A Dark Side of the Renaissance

Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

by Frances A. Yates
University of Chicago, 466 pp., $7.50

Miss Frances Yates’s book is an important addition to our knowledge of Giordano Bruno. But it is even more important, I think, as a step toward understanding the unity of the sixteenth century, when the late Renaissance turned into the scientific revolution. The new scientists of that time were deeply influenced by humanist concepts, and this influence has notoriously been neglected. For example, the writers and painters of the Renaissance were excited by a mystic religion of nature which they found in some books from the east; but only recently has it been seen that the same mystic ideas also fired philosophers and astronomers. Miss Yates sets out these ideas, and their history, with exemplary clarity; and since I find this the richest part of her book, I will begin there.

Sometime about 1460, when Cosimo de’ Medici was collecting his great library in Florence, there was brought to him by one of his buyers from Macedonia an incomplete copy of the Corpus Hermeticum: a book which was reputed in the Middle Ages to contain prophetic secrets and magic from ancient Egypt. Cosimo could not read the Greek text, and he gave it to Marsilio Ficino to translate into Latin with the other Greek works which were coming from Byzantium. Ficino was just starting on the most important of these finds, the dialogues of Plato, when Cosimo in 1463 peremptorily ordered him to put them aside in order to translate the Corpus Hermeticum first. Cosimo was in his seventies and we must guess that, among the books that he wanted to read before he died in 1464, he ranked the Corpus Hermeticum above Plato.

The Hermetic books are a series of revelations about the nature and destinies of gods and men, and they are supposed to have been disclosed by the Egyptian gods to a priest who came to be called Hermes Trismegistus, Hermes the Three Times Great, after the god of wisdom. The Hermetic books in general, and the Corpus Hermeticum in particular, take their name from this Egyptian priest. He was accepted as a real man who lived before the Greek philosophers and about the time of Moses; Ficino speculated whether he might not have been Moses himself. The snatches of Greek and Biblical thought and stories with which the Hermetic books are peppered were read as marvelous anticipations. In fact, of course, they were copies, and the Hermetic books are fakes. But that was not proved until one hundred and fifty years after Ficino’s translation, and fourteen years after Bruno died.

Miss Yates’s lucid analysis of the Hermetic books helps particularly to clarify the change in attitude to them between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, the Hermetic books had been treated as recipes for magic, and read in secret. This was because Saint Augustine had condemned the writings of “Hermes the Egyptian, called Trismegistus” and called them impious. Augustine singled out for attack two passages from a Hermetic book …

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