitation to chains of efficient causes. Truly enough, the first violin, the bassoon, the cellos know from the score when and what they have to play, and that is all they need; but the composer felt, so to speak, that he had no choice, that those were the time and the theme and the instrument required by the symphony taking shape in his mind.

As mentioned in chapter one and above in connection with the Mersenne-Fludd dispute, the relations on which astrology and magic were based were correspondences, similarities, affinities, influences, sympathies involving objects or entities as disparate in nature as words, numbers, metals, and stars. Their origin is actually ancient and noble, for they can be traced back to the associations between words and things typical of the Ancient Testament and to the Pythagorean and Platonic belief in the significance of numbers and geometrical figures. Under the Roman Empire, in the Greek-speaking part of the Empire, those two traditions melted together, and gave the fascinating analogical interpretation of the Ancient Testament by Philo of Alexandria and the famous treatises of Hermes Trismegistos, on which we shall pause in next chapter. The basic idea is well illustrated by music: since a piece of music has a profound emotional effect on us, there must be something in common between it and us; since a metal string can be made to emit certain musical notes, there must be something in common between it and music; since the musical notes have frequencies that stand in simple ratios, they must have something in common with numbers; and so on. Indeed, by a sort of transitive property, one could claim that if numbers are the foundation of music, and if music influences the mood of human beings and animals, then numbers can influence human beings and animals. A similar argument served to justify astrology: since the constellations have different positions in the sky in different seasons, and since the rhythms of life follow the seasons, then the constellations, indeed even single "stars" (the planets) influence events and things on the earth. A theoretical foundation of a sort was thus given for the so-called "influences," particularly of the stars. By the same token, since widely different objects or processes could appear to be subject to the same influences, one could speak of "sympathy" (which, as mentioned in chapter one, is the Greek word ou|ift66eia, "undergoing together"), meaning what we said about correspondences, that objects in correspondence, particularly similar ones, have as it were a parallel evolution or history.

Several treatises on the "science" of sympathies and correspondences explicitly included in a theory of the harmony of the world were bequeathed to us by the intellectual melting pot that was the seventeenth century. A concrete example of the kind of considerations made in them is provided by the work of Athanasius Kircher, on which we are now going to pause.

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