Renaissance mathematician, philosopher and teacher of the Ageless Wisdom

John Dee was a Renaissance mathematician, philosopher and teacher of the Ageless Wisdom.

Born in 1527, the son of a minor courtier in Henry VIII’s retinue, he was educated at Chelmsford Grammar School and then at Cambridge University where he excelled in many disciplines, devoting 18 hours of his day to private study and learning.

Dee was born with an innate knowing that there is a lineage of great wisdom in the world; one only has to look for it.

Whilst at Cambridge, Dee’s study of mathematics led him to devise a mechanical scarab, to sweep an actor from the stage and ascend to the ceiling of Trinity College’s Hall to adorn a production of Aristophanes’ Peace. The audience was both thrilled and amazed, having never before seen such a spectacle, which was simply the application of basic mechanics, though not at that time in common practice. It was at this time that accusations of sorcery and black magic came to be associated with Dee.

Upon graduating from Cambridge, Dee travelled abroad, studying in Louvain and Brussels. Whilst in Paris he gave a lecture on Euclid’s Geometry at the university, which was said to have attracted a fully packed house of students and scholars alike; there were said to have been people outside the lecture hall listening in at the windows. At the age of 24 Dee was already an esteemed mathematician and eloquent scholar. And yet he knew there was more about mathematics and the universe to be explored.

Returning to England, Dee made connections in the court of Edward VI, teaching the young king astronomy, tutoring the head of government – the Duke of Northumberland – and his family, and securing the rectory of Upton-upon-Severn, though he continued to devote his time to study and teaching. In 1556, he petitioned Queen Mary I – sister and predecessor of Elizabeth I – to permit him to build a national library, which would house the great learning of the ages, and as a place for Dee to display the books of wisdom that he had amassed on his travels in Europe. This was a time in which the greatest libraries in the land – those of Oxford and Cambridge – held only about 500 books each, and few books from abroad. Much of the learning and wisdom of the medieval period and before had been destroyed in England with the ransacking of the monasteries by Henry VIII – part of the Reformation of the church.

The national library that Dee proposed was to be open and accessible to all; there is no doubt he was a true Alexandrian, and a devotee of its own great library.

Dee’s petition was declined, so he went about building his own library in his house in Mortlake, which sat on the Thames just a few miles outside the City of London, and which Dee inherited from his mother.

His library became one of the largest and most comprehensive in Europe, housing over 4000 volumes, and it was open to all with a genuine interest in learning; through it passed many of the great minds, noblemen and explorers who came to define the Renaissance age.

There is even evidence that Francis Bacon, or at least a close relative, visited Dee in his house in Mortlake. He taught and guided any who wanted to learn.

Dee’s activities attracted the attention of the authorities and in 1555 he was imprisoned for having drawn up a horoscope for the then Queen Mary. This was an illegal offence at the time, and people were very suspicious of any form of Science that did not come through the controlled sources of the church and the universities which the church controlled. Dee was interrogated and held under house arrest in Bishop Bonner’s house (nicknamed ‘Bloody Bonner’ for his role in the religious persecution of heretics) for several months, eventually being released and cleared of any charges. There is little evidence of what took place in Bonner’s house during these months, but it is likely that the days consisted of a series of interrogations about Dee’s beliefs and the questionable orthodoxy of his teachings. Needless to say, Dee was able to convince Bonner that his teachings were safe and ‘Godly’, and not the works of a black magician.

By this time, Dee had gained the attention of the young Princess Elizabeth (Elizabeth I), a woman also of extraordinary learning and intellect and who displayed the same kind of curiosity about the world and the liberal arts as did Dee. The two became friends and Elizabeth began a lifelong habit of consulting Dee on affairs of national importance, beginning with asking him to appoint the most auspicious date for her coronation, in accordance with and alignment to the stars and constellations. He became her personal philosopher, and she even visited Dee in his house in Mortlake on several occasions, travelling by boat from Richmond Palace or Hampton Court and mooring up outside his house; this was a rare privilege for a person not of noble birth at the time.

Elizabeth acknowledged Dee and was deeply interested in his learning and studies – especially his teachings on Occult Law and the Science of White Magic. In 1564 she was delighted by Dee’s presentation of his great work, Monas Hieroglyphica, on which he personally tutored her. Dee understood the important communication that symbolism plays in the universal understanding of human life and beyond, and his ‘Hieroglyphic Monad’ symbol was an attempt to capture in symbol form the unity of the universe, traversing both the physical and metaphysical realms: for Dee understood that Geometry could be applied to the human soul just as it could be applied to the physical world, and thus the potential of a correctly constructed symbol to shift consciousness and accelerate Evolution.

Though she recognised the wisdom in Dee, Elizabeth was also a very perceptive woman, with an acute awareness of the practicalities and politics involved in ruling a country. And although in her heart she could see Dee’s teachings would greatly influence the general populace of the day, she was aware of the potential consequences of being seen to associate with a figure as unorthodox as Dee. Given her refusal of a potential re-union between the Protestant England and the Roman Catholic Church – through marriage to suitor King Philip II of Spain – she had the entire weight of Catholic-backed Spain bearing down upon her, and indeed Spain would later launch a large-scale naval invasion of England in what is known today as the Spanish Armada. There was only so far that the teachings from Dee could be taken.

Over the years, Dee continued to teach from his house in Mortlake, not just philosophy and Occult Science, but also applied mathematics – with all of its sub-branches – to a range of craftsmen, engineers and navigators, who could gain much by applying mathematical principles to their work.

Dee made a point of writing in English, rather than the typical Latin of the day, so that the layperson might have access to and understand his works. James Burbage – Elizabethan theatre manager and father to actor and business associate in Shakespeare’s playing company Richard Burbage – consulted Dee on the design of the first Elizabethan public playhouse, giving it its circular, amphitheatre-style layout – ‘The Globe’ – which came to define the theatre of that time. Dee – like Shakespeare – was aware of the significance of building playhouses that were spherical, encompassing and beholding of everyone inside it. These playhouses, under Shakespeare’s influence, became seats of Alchemy – the ability to transmute energy back to its original Divine form. Years later, the architect and stage designer Inigo Jones read Dee’s works and applied many of its mathematical principles to his designs.

Dee trained many of the great explorers and navigators of the day, teaching them the arts of Navigation before they set off on their journeys of discovery to the ‘New World’ (America). Among Dee’s students were Sir Francis Drake – who led the Queen’s naval forces against the Spanish Armada in 1588 – and Sir Walter Raleigh, the first Englishman to found a colony in the New World. Dee was aware of the great potential for the exporting of the light of the European Renaissance to foreign lands that the Age of Exploration hailed in, and he was commissioned to write a tract on the great importance of England as a Naval Empire, in which he coined the term ‘the British Empire’. Among the many noblemen whom Dee taught were Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Sir Christopher Hatton, and Sir Edward Dyer. Dee also formed a group of poets around him – including Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spencer – who were interested in the true philosophy which Dee brought through, and who imbued their work with the rich esoteric symbolism of Platonic and Hermetic philosophy.

Dee taught that there is a rich lineage of wisdom and sages that stretches right the way back through the annals of time, and of which Christianity is but a chapter. He knew about Hermes and the Egyptian magicians, about the Persians and their Magi; he revered Plato and his system of Platonic philosophy, the Neo-Platonists of Alexandria, and the great wisdom of the Arab world, which had continued Plato’s legacy and identified it as in line with their own sacred traditions; he also knew about the great English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon.

Upon reading Dee’s works, one thing becomes very clear: Dee drew no distinctions between his mathematical and scientific work, and the great body of wisdom and philosophy of which he was an adept. For Dee they were one and the same, and they fitted within an all-encompassing understanding of the Universe. Dee was a true Pythagorean and he had an innate understanding of Esoteric Numerology. He knew that numbers are the building blocks of the Universe, and that they are also Divine; and that therefore a mathematical understanding of the Universe can reveal to us much about life, and about Man and his place in the Universe. Dee was also aware of Copernicus’ teachings on the heliocentric theory, a model to which he subscribed.

"Numbering, then, was his creating of all things. And his continual numbering of all things is the conservation of them in being… The constant law of numbers… is planted in things natural and supernatural and is prescribed to all creatures, inviolably to be kept."

John Dee[1]

During his time in England, Dee was offered a post at Oxford University as Professor of Mathematics. But he declined, as he knew that the university environment would be restricting and would not allow him the space and freedom to follow his innate convictions through to their conclusions, and to teach Mathematics in its truth, as he understood it.

However, he was equally becoming frustrated with peoples’ misunderstanding of him, and their hurling slanderous accusations at him: and of the Queen’s non-commitment and continual offerings of positions, titles and financial rewards to him, which she never followed through on. Dee felt he was not valued in his own country.

In 1583, Dee packed up a large proportion of his books and collection of scientific and mathematical instruments and with his family, set sail for the continent, in what would become a six-year journey throughout Europe. Dee was welcomed by kings, princes and noblemen across Europe, where he took up temporary residence at their courts. There he taught the Ageless Wisdom to the aristocracy of Europe, and taught to anybody who was willing to listen the Divine potential in man, and the use of Alchemy to transmute Man back into his true, Divine state.

He tapped into and taught about a system that was to aid Man in his journey back to Soul – a Science we know today as the Science of Initiation.

Along his travels, Dee was offered many permanent positions in courts across Europe, as he had been during his previous travels across Europe as a young man. These included at the courts of King Henry II of France, a succession of four Holy Roman Emperors, and an incredibly lucrative position at the court of Feodor I, the Czar of Russia. But Dee turned them all down, as he knew they were not in-line with his true purpose, and when the time came he moved on to his next destination, carrying on the work that was so important to him.

He inevitably attracted the attention of the Catholic Church. Whilst in Prague, he had an audience at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II. Dee told Rudolph that he was possessed by an evil spirit, and encouraged him to renounce the error of his ways, and embrace the one, true Religious way. Needless to say, Dee was promptly ejected from the Emperor’s court. After this, Pope Sixtus V sent a papal nuncio to meet with Dee: Dee was forthright with the nuncio about his teachings and about the work he was doing, and whilst the nuncio was polite and seemingly accepting of Dee in his presence, on his return to Rome he denounced him as a heretic to the Pope. Dee gained word of his unwelcome reception in Rome, and subsequently amended his journey to avoid Italy. If he had come anywhere close to Rome, it is likely he would have been denounced by the Inquisition and sentenced to death.

Dee grew weary on his travels, frustrated that the world was not ‘getting’ what he had to teach, nor embracing the one, true philosophy of the ages; and his return to England gave him more cause for grief. Upon returning to his home in Mortlake, Dee found his library had been ransacked and many of his books and scientific and mathematical instruments had been stolen. Added to this, he returned to an England that had been turned against him by the Church, hostile towards him and suspicious of his esoteric activities.

The ignorance of the many was fed by the jealousy of the few, and behind this was the controlling intent of the church, which did not want the world to know what Dee had to teach it.

Elizabeth also had distanced herself from Dee in the intervening years; she had her own reputation to protect, and she effectively abandoned him to the onslaught of the accusations and slanders that haunted Dee. The lies that emerged around Dee were based on the accusation that he was a ‘black magician’ – a sorcerer who was in league with the Devil and evil spirits. This was a common stereotype of the Elizabethan imagination – an image fed to the masses to stir up fear and trepidation. It was of course an absolute lie and the very, calculated opposite of the Truth that Dee stood for and represented.

It is around this time that Christopher Marlowe staged his play Doctor Faustus, about the dangers and moral transgressions of the man who supersedes his station in life to dabble in black magic, eventually making a pact with the Devil. The implied, defamatory reference to Dee was clear to see.

A few decades later, shortly after Dee had died, Ben Jonson wrote and staged The Alchemist, which pokes fun at the figure of the Renaissance magus, who is represented as a ‘quack’ that cheats unknowing people out of their money. In the play, Dee is directly named, and his Monas Hierogliphica held up for ridicule.

Shakespeare wrote and staged The Tempest – a play whose main character, Prospero, is long thought to have been inspired by Dee – shortly after this, and it can be seen in part as a response to Jonson and Marlowe, and a restoring of Dee’s name and reputation in the popular imagination.

In 1595, the Queen eventually granted Dee a position as Warden of Christ College in Manchester – a position that he held for the next ten years.

In 1604, when Elizabeth died and James I took the throne, Dee petitioned the new King to put him on trial for the slanderous accusations thrown about by his detractors, so that he could be found to be innocent of any association with ‘black magic’, and his name to be cleared. This request in itself was a bold move: James I was renowned for his deep-seated anxiety about witchcraft, and if he had been in any way suspicious of Dee, this would have been his death wish. But Dee’s request was refused, he was denied a trial, and the slanderous accusations continued.

In 1605, Dee returned to Mortlake where he spent the remaining years of his life living in poverty and public disgrace. All of his eight children, but two, had died during childhood, and with his wife gone, he had only his daughter Katherine to nurse him in his old age. His remaining son, Arthur, would become an alchemist, and go on to take up a position in the court of the Tsar of Russia – a position which Dee himself had declined – as personal physician to Michael I. In these final years, financial pressures forced Dee to sell off what remained of his once-great library.

Over his lifetime, Dee took his public detractors and their slanderous accusations very personally, and they broke him.

He had transfixed all his energies on the realisation of an image – the hailing of a new world order, guided by the one true, Hermetic philosophy – and it crushed him to see that the world was turning its back on this and instead delving deeper into a controlled form of education and closed-mindedness to the universal nature of life and all things.

Dee worked tirelessly throughout his life, in service to people and the fulfilment of God’s plan on Earth; but ultimately he lacked the self-appreciation and the Stillness within himself to understand that people’s actions and reactions were not a reflection on him or any failing on his part, but rather were an expression of their own Free Will. Dee was caught by his desire for people to be free and know the greater wisdoms that he knew, rather than truly valuing his efforts for presenting them, and allowing people the Grace of their own Free Will to come to know it in their own time.


  • [1]

    John Dee, ‘Mathematicall Praeface’ to Sir Henry Billingsby’s translation of Euclid’s Elements

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