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The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason

John V. Fleming (Author)

Overview | Inside the Book

Why spiritual and supernatural yearnings, even investigations into the occult, flourished in the era of rationalist philosophy.

In The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, John V. Fleming shows how the impulses of the European Enlightenment—generally associated with great strides in the liberation of human thought from superstition and traditional religion—were challenged by tenacious religious ideas or channeled into the “darker” pursuits of the esoteric and the occult. His engaging topics include the stubborn survival of the miraculous, the Enlightenment roles of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, and the widespread pursuit of magic and alchemy.

Though we tend not to associate what was once called alchemy with what we now call chemistry, Fleming shows that the difference is merely one of linguistic modernization. Alchemy was once the chemistry, of Arabic derivation, and its practitioners were among the principal scientists and physicians of their ages. No point is more important for understanding the strange and fascinating figures in this book than the prestige of alchemy among the learned men of the age.

Fleming follows some of these complexities and contradictions of the “Age of Lights” into the biographies of two of its extraordinary offspring. The first is the controversial wizard known as Count Cagliostro, the “Egyptian” freemason, unconventional healer, and alchemist known most infamously for his ambiguous association with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which history has viewed as among the possible harbingers of the French Revolution and a major contributing factor in the growing unpopularity of Marie Antoinette. Fleming also reviews the career of Julie de Krüdener, the sentimental novelist, Pietist preacher, and political mystic who would later become notorious as a prophet.

Impressively researched and wonderfully erudite, this rich narrative history sheds light on some lesser-known mental extravagances and beliefs of the Enlightenment era and brings to life some of the most extraordinary characters ever encountered either in history or fiction.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • July 2013
  • ISBN 978-0-393-07946-3
  • 6.5 × 9.6 in / 432 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

“John Fleming has written a fascinating, compulsively readable account of the shadowy world that lay just beyond the clear, clean, well-ordered boundaries of the Age of Reason. His protagonists, vividly brought to life, are a motley collection of miracle workers, charlatans, confidence men, and half-crazed visionaries, caught up in a frenzied pursuit of occult truths, secret powers, and illicit pleasures. Never has the Enlightenment seemed stranger.” — Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve

“Fleming’s book is about two cultural commonplaces, the so-called darkness of the Middle Ages and the reputed brightness of the later age that called them dark. In nine greatly informative and entertaining chapters, Fleming turns the tables by showing that the enlightenment had a dark side that was an integral part of it. Hence, its dark side must be understood as co-Enlightenment, not as what is often called the Counter-Enlightenment. This, in a deep sense, is an important book in the cultural study of history.” — Hans Aarsleff, author of From Locke to Saussure

“This is a book that sparkles with wit and learning and mischief. In place of a pale age of reason, John Fleming guides us through the witching hour of the Enlightenment, a time haunted by visions of magic, mystery, and the occult—enchanted and enchanting.” — Lawrence Lipking, Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities, Northwestern University

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