Curiosity and the Occult: The Ambiguities of Science in Eighteenth-Century British Literature

  • Barbara M. Benedict
Part of the Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science book series (PAHALISC)


The term ‘science’ means the ‘possession of knowledge,’ and in many ways it stands opposed both to curiosity, the search for knowledge, and to the occult, the unknown.1 When Britain’s first scientific academy, the Royal Society for the Advancement of Learning, was founded in 1660, what we term ‘science’ was known as natural philosophy. In a Britain emerging from the church-dominated middle ages, people used this new empirical philosophy to uncover the hidden truths of nature and the supernatural—the origins of life and the meaning of death; the motion of the spheres; the past and the future; the nature of witches and ghosts—knowledge hidden by either God or man. No longer did they turn to the church or Bible for such knowledge, nor to such classical authorities as Aristotle. Rather, early-modern people explored these forbidden topics themselves by what they thought natural means: travel, experimentation, collecting and classifying anything from oddly shaped rocks and butterflies to gems and fine paintings, and the traditional, if unapproved, consultation of verified fortune-tellers, magicians and second-sighted seers. All of these means relied on observation.


Royal Society Eighteenth Century Natural Philosopher Literary Discourse Classical Authority 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara M. Benedict
    • 1
  1. 1.Trinity CollegeHartfordUSA

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