Extraordinary Healing and The Hermeneutics of Privilege: the Healer Valentine Greatrakes (1629–1683), Robert Boyle (1627–1691), and Equivocating about the Miraculous in Early Modern Scientific Medicine
Kripal, Jeffrey J.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation presents three basic theoretical ideas: the hermeneutic of privilege, how allegorical symbolism and esotericism protect elite privilege, and the socio-political utility of anti-dogmatism. Alchemical casuistry is this study’s modern analytical concept that combines aspects of these themes to show how elites cultivated anti-dogmatic perspectives to reconcile themselves with opposing and divisive dogmatic political positions. The ultimate expressions of alchemical casuistry were found in courtly favor, diplomacy, and statecraft; but it also served as a foundation of social suppression—concealing special knowledge. The earliest alchemical texts contained recipes for imitating substances like emeralds and gold—recipes whose value depended on both secrecy and lies. Over time, the systems of allegorical and linguistic contrivance that originally served to protect and preserve the secrets of imitations would extend to cover other things—like miracles. The concept of miracles was divisive after the reformation—characterizing phenomena as “miraculous” could have serious political consequences. Alchemical casuistry explains how members of the nascent Royal Society viewed Valentine Greatrakes (1629–1683) and his practically miraculous healing treatments. Because the term “miracle” was central to religious debates, these alchemical casuists carefully avoided using the word “miracle” and equivocated Greatrakes’ extraordinary effects (that had no mechanistic explanation). Greatrakes is the first instance of early modern science wrestling with what we call today the placebo effect and his witnesses were the product of an elite alchemical tradition that saw itself extending back to ancient Greece. Alchemical linguistic contrivance was an integral aspect of social privilege and education and protected one of society’s most dangerous secrets: how shifting political and philosophical paradigms related to economic disparity. Building on the momentum of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment was a philosophical assault on the notion of mediated divinity that created a vacuum of institutional credibility. Trust in the both the Church of England and the monarchy suffered when the 1649 regicide challenged their claims to divine authority. Greatrakes’ “miraculous” effects simultaneously negated monarchal claims of divine authority (based on similar healing touch) and the Church of England’s position that miracles had ceased. When the Royal Society became the official institution of early modern science, it extended its influence and credibility by initiating organized Freemasonry as a polarizing device to direct the considerable political potential of lesser elites. The Royal Society’s assault on divinity placed it in the role of mediating truth claims, thereby usurping the social functions of divinity previously administered by the church and monarch. Given what we know about the placebo effect today, it is difficult to doubt that at least some of the Greatrakes narratives described authentic cures. The only consistent explanation for them (from Francis Bacon, to Robert Boyle, to Benjamin Franklin, and to today) has been the power of the imagination to heal. Through alchemical casuistry effective techniques like hypnosis, acupuncture, Reiki, and many others are marginalized for the economic benefit of medical elites whose pills and procedures have less value when the secret elixir of the imagination is widely known.