December 06, 2008

Harvard Should Consult Its Magic Books

Last week the media was full of news about Harvard losing a big chunk of its endowment due to the recession. Some writers were gloating, while others were concerned about possible layoffs among the Harvard staff. I definitely have sympathy for the Harvard staff, since I work at a university myself.

I guess the money managers at Harvard didn't consult the stars for guidance, the way some earlier Harvard staff might have.

According to D. Michael Quinn, author of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, divination and practices we now consider "occult" were a standard part of the curriculum at New England colleges before the 19th century. Harvard students learned how to use astrology as part of their medical training, and a working knowledge of astrology was crucial for anyone getting a BA or Master's degree. Harvard students wrote theses on astrology and alchemy as late as 1771, and many Harvard student continued practicing alchemy into the 1800's.

Not to be left out of the Ivy League magic, students at Yale studied astrology and alchemy as well, and Yale's president Ezra Stiles experimented with alchemy and studied the Cabala.

Three interesting points here:

1. Yale and Harvard were founded to train Christian ministers, but the faculty clearly saw no conflict between the occult and Christianity. How times have changed!

2. Pundits like Harold Bloom have complained that universities no longer teach students canonical works. Does this mean faculty should start teaching Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy again?

3.Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is a great and very informative book, with lots of detail about how occult practices were woven into the everyday lives of early Americans. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was born in Vermont and D. Michael Quinn shows how some of Smith's religious practices were influenced (or even identical to) magical practices in New England and New York. I think this book is one of the reasons Quinn was kicked out of the Mormon Church.

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