Dee, John

▪ English mathematician
born July 13, 1527, London, England
died December 1608, Mortlake, Surrey

      English mathematician, natural philosopher, and student of the occult.

      Dee entered St. John's College (Saint John's College), Cambridge (Cambridge, University of), in 1542, where he earned a bachelor's degree (1545) and a master's degree (1548); he also was made a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, on its founding in 1546. Dee furthered his scientific studies on the Continent with a short visit in 1547 and then from 1548 to 1551 under the mathematician-cartographers Pedro Nuñez (Nunes, Pedro), Gemma Frisius, Abraham Ortelius (Ortelius, Abraham), and Gerardus Mercator (Mercator, Gerardus), as well as through his own studies in Paris and elsewhere. Dee turned down a mathematical professorship at the University of Paris (Paris I–XIII, Universities of) in 1551 and a similar position at the University of Oxford (Oxford, University of) in 1554, apparently in hopes of obtaining an official position with the English crown.

      Following his return to England, Dee attached himself to the royal court, offering instruction in the mathematical sciences to both courtiers and navigators. He also served as consultant and astrologer to, among others, Queen Mary I (Mary I). The latter activity landed him in jail in 1555 on the charge of being a conjurer, but he was soon released. Following the ascension of Elizabeth I to the throne in 1558, Dee became a scientific and medical adviser to the Queen, and by the mid-1560s he established himself at Mortlake, near London, where he built a laboratory and amassed the largest private library in England with over 4,000 books. Dee was as generous in making his library accessible to scholars as he was in assisting numerous practitioners who applied for advice. He was intimately involved in laying the groundwork for several English voyages of exploration, instructing captains and pilots in the principles of mathematical navigation, preparing maps for their use, and furnishing them with various navigational instruments. He was equally active in publicly advocating a British empire in Perfect Arte of Navigation (1580). In 1582 Dee also recommended that England adopt the Gregorian calendar, but the Anglican church (Anglicanism) refused to embrace such a “popish” innovation.

      Dee's scientific interests were far broader than his involvement in English exploration might suggest. In 1558 he published Propaedeumata Aphoristica (“An Aphoristic Introduction”), which presented his views on natural philosophy and astrology. Dee continued his occult views in 1564 with the Monas hieroglyphica (The Hieroglyphic Monad), wherein he offered a single mathematical-magical symbol as the key to unlocking the unity of nature. In addition to editing the first English translation of Euclid's Elements (1570), Dee added an influential preface that offered a powerful manifesto on the dignity and usefulness of the mathematical sciences. Furthermore, as passionately as he believed in the utility of mathematics for mundane matters, Dee expressed conviction in the occult power of mathematics to reveal divine mysteries.

      Perhaps frustrated about his failure to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of natural knowledge, Dee sought divine assistance by conversing with angels. He and his medium, the convicted counterfeiter Edward Kelley, held numerous séances both in England and on the Continent, where the two traveled together between 1583 and 1589. By all accounts Dee was sincere, which is more than can be said for Kelley, who may have duped him. On Dee's return to England, his friends raised money for him and interceded on his behalf with Queen Elizabeth. Though she appointed him warden of Manchester College in 1596, Dee's final years were marked by poverty and isolation.

      It is almost certain that William Shakespeare (Shakespeare, William) (1564–1616) modeled the character of Prospero in The Tempest (1611) on the career of John Dee, the Elizabethan magus.

Mordechai Feingold

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Universalium. 2010.

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