Philip Ball at Prospect Magazine:
The role of the magic tradition in the inception of science is complex but to present the two as antithetical is wrong. They were in many respects mutually supportive and even hard to distinguish. Magic as an intellectual endeavour can be seen as largely sober and systematic. Even the tricksier “popular” magic of the showman or mountebank was closely allied to practical technologies and mechanical skill. And if it had a tendency to patch together ad hoc explanations for puzzling phenomena, magic wasn’t doing much more than modern science continues to do; what has changed is the rigour with which such “explanations” are now scrutinised.
As historian William Eamon has argued, Renaissance “natural magic” was “the science that attempted to give rational, naturalistic explanations” for why things happened, and natural magicians, like modern scientists, believed that “nature teemed with hidden forces and powers that could be imitated, improved on, and exploited for human gain.” To its advocates, this art was the most potent means of dispensing with the supernatural intervention of demons and God in the day-to-day operation of nature.
Yet until the 15th century, anyone interested in magic risked accusations of heresy. Pliny the Elder condemned it as wicked (he noted that Nero was obsessed with it), but it was in early Christian thought that magic became dangerous. This was partly xenophobia: the word “magic” was an adjective applied to the pagan beliefs of the Persian “magi.” But it was also an assertion of authority over who owned such powers.