Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought
by Charles G. Nauert Jr.
University of Illinois, 374 pp., $7.00 (paper)
Renaissance and Revolution
by Joseph Anthony Mazzeo
Pantheon, 349 pp., $6.95
Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-circa 1535), German occultist and mystic, played an important part in the Renaissance by popularizing in the North those magical practices and attitudes inherent in the Neoplatonic movement that was initiated in Florence by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. The Renaissance ideal of the Magus, the “divine” man with powers of operating on the cosmos and achieving universal knowledge and power—adumbrated in Pico’s famous Oration on the Dignity of Man—found its theorist in Agrippa who wrote a text book on how to become a Magus. His De occulta philosophia was the best known manual of Renaissance magic, incorporating both the Ficinian magic deriving from the Hermetic revival, and the Cabalist magic indicated by Pico and further developed by Reuchlin and the hosts of Renaissance Cabalists. A few years before the publication of the final version of the De occulta philosophia (1583), Agrippa published his De vanitate scientiarum in which he attacked all sciences as vain and useless, including the occult sciences which he was about to expound enthusiastically in his next book. Which of these two sensational works represents the true mind of Agrippa, the one which teaches the techniques of Renaissance magic and promises to lead the student to Pisgah heights of illumination, or the one which casts doubts on those techniques, and indeed on all human hope of valid knowledge of any kind?
The reversal of mood from visions of power and “knowledge infinite” to total doubt is believed by Nauert to represent a “crisis” in Renaissance thought. The great Faust figures of literature, both Marlowe’s and Goethe’s, repeat the Agrippan pattern of confidence alternating with despair. Nauert examines the argument that doubt is inherent in magic through its reliance on the irrational, and from his analysis of the De vanitate he concludes that Agrippa’s skepticism may derive, not so much from ancient skepticism and the contemporary revival of Sextus Empiricus, as from the mystical tradition, from the “negative theology” of Pseudo-Dionysius, Cusanus, and others. His use of the ass as the symbol of total “unknowing” has mystical implications, and his insistence that faith in Gospel truth is the only refuge from the uncertainty of human knowledge suggests that Agrippa’s spiritual oscillations might represent the hesitations of a Christian conscience disturbed about the legitimacy of the occult philosophy as much as a swing from credulity to skepticism. One undoubted fact in the confused situation is that Agrippa never abandoned his intensive study of the occult sciences either before, during, or after his attack on their vanity. Coupled with the fact that he published his attack on these sciences before he published his textbook on them suggests a simpler explanation of the two books. When accused as a magician on account of the occult philosophy he could usefully point to what he had said of the vanity of magic in the other book. The life of a Renaissance Magus was not a safe one. Ficino was always …