Fludd, Robert (1574–1637)

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Robert Fludd, or Flud, also known as Robertus de Fluctibus, was an English physician, author, and occultist. The son of Sir Thomas Fludd, paymaster to Queen Elizabeth I's forces in France and the Low Countries, Fludd was born at Milgate House, Bearsted, Kent. At the age of seventeen he entered St. John's College, Oxford, then a center of high Anglicanism. After taking his M.A. degree in 1598, Fludd spent some years abroad, studying medicine. On returning to Oxford, he entered Christ Church. He took the degrees of MB and MD in 1605, but had considerable difficulty obtaining from the College of Physicians the right to practice medicine, which was not granted until 1606. It was alleged that he had spoken with contempt of Galen. Nevertheless, he was admitted as a fellow of the College of Physicians in 1609.

As a London doctor Fludd prospered; he was able to provide himself with an amanuensis, to whom he dictated his numerous treatises. His first book, Apologia Compendiaria Fraternitatem de Rosea Cruce (1616), was a defense of the ideas of the "Fraternity of the Rosy Cross." About the origins and character of the Rosicrucian Fraternity there is considerable dispute. Although allegedly introduced into Europe in the fifteenth century, Rosicrucian ideas, in fact, derive from two anonymously published tracts written by the Lutheran theologian Johann Valentin Andreä in the early seventeenth century. These, for motives that are somewhat obscure, purported to be of fifteenth-century origin. Whether, even in the seventeenth century, there actually was a Rosicrucian Society as described by Andreä remains a matter of dispute. But these tracts provided a common point of reference for like-minded occultists.

It is impossible to take Fludd seriously as a philosopher; however, he did give expression to a system of ideas that was very influential in the seventeenth century. This can most succinctly be described as an attempt to uphold allegorical interpretation of the Bible, and the established pseudosciencesastrology, chiromancy, alchemy, and sympathetic magicagainst the scientific spirit.

Fludd attacked scientific inquiry mainly in its Greek form, as represented in Aristotle and Galen, but certainly with an eye on what was happening around him. His point of departure was St. Paul's attack upon philosophers who try to discover the truth by their own efforts rather than by the interpretation of what God has chosen to reveal. Fludd's criticism of science can be summed up in the familiar phrase: "What is true isn't new; what is new isn't true." He argued that so far as science has any truth in it, it teaches doctrines that careful interpretation will reveal in Genesis (Like Henry More, Fludd was greatly influenced by cabalistic writings). For the most part, however, the teachings of science have to be rejected. Fludd attacked Aristotle's meteorological writings, for example, because Aristotle gives a naturalistic account of lightning and thunder; whereas lightning, according to Fludd, "is a fire burning from the face and presence of Jehovah."

Yet, strangely enough, there is a good deal of contemporary science incorporated into Fludd's work. His contemporaries, he complained, demanded "ocular demonstrations" of divine truths and he used the thermometerthe invention of which is sometimes ascribed to himand the lodestone for that purpose. Like many of his fellow occultists, Fludd had a passion for diagrams, and some of his optical diagrams remained in physics textbooks up to the twentieth century.

His general approach, however, is cosmogonical, in the manner of the mythmaker, rather than cosmological, in the manner of the scientist. His ideas are most fully presented in Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris Scilicet et Minoris, Metaphysica, Physica atque Technica Historia (An account, metaphysical, physical, and technical, of both worlds, greater and lesser), which was published as a series of volumes from 1617 to 1621, and was even then left unfinished. Fludd makes great play with the general concepts of light (heat) and darkness (cold)hence his interest in optics; rarefaction and condensationhence the thermometer; sympathy and antipathyhence the lodestone. His theory can be described in this way: in the beginning God created a void by withdrawing into himself (contraction), and the void appeared as darkness because God is light. Expanding again as light into the void, God created all the substances of the world. Thus, the world we live in is ruled partly by light (God) and partly by darkness (the kingdom of the devil). Since everything is of the same naturethat is, a mixture of light and darknessthere are secret sympathies and secret antipathies everywhere, marked by signs that the adept can discover with God's help. The practice of medicine depends entirely on understanding these forces, as do the practices of chiromancy and astrology.

Fludd's works were published in Latin, and circulated on the Continent, where they attracted a considerable amount of attention. In 1623 Marin Mersenne attacked Fludd as an "evil magician"; and when Fludd replied, Pierre Gassendi, at Mersenne's request, criticized his occultism at length. Fludd also engaged in controversy with Johannes Kepler, who had criticized Fludd in the appendix to his Harmonice Mundi (1619).

See also Aristotle; Cosmology; Galen; Gassendi, Pierre; Kabbalah; Kepler, Johannes; Mersenne, Marin; More, Henry; Philosophy of Medicine.


Fludd's works were brought together as Opera (Gouda, 1638); Philosophia Moysaica appeared posthumously in an English versionFludd's ownin London (1659); his short alchemical essay "Truth's Golden Harrow" was published in Ambix, Vol. III, Nos. 3 and 4 (April 1949), 91150, with an introduction by C. H. Josten.

James Brown Craven, in Doctor Robert Fludd, the English Rosicrucian (Kirkwell, U.K., 1902) summarizes Fludd's works enthusiastically, but without much insight. Craven's book includes details of the FluddMersenneGassendi controversy.

Other writings on Fludd include Serge Hutin, Robert Fludd: Le Rosicrucien (Paris, 1953) with a bibliography; Walter Pagel, "Religious Motives in the Medical Biology of the Seventeenth-Century," in Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine 3 (4) (1935): 265312; Robert Theodore Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, Vol. XI (Oxford, 1937); Sherwood Taylor, "The Origins of the Thermometer," in Annals of Science 5 (2) (December 1942): 129156; Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vols. VII and VIII (New York: Macmillan, 1958). See also Denis Saurat, Milton: Man and Thinker (London: Dent, 1944), Ch. 3, pp. 248267.

John Passmore (1967)