A massive promontory juts out of Gibraltar, peering over the Straight that seeps into the Atlantic Ocean. This edifice, along with a variously identified twin in Africa to the south, was long known as the Pillars of Hercules. The ancients and medievals saw at this point, staring off into infinite ocean, the end of the world. “Non plus ultra,” read inscriptions where the Pillars were depicted. “Nothing further beyond.”
King Ferdinand adopted the image of the Pillars of Hercules for his coat of arms, along with the inscription. Of course, the bounds were transgressed by Columbus later in Ferdinand’s reign. However, it wasn’t until the reign of Ferdinand’s grandson, Charles, that the motto was brazenly updated for the modern world: “Plus Ultra.”
Thus appears the banner of modernity: “Further Beyond.” At approximately the same time, the earth was circumnavigated, Machiavelli released the Christian bonds of politics, and Luther liberated the Church from her Babylonian captivity. The closed community of Christendom was opened to empire: the dominance over nature, custom, and humans.
“Further Beyond,” indeed. However, the eruption of 1500, give or take a half century, gives us an account of derring-do, but very little daring-because. In fact, there are a thousand reasons to sail past the Pillars of Hercules. Another picture may give us a different insight.
In 1513, the first governor of Puerto Rico sailed northwest and accidentally found Florida. The legend later developed that Juan Ponce de Leon’s real goal was not simply a discovery for its own sake, but that he pursued the Fountain of Youth. A mythic location in many cultures, the Fountain had the power to lure because it was (forbidden) power itself.
The fantastic pursuit of the Fountain of Youth has appeared at many times, in many ways. Next to the glorious Fountain, the Pillars of Hercules would seem to be the impotent imagery. It would almost appear that “Plus Ultra” is simply a spirit of discovery, where the Fountain is spiritual longing, the voice whispering: “you will be like God.”
The rationalist, liberative story of the Renaissance overlooks an underworld rebirth of a secret magical tradition, called Hermeticism. The Hermetica was a collection of various Greek works on trans-religious spiritualism, occult, and cosmogony. An underground interest in this “esoteric” knowledge is found through many renaissance thinkers and is at least interwoven into the 17th century scientific revolution.
But in the age of the scientific method, why were Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton drawn to alchemy? When Renaissance physicians were beginning to map the human body, why were Leonardo da Vinci and Pico della Mirandola dabbling in magic?
The beckoning of the Fountain of Youth, toward power and immortality, has been more tightly bound up to the discoveries and transgressions of the “modern world” than is comfortable – but that does not mean we have to stay behind the Pillars of Hercules. For, the transgression was never simply in crossing a boundary, but in stealing divinity.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.