Smith and the Wisdom Tradition

Sir Thomas Smith was born during a transition time in English history.  In England, the upsurge of enthusiasm over Art and the Beautiful that characterized the Renaissance in the southern European nations was largely stifled by the Protestant Reformation, already well in operation by the time the Renaissance reached English shores.  Luckily the early English reformers did accept (with reservations) the Renaissance view of life that’s been termed humanism, one that puts the human (not God or Nature or the Devil) at the center.

English humanism was largely due to the great scholar Erasmus Desiderius, whose influence has lasted ever since in the extremely literate nature of English culture.  It was famously said of Luther that he hatched the egg that Erasmus laid, though much to that good man’s sorrow, for the last thing he wanted was to see that great civilizing  monolith, the Church, split over doctrine.  Nevertheless, split it did, and Smith, a dedicated Erasmian, followed the path of change, rising to prominence at both Cambridge and Whitehall on the crest of the wave of reform that would leave English government and society permanently altered.

Mary Dewar subtitled her biography of Smith “A Tudor Intellectual in Office.”  Though apt, the better phrase would have been “A Tudor Humanist in Office,” for Smith was the classic Reformation humanist.  Though too young to have known Erasmus personally, his tutors at Cambridge, John Redman and John Taylor, knew and studied under Erasmus in their youth, while he himself rose to prominence in Queens’ College, where Erasmus resided during his time at Cambridge.  Scholars who followed Erasmus would play an important role in the development of the modern English sensibility, for they saw human nature as essentially good, while those who came later, and who followed Calvin, saw it as essentially sinful.

Smith got in trouble with some of the more belligerent reformers in the Somerset administration who accused him of being “lukewarm” in his religion.  He was, as Mary Dewar says, “intellectually impatient of and bored with theological passion, feeling none of its impulse and disliking it’s results . . .” (38), though she sees only the trouble this neutrality caused, it was helpful during the early days of the Reformation whenseeking a workable compromise between the angry and frightened conservatives and the passionate and intransigent reformers.  While today’s secular culture would applaud Smith’s attitude as the more modern, his religious neutrality was so unusual at that time that we must wonder at its cause, just as Shakespeare scholars still wonder at his.

Had Smith been “lukewarm” in all things, there would be no point in questioning his attitude towards religion, but he could certainly be passionate enough where matters close to his heart were concerned.  In fact, if anything it was his tendency to vent these in the strongest possible terms without concern for the consequences that got him into trouble in his younger years.  Smith certainly  did have opinions on religion, or at least particular points, that he defended strongly.  The 56 titles in the Theology section of his library suggest a strong interest in religious issues.

What Smith did not see was that relatively minor differences of belief should lead men to torture, imprison, and burn each other at the stake.  Where did he get this liberal viewpoint?   The answer is to be found in the titles and authors in his library, and in his gardens and laboratories.  For the scientific-minded, these would indicate a trend towards modern science––astrology leading to astronomy, and distilling towards medicine and chemistry––which is certainly true, for he shared the fascination with the nature of things that lies at the heart of all science.  But this is to impose today’s viewpoint on a time when science had not yet separated itself from philosophy and religion.

In Smith we find traits that are common to many of the writers in his library, whose biographies reveal the same interests in philosophy, plants, animals, geography, the heavens, medicine, mathematics, history, language and grammar.  Over and over, from writers as long ago as the BC era in Greece and Alexandria to the Arabs in the Middle Ages to the writers that Smith collected from the period just before he began teaching, we see the same range of subjects.  A few supernovae like Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen addressed all of them.

Today we call Smith a polymath, meaning he was interested and skilled in many things, but this is a modern category, for the thinkers that Smith admired were all interested and skilled in the same things.  To us today it’s perplexing when we look up some ancient authority on animal husbandry and see that he’s also listed as a poet, a grammarian (writer), and a botanist, but knowledge was not separated into discrete  units then the way it is today.  A “learned” man was knowledgable  in most or all of these things.  In Smith’s time these subjects were all still part of a single tradition, one that’s come down to us (sadly altered) as the Humanities.

During the Renaissance, an interest in this cluster of subjects suggests someone who would be ripe for membership in one of the secret underground  wisdom societies that followed the suppression of the Templars.   In ancient times similar groups had formed to perpetuate what were known as the Mysteries (Dionysian and Eleusinian), probably for the same reason, to keep the knowledge alive during periods of repression by authority.

Organized religion is  always out to surpress the Wisdom Tradition, because those whose eyes are opened in this way realize that the political aspects of dogma are meaningless.  What does God or the Universe care for human politics?  In a society where religion is prevented from seeking political power there’s no need for the mysteries to remain underground.  Today we find them fully revealed in paperback in New Age bookstores, but the messages they try to put in modern terms have always been present, if not in ancient texts than passed along in secret through the various underground wisdom societies.

What was actually happening, not just to Smith but to many thinkers in Europe, was that, much like archeologists, they were rediscovering, mostly without the help of any underground ritual but simply by reading the ancient and medieval texts for themselves, newly published by the great continental printers: Froben in Switzerland, the Estiennes in Paris, and Manutius in Venice, whose life work was to provide seekers with paths to the ageless Wisdom Tradition.

What is it about these particular subjects that beckons to truth-seekers and why does it invariably group these subjects together?  Because as one approaches the truth, all systems tend to meet within the same set of abstract principles.  Thus principles in astrology could be seen to conform to similar principles in music and mathematics, the structure of the body with that of the earth with its poles and equator, the earth with geometry, the relation of the earth to the sun and moon with solid geometry, the seasons of the year, hours of the day, stations in life, colors of the rainbow, intervals in musical scales, ages of man, and so forth, each science relating in some meaningful way with every other, expressing essential truths that can be fully grasped only in music, poetry, and mathematical equations.

Just as all roads lead to Rome, all paths of knowledge (Jnana Yoga) lead to enlightenment (Raja Yoga), which is rarely provided (except though branches labelled “esoteric”) by organized religion.  Over the centuries the Christian Church promoted social order, justice,  and civilization, but, except for a few radical saints, it did not provide enlightenment.  When religion turns to politics, it generally throws the baby of enlightenment  out with the bath of rejected dogma.  When this happens, the truth simply goes underground.  Universal Truth is one baby that won’t stay dead, a possible clue to the meaning of the resurrection scene in the old mummers’ plays.

The Mysteries (Dionysian, Elusinian, Orphic, Bachanalian) that originated in rituals lost in the mists of time ( pre-6th century BC to 300 AD) are the first that we know about where a belief system went underground.  Although we do not know what exactly took place during their secret rites, we can guess that they involved passing along beliefs and knowledge  considered heresy by the political authorities of the day.  That the Mysteries were deplored by the Greek establishment  c.400 BC can be seen in the negative way in which they were portrayed in plays like The Bacchae, keeping in mind that the authorities chose the plays they produced at the (by then, ironically misnamed) Dionysia and other festivals, were largely maintained as a way of selling the public audience on current establishment mores.

During the Dark Ages in Europe, brilliant Arab scientists and inventors in the Middle East began building on knowledge obtained through trade with India and China and on texts saved from early traffic with ancient Egypt and Greece, achieving what may have been the greatest series of breakthroughs in science and technology since Archimedes.  Though they obtained many of the basic ideas from Greece, India, China, and the ancient cultures of northeastern Africa, the great Arab contribution was in refining and combining these ideas, and putting them to new uses.

From their vast quantities of sand and oil, these wizards of the desert refined glassmaking, creating (possibly) lenses with which to see (and name) the myriad stars of the desert as well as vessels strong enough to withstand, not only water, but fire.  Through a process they termed al chemy, these fire-proof glass vessels enabled them to distill wine and grain into al kohl (alcohol), sweet cane juice into al zukar (sugar), potent medicines from vegetable teas, hashish from keef  and something they called “the father of sleep” from poppy.

They refined iron into “Damascus” steel with which they made deadly scimitars.  They spun silk and cotton and even gold into gossamer fine fabrics.  They domesticated the wild orange, grape, olive, and rose, growing them in gardens where fountains fed by underground conduits connected to water tables located deep beneath the desert surface, sprinkled the dry air with dew, gardens that held the desert at bay by thick walls lined with cloistered colonades.  Our word paradise is the Persian word for garden.

Considering the rough lives lived by most Europeans at that time––“poor, nasty, brutish and short”––perhaps we can see more reasons for the Crusades than just the desire to bring Christianity to the Holy Land, and for Richard the Lion-hearted to have preferred life in Southern France and the islands of the Mediterranean to an England still locked in the Dark Ages.  Those who did return brought knowledge of these things, but although they could bring back rose bushes, steel knives, gossamer scarves, folk tales, lutes and songs and a civilizing romance with Courtly Love, they could not bring back the secrets of just how hardened steel, lenses, fireproof glass retorts, perfumes, sheer silks and cottons were made.

The West had been at war with the Middle East ever since Charlemagne, continuing to trade with the East on the sea while, on the land, fighting with it over territory.  But with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1456 and their conquests of Dalmatia and Rhodes, 15th and 16th-century Europe trembled as the Holy Roman Empire faced off against the great Islamic Empire rising to its apex in the East.  When the line was finally drawn just past Vienna in 1526, it brought the West little peace of mind, as Sulieman the Magnificent continued to barricade the riches of the Middle East with conquests in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

The Arabic culture has always been very secretive, a sore point with westerners.  Walk through one of the unchanged towns of the Middle East and you will see no windows or signs.  Homes abut directly on the street, there’s no such thing as a front yard or windows, everything is behind walls and locked doors.  It took the West a long time to pry the secrets of these discoveries things from their Arab inventors, and most of those who did will forever remain unknown to us, for the transmission of Arab technology had to be done secretly and on the sly.  Working its way west first through southern Spain as Arabic texts were translated by scholars at the Courts of intellectual princes like Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and his cousin, Alfonso X, of Castile, it then percolated through to Europe’s first universities, Smith coming in contact with it at Padua in 1540.

Smith tapped into the Wisdom Tradition at a time when seekers were still in hopes of achievements that we now know are impossible, such as the transformation of base into precious metals, or an elixir of herbs and minerals that can cure all diseases and prolong life indefinately.  That Smith himself was hopeful of the first is shown by his support (many years and much money) of one William Medley in his promise to turn iron into copper (a venture also supported by Burghley) (Dewar 149-155).

So many exciting things were being discovered, and rediscovered, at that time in laboratories throughout Europe that it should be no surprise that such a feat was still believed to be possible.  Is it any wonder then that Smith’s student, Edward de Vere, having learned all, or at least some of this from his tutor, once grown to manhood, should be so eager to see Italy for himself?  Is it any wonder that Shakespeare seems to have no passion for any form of organized religion?

2 thoughts on “Smith and the Wisdom Tradition

  1. Interesting to learn that alchemy was still taken seriously by this time. In reading Charles Wisner-Barrell’s claim for “Gentle Master William,” I was happy to find:

    From Nashe’s Strange Newes:

    It is not unknowne to report, what a famous pottle-pot patron
    you have beene to olde poets in your daies, & how many pounds
    you have spent (and, as it were, throwne into the fire) upon the
    durt of wisedome, called Alcumie: Yea, you have beene such an
    infinite Mecenas to learned men, that not any that belong to them
    (as Sumners, and who not) but have tasted of the coole streames
    of your liberalitie. …

    Wisner-Barrell does not comment on alchemy, but I wonder if the passage could be applied to the tons of mining ore that Frobisher brought back from the new world (last voyage, 1578) that was proved worthless after very much fire. Michael Lok and Oxford invested a fortune on Frobisher.

    A modern author (and I can no longer find the quote) compared the Frobisher refining to alchemy: turning dirt to gold; but I do not know if he/she had this passage in mind.

    I had felt the Strange Newes usage to be derisive of alchemy, but perhaps it was merely derisive of the Frobisher debacle?

  2. If Nashe was one of Bacon’s pen names, as I believe, then we can be certain of his negative attitude towards alchemy, or rather, towards its magical aspect. Bacon is seen as the father of modern science largely due to his efforts to get his contemporaries to drop the magic in favor of empiricism. But the spiritual aspect of alchemy––the turning of base leaden instincts into the gold of enlightenment––he would certainly have endorsed.

    Here I believe it is the latter that he has in mind, referring to Oxford’s past support of writers and scholars like himself, feeding them, and giving them the time to read and think that leads to advances in both science and art. He may be conflating this with the Newfoundland debacle, but the word durt (dirt) has a particular use for Nashe. As it is for Oxford, the garden is a favorite metaphor for Bacon, so to Nashe, dirt can represent either what’s good because it’s natural and produces food and flowers, or bad because it’s nasty.

    All too often it’s forgotten how poor Bacon was throughout the 1580s, and how desperate was his need for a paying office at Court. Here he expresses in print his gratitude for Oxford’s help during his early years at Court, recalling his generosity now that he’s no longer in a position to help “pore scholers” like himself. Bacon, who was only marginally better off in the early ’90s, was not really in a position to do anything more for Oxford than remind those he had once helped that he himself was now in need of support.

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