II: Underground Routes

The Ancient Theology

by D.P. Walker
Cornell University Press, 276 pp., $14.50

The revolution in the attitude to Renaissance thought which has taken place in recent years rests largely on a new understanding of Renaissance Neoplatonism. In the nineteenth century Neoplatonism meant a movement arising from the rediscovery of the works of Plato and the ancient Neoplatonists, centered in the Medici circle in Florence. There was nothing wrong with this as a fact; what was wrong with the old view of Renaissance Neoplatonism was the assumption that Ficino and his friends read the texts in much the same way as nineteenth-century classical scholars were doing. This assumption led to the impression that Renaissance Neoplatonism meant a vaguely mystical and Christianized revival of Platonic idealism, which had pleasing results in many ways, as in its influence on art and poetry, but which was weak as a philosophy and certainly not in a line of development leading to important seventeenth-century movements.

This view was altered by the discovery that Renaissance Neoplatonists approached the writings of Plato and his followers in a way of their own. At about the same time that the Platonic and Neoplatonic texts were rediscovered, there had also come to light various magical and mystical writings believed to have been written by sages with prestigious names—Orpheus, Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus—in times long before the birth of Plato, probably contemporary with Moses. The most important of these “ancient theologians” was Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly an Egyptian priest and supposedly the author of a body of writings known as the Hermetica. The Renaissance Neoplatonist read these writings believed to be by Hermes with profound respect, as those of the teacher of Plato, and also, by another series of misunderstandings, as those of an inspired prophet of Christianity. Thus Renaissance Neoplatonism had a Hermetic core and was the source of that Hermetic movement which is now seen to be of such fundamental importance for the history of thought.

Though several scholars, particularly Eugenio Garin and Paul Kristeller, had been aware of the importance of studying the Hermetic movement and its sources, it was D. P. Walker who first put these subjects on a firm basis in an extremely learned book, published in 1958, and in some fundamental articles, published a few years earlier. It was Walker who sorted out the complexities of prisca theologia, which he now prefers to call “ancient theology,” and it was he who established by a masterly exercise in precise scholarship that Ficino used the Hermetic magic. These pioneer writings have been somewhat hidden in inaccessible publications, though Spiritual and Demonic Magic is available in a Kraus reprint. In The Ancient Theology, Walker has now republished in a revised and expanded form his basic articles “Orpheus the Theologian” and “The prisca theologia in France.” By the “ancient theologians” he means Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Orpheus, and so on, believed to be the ancient sages to whom profound religious truth was accessible and whose teachings were believed to be inextricably involved with those of Neoplatonism.

The most important of the “ancient theologians …

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