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The Fear of the Occult

Symphorien Champier and the Reception of the Occultist Tradition in Renaissance France (Berlin/New York)

by Brian P. Copenhaver
Mouton, The Hague, 1978, distributed by Walter de Gruyter & Co.,, 368 pp., $54.50

When Fontenelle was composing his éloge of Isaac Newton for delivery in the Académie Royale des Sciences, he was able to consult notes by John Conduitt from which he would have learned that one of Newton’s motives in beginning his work in mathematics was to investigate whether judicial astrology had any claim to validity. In writing his éloge, Fontenelle omitted any reference to this fact, an omission which, as Brian Copenhaver points out, was normal in the Age of Enlightenment. Astrology for Fontenelle was unworthy of even passing reference. “The occultist tradition and all its claims about the powers of magic, alchemy, divination, witchcraft, and the secret arts, no longer demanded a serious response from serious thinkers.” How did it come about that such subjects had disappeared from the mainstream of European mental equipment, banished from the surface to pursue in future only a discredited existence underground? Copenhaver writes, “By the time the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared in 1771 the transformation was complete. The first Britannica gave only one hundred and thirty-two lines, less than a full page, to articles on astrology, alchemy, Cabala, demons, divination, the word ‘occult,’ and witchcraft. Astronomy occupied sixty-seven pages, and chemistry one hundred and fifteen.”

An irresistible historical transformation had taken place. Modern science beginning its victorious career had blotted out the immediate past. In such overwhelming movements, the facts which one generation consciously omits are genuinely forgotten by its successors. Later generations forgot Newton’s interest in alchemy until confronted with his unpublished papers. But the Fontenelle attitude dies hard, even when faced with documentary evidence that Newton attached equal, or greater, importance to his alchemical studies than to his work in mathematics.

Efforts have been made in recent years to penetrate the curtain which shrouded the influential figures of the past in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century histories of thought. When I was a young person (I will not say a young student for I did not study these subjects in any university) the books which I read on Marsilio Ficino described him as a Neoplatonic philosopher, which of course he was, but they did not mention that he was a Neoplatonic magician. Ficino’s theories on magic, and his use of talismans, have been a discovery of recent years. D.P. Walker’s examination of Ficino’s astral medicine proved its dependence on the Asclepius, the magical treatise attributed to “Hermes Trismegistus.” Similarly, when I read thirty years ago about Giordano Bruno, the books of that time presented him as an enlightened Renaissance philosopher, defender of Copernicanism against reactionaries. Yet it turns out that Bruno quoted at length from the Asclepius on magical reform, and that his defense of heliocentricity was itself influenced, perhaps inspired, by “Hermes Trismegistus” on the sun. This rereading or reinterpretation of noted figures in the history of thought is a process which has only recently been begun. It needs to be extended in detailed studies of many other figures, preparatory to a general reassessment of the processes through which phases in the history of thought were obscured by the Fontenelle type of forgetfulness.

In the history and scholarship of today, the magical and the occult are not forgotten, or debarred from serious study. On the contrary there has been an enormous increase of interest in these subjects. The advanced studies of today tend to treat them under sociology or anthropology and in generalized approaches. Brian Copenhaver maintains that

though it may eventually become possible to write the history of occultist thinking from the point of view of a sociology of knowledge, we are not yet in a position to do so. We need first to have a better idea of what past states of knowledge were and what they claimed to be. For this it is necessary to have a clearer idea of what important individuals thought and claimed to think about occultism.

And it is this which Copenhaver has tried to do for Symphorien Champier.

Champier was born near Lyon about 1474; for most of his life he was associated with that city, though he trained at the University of Paris, at Montpellier for medicine, and traveled to Italy in the suite of his patron. In Champier’s time, Lyon was seething with the Renaissance influences coming in from Italy. Champier was very receptive to the life and thought of his times, and was a most prolific author: his many books constitute a mine of source material for the early French Renaissance. He is accused of unoriginality; his books tend to be a tissue of quotations, but this may actually increase his value as a mirror of the times. He was primarily a practicing doctor; many of his books and pamphlets are on medicine. Though a firm Galenist, he was yet not unreceptive to some new tendencies in medicine. In religion he was an ardently conservative Catholic, horrified by the spread of heresy and by the violence of the mob of Vaudois heretics who pillaged his house in the great “rebeine” of 1529. As a very patriotic Frenchman he upheld French institutions like the University of Paris and the Monarchy. As an enthusiastic spectator of the invasions of Italy he would have seen those brilliant troops of French knights, with their heraldic devices which so much struck the Italians. Champier was present at the field of Marignano at which he was knighted, not it would seem for any feat of arms but because he had translated Ramon Lull’s book on the Order of Chivalry.

Symphorien Champier steps out of the marvelous French Middle Ages which produced so many clever Parisian-trained minds, such devotion to the sacred French Monarchy. What could such a man as this have had to do with the new magic and occultism introduced in Italy by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola? As the subtitle of Copenhaver’s book states, Champier was vitally concerned with “the reception of the occultist tradition in Renaissance France.” In two books written early in his career, the Nef des Princes (1502) and the Nef des Dames (1503), Champier was among the first to propagate Ficino’s Platonism in France. The De quadruplici vita (1507) and the De triplici disciplina (1509) contain “Champier’s peculiar mixture of medicine, philosophy, theology, and occultism” and are profoundly influenced by Ficino.

In an article published twenty-five years ago and reprinted in his book The Ancient Theology, D.P. Walker contrasted the reception of occultist and magical thinking in France with its reception in Italy. In Italy, the new magic was embedded in the Neoplatonism so enthusiastically welcomed by Ficino and Pico. In France, though Neoplatonism was also the fashionable philosophy, the core of Hermetic and Cabalist magic in the movement was regarded with greater caution, and efforts were made to receive the philosophy while being wary of the magic. Walker attributes the greater caution toward magic of the French Neoplatonists to the strength of Parisian scholasticism. Champier is an excellent example of the cautious French Neoplatonist and Hermeticist. Stalwart defender of all things French, including Parisian scholasticism, he was also profoundly attracted by Neoplatonism and by the holy “Hermes Trismegistus,” the true source, according to this way of thinking, of Plato’s thought, and as ancient as Moses.

Champier published a new edition of the Hermetica which included a dialogue on the sun which had not been known to Ficino. He was fascinated by the holy Hermes and his mysterious works, and sought to clear him of dangerous magic by arguing that the magic in the Asclepius was not taught by Hermes himself but had been introduced into the Hermetic treatise by Apuleius of Madaura when he translated it into Latin. The account in the Asclepius of how the Egyptians infused life into the statues of their gods had been the basic source of Ficino’s magic. Champier avoids it by his assumption that the deeply magical passage in the Asclepius was not by the holy Hermes himself but had been falsely introduced by the wicked translator of the treatise. In this way Champier tried to avoid the Hermetic magic while retaining the admired magico-mystical philosophy of Hermes.

Champier’s fear of magic was associated with his fear of heresy. In fact the Dyalogus against the magical arts may have been directed as much against the Vaudois heretics as against the learned magicians of the Italian Renaissance. There was always a strong undercurrent of fear in the occultists, fear of the forces they might be invoking, anxiety to keep on the safe side in dealing with them. Ficino was full of fear and anxiety; Champier’s cautiousness is an attempt to avoid the dangers of the subject which fascinated him.

The nearest approach to magic in Champier’s outlook was made through his medicine. The correct Galenist doctor was awake to contemporary influences through his firm belief in interaction between body and soul. As Copenhaver points out, Ficino’s astral medicine, aimed at affecting both body and soul through the imagination, was the side of Ficino’s occultism that most affected Champier. The physician of Lyon is one of the ancestors of the long line of influence on medicine, deriving ultimately from the occultist side of Renaissance Neoplatonism, which reaches from Ficino through Champier and others, and on through the history of medicine up to Mesmer and Charcot. The intensive exercise of the power of the imagination, cultivated in Renaissance Neoplatonism, when applied to medicine, led in due time in the direction of psychiatry.

Champier was only one among many Neoplatonists of the French Renaissance. One of the most important of the group was Jacques Le Fèvre d’Etaples, an extremely interesting figure about whom we have as yet no major study. As Copenhaver emphasizes, Champier was deeply influenced by Le Fèvre, his great contemporary. Le Fèvre, like Champier, was concerned with spreading in France interest in Ficino’s Neoplatonism, closely associated with profound respect for “Hermes Trismegistus” as a deeply religious thinker, believed to be earlier than Plato and a prophet of Christianity. Le Fèvre published another edition of the Hermetica, including the Asclepius, with a commentary by himself on the latter in which he warned against the magic introduced by the translator. (There existed no original of the work from which to check these statements about the magic introduced by the translator.) This cautious rejection of the magic enabled deeply religious thinkers like Le Fèvre and many French ecclesiastics to become enthusiastic about a Hermes Trismegistus cleared of magic. But there exists, in two copies, a manuscript by Le Fèvre in which he appears to be involved in a deeply magical outlook, raising the suspicion that he was fascinated by the magic which he publicly deplored. May one perhaps wonder whether the same may be true of Champier? The strong pressures of public opinion, and the deep-seated fears evidently felt by those who, like Champier and Le Fèvre, try to keep their Hermetic-Cabalist interests “safe,” must be taken into account in trying to assess their public statements on these subjects. Copenhaver has made a useful attempt, in an article which he does not use in the book, at unraveling the strong Cabalist infuence on Le Fèvre.

Le Fèvre, unlike the orthodox Champier, had leanings toward reform. One of the many threads in the tangled skein of religious history in the Renaissance is the connection of the occultist movement with movement toward reform. Pico della Mirandola intended his syncretist movement, which drew so much of its strength from Hermetic-Cabalist Neoplatonism, as a step toward universal religious reform and religious union. This aim was never forgotten by Renaissance occultists and syncretists, and persists strongly even in the work of Henry Cornelius Agrippa, one of the most outspoken of the magicians. Indeed one is tempted to wonder whether radical reform and radical, or extreme, occultism did not sometimes go together.

We need many more detailed studies of individual thinkers such as Copenhaver’s of Champier before the history of the whole movement can be assessed. Although not an exciting figure in himself, Champier lived in the exciting time of the early French Renaissance, and amid varying types of reception of the occultist tradition. Rabelais, for example, almost certainly knew Champier, and was far more lenient toward evangelical reform than the Galenist doctor. What would have been the attitude of Doctor Rabelais toward Champier’s dabbling in Ficinian medicine?

Champier’s close relations with the orthodox clergy of Lyon would surely have made his work known to Pontus de Tyard, Bishop of Châlons, poet of the French Pléiade, and theorist of “the effects of poetry and music,” the idea which inspired the poets and musicians of Baïf’s Academy of Poetry and Music. The degree of magic behind the incantatory psalms and songs of Baïf’s Academy is difficult to assess, but the movement could certainly be related to the Ficinian therapy in which the use of music was advised. David charming away Saul’s melancholy with his harp was the obvious image for musical-medical humanism.

With Marin Mersenne, deeply interested in the theories of Baïf’s Academy and a main source for them, we move into the seventeenth century. Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle is crucial for the adaptation in the seventeenth century of sixteenth-century theories of harmony with their close relationship to the musical-magical cosmology. What degree of occultism or magic was dropped in the process of this adaptation? This is extremely difficult to assess, but what is clear is Mersenne’s anxiety, his painful efforts to keep his passionate interest in universal harmony, and its associated ideas, clear from imputations of magic. Nervous marginal notes warn the reader against anima mundi, the key concept in the cosmology which favored magic.

Mersenne’s anxieties reached a climax in his controversy with Robert Fludd. The representative of French caution in dealing with Neoplatonism and its associated magics naturally viewed with alarm the incautious Fludd, inheritor of the ideas of John Dee whose lack of caution led him into (almost) open angel-conjuring. Fludd represented an uninhibited occultist tradition which Mersenne, if only to protect his own orthodoxy, was eager to condemn.

For the understanding of such later developments, Champier in his mid sixteenth-century Lyon circle is important, and it is good that there is now a book devoted to him. Copenhaver has distilled the somewhat dry works of the Lyon doctor, discussed their place in the history of medicine, and assessed Champier’s reception, or rather his critical half-reception, of the Renaissance occult tradition.

He has made an attempt to cover all the sources used by Champier, including not only the Renaissance sources but also occultism in the Greek and Latin classics, in early Christianity, in Islam, in the Middle Ages. He examines point by point Champier’s critique of occultism, discusses Champier on the world soul, on natural magic, on demonology, and other related topics. Finally, he reprints Champier’s Dyalogus…in magicarum artium destructionem, a major statement of his critical position.

Copenhaver’s book should be in the library of all those interested in the elusive subject of Renaissance magic. The large problems raised by his discussion of the meaning of the word magic are not solved by him but it is always useful to raise the question. And his query about when the magical world view ceased to command attention, ceased even to need attacking but silently disappeared from the general consciousness, is also still unsolved. It was not Copernicus who most upset it, but Darwin, who dislocated Genesis and substituted the apes for the ancient philosophers as witnesses of the dawn of human history.

Studies of French Neoplatonism such as Champier’s bring out the fear and reserve which many people felt about the dangers of Renaissance occultism. Though the witchcraft scares of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are usually presented as popular movements, it is, I believe, probable that fears of the learned magic entered to some extent into the popular scares. Surely it is significant that the Démonomanie of Jean Bodin, one of the writers most influential in fomenting the witch craze, opens with an attack on Pico and Agrippa for what Bodin held to be their wicked use of Cabala for magic. That the Renaissance occultism of Pico and his successors was directed toward religious reform laid it open to frantic propaganda against heresy, with which sorcery was so often associated in the minds of the orthodox. Under these pressures of alarmed public opinion, the Renaissance magus turned to ever greater secrecy, while his image turned into the Faust image. Giordano Bruno, who abandoned all caution and openly preached a religious reformation based on the magical religion of the Egyptians, as described in the terrible Asclepius, very naturally ended his career at the stake.

One very important aspect of this problem is the question of how far these pressures and fears affected the way in which the great thinkers of the early modern period presented their work. Why did Newton publish his mathematics and optics while concealing his interest in alchemy and in the proportions of Solomon’s Temple? Does this concealment of part of their outlook also affect other famous figures, for example Descartes? It is clear from Baillet’s life of Descartes that the philosopher was very much afraid of being taken for a Rosicrucian on his return from Germany. It has been argued in a recent book that the automata and other mechanical inventions that Descartes saw in the gardens of the Elector Palatine at Heidelberg* suggested to him the outlines of his mechanical philosophy. Such inventions as these were normally classed in the occult tradition as “real artificial magic,” an expression not used by Descartes or the Cartesians in connection with the mechanical philosophy. Another way of looking at this problem might be to ask whether the contemporary outcries against witches, sorcerers, Rosicrucians, and so on helped to release science from the magical associations, discarded and avoided through fear of the scares.

It is perhaps worthwhile to ask such questions in the light of Copenhaver’s book, for Champier’s dilemma of both accepting and rejecting the occult tradition may represent an early form of the problem.

  1. *

    Discussed by Jurgis Baltrusaitis in Anamorphis Act, 1977, English translation from the French.

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