The School of the Night (In the Tower of Song)
The secret society of the Renaissance, the "School of the Night," was a philosophical and literary society made up of poets, writers, philosophers, and scientists dedicated to esoteric learning. For the School of the Night, "night" was the archetypal symbol of divine and hidden knowledge. (Here, the term "occult," another word for the esoteric, meaning "hidden" is associated with "night.")
Historically, The School of the Night was a secret cabal of men centered on Sir Walter Raleigh. They were a collection of poets, writers, and scientists who included lluminaries like Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, and Thomas Hariot. They studied science, philosophy, and religion, and all were suspected of atheism. William Shakespeare seems to refer to them in Love's Labour's Lost when he says, ". . . Black is the badge of hell / The hue of dungeons and the School of Night." The freethinking School of the Night was seen as subversive and charged with atheism. (Atheism at that time was a charge nearly the equivalent of treason, since the monarch was the head of the church and to be against the church was, ipso facto, to be against the monarch.) However, it was also a sign of anarchy, and it was a charge frequently brought against the politically troublesome.
According to scholars, not much beyond these sparse facts is known about this rather mysterious cabal of writers. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics tells us the following:
"The School of the Night was a philosophical and literary society believed by some scholars to have existed in England in the closing years of the 16th century. Among its members are supposed to have been Sir Walter Raleigh (its founder and patron), the poets Chapman and Marlowe, and the mathematician Harriot.... Chapman's obscure and ambitious poems, 'The Shadow of the Night' and Ovid's 'Banquet of Sense,' are seen as expressions of the group's theologico-scientific interests and esoteric learning, particularly in his use of 'night' as the symbol of divine and hidden knowledge. The writers associated with the group had an undeserved contemporary reputation for atheism, due no doubt to their relation to the modernist thought which was beginning to shake Europe at that time, but in their grandiose pretensions as in their enthusiastic classicism they were typical late-Renaissance men. The 'school of night' theory relies heavily for specific evidence on an interpretation of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (4.3.254); 'O paradox! Black is the badge of hell, / The hue of dungeons, and the school of night,' which is seen as a satiric reference to the esoteric and learned claims of the group. But the passage, undoubtedly puzzling and often emended admits of diverse readings, and the 'school of night' theory remains an unproved, if fascinating, hypothesis."
What makes the School of the Night a fascinating phenomenon for the Gypsy Scholar is that it was a secret society dedicated to the pursuit of esoteric thought. The GS is also fascinated by the esoteric "School of the Night" because it was into the secret mysteries of "Melancholy." These mysteries go back to the Renaissance obsession with the theme of "melancholia" and its psycho-physical "humour" of "black bile," which was, according to studies such as Robert Burton's classic medical treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), the paradoxical creative malady particularly of artists and scholars, and which was one of the subjects (with astrological connections; i.e., "Saturn and Melancholia") of Ficino's esoteric "Platonic Academy" in Florence, Italy. Later, in seventeenth century England, John Milton wrote a vision of poetic "melancholy" in his poem "Il Penseroso" ("The Serious Man"), wherein he celebrated the "divinest Melancholy." And, in the next century, this paradoxical praise of "melancholy" was taken up by Romantic poets from Blake to Verlaine, one such being Keats, who wrote "Ode on Melancholy." Today, singer-songwriting poets, such as Van Morrison, pick up this Romantic poetic theme: "Melancholia." Thus, what mainstream academicians see as folly is precisely what interests the GS about a revival of the "School of the Night," which he believes would be an entrée to the neo-Romantic project of (as some dissident academics have advocated) "the re-enchantment of the academy."
It was the GS's Dionysian professor who first made the clarion call for this neo-Romantic project:
"It is because I think there is a way out—a way down and out—that I would speak. Sometimes—most times—I think that the way down and out leads out of the university, out of the academy. But perhaps it is rather that we should recover the academy of earlier days—the Academy of Plato in Athens, the Academy of Ficino in Florence …. At any rate the point is first of all to find again the mysteries. By which I do not mean simply the sense of wonder—that sense of wonder which is indeed the source of all true philosophy—by mystery I mean secret and occult; therefore unpublishable; therefore outside the university as we know it; but not outside Plato's Academy or Ficino's." ~ N.O Brown, "Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind"
For more on The Tower of Song & The School of the Night, click on PDF file
Lonely Towr from "Il Penseroso" (Palmer 1879)
Oh let my Lamp at midnight hour
Be seen in some high Lonely Towr,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes.
~ Milton, "Il Penseroso"
Il Penseroso (Thomas Cole 1845)
Melancholy (Blake's Illustration to
Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso)
Melencolia I (Albrecht Dürer 1514)
"Il Penseroso" is a famous pastoral poem by John Milton, written in 1633 (later illustrated by William Blake). The poem is in praise of the contemplative, withdrawn life of study, philosophy, thought and meditation, and is a counterpiece to L'Allegro, which praises the more cheerful sides of life and literature. Both pieces detail the passing of a day in the countryside in the idyllic "pastoral" tradition and according to both philosophies. And, once more, both poems show the influence of Hermeticism. In "Il Penseroso" Milton not only pays tribute to Lady Melancholia as a muse but also to Hermes Trismegistus ("the Thrice-Great Hermes") and Orpheus—all three presiding spirits evoked in the Tower of Song.
The Ancient Schools & Educational Traditions upon which
the Tower of Song's "School of the Night" is Modeled
Plato's School of Athens
Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts (de-Vos)
Allegory of Divine Wisdom & the Arts (de Matteis)
The Invisible College
It was the task of the intellectuals of the esoteric school (early 17th century) of the "Invisible College" ("our philosophical college")--alchemists, hermeticists, magicians, diviners, clairvoyants, and natural philosophers--to translate into pragmatic strategies the occult teachings that were transmitted to them. Entire secret societies were established for this purpose (such as the Freemasons and Rosicrucians). The adepts and alumni of the "Invisible College" were skilled in magical practices, which they employed in the quest of knowledge for the evolution of humankind. Mainstream college academics have yet to recognize and acknowledge the contribution of these esoteric adepts in filtering advanced knowledge into pre-modern society and, thus, are unaware of the true origins of what are considered the greatest of ideals of Western culture. However, one scholar was a trailblazer in this field of esoteric research: Frances Yates, who identifies this institution of higher learning as the "Invisible College of the Rosy Cross".
Invisible College of the Rosy Cross
Inspired Scholars & Scholar-Magicians
of the Tower of Song's "School of the Night"
The Inspired Scholar (Rembrandt)
Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)
Faust at his studies muses on the power of magic
John Dee (1527-1608)
Magic is the book of all scholars. All that will learn must first learn Magic, be it a high or lowly art. Even the peasant in the field must go to the magical school, if he would cultivate his field. Magic is the best theology, for in it true faith is both grounded and found.... ~ Jacob Boehme
Magician-scholar in a magic rectangle invoking a Mercurial Spirit
(Court of Alfonso X of Castile, 13th century)
The Gypsy Scholar imagines the spiritual ancestors of his esoteric School of the Night; imagines way, way back to the renaissance of learning that were the medieval schools and monasteries of Andalusia, Spain, Sicily, Italy, Paris, and Ireland, and also the later Italian Renaissance school of Ficino's (melancholy-musical) occult Neo-Platonism. Here, the practice of "magic" was aligned with the practice of scholarly "rhetoric." Therefore, in the Memorial-Musekal Library of the Tower of Song, Gypsy Scholar discovers ancient, occult books whose mysteries that seem to speak to him.
Sit here by my side
For the night is very long
There's something I must tell
Before I pass along
I joined the brotherhood
My books were all to me
I scribed the words of God
And much of history . . .
I give you now my books
And all their mysteries . . .
(Loreena McKennit, "Skelling")
The Tower of Song's School of the Night & the Hermetic Academy of Music
The Hermetica is a category of popular Late Antique literature purporting to contain secret wisdom, and generally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, who is a syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. The Greek treatises were originally written between c. 100 and c. 300 CE (survivors from a more extensive literature), but the collection as known today was first compiled by medieval Byzantine editors. It was translated into Latin in the 15th century by the Italian humanist scholars Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500), and compiled into a Corpus Hermeticum.
Originating between 100 and 500 CE in Egypt, Hermeticism takes its name from the Egyptian God Thoth, named Hermes Trismegistus, otherwise known as “Thrice Great Hermes” in Greek. Other Hermetic works, however, existed in Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, and other languages. A Greek text, called the “Hermetic Treatises,” contains the founding principles of Hermeticism. The Hermetica (or Corpus Hermeticum) consists in ancient Greek and Latin writings of a religio-philosophic nature ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. These writings (and it doesn't matter if we say "religious" or "philosophical") were, roughly speaking, of a Neo-Platonic (which includes Pythagorean) character, being that they came out of the milieu of the Roman period in Egypt. The books now known as the Corpus Hermeticum were part of a renaissance of syncretic and intellectualized pagan thought that took place around the 2nd century. Other examples of this cultural moment would include Neoplatonist philosophy, the Chaldaean Oracles, late Orphic and Pythagorean literature, as well as much of Gnosticism. Unlike some Gnostic writings, the Hermetica contain no explicit allusions to Jewish or Christian texts. The Corpus Hermeticum varied in subject matter and dealt with many doctrines—astrology, magic, alchemy, and other "occult" subjects. The writings purport to be from the "teacher" to "pupil;" in most cases that of Hermes Trismegistus to Tat, Asclepius, or Ammon. (However these names are probably fictitious.)
Although they were still popular enough in the 5th century to be argued against by St. Augustine in the City of God, Hermetic texts were lost to the West during the Middle Ages. They were, however, rediscovered from Byzantine copies and popularized in Italy during the Renaissance. The impetus for this revival came from the Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino, who published it in 1471, as De potestate et sapientia Dei. The availability of Hermetica provided a seminal force in the development of Renaissance thought and culture, having had a profound influence over alchemy and modern magic, as well as having an impact on philosophers such as Giordano Bruno and Pico della Mirandola, Ficino's student. The Treatises became the most famous magical text in Western Europe. As the Renaissance continued this magic became connected with philosophy and the humanist movement. By the 17th century it was basically considered a philosophy and not so much magic.
The ancient Hermetic saying is "Know Thyself." (An ancient Egyptian saying goes, "O Man, Know Thyself; in thee is hid the Treasure of Treasures.") It is a popular belief among the Hermetic philosophers that the knowledge of God lies in the nature of all men, and not anywhere else in the universe. Being that God is in Man, one can only find God by knowing himself. This is considered to be the highest wisdom. According to Hermetic philosophy, Man is the central figure. The “secrets of nature” cannot be taught or learned, but rather can only be known by revelation of “knowing thyself.”
One of the most famous writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus is Emerald Tablet (also known as Smaragdine Table or The Secret of Hermes), an ancient text purporting to reveal the secret of the Alchemical primordial substance and its transmutations. This short and cryptic text was highly regarded by European alchemists as the foundation of their art, in particular of its Hermetic tradition.
The Hermetica makes the important distinction between knowledge as "episteme" (science) and Knowledge as "gnosis," which are the products, respectively, of reason and of understanding. Gnosis is direct, pure knowledge.
"Without philosophy it is impossible to be perfectly pious. He who learns of what nature things are, and how they are ordered, and by whom, and to what end, will be thankful for all things to the Creator . . . . " The "Perfect Discourse" of Asclepius makes the same point, but from the perspective of philosophy as gnosis: "Pure philosophy, that which depends only on piety towards God, should pay no more attention to the other sciences than is required in order to admire how the return of the stars to their first position . . . , qualities and quantities of the earth, the depths of the sea, the power of fire, and the effect and nature of all these things, to admire, adore and praise the art and mind of God." But the "Perfect Discourse" doesn't stop there; it continues in a musical metaphor:
"And to be instructed in music is precisely to know how all this system of things is ordered, and what divine plan has distributed it. For this order, having brought all individual things into a unity by creative reason, will produce as it were a most sweet and true harmony, and a divine melody."
Ergo, it is, as it were, that the Hermetic "Perfect Discourse" of Asclepius is the "perfect discourse"—the perfect mix of Argument & Song—of the Gypsy Scholar's Orphic Essay-with-Soundtrack —heard in the Tower of Song. Thus, the Gypsy Scholar plays (through his Orphic Essay-with-Soundtrack) with the double meaning of the traditional "dialectics of music"—is it musical philosophy, or philosophical music? Here, music-as-idea is also idea-as-music, where the "hermeneutics of music" becomes the music of Hermes, who is said to have been the inventor of the lyre and the teacher of Orpheus.