By the time the impact of the Renaissance had reached England, its diverse trends had been elaborated into divergent and sometimes extreme forms. The Renaissance doctrine of human dignity was rooted in the classical conception of the soul as the individuating principle of human identity, whose powers are precisely commensurate with the complex forces of Nature. This alchemical standpoint, rich in implications for human freedom, responsibility and potential, sufficiently threatened the church's conception of salvation through vicarious atonement to challenge its influence. The resulting combination of persecution and indulgence (for a fee) intensified long-standing resistance, resulting in the Protestant Reformation. However, doctrinal and political warfare left little room for tolerance and civility in any country or region vitiated by intense religious polemic. Protestants hunted heretics and desecrated sacred property as zealously as did the Inquisition by replacing pretensions to ultimate spiritual and social authority with claims to direct revelation and a self-righteousness which spurned the convictions of others.
These religio-political tensions ran counter to the essential spirit of the Renaissance and forced it into two broad and often intertwined streams. The one stream, taking its inspiration from Petrarch, avoided challenging church doctrine or politics by centering attention upon rhetoric and literary style. While cultivating elegant and fervent expression, they largely disregarded content. The fountainhead of the second stream sprang from Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino and extended the corollaries of ancient Greek and neo-Platonic thought. Within this humane perspective, individual dignity implied the power of self-transformation. Since soul-powers correspond to the intelligent powers of Nature, both magic and alchemy represented the arts of self-initiated change. The first stream flowed into the English universities during the Tudor period, but the second stream found its outlets in men of exceptional genius such as John Dee and Robert Fludd.
After Henry VII ascended the throne, great numbers of Welshmen migrated to England. Rowland Dee, one of their descendants, married Johanna Wilde and eventually became a gentleman server to Henry VIII. Their son, John Dee, who could claim ultimate descent from Roderick the Great, Prince of Wales and distant relation to Elizabeth I, was born on July 13, 1527, in London. Having received a sound education, in 1542 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, where he studied Greek under Sir John Cheke. While this renowned scholar taught classical languages and philology, he also pursued his interests in mathematics, and his student followed him with enthusiasm. Years later Dee wrote of this period:
When Dee received his bachelor's degree in 1545, he was immediately made a Fellow of St. John's. The following year Henry VIII founded Trinity College, and in 1547 Dee became one of its first Fellows. Even while studying Greek, his early and lasting interest in engineering was stimulated by his admiration for Hellenistic mechanical marvels. For a college production of a play by Aristophanes, Dee designed a mechanical flying scarab which swept an actor from the stage to an unseen Olympian heaven beyond the proscenium. The dramatic movement, effected by silent cogs and invisible wires, stunned the audience and fostered rumours of foul magic.
Dee's thirst for mathematical knowledge could not be met in a university atmosphere wherein mathematics was considered a common craftsman's business at best and demon-mongering and conjuring at worst. In 1547 he left for the Continent to seek out scholars and mathematicians. He met Gemma Frisius and Gerard Mercator, whose maps and navigational devices he acquired, and he encountered the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. Returning to Trinity College briefly to receive the Master of Arts degree, he soon journeyed to Louvain to continue his studies. Although he enrolled in civil law "for recreation" and later earned a license in that field, he wrote a work in twenty-four books called Mercurius Coelestis, which has since been lost. His interest in Hermetic philosophy and mathematics did not prevent him from visiting Antwerp to meet Abraham Ortelius, the mapmaker. While at Louvain, Dee accepted students for private studies, a practice he would follow for several decades. By the time he left to lecture at Rhemes College in Paris in 1550, he was internationally known. At Paris he delivered public discourses on Euclid's Elements from mathematical, physical and Pythagorean perspectives. His broad and educated audience was electrified by his exposition and by several original proofs and corollaries he added to Euclid. He was invited to become the French king's reader in mathematics, but he rejected the honour just as he would turn down similar offers from the emperors Charles V, Ferdinand, Rudolph II, Maximilian and from the czar of Russia.
When Dee returned to England, he refused to reside at any of the universities. Distrust of mathematics and preference for rhetorical studies over logic and philosophy provided an atmosphere that Dee found inimical to his intense intellect. When several faculty members offered him a stipend for teaching mathematics at Oxford, he rejected it on the ground that such sub rosa posts only confirmed the conviction that the subject did not deserve regular study. He was not, however, averse to teaching nobility. In 1551 he cast the horoscope of Edward VI and taught the young king astronomy. During this period he served the head of government, the stern and powerful Duke of Northumberland, and his children, including Robert Dudley, whom Elizabeth would eventually honour and make the Earl of Leicester. Later Dee taught chemistry – including alchemy and Pythagorean mathematics – to the Earl's relatives, Sir Philip Sidney and his family.
Queen Mary, though a Catholic and opposed to anything that suggested magic, also sought a horoscope from Dee. Perhaps as a consequence of acceding to this request amidst political and religious turmoil, he was imprisoned for a short time on charges of "calculing and conjuring" in 1555, but his generally good relations with royalty, regardless of religious leanings, led to his acquittal. In 1563 the staunch Calvinist, John Foxe, published his Acts and Monuments, in which he labelled Dee "the great Conjuror", a slander that haunted him for years because Foxe's book was placed in every English church and was widely read. Though his reputation was irrevocably damaged in the popular mind, eventually Dee felt strong enough to go to court and have the offending passage excised from later editions. Despite detrimental gossip, he was invited to cast the horoscope of Elizabeth I and to determine the most auspicious day for her coronation. During Mary's reign, Dee had grown alarmed at the destruction of books and manuscripts – and sometimes whole libraries – in the expropriation of English monasteries and ongoing religious struggles. He suggested the creation of a royal library and offered to search out manuscripts for it. The plan came to nothing and Dee resolved to undertake the project privately.
Throughout this period Dee was preoccupied with the practical benefits of his studies. While his compatriots looked for a mythical Northwest Passage to Cathay and India, Dee turned his attention to the possibility of a Northeast Passage. He provided maps and projected routes for the newly chartered Muscovy Company, trained its captains in the latest navigational techniques and even invested some of his own resources in the venture. His private maritime academy attracted seamen and explorers from all over Europe, and although the Muscovy Company could not penetrate beyond Novaya Zemlya, its profitable trade with the Russians confirmed the wisdom of Dee's advice and established him as an authority in cartography and global exploration. The British fleet which first rose to prominence under Elizabeth I owed its impressive beginnings to plans he devised. A man of boundless energy, Dee also made contributions to architecture and enhanced stagecraft, and gave a firm foundation to English antiquarian studies. He drafted royal geological claims for Elizabeth, basing them on his conception of King Arthur's conquests. In 1582 he presented plans for a revised calendar, very similar to the Gregorian calendar proclaimed in Rome, but even though Elizabeth drafted a proclamation to adopt the reform, English clergy scuttled it by objecting to anything that appeared to imitate or follow the lead of the papacy.
Sometime before 1570 Dee settled in his mother's old house at Mortlake. Located near the Thames and close to the London court of the queen, it provided solitude for his work while providing him with access to the royal centre of activity. He expanded the house to contain his enormous library and three separate laboratories of expensive equipment for chemical and alchemical experiments. By 1580 his library housed three thousand volumes and over a thousand manuscripts. At this time, the university library at Oxford contained less than five hundred volumes. A survey of Dee's holdings shows that he was a student of all the arts and sciences. He had the complete works of Plato and Aristotle as well as a large collection of Stoic, Epicurean, neo-Platonic and Renaissance writings. The ancient poets and playwrights were represented as well as the latest works in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. He collected a vast number of manuscripts on medieval philosophy and science and all the material he could find on magic and Hermetic thought. Despite the fact that he found Protestant theologians dogmatic and self-righteous, he collected Luther's works along with those of the Calvinists and placed them with Augustine, Lactantius, Boethius, Ramón Lull, Nicholas of Cusa and Erasmus. He possessed Hebrew manuscripts on the Kabbalah and a copy of the Qu'ran.
In addition to supporting science, which he pursued in the spirit of Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, he cherished a lifelong belief that sufficient understanding would demonstrate that all religions and philosophies have been erected upon one underlying body of unchanging truth that primordially presented itself to human consciousness as love and its correlate tolerance. He hoped to contribute to a universal religion and a universal church whose doctrine was self-transformation through theurgic self-transcendence and whose practice aimed at unconditional love. Though his dream remained unrealized, he provided an open centre for scholars from all over the European world (including Russia), and on several occasions he was host at Mortlake to Elizabeth and her entire court. He modelled his home on Ficino's Florentine Academy, and students who had the privilege of frequenting it were doubly rewarded, learning reverence for ancient and modern philosophy and science, and partaking of a vision of the universal inheritance of mankind.
From his early days as a wandering student and scholar, Dee showed an abiding interest in Hermetic and neo-Platonic magic, the Renaissance Kabbalah and Paracelsian medicine. His conviction that true magic leads invariably to self-transformation and eventually to regeneration of the whole world impelled him to confront experimentally the denizens of the terrestrial, astral and celestial realms. Knowing full well that the prerequisite of practical magic is purity of mind and heart, Dee waited until he was certain that he possessed these qualities. Unfortunately, his inability to see anything in the excellent crystals he owned compelled him to seek out a skryer and he fell in with Edward Kelley. Whilst Kelley seems to have been capable of peering into the astral light, he suffered from psychic disabilities common to most mediums, including an inability to distinguish between classes of elementals and levels of astral perception, as well as a tendency to exaggerate, invert and fantasize. Although Dee's personal purity of motive protected him from harm, it does not seem that his extensive experiments were productive. In September 1583 Dee left with Kelley for the Continent, and they travelled to Poland on the invitation of Prince Albertus Laski. Shortly after his departure, a superstitious mob broke into Mortlake, destroying Dee's laboratories and damaging his library. In Europe, Dee continued for six years his attempts to communicate with the creative and intelligent forces of Nature. Whilst he kept an accurate diary of conversations held with alleged angels through the medium of Kelley, and though he enjoyed the protection and favour of Rudolph II and Count Rosenberg of Bohemia, his efforts to understand the invisible forces of Nature came to naught. Eventually he parted company with Kelley and returned to England in December 1589. Kelley stayed behind and got himself knighted by the emperor, only to be imprisoned subsequently and to die in an attempt to escape.
Although Dee had returned to England at the command of Elizabeth, he was largely neglected. Old friends, once powerful in the court, had died or hesitated to acknowledge him because of his magical practices. Whilst he managed to recover most of his plundered library, he did not have the money to restore his laboratories. In 1596 Elizabeth made him Warden of Christ College in Manchester, but the faculty there viewed him with suspicion and hostility. When James I ascended the throne in 1603, Dee was openly accused of dark practices. He felt compelled to resign his wardenship in 1605 and even wrote an appeal to the king asking to be put on trial for charges of heresy and black magic. Given the intolerance of the times, his impeccable integrity once again saved him: the king refused to hold the requested trial. Though this act prevented the possibility of formal charges being brought against him, it did nothing to temper negative opinions in the popular mind. Dee died penniless but peacefully in December 1608, having witnessed the death of his wife shortly before.
The enormity of Dee's contributions to the Elizabethan Age was ignored for centuries. When in 1659 Meric Casaubon published Dee's diaries concerning communications with angels, he hoped to destroy utterly the credibility of magical studies and the value of Dee's lifelong work, and he succeeded halfway. The central role Dee played in bringing mathematics and the means for naval superiority to England was forgotten, his importance as advisor to Elizabeth I dismissed, his pioneering work in archaeology and antiquarian studies overlooked, the impetus he gave to the Rosicrucian movement ignored, and the foundation he laid for the Royal Society denied. Even today, his interest in drama and his influence on the Sidney Circle and on philosophy and letters in general have yet to be fully explored. Neither the partisan Casaubon nor biased history, however, could destroy Dee's writings. Dee wrote very little for a Renaissance polymath, but his publications testify to the remarkable breadth and depth of his thinking.
In 1558 Dee printed Propaedeumata Aphoristica (An Apboristic Introduction) and dedicated it to Mercator with the motto: "Qui non intelliget, aut taceat aut discat", "Let him who does not understand either be silent or learn." Convinced that the cosmos is both constructed and understood according to number, Dee combined the best mathematics of his time with a critical review of astrology in an attempt to put the dual science of astronomy-astrology on a new foundation. Suggesting an intimate connection between optics (the propagation, magnification and reflection of light) and harmonics (the Pythagorean science of proportion), Dee argued that astrological influences could be used therapeutically by the wise. Although the planets ceaselessly radiate their influences upon the earth, the power and nature of those influences depend upon changing relationships between the planets and upon the medium on which their rays fall. From a practical standpoint, this meant for Dee that precise knowledge of the occult properties of substances, conjunctions in the heavens and the use of parabolic mirrors for focussing and concentrating rays allows the magician to alter physical and psychic states in human beings and thereby to affect the movements of Nature. From a theoretical standpoint, Dee recognized that the size, motion and distance of planets are relevant to their effects at any given time. He showed that, in all, some twenty-five thousand distinct conjunctions are possible, and since this large number prohibited empirical investigation of every possible effect resulting from them, he pointed to a Pythagorean understanding of geometry and arithmetic as a key to solving all combinations. For Dee, "vulgar astrology" was as morally demeaning as it was false. Astrology is an aspect of mathematics, itself a branch of philosophy, the art of right living. Since the sun is both the physical source of light and life and a symbol of manifest Deity, whilst the earth is the focus of celestial influences, the heliocentric theory of Copernicus has great metaphysical value and the geocentric standpoint of Ptolemy is useful astrologically. Dee saw no conflict between these views, for they were concerned with quite different ends, and the discoveries of one could be applied in the elaboration of the other.
Dee studied Sir Henry Billingsly's translation of Euclid's Elements with great care, corrected difficult passages and added annotations and several new proofs. For the 1570 edition he composed a Mathematicall Praeface, which at once declared his view of mathematics as a philosophical science, his reasons for publishing lofty material in the common tongue (rather than the usual Latin) and his original "ground-plot" of the mathematical sciences. Deity manifests and sustains the world through numbering.
For Dee mathematics divides into arithmetic, which deals with numbers and their properties, and geometry, the science of magnitude. The term 'geometry', however, connotes too much of the earthly, and Dee suggested 'megethologia',
Mathematics is the key to unlocking the mysteries of the three worlds – terrestrial, astral and celestial – and the basis for astrology and astronomy, for anthropography (the mathematical analysis of man) and statics (the analysis of motion and inertia), as well as for all the theoretical, experimental and applied sciences. Mathematics provides the correlations of all the forces and forms in man and Nature.
Although his Mathematicall Praeface received recognition in the halls of science from the seventeenth century until the present day, Dee considered his most important work to be the Monas Hieroglyphica (The Hieroglyphic Monad). Dee's conviction that geometry could apply to the human soul as well as to the material world led him to accept the Renaissance view that a properly constructed symbol, when used as a subject of contemplation and meditation, could contain considerable spiritual knowledge and directly affect consciousness. He pondered the elements needed for a perfect symbol of change – the reflection in time of the unchanging Divine – for seven years. Suddenly, in January 1564 he wrote the Monas Hieroglyphica in only thirteen days. The symbol which bears this name, however, had long gestated in his mind and even appeared on the title page of his Aphoristica. Nonetheless, it took another six years before he felt he understood it well enough to expound some of its meaning in veiled language. The Monas Hieroglyphica, sometimes called the Greater Seal of London, is depicted as an inverted egg filled with fluid. The yolk is drawn as a circle with a point at the exact centre. A crescent or arc intersects the upper part of the yolk, whilst a cross is attached below it. On each side of the foot of the cross are two small arcs. For Dee this simple and fascinating figure contained the principles of perfection which, when applied, could turn base metal into gold – physically, psychologically and spiritually.
The cosmos is represented by the "Eagle's Egg", which is not strictly circular when considered from a heliocentric standpoint. Within it are found the great dual forces represented by sun and moon, the former being creative and illuminative, the latter material and reflective. They are conjoined because the solar power cannot create without a medium, and the lunar vehicle cannot be productive without the fructification of the sun. Thus, the solar and lunar hierarchies are mutually interdependent, although the sun is invariably the superior and causative force. The point in the centre of the sun is the point from which all lines and circles derive (since a line cannot be drawn without points), and it is therefore the seed of the unfolded hieroglyph. It is the first and highest manifestation of divine activity, and so it is the One. The cross represents the creative ternary as two lines and their point of intersection. It also represents the material quaternary through four lines radiating from a common centre and producing four right angles which represent the four elements, four directions and four visible kingdoms of Nature (mineral, vegetable, animal and human). The two semicircles below the cross constitute the zodiacal sign Aries, the initial fire sign and the beginning of everything terrestrial. Taken together, these symbols provide a picture of the dynamic structure of Nature on the cosmic and human scales and a means for self-transformation leading to true magic, which is possession of wisdom as an art and a science. By tracing the connecting lines and circles in different ways, one can locate the symbols of the seven sacred planets (Moon, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) and thereby the sevenfold force of invisible Nature. Using these clues, one has as a basis of meditation the necessary principles for the alchemical transmutation of one's nature by reducing it to the prima materia or fluid in the egg and calling it forth in new forms.
John Dee cultivated the mysteries of mathematics and especially megethologia because he looked for the link between the aspirations of the human heart and mind and the principles of Nature. If manifest existence has one ultimate Source, then such principles must exist. Through mathematics Dee hoped to provide the basis for unifying all sciences into one coherent body of knowledge which would include ethics, psychology and the science of spirituality. Mathematics for Dee was not simply a subject to be mastered but rather a way of life to be consummated in the blazing light of Deity. Dee thought that science and mathematics were worth studying for their intrinsic and practical value, but he consecrated his life to them because he was convinced that a true understanding of them would provide the underpinnings of a global religion of love and tolerance, the social correlates of learning and silence. Though he did not see his vision realized, his life bore testimony to its power and the validation of its potential.