John Dee (1527-1609) has recently become one of my favorite people to read about. He was educated at Cambridge and for a time was known as “The Queen’s Philosopher”. His personal library at one time was the largest in Britain and its holdings were more extensive than any university or college library in the country. He was a well-respected and published mathematician, and in 1558 he was called upon by Queen Elizabeth to choose the appropriate day (astrologically of course!) for her coronation. Later in life he wrote spiritual/alchemical texts that have influenced a variety of esoteric movements.
Like many philosophers of his day, Dee sought knowledge both from the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. Scripture contained the Word of God, and Nature was the word of God made manifest. Dee became frustrated that both books were nearly impossible to read because of they had been corrupted by The Fall. Language had been corrupted which made Scripture difficult to interpret, and Nature was in upheaval having suffered cataclysmic events like the Flood and earthquakes. For years, Dee looked to Kabbalah to restore the true meaning of scripture and alchemy to reveal the secrets of nature. His esoteric book, Monas Hieroglyphica, was a complex synthesis of these two pursuits in which he attempted to develop a “Kabbalah of Nature”. Using elements of alchemical symbols he developed a language that would reveal the true meaning of the natural world and give him power to control matter.
In 1581, Dee began a project that would control the rest of his life. Dissatisfied with his quest for knowledge, he began to look to angels to reveal the truths he had been seeking. Dee hired a scryer to peer through a ‘showstone’ and communicate with angels. To Dee and many of his contemporaries, this type of communication had a naturalistic explanation. The field of optics was young, and certain polished stones were seen as a way to refract heavenly/spiritual light in such a way to make it visible to human eyes. However, the accounts of these sessions are a wild trip through a complex angelology, where casts of characters would bring knowledge, direction and sometimes curses. Dee and his scryers followed the angels’ directions precisely. The revelations led him to search for alchemical treasure, swap wives with one of his associates, and make bizarre presentations to kings and heads of state. In the revelations he was called to be the mouthpiece of God to warn the people of the last days in which they were living.
Dee’s angelic conversations cemented his place in history and gave scholars and mystics a host of source material. How are we to deal with Dee’s angels? I’m sure the question – What do we do with all the other people that talk with angels? – produces rolling eyes in the bloggernacle. However, I can’t help but have Joseph Smith in the back of my mind when I read about the adventures of John Dee. While we have ways of fitting Joseph Smith’s truth-seeking within and orthodox framework, it was the radically spontaneous nature of his search for truth that prepared him and put him on a path the reveal our most sacred rituals and books of scripture. For all their differences, Joseph Smith and John Dee represent to me a relentless pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. Their storied inspire me to be adventurous in my own quest for knowledge.
1. Harkness, D.E., John Dee’s conversations with angels: Cabala, alchemy, and the end of nature. 1999, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.