The astrologer-physician Richard Napier produced a vast archive of medical records, documenting thousands of interactions with patients and numerous conversations with angels, especially Raphael. Drawing upon this mountain of material, Ofer Hadass writes a provocative intellectual biography. He aims foremost to rehabilitate Napier's “legacy,” which has been tarnished by the “forces of a disenchanted world” (143). Specifically, he argues, the eccentric priest too often gets lumped together with all variety of occultists, some delusional, some malevolent, others fraudulent. Clairvoyants, Ambrose Bierce observes in The Devil's Dictionary, have the power to see that which is invisible to their clients—namely, that they are blockheads. Hadass sets out to demonstrate that Napier's clients were not blockheads, and that Napier was neither a charlatan nor a quack.
The book is easy to recommend for its attention to Napier's day-to-day medical practices: diagnosing ailments, prescribing elixirs and magical amulets, burning incense, letting blood, invoking spirits. This last topic is of special interest, I think, insofar as it most jeopardized Napier's reputation. And, as Hadass confirms, Napier wisely concealed these angel discourses, given that conjuration was a capital offense and, also, that Napier was a devout cleric. He died in mid-prayer. Hadass reads the angel conversations as “spiritual self-experiences much more than they were encounters with supernatural beings,” which is a polite way of saying that he does not take Napier's word for it (13). Nor am I suggesting that he should, but that Napier thought he talked to angels is undoubtedly true, and this complicates Hadass's attempt to distance Napier from the notion of a “rustic Faustus” (60). We certainly do not get the impression that Napier lived a secret life as a Satanist, or even—for that matter—a rogue womanizer, like his mentor Simon Forman, but he did summon spirits. He sought answers from the astral realm, which inherently brings with it peril, if not a Faustian tint. Such was Meric Casaubon's point about John Dee. He suggested that Dee talked to devils, earnest in his Christianity but deceived. For better or worse, this same trepidation accompanies Napier down through the centuries.
A second concern: after skillfully reconstructing Napier's occult philosophy, Hadass strands it in the early seventeenth century, convinced that its fundamental tenets—vitalism, cosmic sympathy, belief in the existence of angels and devils, etc.—collapsed under the weight of the new science. Yet astrology flourished in the Enlightenment, and theosophy matured. Jane Lead conjured spirits. Emanuel Swedenborg projected himself to the astral plane. Even Samuel Johnson attended a séance. That experimentalism drifted apart from occultism is clear, but both maintained substantial explanatory power, which undercuts Frances Yates's thesis (defended by Hadass) that hermeticism somehow became new science.
Modern examples further punctuate the idea that Napier's occult tradition persists. Nancy Reagan, for instance, frequently consulted the astrologer Joan Quigley, mainly in an effort to protect her husband from harm. The gifted rocket scientist Jack Parsons tried to conjure spirits at the behest of Aleister Crowley and with the help of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. By some accounts, he succeeded. And then there is the moldavite pendant industry and the Jupiter sigil business, both of which continue to produce talismans very much like those Napier often produced. Put simply, reports of occult philosophy's demise have been greatly exaggerated. The task, therefore, is to sort out true from false promises and earnest from mercenary practitioners. This has always been the task, in fact, Napier's occultism included.
A final thought: to safeguard aura, one can buy a beaker of psychic vampire repellent from Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop store. The price is twenty-seven dollars, plus shipping, though shipping will be difficult at present. The website tells me “this item is sold out.”