Academic Study as A Form Of Necromancy

The Oxford English Dictionary defines necromancy as ‘the art of predicting the future by supposed communication with the dead; (more generally) divination, sorcery witchcraft, enchantment’.  If we drop the second part of the definition and focus only on the strict sense of the word, then all academic study can be described as a kind of necromancy.  In the OED entry J.C. Hare and A.W. Hare are quoted as saying ‘Much of this worlds wisdom is still acquired by necromancy, by consulting the oracular dead’.  When we seek to understand something we look to the work of those who have gone before us.  In many fields, like economics and climatology an accurate understanding of historical events, as seen by the dead, is essential in order to predict the future.  Our legal systems are entirely based upon the idea of precedents, many of which date back hundreds of years.

When viewed in this way Faustus we can see that has been practicing this form of necromancy while at Wittenberg. In is soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 1 he names the oracular dead that he has consulted; Aristotle for philosophy; Galen for medicine; Justinian for law; Jerome for Religion. Unfortunately for Faustus he is not satisfied to tread in the footsteps of these oracular dead but, instead, wants to walk amongst the Gods. In Act 1.1 he says;

‘Are not thy bills hung up as monuments,
Whereby whole cities have escaped the plague,
And thousand desperate maladies been eased?
Yet are thou still but Faustus, and a man
Couldst thou make men to live eternally
Or, being dead, raise them to life again,
Then this profession were to be esteemed’ (20-26)

Faustus wants to know what God knows. He wants the power of creation, to reshape the world in his own image and rule over it;

‘By him I’ll be great emperor of the world
And make a bridge through the moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore
And Make that land continent to Spain
And both contributory to my crown
The emperor shall not live but by my leave
Nor any potentate of Germany (Act 1.4 104-112)

This is, of course forbidden knowledge. God is very jealous of his power. Not even Lucifer himself can make the dead rise or redefine creation. In studying at Wittenberg it appears that Faustus didn’t pay enough attention to his lessons in theology or he might have benefited more from the story of Adam and Eve and The Fall. As Milton wrote in 1667, half a century after the play was published, but when the thirst for new knowledge was still viewed as potentially heretical;

Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid,
Leave them to God above, Him serve and fear;
Heav’n is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise:
Think only what concerns thee and by being
Dream not of other worlds, what creatures there
Live, in what state, condition or degree
Contented that thus far hath been revealed
Not of earth only but of highest Heav’n (Book VIII, 167-173)

What wisdom can we gain from our study of this play and other works like it? Is our reach as a civilization about to exceed our grasp?

Works Cited

Marlowe, Christoper. “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus”. Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. John Leonard. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print

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3 Responses to Academic Study as A Form Of Necromancy

  1. jenniferbist says:

    Hi,
    It was interesting that you brought up the definition of the word “necromancy”, and I also liked how you related this idea of “speaking to the dead” with the idea that all knowledge is really from those before us. I had not thought of this before, but knowledge pretty much expands upon itself, and without the “dead”, or “communicating” with the past, I suppose it would be rather difficult to progress anywhere at all in society. You need the ideas of others, to share with the previous, and to explore the unknown in order to advance to the future.
    With this idea, then…the question becomes, how far should you go with advancing? If society likes to play off other ideas in order to “grow”, then should you ever stop growing, or should you stay stuck in the past in “Aristotle’s works”? You said that Faustus’s knowledge was “forbidden”, but how so in learning new things? And is studying magic no different than studying/learning anything else in life? With Dr. Faustus, he merely got tired of the same old things; he seeks to attain more than a man by learning something he wasn’t “supposed to, magic to become like a God. The interesting question to this is that… if this magic/God-like abilities was supposedly capable of being used by a man… was it still “off-limits” by man? Faustus was driven by desire and ambition, but how shall we know when going too far is going “too far” in pursuits of knowing about the world? (of course, conversing with Devils is probably a bad idea though lol). It’s probably a relevant question to scientific research today, playing with “nature”, playing “God” with animals and genetics. Should we blame Faustus for going beyond the bounds of his body/mind, then, beyond what human nature said his boundaries to be? When does our searching for new ways to view the world become something of “black magic”, or something “bad”?

    This also could also be relevant to the story of Adam and Eve, like you said, and Faustus perhaps should have listened to the tale more. But maybe humans in general, by nature wish to seek “more” than what’s in front of us. Humans, perhaps, have always desired to be “more than man”, not just Dr. Faustus. His story is interesting, then, to see where his ambitions will take him. Anyways, that’s all my questions/thoughts… good work on your post too.

  2. murtaza says:

    Very interesting and close interpretation of necromancy, I was only thinking of necromancy in the sense that we bring those who have passed on back to life with the context of their lives and what they knew at their time. A few times you mention (in quotes) the oracular dead, and I found that interesting how in some manner or another, those who have passed have some greater understanding–whether that is in the afterlife or simply that hindsight is 20/20. Either way it feeds Faustus’s need for knowledge without the unfortunate end.
    Mirroring that to us, we do essentially the same thing. We read or hear warnings about different products being harmful and we reap the benefit of the knowledge without the hazard.
    This is where we get into the “to what extent” question.
    Jennifer brings up the point about what is considered ‘bad’ knowledge and immediately I was imagining controversial science, like cloning (Dolly was the sheep, I believe?) and how directly that is a form of necromancy!

    It would be curious to think how Marlowe would react to such advances. Furthermore, how greatly, (if at all) the idea of morality changes in a secular setting? From a scientific standpoint, the idea of playing God changes drastically. From a scientific viewpoint, Doctor Faustus’s hunger for knowledge would be quite justified. Getting into the details of the story, when it comes to the demons and such it would get messy, but it got me thinking about what a modern-day Doctor Faustus, from a sci-fi perspective would look like.

  3. teresastapor says:

    It is a very interesting idea that “Academic Study as a form of Necromancy.” Is it not though? Even has we study Christopher Marlowe’s play we are studying essentially the dead. Looking for further knowledge and expanding our horizons. The search for new meaning and expanding our worldviews from studying past history is really our goal. But why? Do we get a more enlighten view for studying the past and not focusing on the here and now? Maybe Faustus was on to something. (Maybe not the summoning up the devil part)
    My question is; is Dr. Faustus searching for knowledge or power? This is where my internal debate of power over knowledge and vice verse takes place as we read Dr. Faustus. There is a saying that says, “ Knowledge is power”, and if Dr. Faustus had academic knowledge, then why make a deal with the devil? Was it to get ultimate power or ultimate knowledge from the Devine? Why did he choose the devil over God?

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